Fieldwork in Ningbo: getting beyond observation

The moment has arrived when I can no longer shelter in the library, deep in theory, but must venture forth to my chosen fieldwork site and attempt to find out what is happening there and why. I have decided to focus my research on Zhongshan Park, the very first park that I visited in central Ningbo in September 2012.
I realise now that in many ways it isn’t really a park at all, in the European sense. It is a traditional private Chinese scholar’s garden that has somehow survived for at least the last hundred years, and since the late 1920s has been opened to the public. This in itself is remarkable, given the approach to modernization in many Chinese cities, where old areas are flattened and replaced by high rise blocks, shopping malls and huge, windswept plazas. After Reform and Opening in the 1980s, hundreds of city mayors went to the West on Grand Tours to study urban development. What they liked were the paved spaces with grandiose central axes and rather featureless planting regimes to be found in some European and American cities.
Indeed, Zhongshan Park is immediately next to Zhongshan Square, which is just such a plaza. It is a huge open space, complete with a European modernist metal sculpture on its central axis and comprehensible in one view. It is paved and surrounded by grass and trees, but none of the small pavilions, rockeries, ponds and zigzag bridges and pathways that you can find in Zhongshan Park and every scholar’s garden.
What interests me is what people do in these spaces – in the Square, but more particularly the Park. I have begun a programme of observation, spending two hours or more on different days just watching what happens. I first walk through the Square, and on a sunny weekend afternoon linger to watch the kite-flying, roller skating and dancercise that is usually going on. In amongst the lithe young men showing off their skating, are elderly men with large sponge brushes using water from the fountains (not in operation so far) to write beautiful characters on the paving stones. On one visit I noticed characters had been ‘engraved’ into the silt that has collected on the bottom of the fountain basins. A novel and creative use of dirt!
The Square has a sunken arena towards one end and this is used from about 12.30pm for what we would think of as ballroom dancing. A large amplifier arrives on someone’s ebike and is set up to blare nostalgic dance music. Gradually couples arrive, and by 1.30pm at least 20 couples are waltzing or quickstepping. Sometimes I spot single men dancing alone, imagining they have a partner, or very elderly couples shuffling around in slippers, barely in time to the music, but evidently enjoying themselves.

But the noise of the dance music is nothing to what awaits me in Zhongshan Park. The most popular activity there is performing and listening to a local opera form called yue ju, derived from the neighbouring city of Shaoxing, also famous for its rice wine. At busy times (the afternoon) five or six groups perform. This means that men play the er hu – a traditional two-stringed instrument accompanied by a percussionist while women and men sing the operatic songs. There are no costumes or makeup, but the singers certainly act out the roles, much to the delight of the audience that gradually gathers from the neighbouring dwellings. Many people bring their own folding chairs and stools. Flasks of tea are much in evidence. The groups set up close to each other and each one has its own amplifier, powered by large portable batteries. The din is extraordinary.

Opera is not the only activity. In different areas of the garden, people play cards or Chinese chess. In the mornings small groups of women sit on the rocks beside the ponds, knitting and chatting. The daily newspaper is displayed, page by page on a notice board under glass. Elderly men gather to read and discuss the news. Under the covered walkways groups of old people gather to talk, drink tea and eat snacks. A building that was once a teahouse seems to attract a kind of debating society; crowds of men gesticulate and talk animatedly.

What does it all mean? Why does all this happen in this place and in this way? My thoughts so far are that it is partly about trying to recreate the intimate communities and spaces lost to modernization. Observation can only take me so far though, and I plan to talk to anyone willing to communicate with me. The locals in the park mostly speak Ningbo dialect and have limited Mandarin (although somewhat better than mine!) So far, I’ve managed two extensive conversations with old people who have clearly been intrigued by seeing a middle-aged white woman staring at them. I’ve found out that they live nearby, they are in their eighties, that they like the park, they like meeting their friends and enjoy the opera. After a few minutes, however, the conversation turns to me. Who am I? What am I doing there? Where do I live? What does my husband do? How many children do I have and so on.

Tomorrow I’m going back, but with a Ningbo dialect speaker. I’ve explained my research ideas and we have prepared a list of questions. I’m hoping that I will be less of a distraction and that we can do some proper ‘interviewing’. But I’m realistic about what I might be able to achieve. Reflection about the past or even the reasons for doing things now, may not be part of the culture, for many reasons. Fieldwork is clearly going to be very challenging in China.


Return to Hangzhou: adjusting to life in China

Last weekend found us in Hangzhou, 18 months after our first visit. I have just reread the blog I wrote after that and see that then – just 6 weeks or so after our arrival in China – I was preoccupied with noise. Now the compound where we live seems quieter, but that is probably because I’ve simply adjusted to life here and am no longer disturbed by the car horns and shouting. Drilling of the foundations on the two nearby construction sites has ended and the next phase seems to be quieter – or is it that I just don’t notice?

In Hangzhou pollution was low, and this time we could actually see the famous views of bridges, causeways and mountains across the water. However, the crowds around the West Lake were intense, especially as it was the first sunny weekend of the spring. But we also seem to have come to terms with the huge numbers of people that are part of life here and were happy to walk slowly in amongst the crowd, dodging and weaving and looking for breathing space. This trip we went to the botanical gardens on the north-west of the lake and without much effort found ourselves more or less alone in a peaceful bamboo forest. Even the fabulous magnolia and camellia garden seemed sparsely populated.

Our reason for coming to Hangzhou was so that I could take HSK 2, one of the government approved Chinese proficiency exams run by the Confucius Institute for foreigners. This is only survival level Chinese, but I felt I wanted some recognition for my hours of study that might mean something outside the university. I hope I’ll get HSK 3, and maybe even 4 before we leave in 2015. Level 4 is supposed to enable you to work in China.

The exam took place in a computer centre in Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum, which is one of many high rise new buildings in West Lake Culture Square. The address was somewhat vague, and we had checked it out the day before to avoid any last minute panics at 8.30am on Sunday morning – the time I had to show up for the exam.

My teacher had prepared me well and I had no problems with the test, but I hadn’t reckoned with the attitude of other students and the invigilator to the concept of silence in an exam. A few students arrived late and were shown – noisily – to their desks, while the invigilator went outside to shout – ineffectually – at the cleaners chatting away outside the open door.

Last time we came to Hangzhou we were traumatised by the fight for taxis and the seething mass of people in the station waiting room on the way back. Things have changed dramatically. The high speed train arrives into a huge, glistening new station – just like the one in Ningbo – and the city is now served by a subway system, reducing the reliance on taxis. The waiting hall is big enough to absorb the huge numbers of travellers.

Not everything goes smoothly, however. We rather misguidedly hoped to be able to change our tickets to catch an earlier train. This involved queuing along with about 100 people in the sparkling new ticket hall. Only two counters were open, and one ground to a halt because the microphone had broken. We watched as various electricians arrived on both sides of the glass attempting to mend it – sticky tape at the ready. In the end someone ripped out the dud machine and waited for a new one to arrive. As you can imagine, this didn’t much impress the waiting hordes, and for the first time in China I witnessed someone turning on the inevitable queue jumpers. An angry shouting match ensued and to my delight one of the culprits slunk away. It seems that people are gradually adjusting to the idea of queuing, and don’t much like it if others won’t wait their turn.

We couldn’t change our tickets and sat down for a couple of hours to await our train back to Ningbo. When the time came to board, we got in line at the ticket barrier. At the new stations, there are 8 entrance points for each platform, which somewhat reduces the crush we experienced 18 months previously. But living in China has taken its toll. I have learned to make sure I stand close to the person in front, and to use my elbows sharply if I sense someone trying to get in front of me. Just another small adjustment to life here.

Digression about Bamboo

Now is the season of chunsun – spring bamboo shoots. Vegetable stalls are piled high with these long, thin, or round and fat signs of spring. Sometimes the stallholders strip off the brown, scaly leaves to reveal the white flesh underneath. This can be softened very effectively above the rice in your rice steamer, for bamboo is very fibrous if not cooked for a long time. But it adds excellent ‘mouth feel’ or texture to many dishes.

I have developed a great fascination for the humble bamboo plant since living in China. It seems something of a sustainable bulwark against the rampart pollution and destruction of the environment. Most weeks I discover yet another way that it is used here. So far I’ve come across bamboo flutes, scaffolding, chairs, woven baskets, fences, scarves, bowls, brooms, brushes and just last weekend, bamboo knitting needles. The woman in the small wool shop shown to me by a colleague in downtown Ningbo sneered somewhat at the metal knitting needles I’d brought along to show what I needed. ‘We don’t have those,’ she said, and produced sets of lovely, flexible light brown bamboo needles. They have indeed been far more pleasurable to knit with than the old, cold metal ones.

It is very difficult to find objects that are hand-crafted in China and I suppose that is one of the reasons that many of the things made from bamboo appear so attractive. They are utilitarian but are often hand-made, even if to a well-worn pattern and not aspiring to be art objects. We rarely buy souvenirs, but of the few things we have purchased, several are made of bamboo – a scarf from Suzhou, bowls and baskets from Hong Kong.

When I visited the village (called 10,000 bamboos) of a student this time last year, (the first time I watched someone dig up a huge, fat bamboo shoot) almost everything inside the old farms was made of bamboo, from awnings to keep off the sun, to stalls and mangers for the animals. Many things were intricately woven and finely crafted. The village itself was located in the mountains, with hillsides covered in bamboo forests.

Even on our urban compound bamboo plays its part. Our waterways and roads are lined with narrow screens of bamboo, creating trellises of light green leaves that move in the breeze and catch the light. When you see the new leaves silhouetted against the sky you can ‘see’ the character for bamboo – zhu – 竹。 The character is often used in simplified form in other words, so that the two ‘k’ like shapes appear for example in the word for basket ball (the idea being that the goals are made of bamboo), or more obviously in the character for pen, bi 笔, referring to a time when people wrote with brushes made from bamboo.

We are often taught visual ways of remembering characters or even stories to fix them in our mind. For example the character for ai, ‘love’, is 爱。 This consists of three people under a roof, combined with the character for ‘friendly’ – a kind of perfect Chinese family. But my favourite is ‘smile’ or ‘laugh’. This is xiao or 笑 . It consists of the bamboo radical and the character for ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’ (tian). When we asked our teacher why this was, she explained that laughter or a smile is like the sound bamboo makes in the wind. What could be more expressive?

Reflections on old(er) age in China

Older people in China are theoretically treated with respect. This aspect of Confucianism either survived the Communist era or has been resurrected – the key relationship being between father and son. We witnessed this on Saturday evening at the wedding party of Fintan’s PA. The event took place in a renowned seafood restaurant on Tian Yi Square in Ningbo, now the centre of the ‘new’ city. About 200 guests sat around 20 tables and enjoyed a wonderful seafood banquet – lobster, scallops, sea slugs, jelly fish and so on.
The official marriage, the signing of the paper to declare the couple man and wife had happened a few weeks ago. This is purely bureaucratic and without ceremony, but now Chinese young people and their families want something more. Three concepts from the West seem particularly to have caught on: the honeymoon; the photo shoot; and the exchange of vows. All have been reinvented to some extent to suit Chinese tastes.

In this case the honeymoon had already taken place in The Maldives, and when we sat down to eat, we were shown a film made by the couple of the few days they spent there. Next, came the slide show of the photo shoot. You can look at a recent article at to see what this might have entailed. The Ningbo version was modest compared with the £20,000 versions offered by Shanghai studios, with many costume changes and scenery sets; French settings are particularly favoured. Chinese brides seem to have a penchant for playing Marie Antoinette. Only three changes of dress were involved, and we saw all these again during the wedding party.

By contrast, the guests were not ‘dressed up’ for the occasion. Everyone (except the westerners – we were in our best frocks, suits and ties) just wore their normal modest garb, and as it was the usual cold temperature in the restaurant, many people kept their coats on throughout the meal.

To make up for the lack of official or religious ritual, an MC had been hired to provide some ceremony for the event. This had many western elements – the bride wore white for that part of the evening, the couple cut a cake and toasted each other with something bubbly (probably not alcohol). They shouted out ‘I love you’ in Chinese and kissed. Both of these public displays of affection are very un-Chinese, but Confucian dignity was soon restored, for after all this they bowed three times, first to the groom’s parents, and then to the bride’s parents.

Such shows of respect interest me as an older person living in China. In some ways, to an outsider being old here looks as though it has advantages. The vast majority of people return to their family home at Chinese New Year, to pay their respects to their parents. Many old people get to live with their child and grandchild, as we see every day on the compound. However, this is normal for the parents of a son, and not for the parents of girl. What happens to those older people ‘unfortunate’ enough to have a daughter? And does every woman of 55 (the retirement age) and over want to become the full-time carer of their grandchild? While urbanisation and internal migration have meant that young people have moved far away from their home village or town, we have come across many examples where the older parents have moved to Ningbo to take care of the new baby. Some of the small staff flats on campus contain three generations following this model.

There are pleasant open spaces, shady walks, benches and pavilions on our compound. In the early morning older people practise tai qi, then as the day goes by, they sit outside chatting, knitting or exercising. There are sets of outdoor gym equipment which get fairly well-used. Older people in China certainly look trim and fit. The evening dancercise gatherings to music are probably for younger women who have been out to work; I guess grandma is at home putting the baby or toddler to bed. About 6pm there are certainly many cries of ‘Nai Nai’ (the Chinese for paternal grandmother) to be heard outside as tired children are rounded up.

While the tradition of adult education continues and arguably thrives in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be in evidence in China. Perhaps I will learn more and be pleasantly surprised when I get to talk to older people in the park I’m planning to study. Maybe they do more than the ‘collective idling’ which appears to be the norm, as was suggested to me by a Chinese Singaporean scholar last week.

At UNNC there are a sprinkling of Chinese students in their 30s taking postgraduate courses, and a few staff take Mandarin classes, but certainly no one over 40 is studying for a degree – other than me. At the beginning of term I went to collect my Chinese text book and had great difficulty in persuading the person giving them out that I really was a student. Such incredulity suggests that education is seen here as only a passport to a good job, or a more ‘civilised’ husband or wife, and not for self-realisation or mental stimulation for its own sake. Older people here may be offered respect, but I don’t think I’d exchange my life for theirs.