The Visual Anthropology Training Banquet

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Fri, 04/30/2010 - 03:46

Dancers, Buddhist Festival, Nu RiverDancers, Buddhist Festival, Nu RiverLast night I got invited to a banquet by my host here in Kunming. I haven’t done a Chinese banquet in a while, and the evening served as a solid reminder of banquet etiquette, and how unnatural it comes to me. My host here in Kunming, Teacher Zhao, is a professor of cultural relics, which in his case means he is somewhere between an ethnologist and an antique dealer. At the Yunnan University research station at the northern end of the Nu River valley, where I met him in 2005, his research interests were antiquated household equipment like wooden churns and grindstones. He helped write the Nu Prefecture gazetteer on cultural relics, attends antique auctions on weekends, and likes to spout aphorisms about ethnic minorities that only I seem to question, such as, “For the Nu people, if you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing, if you can drink, you can do anything.” (Banquet rule #5: it is best to smile politely at everything your table captain says.)


Teacher Zhao is, to be sure, an excellent host, and last night invited me to a banquet in honor of a training that the Ethnology College of Yunnan University had just completed. About 20 farmers from around the province, all members of one of Yunnan’s 25 ethnic minority groups, were brought in to be trained in “visual anthropology.” I learned this basically means taking pictures and videos. Each farmer is being sent home with a desktop computer, a camcorder, and a digital camera. They are being paid about US $12 per month to work as recorders of village culture. At the banquet I sat between an awkward masters student and a quiet assistant professor who, through my insistent questioning, gradually managed to tell me this much about the project. (Banquet rule #27: keep conversation limited to superficial topics such as the food you are eating).

I also learned, though my naïve prodding, that other than doing visual anthropology, the two Awkwards research stones. Not in the sense that a geologist might research stones, but as in the stones in the famed Stone Forest which is about 60 km east of Kunming. The Stone Forest is one of many karst landscapes in China that has been developed for tourism, and the most famous destinations within these landscapes are usually stones that resemble other things: faces, animals, objects. Exactly what interested the two Awkwards about these kinds of stones I never quite got to the bottom of. (Banquet rule #14, it is usually impolite to have conversations with the people you are sitting next to).

Halfway through the meal, Teacher Zhao told me to follow him to a few tables over, where he wanted me to toast the dean of the college, whom I had met back when I was doing my PhD research. Teacher Zhao wanted me to brink my glass of water but I didn’t understand why, so I left it at our table. When we got to the dean’s table, I was surprised to see three of the visual anthropology trainees seated with the dean were old, close friends from the Nu River. I went to them instantly, exchanging happy hellos and shaking hands. (Banquet rule #1: know who the most important person at the table is and always greet them first.)

In a moment of panic, Teacher Zhao shoved his glass of water in my hand and pushed me over to the dean, who was already holding up his glass. The dean said something like, “Wow, I can’t believe you are still here.” I tried to explain how I had finished my research in the Nu River, and that I had started China Rivers Project, but the dean clearly was not listening. (Banquet rule #4, toasts are not the time to exchange news.) I cut myself short, and then in an even greater moment of rudeness, went back over to my farmer friends and exchanged cell phone numbers. I really wanted to catch up with them, to see what they thought of the visual anthropology program, and I hoped we could go somewhere after dinner. (Banquet rule #19: only the host has the right to make after-banquet plans involving banquet guests).

Things thankfully got more relaxed towards the end of the banquet and Teacher Zhao invited our three trainee friends to come to his house for tea. We had a great time catching up. Li Xiang Qian, who I had helped get a job in the county dance brigade, had moved back to his parents’ house. Dancing was too much work for too little money, and he was about to get married and needed to figure out a way to make a better income. We joked about brewing beer using water from the spring near his house. Fu Sai Wu caught me up on the most recent village election, and recounted his team’s success in the prefecture’s basketball tournament. Luo Ru Jing told me about his parents’ health, and we laughed about the time Teacher Zhao had him cook me 20 dishes from 20 different wild plants, fruits, and mushrooms.

After dinner, we spent some time fiddling with their new visual anthropology equipment, taking silly photos and videos in the fancy hotel room where the university had put them up. I imagined the three of them getting on the overnight bus to the Nu River valley, a rollicking, sickening, 16 hour drive, the piles of expensive equipment shoved into grain bags next to piles of peanut shells and used tissues. They told me how the main stem dams in the Nu River seemed to be not going anywhere, but that every single tributary was being developed for small scale hydropower. “You’ll need that hydropower, with all this new electronic equipment,” I joked.

Back home, I asked Teacher Zhao to explain the purpose of the project once again. I was familiar with a similar effort, the Nature Conservancy’s Photo Voice project, which aims to empower rural people to document critical aspects of their own culture and through TNC’s support, engage with planners to protect culture and ecology.

“I don’t get it, Teacher Zhao,” I said, “Is this basically you professors deciding it is easier to get local folks to take photos and videos instead of you having to spend all that time in the field? Then you can use these photos and videos in your own research projects and make money off of selling books and videos?” I was thinking how Yunnan’s tourism industry has resulted in a market for ethnic minority music videos and picture books, which are often compiled by qualified researchers, but have questionable educational value.

Teacher Zhao smiled a genuine smile and laughed. “Yes, you basically have it right!”

(Banquet rule #22: after the banquet has ended, it is fine to mention that the emperor has no clothes.)