When I Discuss Anthropology with People in China

Recently, one of my friends said to me, “All anthropologists are lonely.” I had never really thought about the loneliness of anthropologists until that moment. For a long time, I have agreed with the view that almost all humans are lonely, so her comment somewhat sounded like a cliché. However, after a second rumination, I began to understand what she was referring to: anthropologists have an additional layer of loneliness, because they consciously choose to take a step away from a community to acquire a more effective perspective to critically observe, analyze, and criticize social dynamics. I revisited this idea a couple of times, and realized that as a Chinese international student majoring in anthropology at Smith College, I have indeed encountered interesting as well as bitter situations in which I experience this loneliness, particularly when I talk about anthropology outside classes. When I engage in such uncommon conversations with people in China, I have found my academic training and international experiences help me to untangle the invisibility and mysteriousness of the discipline back in my home country.

Anthropology is yet to be a part of public discussions in China. When I tell people that anthropology is my major, they have a hard time envisioning both my academic life at school and the discipline in general. No matter where the conversation happens – at my high school reunion party, at a bank when I was opening a new online account, in an Uber, at the museum where I was interning, or family meetings – the following question is always asked, “What is anthropology?” or, “What does anthropology do?” Sometimes, I hear other feedback such as, “Wait, I have only heard about sociology. What’s the difference?” “Are you talking about ethnology?” or, “Oh, that sounds like the study of the arts of minority ethnic groups in China.” These unexpected, sometimes slightly irritating comments indicate that most Chinese people have not yet established conceptions of modern anthropology as a research field. It takes me a lot of time to introduce the field and explain my experiences in most conversations. In the end, many of my listeners joke that I should prepare a short introduction essay on my smartphone, so that I can ask people to read it before clarifying people’s misunderstandings. (I am seriously considering this advice.) Since most Chinese I encounter lack a fundamental recognition of anthropology as a discipline, I have had many opportunities to analyze the reasons behind such unfamiliarity and to reexamine my own perceptions of the field.

The Chinese outside academia have a very vague impression of social science. The basic education system in the country focuses on science and humanities, and the subjects closest to social science include history, introductory politics and economics, and socialist ideologies. If people have not taken relevant social science courses in college, they probably have not had a chance of encountering, let alone knowing, any theories or research methods in the disciplines, unless they have read about them on the Internet. They might not be able to engage with anthropology’s basic tenet that almost all ideas and thoughts are culturally constructed and people are capable of self-reflecting on what they observe, which is critical not only for individuals’ lives but also for higher-level decision making in all social sectors.

For people who have occasionally heard about social science in China, their understandings of anthropology are largely different from what I view as American anthropology. Their responses reveal certain historical developments and theoretical advancements particular to Chinese anthropology and its own political environment. Chinese anthropology developed from British anthropology. It has its own history and respected anthropologists with whom I was less familiar. Though I could recognize a few European theorists and some early American anthropologists who had been discussed in my theory class at Smith, other scholars and theories were new to me. Chinese anthropology also acknowledges a distinct category of anthropologists from western countries who conducted their fieldwork in China. I needed to construct a new academic toolkit to understand their language of research. I noticed that the focus of Chinese anthropology was different from that of American anthropology. Chinese anthropology focused on minority ethnic groups in Yunnan, Guangxi, and other less-industrialized regions, while the American discipline expanded to study all social groups and industries in society. That is perhaps one of the main reasons that I found people were more familiar with terms and topics related to these minority ethnic groups than immigration, technology, or other heated sub-fields addressed in the U.S. Thus, I needed to insist on the existence of urban anthropology, science and technology studies, or even economic anthropology to people who tried to correct me that we might be talking about ethnology.

The last but perhaps very significant observation I had was about the conscious or unconscious patriotism existing in Chinese anthropological research. When I asked about the current direction of Chinese anthropology, people with some knowledge of the discipline sometimes suggested that Chinese researchers were trying to find their unique theories and paths of anthropological research instead of building on Western knowledge. These assertions derived largely from the broader social context of Chinese history in the last century; after the series of wars in the first half of the twentieth century and the subsequent development of a modern country, a nation-wide intention of regaining respect and rights in the international community emerged across Chinese society. However, the confrontation between communist and capitalist ideologies in larger global politics led to China’s amplified attempts at establishing the  visibility of its own political and economic achievements in a global community controlled by the assumed animosities of opponent countries. Consequently, patriotism seemed to become a political necessity, for the nation and for its citizens. In anthropology, domestic social scientists tried to construct their unique specific identities, contexts, and knowledge to gradually formulate the independence of the discipline.

As a student majoring in American anthropology, I then had to approach China and Chinese anthropology in a new way. Because the anthropologists in the two countries have created completely different paths for their research, I could not automatically interpret Chinese anthropology as though I have studied it, which I indeed have not. While I still identify as belonging to China, my anthropological training is distinctly American. My own opportunity to  study abroad has been a privilege and a chance for me to gain a singular experience. Though I see the unique traits of Chinese anthropology better now, I also want to deconstruct the complicated domestic puzzles in the Chinese practice of the discipline by applying insights from American academia. I continue to ask myself and will ask others: what is anthropology in China? And, as I pose these questions, I feel the loneliness of anthropologists that my friend and I discussed not too long ago.


Danyi Zeng ’17 is a senior majoring in anthropology at Smith College. She grew up in Southwest China and moved to the eastern coast of China with her family. With the experience of living in different areas and feeling the cultural diversity within the country, Danyi found anthropology is an inspiring discipline that offers her a highly self-reflexive toolkit to re-understand her own identities. Recently, she aims at bringing her knowledge and skills acquired from social science into real-world industries as well as seeking her further academic interests in East Asia.

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