April 2, 2014, by Tony Hong

Fieldwork in Ningbo: getting beyond observation

By Felicity Woolf,

Studying an MA in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

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 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 apparently went to the West 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 yueju, 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 erhu – 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, 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.

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