College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University
Faculty mentor: Sophia Geng, Associate Professor of China Studies
Student fellows: Ian Bush, Runmin Geng, Cameron Odden, Meghan Reeves
Cultural Identity and Sustainable Future: A Case Study of Two Heritage Towns in China
Our project aims to investigate the role urbanization plays in shaping the cultural identity of Chinese towns and cities rich in cultural heritage. Additionally, we will analyze the local people’s resistance to the official cultural representation designed by the national and local authorities as well as dissect the local people’s ingenuity in searching for a shared future centered on community and sustainability. Hu Ji Town of North China and Zou Ma Town of Southwest China are our chosen sites of case study, both recognized as “China’s Town of Opera and Arts” and “National Intangible Cultural Heritage Site.” The major distinction between these two sites is that Hu Ji has gone through urbanization with the villagers relocated to apartment buildings while Zou Ma’s town and villages have remained largely intact.
To achieve our research objectives, our inquiry will focus on three aspects. First, we intend to identify the key components that constitute the collective cultural identity of the community derived from a shared past. We will pay close attention to the place and role of cultural heritage in the formation of the community’s cultural identity. More importantly, we will scrutinize the contestation between the official cultural representation designed and propagated by the authorities and the communities collectively defined cultural identity. Second, we will investigate how land expropriation and relocation factor in the asymmetry between urbanization and the community’s intactness, particularly whether relocation, a culminating step in the urbanization process, induces increasing spatial, social, and cultural fragmentations of a community. Last, we will investigate rivalry, resistance, creativity, and agency demonstrated by the town people in their search for a shared future centered on community and sustainability.
Our project will shed light on the complexities of the collectively defined cultural identity of towns and cities endowed with rich heritage. It emphasizes the ingenuity of the communities in imagining a sustainable future derived from a shared past, where cultural heritage constitutes an essential part. No doubt the communities’ search for a collective identity is a process riddled with rivalry, contestations, conflicts, and resistance. Nevertheless, our research group is optimistic because of our belief in the strength of cultural heritage—as it helps us learn who we are and how to make meaning of the world around us. Currently, there are 964 towns and cities recognized as “China’s Town of Folklore.” It is reasonable to claim that our research project will be instrumental to thousands of heritage towns and cities, within and beyond China, in their efforts to search for a collective identity against the backdrop of urbanization, to improve safeguarding and preservation practices, and to carry out community-centered sustainable planning.
We will work closely with a variety of individuals and organizations who are stakeholders in the sustainable development of these communities. More importantly, we will live and converse with the town people, gaining a real-world understanding of the struggles and aspirations of Chinese communities by listening and engagement. Our Chinese competency will benefit from these engagements because all interviews will be conducted in Mandarin. We will also practice and strengthen skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, academic presentation and writing, analytic reasoning, and intercultural communication. Working closely in a cross-cultural setting will develop our teamwork and adaptation skills, which are vital for the success of our future careers. All student fellows have China in our future career plans. Our active participation in data collection and analysis, presentation via academic platforms, and dissemination of research findings will contribute to our professional development. This research experience will undoubtedly deepen our understanding of China’s urbanization and encourage us to contemplate the significance of safeguarding cultural heritage amidst rapid technological and social changes.