Finding Teachers in Local Societies
China is now part of an international drive to safeguard intangible cultural heritage – the wealth of cultural knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next – and this opens exciting possibilities for educators and researchers in ethnography, history, religious studies, and other fields. “This has completely changed the environment for fieldwork,” claims John Lagerwey, a professor of Chinese studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. who sees exciting opportunities for educators and researchers in ethnography, history, religious studies, and other fields. So, with a United Board grant to CUHK, Dr. Lagerwey and his colleague Tam Wai Lun, a professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, designed a program to introduce Chinese graduate students to the rigor and rewards of fieldwork.
During preparatory lectures, the tight-knit team of professors from CUHK, Fujian Normal University, and several other Chinese universities reminded the 17 graduate students that, for the field researcher, “everyone in local society is a teacher.” So, over the course of three and a half days, three teams of professors and students listened to people from communities in Fujian province’s Zherong, Fu’an, and Xiapu counties as they shared their local religious practices and traditions.
“Your first job is to describe what you observe.” That’s the charge that Dr. Lagerway gave the students in his group. During observations and interviews in 13 sites in Zherong county, they heard residents describe how the traditional goddess Maxian is carried from one village to another; how, in times of drought, people pray to her for rain; and how village alliances have grown up around shared worship of local gods.
The professors who led the student teams hope the fieldwork experience will catalyze ideas for thesis and dissertation topics among the participants. They also hope the experience ignites a new approach to learning. “People who engage in fieldwork have a passion,” Dr. Lagerway says, a desire “to see how people really live and to understand the ways in which they take charge of their own society, culture, and destiny.” It’s a humanistic approach to learning, quite different from what students may have experienced in their universities, but one that can open new doors of respect and appreciation for China’s cultural and religious heritage.
(First published in Horizons in December 2014)