Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 5: “In the Footsteps of the Communist Party: Dilemmas and Strategies” by Mette Halskov Hansen
In China, researchers (and anthropologists) face a number of challenges that are not often encountered in other parts of the world. Obstacles such as, “political restrictions on research topics, limited access to data, closed areas, and control of researchers’ movements,” which force the China researcher to move outside of the box of Malinowski’s traditional method of “participant observation.”
In the Mainland, there’s “officially approved fieldwork” and then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that’s sometimes a necessary option:
Officially approved fieldwork means that you acquired a letter of introduction or affiliation with a university, organization, or cadre that allows you to do fieldwork, especially in rural areas. This is necessary if you plan to interact with the area’s local government and plan to connect with locals who would require proof of such paperwork.
Then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, where the researcher ignores all ties with the local government and just dives into the local community. For me, I considered my preparation to fieldwork as not official research, but rather just getting my bearings of the place. When, in all honesty, I still treated it as informal fieldwork. I still took daily field notes, had informal interviews with locals, and traveled to remote areas to better understand Mosuo culture and tourism in the area. If I did bring unwanted attention, I would have explained that I was either, “getting to know the area (了解地方)” or “I’m a tourist (我是游客).” For the first half of my research, I used the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to build rapport with the community.
Why did I chose this approach in the beginning? It was because my university insisted that I found an assistant (陪同) before visiting Lugu Lake. I agreed that I would like an assistant, but the university office wanted me to find one immediately. At the time, I did not know anyone and did not want a stranger following me around. So, I decided to go without asking a couple of times to get to know the community and area. Now that people have gotten to know me by myself, I feel more comfortable having an assistant tag along. I worried that if I brought along an assistant before, then that would have made a larger difference gap between me and the locals. I feel like they would have treated me more formally, when I just wanted to be friends with them. I would have been seen as just another anthropologist. Now I am friends with many in the area who treat me more like a local, than a tourist.
Hansen mentions when he was in the field, he had to combine official and unofficial fieldwork into his research design. This is definitely prevalent among most China researchers (including myself!). Now I’m at the halfway point of my Fulbright research grant and am currently waiting on getting official approval from my university to do fieldwork in Lugu Lake. I also have an assistant, who was a friend I made while taking graduate courses at Yunnan Nationalities University.
Hansen’s notes on his experience with assistants:
Working with officially appointing local assistants in China I have experiences the great advantages of immediately access to a local ‘informant’ and contact, while at the same time having to struggle with the potentially serious implications of working with some body who could inform on the interviewees (and on me, although with much less serious consequences).
Most important when finding an assistant (陪同) is patience. Take your times and find someone who you enjoy being around and fully supports your research.
In the end, China researchers always have to keep in mind that they must follow in the footsteps of the Communist Party (at least on the exterior) to gain official acceptance from the higher ups. This includes: writing proposals that gloss over sensitive issues and paint the party in a positive light, conducting formal interviews that are politically accurate to get uncontroversial information (and then conducting informal interviews in private to hear what they locals really have to say), and writing two different papers for China journals (uncontroversial article) and foreign journals (what we would consider isn’t controversial, but the Chinese government would.)