Anthropologist Zhuang Kongshao records China’s changes

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-06-02

Born in 1946, the Chinese anthropologist Zhuang Kongshao was the first ethnology (anthropology) PhD trained in China after the founding of the PRC in 1949. He held professorial positions at the Minzu University of China, Renmin University of China (emeritus), and the Research Center of Ethnic Minority at Southwestern Borderland of Yunnan University. PHOTO: PROVIDED TO CSST

Zhuang Kongshao was born to a prominent scholarly family in the Jiangnan area. His academic career has been influenced by his family and clan background. He believes that the essence of thought that has been passed down for thousands of years in a geographical area has its own unique value. Various cultural elements—ranging from the grand Confucian and Taoist canons to detailed folk customs and family rituals—give insight into the historical progress of China.

‘Receive the flame’

Zhuang pursued his doctoral degree under the famous anthropologist Lin Yueh-Hwa (1910–2000). In 1988, he became the first ethnology (anthropology) PhD trained in China since 1949.

In 1944, Lin’s work The Golden Wing: A Family Chronicle [reissued in 1998 as The Golden Wing: A Sociological Study of Chinese Familism] was published in New York. This book examines the clan organization, structure, and various activities and functions of the Huang Village [modeled on Jinyi Village in Gutian County, Fujian Province]. Lin considered the clan structure to be an important cultural “facility” for local livelihoods. Since the late Qing Dynasty, foreign aggressions, deteriorating livelihoods, and social decline have driven China in a new direction—building a modern law-based society of egalitarianism. For over a century, however, clans have been regarded as an impediment to the development of a modern China. The Golden Wing is known by Western academics as one of the four classics essential for understanding China’s experience.

The Silver Wings: Local Society and Cultural Changes in China is Zhuang’s representative work, for which he revisited the families at Jinyi that Lin described in his Golden Wing. The Silver Wings is among the ethnographic works that are representative of the academic achievements since the reconstruction of Chinese anthropology. It was first published in 1996, and an English version was published by the Ethnographics Press in 2018. It provides a window for the West to understand China’s cultural changes in the 20th century.

The clan concept is an expression of Confucianism and has been considered as a key to understanding China. The Silver Wings explores the transmission and practices of Zhuzi Jiali [a collection of ritual prescriptions compiled by the Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi] and its Confucian thoughts from generation to generation. It also examines how this transmission was interrupted in the specific historical context from the 1950s to the 1970s, and how it was later revived in the context of the reform and opening up since the 1980s. Zhuang observed that under the support of traditional cultural ideas, the families at Jinyi rose again by growing tremella mushrooms and connecting to external markets. Hence, he realized that Chinese culture is highly resilient—it remains dormant as a form of conceptual system in the face of adversity and flourishes in favorable circumstance. The cultural imagery of the “silver wings” accurately extracts the intrinsic ideological source and cultural power that have driven China’s economic rejuvenation since the reform and opening up.

The Silver Wings is an important work of a long-term anthropological research. The research team of the Jinyi Valley, initiated by Lin and continued by Zhuang, has existed for more than 80 years. The visits to multiple generations [living at Jinyi] over a long time are significant because they can expose questions that cannot be raised by one-time surveys, such as why the descendants of the Jinyi families thrived again after decades of social changes. Long-term investigations are extremely beneficial for enhancing the cross-temporal study of anthropological fieldwork, and Zhuang has provided an important theoretical interpretation of it. The Silver Wings set off a wave of revisiting classic anthropological fieldwork sites in the 1980s. Led by Zhuang, a large number of new-generation anthropologists in China visited the fieldwork sites that had been visited by the older generation in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, forming a “revisiting trend” in Chinese anthropology.

Consciousness of modernity spread initially from the West, reaching nearly every corner of the world. Its main characteristic is the pursuit of universal values, which has led to homogeneity and the lack of diversity in human life worldwide to some extent. Throughout his several decades-long anthropological career, Zhuang traveled to almost every province in China, observing colorful ethnic cultures. He also witnessed the disappearance of many local cultures under the influence of modern thought. As a result, he conducted fieldwork surveys in Han Chinese society throughout China for more than 20 years. Anthropologists focus on various basic units in addition to the commonly seen clan communities of Han Chinese society. Zhuang and his team have conducted detailed research in different geographical regions, not only figuring out the basic principles of the clan composition of Han Chinese society but also finding the logic of various organizations involved in a society when clans are absent. This type of research helps to understand how China’s diverse primary-level communities have adapted to environment since the ancient times.

Protection of cultural diversity

In the process of modernization, China has innovated a unique path. In this process, the protection and development of cultural diversity require anthropological attention. The research conducted by Zhuang and his team laid the foundation for this undertaking.

In the early 21st century, Zhuang entered the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture [in the southwest of Sichuan Province] to produce the anthropological film “Tiger Day.” This documentary once again revealed the significance of traditional culture: the Yi people in Yunnan succeeded in fighting drug addiction through an ancient lineage rite. This research has attracted the attention of the international academic community due to the methodological discoveries made in this old topic. Specifically, his research has shown that the ritual activities of self-salvation of this ethnic group contain the achievement of overcoming human biological addiction by the power of culture. The documentary won the 2004 Award of Best Practices of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Intervention in Asia, funded by the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project (HAPAC).

Inheritance and innovation

“Culture” is the core concept of anthropology. Zhuang draws on the essence of traditional Chinese culture, creatively endowing culture with dynamic meaning, namely “the invention of philosophers, reinforced by politicians, spread by educators and intellectuals at countryside, and ultimately practiced by farmers (and even all Chinese people).” In this way he tries to find the academic answer to “why China has become China.” In addition to the concept of “culture,” Zhuang found flaws in scientism and positivism in academic writing. In his view, the “clear” conclusions of humanity and social sciences writing often discard rich humanistic information, such as emotions, poetics, metaphors, and intuition. Therefore, in the Silver Wings, he innovatively employed various literary styles and techniques in addition to logical positivism. He even proposed a special discussion on “cultural intuition,” which, though questioned by Western scholars, is an indispensable part of epistemology.

In recent years, Zhuang has specialized in exploring the unspeakable part of cultural representation in the field of cross-cultural comparison. This includes the study of metaphors, intuition, and the unspeakable in image systems beyond text, which represents a new realm of expression. The unspeakable is the poetic charm of classical Chinese texts, and is an important theoretical connotation of the “anthropology with zero waste” proposed by Zhuang and his team.

Zhuang creatively employs intuitionism of classical Chinese texts as a fieldwork method and technique, distinct from the mature yet rigid format of Western anthropological investigation methods. The intuitionism method of anthropology relies on the familiarity of scholars with the fieldwork areas, and can only be used when anthropologists are very familiar with the society, culture, and people being studied. When conducting fieldwork, anthropologists can capture the thoughts and emotions of research subjects through their behaviors, the look in their eyes, or even their tone of voice without relying on questionnaires or repeated verification. This method of obtaining information without conventional means is called intuitionism.

Interdisciplinary perspective

Since the mid-1990s, Zhuang has emphasized the interdisciplinary perspective of anthropological study, proposing the concept of “anthropology with zero waste.” This concept emphasizes that research objects should not be merely displayed in the form of texts, but also through other means such as photography, films, essays, novels, poetry, and painting. These mediums are able to convey the experiences and interactive feelings obtained from the investigation and research. In addition to ethnographic writing, he also tried his hand at interdisciplinary studies such as visual anthropology, literary and poetic anthropology, and painting anthropology. Relevant academic teams were organized, each of which has formed interdisciplinary creativity and theoretical induction.

It should be noted that these diverse forms [of anthropology] are not uncommon, nor were they pioneered by Zhuang. The West has filmed ethnographic silent movies about the Inuit earlier, documenting their fishing and daily lives. The Chinese photographer and anthropologist Zhuang Xueben took a large number of photos in Tibet between the 1930s and 1940s, becoming the most prolific anthropological photographer in the history of Chinese anthropology. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Institute of Ethnology [later renamed as the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, and re-set under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences] at the Chinese Academy of Sciences also produced many anthropological documentaries. However, no Chinese or foreign anthropologist has integrated various forms of research into a whole and interacted with one another like Zhuang and his team.

In the 1980s, with the reform and opening up, Chinese anthropology was able to recover and be reconstructed. The country entrusted the task of recording China’s changes in modernization to Zhuang and his colleagues. It can be said that Zhuang’s academic career has developed along the path from traditional China to modern China. While receiving modern Western academic training, he also bears the accumulated family history of several centuries, cultural traditions, and corresponding ways of perceiving the world.


Du Jing is an associate professor from the Faculty of Law at Qingdao University.

Editor:Ren Guanhong

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