When I was an undergraduate, majoring first in German and then in Chinese, I did not particularly want to become a professor; I thought I would go into some sort of social service or charity work. All I knew by the time I graduated was that I wanted to do something dealing with China, though at that time “China” meant Taiwan or Hong Kong. Right after I graduated, as part of a Master’s Program in East Asian Studies, I spent a year in Taipei, where Barbara and I got married, and when I returned I needed a summer job. I found one working for Professor G. William Skinner, a very scary figure who nevertheless had money for graduate students. After about half a summer working for him as a research assistant, I found that he could praise as well as damn, and that allowed me to think of becoming a professional anthropologist. I transferred to the Ph.D. program in anthropology, did another year in Taiwan, this time ethnographic research, and when I finished, I was lucky enough to be hired by the Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies at the UW. Readers can look up that Institute and find out what happened to it.
The opening ceremony of the Yangjuan Primary School, which Professor Benoît Vermander and I raised money to build, in September 2000. There was lots of singing, dancing, drinking, speaking, and eating, and village children and their parents were ecstatic over having a school in their community.
I assume you mean their general social situation, not their physical environment (if you want, I could talk about that, but it’s specific to particular groups). Anyway, for Tibetans and particularly for Uyghurs, the situation has gotten worse and worse as the government deals with complaints and dissent using ever more violent and intrusive means of surveillance and repression. For the minorities of the southwest where I work, the course of history has been much kinder. When I began to work there, in the late 1980s, many communities were isolated; I was the first-ever white person to visit many communities, people typically did not go to school at all or attended for only a few years, and when they grew up they married, had children, and settled down to farming and/or herding and forestry. Many had no electricity, spoke only their local language, and never ventured far from home. Now everyone goes to school at least through the 8th or 9th grade, many go on to high school and college, others migrate to China’s industrial areas to work in construction or factories, most everyone under 40 or so is bilingual, people watch TV and use smartphones, and a white person is an object of only mild interest. Discrimination remains, but most people are loyal Chinese citizens who want their children to get ahead.
In the area of minorities in China? I think the most important thing is to document how they deal with the disadvantages of relative poverty and social discrimination, but also what is happening to local languages, traditional ecological knowledge, and other valuable aspects of culture that are either dying out or being standardized by the state and the media.
Learn the local language or dialect. So many people think they can get by with only Chinese, and they can, but they miss out on a lot.
Stevan Harrell Reflects on a successful career in Anthropology
September 27, 2017