Guest Post: Research in China

Dear all, It’s been awhile since we’ve had a student write about his/her research experiences abroad, and this month, Quincy has kindly agreed to share two snapshots into the dissertation research he has conducted this summer in China. Enjoy! Thanks Quincy!

Lotus (He)and Crab (Xie)During my dissertation research, I had the chance to talk to a local scholar. He told me that, the other day, he gave a public lecture on rebus play – a common subject matter in traditional Chinese painting.  The painting that brought enormous excitement to his audience is a hanging scroll that depicts a lotus and a crab. In Chinese, “lotus” is “he” while “crab” is “xie”. When the two go together, it becomes “hexie”. What is interesting is that “hexie” is also the pronunciation of the verb “harmonize” in Chinese.

“Hexie” or “harmonize” is undoubtedly one of the most googled, used, and discussed terms related to China’s socio-political ideology over the past decade. You can see the frequent appearance of “hexie” on online blogs, TV news, and newspapers…  So, what makes the verb “harmonize” deserve so much attention? Let me explain this with a sample sentence: “Oh! His antagonist opinion is harmonized by the webmaster! I saw it on the blog yesterday but it is gone today!” Even though the verb “harmonize” in English evokes positive meanings like amiable, friendly, and agreement, its Chinese equivalent denotes meanings like “elimination” and “prohibition” in certain specific usages.

When Joyce asked me to write something for the Voice of CWAC, I originally wanted to write something like “15 frustrations that you will likely encounter when you conduct research in China”, “10 public places to avoid in any city in China”, and “how to protect your kidneys from unavoidable over-consumption of sodium”… I will then go on saying how many Euro-American websites are blocked (or harmonized!)… But, I am afraid postings like these will reveal the backwardness in China and its political sensitivity. Perhaps, you will tell me that “Men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” and thus I can say what I want to say. However, I decide not to.

Over the course of my research trip, I saw on the news, albeit from a Chinese perspective, that the relationship between countries in the East Asia is deteriorating (less harmonious!) out of border and territorial conflicts over some islands. With all the on-going and up-coming military drills in Asia, I just cannot stop thinking about the possibility of a violent war. I want to bring harmony to our fragile international relationships! I suddenly recall the lyrics of a John Lennon song:

Imagine there’s no countries.
It isn’t hard to do
No need to kill or die for
and no religions too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

I remember distinctly that, in a public lecture held in the United States, a scholar showed some pictures that decry the poignant backwardness and societal problems in China. Then, an audience member rose up his hand and said something like: “people in China will not take those issues as problems – they take them for granted. We cannot remove those pictures from their local contexts.” So, what I originally planned to write has a strong touristic foreign gaze.

Ghost Festival
It is must be at night – darkness looms everywhere. Holding my hand, my grandma leads me walking through a market filled with worried peoples, anguish monsters, and solemn deities. One deity is almost 6 meters tall. He has a dark, exasperated face, a robust body protected by bulky armor, and a glittering Guandao knife. Some galumphing monsters, who take the advantage of the opening of the gate of the netherworld, will soon see how their counterparts being chopped into pieces for trespassing into the human realm.

The above scenery comes from my childhood memory. It is the night of the Ghost Festival – the 14th day of the 7th month in Chinese lunar calendar. There is no real monster and deity but paper dummies that are compelling enough to leave a strong impact in every kid’s mind. Quite unexpectedly, I spent the Ghost Festival in a desert this year. The famous Mogao Caves locates at the west of the Gobi desert, next to the oasis city Dunhuang, China. I have longed for studying the landscape elements painted on the mural of these Buddhist cave-chapels that were built mostly between the 5th century and 13th century AD.

In the morning of the Ghost Festival, I left Mogao Caves. I encountered some mini tornados which formed under the influence of afternoon heat waves the other day. I thought I can see them again when my cab ran across the Gobi desert but in vain. Instead, the desert awarded me a mirage. I saw an ocean far away with white waves splashing to the beach… In the city, I saw vendors selling paper sacrificial offerings. The most popular offering is a type of currency supposed to circulate widely in the netherworld issued by Mingtong Yinhang (the Bank of Netherworld Currency). Perhaps, in view of the number of American Chinese, there is a vendor selling paper offering of US dollar notes!

To my disappointment, I had no strange and mysterious encounter. But my penchant for exploring the netherworld continued.  When I went back to Xianyang, I visited some Tang tombs which were originally adored with mural paintings with landscape elements – those murals are now moved to a museum. When I went into to the rear chamber of the tomb of Yongtai Princess, I hit my head on the stone beam. I almost got a blackout in the tomb. I could not remember exactly what happened in the next few hours. But I know, I was in a car, recalling how the young Yongtai Princess died…

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