By Anna Sun, Kenyon College
I have just returned from co-teaching a two-week intensive seminar in Hong Kong, and the memory of the experience is still fresh in my mind. I was there for the Yale University and City University of Hong Kong joint seminar on religious life in Hong Kong, which was organized by the sociologist of China Deborah Davis. With students from both universities, we spent days doing fieldwork in temples, churches and monasteries, covering 14 sites in two weeks.
By the end of the seminar, we not only had a good sense of the religious landscape of Hong Kong, but also many of its unique features. For instance, we learned of its vertical religious ecology, the way religious spaces are often built on top of one another. We saw the more traditional form of it in Shatian, where several Buddhist and Christian sites can be found on the same hill, a phenomenon one might see in many different parts of China. But we also saw a form of vertical ecology more characteristic of Hong Kong, in which religious spaces are quite literally vertically stacked up in commercial buildings, since it is impossible for many religious organizations to find street level spaces in the overdeveloped city. After visiting several well-known Buddhist and Daoist temples with traditional street-level halls, many darkened by years of incense burning, it was quite an experience seeing the spacious Foguangshan Buddhist Center in a skyscraper overlooking the city. When we took the elevator from the sleek lobby, we had no idea that when we stepped out, we would suddenly enter a tranquil and quietly opulent world of soothing Buddhist music and art. The uncluttered and elegant main hall of worship resembled an open space in a museum, with prayer mats neatly placed on polished wooden floor. It was a sacred space after all, nestled between financial firms and banks, offering people a chance to reflect on their inner needs in a busy city that is deeply resourceful in maintaining its vibrant religious life.
Our terrific students – many of whom were learning about how to do fieldwork for the first time – expressed delighted surprises at the richness of Hong Kong religious practices. One student said that she had no idea religion was still so central in the everyday life of people in this ultramodern city. Indeed, these brief days of fieldwork might have forever changed the students’ understanding of Chinese religious life. These fieldwork experiences also allowed the four faculty members of the seminar – Deborah Davis, Richard Madsen, Becky Hsu, and myself – to start discussions about our collaborative research project, which is on the “habits of the heart” of contemporary Chinese people. We are beginning to get a sense of the moral languages used in different religious traditions in Hong Kong through our interviews with religious leaders, especially about what constitutes a good and meaningful life. This knowledge will certainly be very useful when we start conducting in-depth fieldwork in Mainland China next summer.
What this experience has shown me is something I’ve known for a long time, which is that, if you are a scholar studying contemporary life in any part of the world, there is nothing that can substitute the actual experience of being in the field. “Being in the field” refers to the practice of conducting research in the actual social environment of one’s subject matter, be it factory life or religious practice, where one can do observations of complex activities as well as conducting interviews with people in the actual physical settings where daily life is lived. No matter how much one might have read about one’s topic in the latest books or journals, or how deeply one has discussed the issues in the classroom, nothing beats the enormous benefit of seeing what is happening on the ground. By being in the field, a researcher is able to have what we may call a “thick” understanding of the larger social, cultural, and political contexts that is the backdrop of our own research focus, which is essential to any nuanced analysis; one is able to connect the dots in a way that one can never do in the seminar room.
It is certainly necessary for scholars to conduct fieldwork if they study contemporary life as social scientists; it is also immensely helpful to students who are beginning their study. In my experience, students who have had a chance to conduct research in the field in a foreign country, no matter how briefly, have a far more perceptive understanding of the materials they study. AsiaNetwork has had a long and excellent tradition of supporting students and their faculty mentors to go to Asia for fieldwork, such as the Freeman Student-Faculty Fellowship. Among the Freeman fellows I spoke to at the AsiaNetwork conference in Nashville last April were students who studied environmental issues in Vietnam and the marriage market in China. I was very impressed by their projects, from the richness of their topics to the thoroughness of their methods, from the rigor of their collection of data to the clarity of their analysis. I hope this kind of work is something we will continue to promote in our capacities as researcher and teachers.
And I look forward to taking more students to China in the near future, showing them what I have learned in my own past fieldwork as well as making new discoveries with them along the way. If we are in Hong Kong, I now know just the right place where we could go for a red-bean-milk-tea in the middle of a long day in the field. It is a tip I have learned from Deborah, a superb sociologist who has been doing research in China for over thirty years and someone who knows Hong Kong like the back of her hand, and it is something I hope to pass on to future students of Asia.