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Archive → November, 2012

Conference and Lecture in Nanjing

The impressive new library on the new campus of Nanjing University. 书中自有黄金屋。

From the 27th to 28th of October (2012) I attended the ‘Fourth International Conference on Chinese Society and China Studies’. The event was organised and hosted by the School of Social Sciences at Nanjing University. Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It sits on the Yangtze River. For a time during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and during the golden decade of the Republican period (1927-1937 ) it was the capital of China (‘Nanjing’ – 南京 – literally means ‘southern capital’). It was from Nanjing in 1421 that Admiral Zheng He (郑和) (one of Yunnan’s most famous exports!) embarked on his historic sailing expedition to Southeast Asia, India and eventually all the way to the shores of eastern Africa. You can see where Nanjing is on Google Maps here.

Nanjing University is ranked as one of the top universities in China. As with most universities in China it has undergone very rapid expansion in recent years. The Chinese government, very wisely, is investing a great deal in higher education (that’s not just research either, but also actually ‘education’). Nanjing University is of course no exception. It is now in possession of a beautiful new campus on the outskirts of the city (already linked by a subway and light rail). The School of Social Sciences is housed on the new campus in very fine facilities, probably the best facilities for a social science school or faculty in China. Very impressive indeed. Whereas Australia talks a lot about the ‘Asian Century’ but doesn’t match funds with ambition, China by contrast is actually paving the way for its very real and deep engagement in the ‘Asian Century’. I don’t think most Australians really understand the full significance of what is going to happen this century.

The conference was an international conference with participants from China, Japan, the United States, Germany, France and Australia. A good size too with about 120 participants (and not to mention a very large cohort of local postgraduate students giving a helping hand and listening in on the papers). Some well-known foreign China Studies scholars such as Elizabeth Perry, Tani Barlow, Yan Hairong and David Goodman. Always good to see a strong contingent from the University of Sydney, without doubt now one of the powerhouses for China related research in Australia.

Discussant on the second day. The pressure is on.

I was locked away for two days with some of the best anthropologists from China (and one from Taiwan, the very respected Professor Huang Shumin, some of you may have read his book The Spiral Road). And one or two from the United States (originally from China). I was quite overwhelmed when I read the names: Wang Jianmin (from China Central Nationalities University, Beijing), Ma Rong (from Peking University), Fan Ke (from Nanjing University) and Jing Jun (from Tsinghua University). Of course there were also many familiar colleagues from Nanjing University including Yang Yudong (who visited UWA in September as part of a Worldwide University Network workshop I convened on ‘China and the Uses of Culture – unfortunately I didn’t get around to reporting on that suffice to say it was absolutely brilliant but wore me completely out). The papers were most excellent and the discussion also thoughtful and engaging. Of course it was all in Chinese so I was stretched to the max but I think I fared very well. I actually had to be a discussant to all the papers on day two. Ouch! No slouching as I had to listen very carefully to each paper and think of something wise to say.

I also delivered a paper on my current project – ‘The New Ancient Tea Horse Road’ – on issues of cultural identity in Yunnan. It was well received I’m glad to say. Having to express my research project in Chinese was actually quite welcome as really helps to focus your work in terms of the current key questions within the Sinophone academy (read Gloria Davies’s Voicing Concerns if you want to know what that is). Why was a I placed with the anthropologists? Not sure. I know some of them. And my paper was on Yunnan (which usually means you’re an anthropologist!). In any case I was very happy with the arrangement and was in cerebral heaven for two days.

As I said, all the papers were very good. There were a couple that really stood out. Yang Derui is a professor at Nanjing University. His field is religious studies and he is just in the process of finishing a major project on Daoism. He is examining what is referred to as the ‘grey zone’ in terms of practice and supervision. After 1949 (when the Communist Party of China came to power) a pyramid structure was put in place to supervise and regulate all religions (except popular/folk religion, but that’s another story). This involved the establishment of an official Daoist organisation (道教协会) that worked closely the with party-state. Power devolved downwards through various branches at national, provincial and municipal levels to the registered Daoist practitioners. When religion was out of favour this worked well for the party-state. However during the reform period, especially during the 1990s in the wake of the development of the ‘socialist market economy’, new avenues opened up for Daoist institutions at the grassroots to become more ‘entrepreneurial’ (we can see similar patterns amongst Buddhist institutions and I wrote about one in Jiangxi here). This was part of a government policy to use ‘culture’ to promote economic development and to kick-start the so-called ‘culture industry’ (wenhua chanye 文化产业) (which is also part of my project on Yunnan). In a nutshell Daoist institutions at the grass-roots (e.g. a Daoist temple) or groups of Daoist practitioners are using cultural channels to fund and promote their activities. The groups of Daoist practitioners are quite interesting as they fall completely outside the official structure. They operate through a very traditional form of master/disciple system of patronage, now making a big comeback across China in many different cultural fields. In this system a famous master can attract many disciples, some of whom might be quite wealthy and very willing to support the activities of the master and so forth. The institutions and networks cannot do much within the existing ‘pyramid’ structure where they are supervised by the Religious Affairs Bureau. But they can get away with quite a lot of activity by working through the ‘cultural affairs’ channel. That is, by registering their activities as ‘cultural industries’, ‘tourist attractions’, ‘health and recreation resorts’, and even in one case by establishing an online game centred on being a Daoist practitioner. Local governments are also willing to jointly invest in some of these initiatives if they are seen to attract tourists and income. The support may come in the form of cash but usually as the installation of modern infrastructure to support the project. This is a very interesting phenomenon that is calling out for more attention. Apparently some Buddhist temples (the Shaolin Temple for example) are proposing to register on the stock market. Quite fascinating. However the same trend is not found in Islam or Christianity. If you want to know why then please leave a question and give me something to do at three o’clock in the morning.

The pen is mightier than the sword. A scholar equipped with real knowledge and the ability to communicate is a pleasure to behold.

Professor Wang Jianmin, who published the definitive two volume work on the history of anthropology in China (and I actually did read a few chapters when I was investigating the history of the social science disciplines in China), gave a paper on the current state of anthropology in China. Also very fascinating. His paper really struck a chord with the other anthropologists. Of particular interest was the discussion on Chinese anthropology ‘going out’, that is, beginning to send scholars and postgraduates abroad to foreign fieldsites. China now has the scale and the funds to begin to do so. Perhaps a Chinese anthropologist will be sitting next to you at an AFL (Australian Football League) game in the not too distant future, if so, be kind and answer his/her questions, give them a meat pie and explain which is meant by ‘chocka’block’. Professor Wang has already had a number of postgraduates go abroad. Some of the discussion reflected on this development in terms of what it means for Chinese ‘soft power’ and possible perceptions of ‘Chinese colonialism’. With great power comes great anthropological responsibility! (Professor Ma Rong, by the way, gave a great paper on Chinese softpower, but I have no time or head space to go into the details, too close to my own experiences with Confucius).

Professor Zhang Jianghua from Shanghai University is an anthropologist of great standing, but gave a paper on the last general election to be ever held in China (in 1947 in the last years of the mainland Republic of China). More historical than anthropological (unless he has a time machine and didn’t tell us about it). He based his research on the archives of a small town in Guangxi. This was a fantastic paper with much food for thought concerning the present than you can imagine. Needless to say it generated a lot of heated discussion about the pros and cons of democratic experiments in China (if you don’t know China has village elections). If it is ever published it would be engrossing reading with a great cast of characters and sordid events, possibly a very good movie.

Of course the above is my own interpretation of what the presenters presented. If you want to find out more detail you must consult their published work. Under no circumstances cite any of the above in any papers, essays and so forth.

With teachers and students at Nanjing Audit University.

Whilst in Nanjing I also took the opportunity to meet with Dr He Huanggong, a graduate from the University of Sydney, and now a lecturer in the School of Public Administration at Nanjing Audit University. Not surprisingly Nanjing Audit University, has an impressive new campus. I gave a lecture to Dr He’s students on my ‘donkey friend’ (see here for more detail on this project) research. I was also able to report for the first time about my new discovery, a new form of tourism: Weixin Tourism (weixin lvyou 微信旅游). Want to know what that is? Stay tuned!

Oh, nearly forgot, I just missed out on meeting Dr Zhou Yongming from The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was at Nanjing University the day before I arrived and gave a lecture on ‘roadology’, a topic also close to my heart (and yes, part of the Yunnan project). See my previous reports on this subject here.