The Weight of History: Doing Fieldwork as an Ethnic Chinese Researcher

Author Bio: Dr. Joy Yu-Rong Liu completed her PhD in Arid Lands Resource Sciences at the University of Arizona in 2021. She has been working with rural communities and non-profit organizations in rural China on agriculture modernization and reforestation since 2012. She is a forest soil scientist by trade and an anthropologist at heart.

I have been asked about my research in China as a researcher from Taiwan by my colleagues in the US. One of them commented: “It’s not common for someone from Taiwan to do research in China.” I have attributed this sudden recognition of my ethnocultural and legal identity as a Taiwanese and the subsequent framing of my actions as uncommon to the pandemic and its impact on the tensions in current international politics.

On the other hand, these questions reveal certain assumptions about the linkage of my ethnic and legal identity with global geopolitics and how these geopolitical forces have real-life impact on my research and social life. Before the pandemic, my identity as a Taiwanese was mostly ignored and passed on as something trivial compared to my research topic, which focused on the reforestation dynamics on the Loess Plateau, China.

We often use modern senses of identity such as race, ethnoculture, and citizenship interchangeably to a point that creates confusion and tension with one another. I wrote this blog to highlight some of the real impacts that nation-state identity construction has on my research and daily life. Just like many other topics on this blog, identity evolves through social processes and can be used by different people for different purposes. I use ethnicity or ethnoculture, to denote some sort of shared sense of knowledge about historical events, customs, and traditions, at the broadest level possible. Since the definition of national identity is a politically sensitive issue, I hope the readers who are interested would treat this blog post as a starting point in how ethnic identity is being used by different social groups.

To illustrate more clearly, here is a simple account of how my identity plays out in the research landscape prior to the pandemic. To Americans, I am one of the many international scholars doing research and making a living in academia. To Taiwanese, I am a junior scientist who is willing to embrace mainland China as a site for intellectual endeavors. To the non-profit organization that I worked with for my research, I represent the younger generation, as someone born and raised (Tusheng tuzhang) in Taiwan, as opposed to the emigrants from mainland China post-1949. To the broader academic community, I am a social scientist who conducts long term fieldwork in a geographical area that speaks Mandarin.

The author (left) doing fieldwork in rural China.

In the U.S. and in other Western nations, ethnic identity is usually celebrated as a unique and objective quality that an individual can add to science, business, or sports. But how these identities are indicative of influence beyond the person such as their family and cultural norms is less understood and ignored.

Competing interests and identities

In general, doing fieldwork in a country with shared ethnoculture (heritage is emphasized here rather than citizenship) is considered an advantage due to the potentially lower barrier to becoming an insider and to building rapport with local communities. However, in the age of digital media and mobility enabled by modern transportation, the increased interactions between social groups living in distant localities has compressed the physical and social distance between the urban and rural. These realities shattered our fantasy with “the field”.

The result is a modern-day culture in which a researcher like me must constantly distinguish oneself from the multitude of actors trying to gain access to local communities. Medical workers, non-profit organizations, urban educators, environmentalists, and politicians are all part of the social dynamic and co-forming competitive social networks within the local communities. In other words, the researcher is not solely a neutral intellectual or a so called ‘China-watcher’ but is actively playing a role and is expected to play a role based on ethnicity. 

Instead, researchers are becoming more and more “a-typical” in the sense that they may carry with them multiple and sometimes conflicting identities including their professional linkages with regional research institutions or private entities, familial ties, and their funding agencies. The advantage of being a fellow ethnic person may not be so obvious compared to the multitude of “choices” that outsiders present to local communities. For local residents, choosing who to form social ties with can have a differential impact on local socio-political dynamics as well as long term economic development.

Culture as invisible expectations

The pandemic has brought to the fore the topic of national identities. If I were a white Western researcher, I could be labeled a colonialist by locals and may face the moral challenge of advocating for social justice by trying to represent the locals through my research. On the other hand, If I were an ethnic member of the local community, I may need to show loyalty to the “motherland” not only through succeeding as a researcher by “getting the degree” in Western countries, but also demonstrating how the research contributes to the rejuvenation of the Chinese state. From my personal experience, such “loyalty” could mean anything from showcasing the “good” side of the local community in research to citing researchers with ethnic Chinese backgrounds, which may not be helpful to the community nor the public and could be a questionable act depending on your ethical and ideological position.

The emotional labor involved in building relations with local communities is reflective of the cultural expectations of how a Taiwanese researcher should behave. These tacit expectations carry weight and can influence how locals perceive me. For example, in rural China, to gain legitimacy as a researcher, I may need to dress or talk in a certain way and allow others to scrutinize my credentials beyond a name card or a formal affiliation with research institutions. It is up to me to decide how much I would like to fit in with local expectations and how much time is available for me to remain “strange” in the eyes of locals.

Local residents may not be familiar with anthropological approaches that emphasize participation and open-ended learning. Some community members at my research site were confused that I did not have a clearly articulated goal besides participation in local reforestation affairs and wondered why I stayed for more than a few weeks to collect data. To many locals who live in a hyper-competitive world modeled on industrialized societies and driven by development ethos, the ethnographic way of research is odd and inefficient.

Ethnic identity through the lens of national identity

For me as a Taiwanese, my identity could be an icebreaker during conversations or a constant nuisance. Because there is a dearth of information from Taiwan within mainland China besides those distributed through official state-affiliated channels, local residents who are curious about Taiwan may ask me about the truthfulness of the news they saw online.

Some, including local researchers, asked about my political opinions, which could be a sensitive issue and it took me a while to learn how to provide a diplomatic answer that satisfied their curiosity. These topics ranged from agriculture development, to who I would vote for as president. Some situations became awkward when I provided an answer that was different from the government’s official narrative. Navigating these situations smoothly takes time and practice.

My research in China was interpreted by most locals as an individual scholarly endeavor and by some local government officials, scientists, and non-profit organization members as an act of patriotism. It may be difficult to understand what qualifies as patriotic and what is not, as the Chinese government’s official narrative characterized Taiwanese people as either “with us” or “against us”. Thus my actions are only interpreted in these superficial ways. Patriotism almost always encourages ethnic belonging over other kinds of shared identity and discourages civility within societies.

The deal of ethnic identity

How hard is it to be emotionally removed as an ethnic researcher studying your own culture?

I think a better question to ask would be: when are you not an ethnic member of your society? Can you shed your ethnic identity off before you go to sleep and put it back on when you wake up? Can we draw a square and put what Chinese culture is in that square? If so, who is responsible for drawing the lines and picking out what is and is not Chinese culture? Can we isolate a person’s ethnic identity from her social and economic life, histories, and beliefs?

Identity politics has become part of our daily lives and influenced how we make decisions and talk and think about ourselves. My decision to conduct research in China does not mean I prioritized the choice for or against a certain nation-state, or in other words, patriotism, defined in this narrow way. There are more values at play such as familial aspiration, career trajectories, intellectual curiosity, politics, economic and emotional costs. I did not conduct my research with a predetermined mindset as to who is for or against the local community’s aspirations for reforestation and better lives. It is rarely such a blunt choice.

We should be mindful about the power of identity and the social processes shaping our lives. Ethnocultural identity is not just a box you check off on forms, yet when it is used by entities such as state, government, corporations etc. the categories can have real effects through evaluating people’s behavior based on certain prescriptions.

As anthropologists, we should learn and help others learn to understand where the power and legitimacy of ethnocultural identity comes from so that we can understand its impacts and give it less power in directing our concerns. These discussions can be helpful in promoting diverse perspectives on identities, creating healthy historical perspectives and social expectations.

When our actions are no longer kidnapped by media discourses or official narratives about our identities, we can learn to unburden ourselves from the weight of history and enjoy the richness of meanings, languages, and differences that constitute our societies. 

[Photo of the author doing fieldwork in rural China courtesy of the author Joy Yu-Rong Liu.]

[Cover photo of the wooden blocks is by Brett Jordan sourced from Unsplash.]

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