The Minzu University of China hosted China’s first conference on “Visual Anthropology and Contemporary Chinese Culture” on June 21-22 in Beijing. Anthropologists, filmmakers, and NGO representatives from America, Germany, Mainland China, and Taiwan offered diverse perspectives that sought the theoretical and practical development of visual anthropology as an important lens to understand contemporary Chinese culture and social dynamics.
This two-day conference had five major panels: The Embodied Momentum of Ethnographic Film, Theory and Methodology of Visual Anthropology, Film-making in the Countryside and Local Communities, Visual Anthropology and Cultural Heritage Protection, and A Round Table Discussion on Visual Anthropology and Media Communication. Along with in-depth discussions focusing on visual anthropology as a new yet powerful research field, many panelists tried to braid it together with anthropological traditions and topics unique to China. Many of them, for instance, focused their research on the ethnic groups that constituted the multiplicities of China’s contemporary culture. The photographic and filmic images used in presentations reinforced their arguments and detailed the religions, human-nature relationships, and everyday lives of the Tibetan people, Wa people, and Amis tribe in Taiwan, etc. Another key anthropological study area in post-Mao China has been the interrelations between the cities and countryside which has drawn scholars’ attention to media and mediation. They discussed how media – the city mechanism– depicted and culturally translated life in the countryside for the audience, how life in the countryside has been (re)produced by the media discourses, and how media may possibly contribute to peasants’ new forms of subjectivity.
The conference also highlighted China’s social movements that have been put in motion by media and visual culture. The NGO of “Leimin Visual Studio – Youth Visual Plan and Action ” records the voices of the socially marginalized people and mobilizes the young citizens to pursue social justice. “Eyes of the village – Nature and Culture Documentation Project”, a group made up of anthropologists and filmmakers, aims at training villagers to use the film equipment. Villagers hence replace the visual anthropologists as ethnographic filmmakers and narrate their own stories. The representatives from these projects introduced their activities in the conference and also raised the ethical questions: how do anthropologists deal with films which are records of sacred rituals and ceremonies that only the villagers as cultural insiders could access and document? What are the results of showing the films to the local communities in which the “villager-directors” have recorded the private and personal aspects of their daily lives?
During the screening times, more than twenty ethnographic films were shown adding further depth to the discussions. Below are the links for several trailers with English subtitles that panelists kindly shared.
1. “Returning Souls” by Taili Hu：
Description: In the historically most famous ancestral house of the matrilineal Amis tribe in Taiwan, the carved pillars tell legends, such as the great flood, the glowing girl, the descending shaman sent by the Mother Sun, and the father-killing headhunting event. After a strong typhoon toppled the house 40 years ago, the pillars were moved to the Institute of Ethnology Museum. Recently young villagers, with the assistance of female shamans, pushed the descendants and village representatives to communicate with ancestors in the pillars. They eventually brought the ancestral souls（rather than the pillars）back and began reconstructing the house. In an environment highly influenced by western religions, national land policy, and local politics, the dream of the young people for cultural revitalization and to bring back not only the ancestral souls but also the soul of the village encountered many frustrations. This documentary interweaves reality and legends as well as the seen and the unseen as it records this unique case of repatriation.（85 minutes)
Taili Hu: Researcher, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
2. “The Wonder of Water” by Wangta:
Description: Wangta is from Jisha Village of Xiao Zhongdian Town, Shangri-la country. Besides farming, he used to drive a huge truck to deliver cargo. He participated in the training workshop of “Eyes of the Village – Nature and Culture Documentation Project” which was organized by Shan Shui Conservation Center. He then picked up a video camera to record several environmental disasters that took place in Jisha Village which he later edited into a film titled “Jisha Chronicles”. He also likes to shoot daily life and festival ceremonies of Jisha Village and share his video clips with his community members. Through documenting various rites and Tibetan people’s narration about the role of water in their lives in Yunnan, his work “Wonder of Water” tells about the views of Tibetans about water in a poetic manner.
Wangta: Villager, Jisha Village of Xiao Zhongdian Town, Shangri-la country
Bing Lu: Representative, Eyes of the Village – Nature and Culture Documentation Project
3. “Peasants Family Happiness” by Jenny Chio
Please see Chio’s article on “Peasants Family Happiness”:
Jenny Chio: Assistant Professor of Anthropology and associated faulty in Film and Media Studies, Emory University