Walking and Writing in Fieldwork

Walking and Writing in Fieldwork
By Zhengfu Chen

In the beginning, I was not too enthusiastic about starting fieldwork, because I would have to spend a long time staying at local site, taking notes, interviewing people and collecting data. I would have to bear the culture shock, be used to different eating habits, and often be lonely. Instead of enjoying travel or exotic landscapes, I find fieldwork hard work and a big challenge. In my previous experience, when I started my research, each time I usually said to myself, “ I hate it.” “I just want to stay at home and eat chips.” However, each time when I finished my research, I would actually say to myself, “ I really enjoyed it. I will never forget this fieldwork.”

(The author while doing fieldwork. Photo provided by author.)

Why? Fieldwork is a wonderful interactive process between researcher and reporter. From culture shock to adapting to a local community, I really enjoy talking with local people, participating in their life and learning from them. Many interesting discoveries and wonderful ideas are produced in this situation. You realize that to understand these people requires a much longer experience to understand why they do what they do. Many fresh ideas will come up while interacting with people in the field, and the fieldworker will gain much in cultural empathy.
(The author interviewed Batik artist. Photo provided by author.)

This summer, I had such an experience while researching batik arts of the Miao minority in the Guizhou eastern highlands of China. Before I began, I wrote a prospectus, “Selling Batik: A Case of Cultural Development and Internal Colonialism in Danzhai, China.” I was trying to use qualitative methodologies (interviews and focus groups) to collect data, based on my good relationship with local people in the past years.
Danzhai batik, produced by the Miao minority in Danzhai, is among the finest traditional textiles in China. Today the batik craft has been recognized as an important traditional Chinese folk art. Local governments and elites make great effort in the development of the batik art industry, not only for the purposes of economic development, but more importantly, as a means of maintaining a distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the region.
( Danzhai Miao village. Most Miao people live in the wood houses called Diaojiaolou, or “hanging housed,” elevated on stilts to compensate for mountainous, damp land. Photo provided by author.)

My research aims to understand the implications of China’s cultural development for the minority ethnic group, the strategies Danzhai people have adopted to solve and balance these paradoxes in the face of modernization and globalization, and the feasible measures that could be implemented to protect the traditional batik art of Miao people and sustainment of the cultural continuity in Danzhai.
When I was at the field site, however, I realized some of my previous presumptions and interview questions, which were designed in my prospectus, needed to be adjusted according to the specific details in the local communities. I also realized that building a good relationship is very important for an in-depth interview. During the interview process, I found that creating a relaxed atmosphere to communicate with the interviewee is very important.
(Keeping a good relationship with interviewee is very important. This author took pictures with Miao people after focus group. Photo provided by author.)

For instance, one time I did a structured interview with a woman batik artist; I asked a couple of questions to her, and her answer was very simple and she felt a little bit nervous. So I changed to help her with her cooking. I peeled the cucumbers and fired the wood to boil the water. She was quite happy to cook together. In this situation, she shared a lot about the history of the batik, and her own personal life.
One of the insteresting aspects to the batik arts is that they are created mostly by women. Batik arts are used to write Miao people’s history, represent their cultural identity, and as a method for women’s training. One interviewee told me, “In Miao communities, it is a shame if a woman can not do batik. It would be very hard to find a boyfriend to marry her.” If one of the girls is very good at batik or embroidery, she will be judged as a beautiful girl. This is Miao people’s unique aesthetic and social judgment.

(Two Miao women are communicating batik skill in the home. The picture shows their wedding dress. Photo provided by author)

From Batik patterns, we can see the “cultural grammar “or “cultural code” of Miao people. In Danzhai, I found that most women draw the batik pattern with birds, fishes, butterflies, flowers, and pomegranate. Birds represent that Miao people’s ancestor originated from “Birds tribe”, and they worship birds as a taboo. Fish represent reproduction of population like fish laying eggs. Some patterns have birds with fish in their beaks, which means that birds (which represents the male) copulate with fish (which represents the female). Miao people think the butterfly is their primitive mother god. In their Creation story, the butterfly fell in love with a water bubble, and then humans were born. Flowers represent girls or women, also meaning love. The pomegranate symbolizes fertility and plenty.

(Danzhai Batik pattern is a writing to represent Miao people’s history, culture, and worldview. Photo provided by author)

(Danzhai batik is mainly drawn with the pattern of birds, fishes, butterflies, flowers, and pomegranate. Photo provided by Pan Xinming)

However, since modernization and economic development, the cultural meaning and social function of Miao people’s batik are changing alongside social change. For instance, batik is no longer necessary to produce for daily life. Some people make the batik as a form of art. Others make the batik as a commodity to improve their livelihoods. The commercialized activities have caused the meanings and function of the traditional batik craft to change, and cultural loss has incurred.
Some questions came up in this fieldwork that stimulated me to explore it further. For instance, what strategies have Danzhai people adopted to adapt to modernization and globalization with regards to batik art?What feasible measures should be implemented to protect the traditional batik art of Miao people and sustain the cultural continuity in Danzhai?

(Miao woman drawing the batik pattern in a workshop. Work time is more than 10 hours everyday. They use this skill selling batik to improve their lives. Photo provide by author.)

In addition, while I was doing my research I accidentally met three IDCE alumni (Boni Jiang “IDSC ‘03’”, Katie Scott “IDSC ‘04’”, and Wang Xiaomei“IDSC ‘07’”) in Guiyang. Guiyang city is the capital of Guizhou province, where my field site is located). Boni and Katie met each other while at IDCE in 2004-2005, and later married in Tanzania. In 2007 they came to Guizhou to work on an Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored project, the Guizhou CMM Initiative, which promotes the recovery and utilization of methane as a clean energy source while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coalmines in Guizhou.

(Three IDCE alumni Boni Jiang ,“IDSC ‘03’”, Katie Scott, “IDSC ‘04) and Wang Xiaomei ,IDSC “07”), Two happy families in Guiyang. Photo provided by Katie.)

Boni continues to work on the project, while Katie turned her attention to nature education and conservation. While raising their two boys in a growing metropolis they found more and more families craving cleaner, safer, and more natural places in which their children could play. They started NatureWize to address their concerns, “Who would ensure that our children and their children would experience the health and joy of nature: who would ensure the sustainability of their precious, natural ecosystem?” You can find out more here: www.naturewize.org.

(Boni and Katie’s happy family in Guiyang, Photo provided by Katie.)

Another alumni, Wang Xiaomei, earned her MA from IDCE in 2007. When she returned to Guiyang, Guizhou, her home town, she worked to initiate an indigenous handicraft development and charity action program, which collaborates with Citi Foundation and Citi China to advocate multi-facet interactions, equal communications , supports for the cultural inheritance and promoting the establishment of sustainable development communities for environment and economy.
(Xiaomei has worked to initiate an indigenous handicraft development and charity action program. Photo provided by Xiaomei.)

As part of this project, Xiao Mei hosted “The Blue Flower Action” with an exhibition and silent auction titled the indigenous Batik Stories of 100 Miao Families From Danzhai County, on August 2, 2011 in the Guizhou Fork museum. More than 120 high quality handmade batik craftworks were selected from more than 400 pieces, made by the program’s participating Miao artisans, and they were put on display throughout this event. This activity drew attention from government academies, media and NGO institutions, and achieved broad cultural communication and localized cultural expression.
(Xiao Mei hosted “The Blue Flower Action” with an exhibition and silent auction titled the indigenous Batik Stories of 100 Miao Families, on August 2, 2011 in the Guizhou Fork museum. Photo provided by Xiaomei)

In addition, starting from 2012, Xiaomei has developed the indigenous handicraft development program to expand to six villages of Danzhai county, granting financial support to the six village based craftswomen cooperatives, and promoting multi-faceted communications in terms of protecting traditional handicraft skills and Minority ethnic group women’s development.

(Learning batik knowledge from the local people with their interesting stories and particular worldview. Photo provided by author.)

In a word, I greatly enjoyed the fruitful and meaningful experiences gained through this summer’s research. I learned from the local people with their interesting stories and particular worldview. I interacted with interviewees to collect useful data. Many fresh ideas and new understandings were produced when I talked with them. They gave me another view to understand why they do this, and what they hope the future may be. Meeting three alumni also inspired me as they provided a good example as to how to use IDSC knowledge in practice. And as another IDCE student, I am proud of them and look forward to where this “walking and writing” may lead me.