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‘Chinese phase’ needs active scholarly engagement

By Zhao Xudong | 2015-09-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In the contemporary era, scholars of anthropology need to reexamine their native cultures while taking other world cultures into account to truly adapt to the ongoing global cultural transformation.

In contemporary China, anthropology is undergoing a cultural transformation centered on Chinese consciousness, setting the tone for another “Chinese phase of anthropology.”

Glory in 20th century
The expression is not entirely unfamiliar to the world, because British anthropologist Mauriee Freedman (1920-75) first used it about half a century ago during a prestigious Malinowski Memorial Lecture titled “A Chinese Phase of Social Anthropology.” The speech was intended to inform Western scholars of the research on Chinese society and its transformation. In particular, it focused on various forms of field studies initiated by renowned sociologist Wu Wenzao (1901-85) in the 1930s.

That era was closely associated with a series of reputable scholars in Chinese anthropology, such as Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005), Lin Yaohua (1910-2000), Li Anzhai (1900-85), Liao Taichu (1910-2000), Qu Tongzu (1910-2008), Tian Rukang (1916-2006), and Li Youyi (1912-). The period was not labeled by disciplines but in accordance with the cultural consciousness individuals inherited. To be more explicit, these scholars were deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture while they gained a sense of Chinese consciousness in the face of tremendous social restructuring. Thus, their research was seen as the Chinese school of anthropology.

Collectively, all the aforementioned scholars can be called sociologists, but in reality, they are different from such scholars as Li Jinghan (1895-1986) and Chen Da (1892-1975), who returned to China from the United States. As English social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) pointed out, the social research Wu and others carried out was not typical, but rather a kind of “sociological investigation.” The methodology was borrowed from anthropology, which is to say field research.

On the other hand, the practice these scholars adopted deviated from the traditions of British and American anthropologists. They devoted their attention to the society in which they lived and relied upon their observations and intuition instead of rigid surveys and questionnaires.

China’s rising status
The advent of the new Chinese phase of anthropology is occuring in a completely different global landscape spurred by numerous innovations and the value revolutions as compared to the 1930s. Anthropologists are no longer boring chroniclers of cultural significance, but creators of culture in the contemporary era.

In less than 20 years, the world has witnessed the birth of the Internet and subsequent spread of social media, while our lifestyles have also been changed subconsciously. China is no doubt an essential player in the world arena. Therefore, everything that happens in Chinese society will certainly have an impact on global prospects and cultural development

American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ criticism of the Confucius Institute shows cultural impact may undergo a fundamental about-face. The model of “Impact-Reaction Theory” formerly looked at the Western effect on China and China’s reaction. The new model looks at this relationship in terms of China’s impact on the world.


In this light, anthropology in China needs to be readjusted with regard to its themes, methodology and theoretical framework. Scholars in the field must reexamine their native culture while taking other world cultures into account to truly adapt to the ongoing cultural transformation.

The gradual integration of aboriginal communities into the modern state in Africa, the West Pacific islands, India, Southeast Asia, and North America, and the popularization of Internet technologies on a global scale have diminished or eliminated the differences created by space and time.

In light of the diminishing differences among peoples, one may wonder about the future of anthropology. In a way, China, with its distinctive geographical advantages and cultural characteristics, is a good subject of study. Since ancient times, Chinese people have been inclined to find differences among similarities or to seek common ground among differences. Also, China’s vast geographical space has created different forms of social organization that are quite conducive to anthropological studies.

New features in 21st century
Society is changing and creating new things on a daily basis. Various new forms of culture are constantly emerging. Our understanding of these new forms will constitute an important part of the Chinese phase of anthropology based on cultural transformation. This phase has the following features:

First, the construction of anthropological theory is crucial. Theoretical construction is needed in the present era more than ever. This framework should be based on the anthropological fieldwork carried out since the 1980s and 1990s. People are trying to provide some explanation for these field investigations, which in turn forms the basis of new theories and their impact.

Second, the Chinese phase of anthropology should expand in various sub-branches of the discipline. The China Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences established in March 2007 has set up 29 secondary committees. The number will certainly grow further in the near future. Though these committees may be redundant in research direction and some cannot stand alone as a sub-disciplines, there is no doubt that most of the sub-branches carry out anthropological research, reflecting more diversified, richer characteristics of the discipline.

Third, in the last one or two decades, there has been a boom in the number of anthropology professionals. It’s hard to count the exact number of graduate and doctoral students trained during this period, but from first-tier cities to second-tier cities, the employment rates in many universities or institutions conducting anthropological research are quite high. In the meantime, higher requirements have been established for professionals in the field.

Fourth, the existing research paradigm is breaking down. When the formats for the anthropological study of alien cultures and modern anthropology built on the basis of field work were first established in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars in the field advised against simply repeating and copying existing research paradigms. In fact, the trend started in the Unites States. The Anthropology as Cultural Critique and Writing Culture published in 1986 both contained the critiques of Western anthropological research methods, thus opening a new door for the study in China in the 1980s. The shift in research paradigm has given us a better and clearer vision of things happening in China.

Fifth, the discipline constantly transcends and improves itself in the process of “going in” and “going out.”

When we say anthropology thrives by “going in,” we mean that the study achieves development by integrating with other disciplines because the study itself does not have a specialized research subject. In reality, it is a study of human beings and the entirety of society and culture. However, as the complexity of anthropology increases, it is bound to generate more sub-branches and achieve greater integration into other disciplines.

By “going out,” we mean that anthropologists in China need to explore a Chinese consciousness that adopts a theoretical framework different from Western discourse. Such a framework must cater to local communities, peripheral neighboring societies, and the world. The task is not an easy one.

China needs to stop following the passive “Impact-Reaction” model that was typical in the last century, when the West dominated the world arena  and start to be actively involved. We must shift our role from a learner to an innovator and leader. Anthropologists in China must understand the actions that are the results of a variety of culture in Chinese consciousness.

It is also vital to learn about humanity as a whole because we cannot separate from other cultures and a preference for either side will not lead to a complete world.

Zhao Xudong is a professor from the Institute of Anthropology at Renmin University of China.