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Anthropology in China Takes Practical Approach

Zhou Daming

Having been introduced to China from the West at the beginning of the 20th century, anthropology as a new discipline is distinctive for its purpose of serving the people and society by dealing with actual problems and for the selfless devotion anthropologists bring to their work. As a Southern Song Dynasty poet Lu You wrote: "I dare not forget for one moment to concern myself with my country’s destiny even in the smallest detail." With this spirit of self-sacrifice and high sense of responsibility, an earlier generation of scholars laid a foundation for the basic anthropological research methods including field investigations and observations of "alien cultures."

To the earliest Chinese anthropologists, the establishment of a complete discipline with its own system was not what was most important. What was important was the question of how to apply anthropological knowledge to the analysis of China's poverty and undeveloped social conditions and to put forward proposals to assist the county in becoming strong and the people prosperous. With this calling, anthropologists probed deeply into the lowest rungs of society and into areas inhabited by ethnic minorities where they carried out thorough investigations. Social surveys conducted around the 1930s -- including the research of Yang Zhicheng and others at Zhongshan University on the Yi people in Sichuan and Yuannan, the Li people in Hainan and the Yao people in Guangxi, and Lin Huixiang’s survey of the Gaoshan people in Taiwan -- gave a full and accurate account of the social life and cultural panorama of different ethnic groups. Their anthropological work added a substantial body of knowledge about China not covered in other subjects.

In the mid-1930s, Fei Xiaotong chose Jiangcun Village for his field studies. Based on his study on local economy in Jiangcun Village, Fei raised new theories and plans on how to tackle the land issue and develop industry in rural areas. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), the Chinese Communist Party in Yan’an set up the Research Institute on Ethnic Issues, which researched the Hui and Mongolian peoples, greatly contributing towards the establishment and consolidation of the Anti-Japanese National United Front and the strengthening of anti-Japanese base areas. During China’s War of Liberation (1946-1949), anthropologists voiced their opinions on practical application of anthropology to deal with the intense ethnic conflicts in the frontier regions.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, from 1953 to 1956, putting aside their individual research interests, almost all Chinese anthropologists dedicated themselves to the nationwide differentiation of ethnic groups. From 1956 to 1958, once again, anthropologists plunged into the large-scale investigation on social history of ethnic minorities. As leaders of the study group, renowned anthropologists like Fei Xiaotong, Lin Yaohua and others covered every corner of the country and collected a vast amount of first-hand research materials.

The reform and opening-up have brought about all-round changes in Chinese society. Anthropology is confronted with the challenge of revamping to meet the requirements of the new circumstances. Based on traditional field surveys, anthropologists study carefully all kinds of problems emerging in the course of social development, while enhancing academic exchanges with scholars from other fields. As a result, anthropology manifests strong practicability and all-inclusiveness.

For example, facing continuously accelerating modernization and urbanization, urban anthropology has advanced the "terraced" urbanization theory of "villages being changed into towns, towns into small cities, small cities into big cities, and big cities into international metropolises." Its studies on the Pearl Delta model, southern Jiangsu model, Dandong model and southern Tibet model also have been approved and adopted by other relevant disciplines and policy-making agencies. Getting involved in projects of social development, development anthropologists actively participated in the evaluation of investment. They have all along attached great importance to the social, overall and long-term effects of the projects, avoiding unfavorable influences on social development by non-economic factors. Physical anthropology has achieved good results in terms of social application, including: Studies on the development of the fetus; research on the age of the onset of menstruation; comparison of physical characteristics between those with schizophrenia and others; and physical comparisons among workers from different office environments. Ergonomics -- a burgeoning branch of anthropology that studies workplace design and the safety of work environments, matching the physical capabilities of workers and the demands of the job -- can be applied in national defense, military production, civil industry and design of articles for daily use. Since the 1990s, the rise and development of a group of sub disciplines or frontier sciences -- including film and TV anthropology, women’s anthropology, literary anthropology, political anthropology, psychological anthropology, jurisprudential anthropology, medical anthropology, artistic anthropology, etc. -- demonstrate that anthropology as a whole has been widely applied in China.

Reviewing the anthropological research of the past years, one can see that -- spurred on by their high sense of responsibility and spirit of self-sacrifice -- Chinese anthropologists have focused on practical application, to some degree neglecting theoretical construction in anthropology. This has in turn limited further application of anthropology in social development. Any discipline is the integration of theory with practice. In the future, while adhering to the tradition of "putting what one has learned into practice," anthropologists should strengthen theoretical studies so that anthropology can grow into a mature and promising subject in China in the new century.

(光明日报 [Guangming Daily], translated by Shao Da for china.org.cn, May 16, 2002)

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