“Seeking Truth From Fact” Part II: Gaoping’s Organic Farm Cooperative

In my last post I described the recent evolution of Gaoping’s peasant-tourism cooperative association. Mainly, how the villagers scaled up from scattered, individual households opening their homes to tourists, to sharing resources and combining services to form the ‘Four Unifications’ model, which is now promoted across the Lishui prefecture. It is this type of rural experimentation, cooperation, and innovation that underlies the New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRRM) as an alternative to the ‘utopian marketization’ of rural society, and looks to local communities for grassroots solutions to overcome the rural crisis or ‘sannong wenti‘ (hence my “seeking truth from fact”).

In this post I’ll talk about Gaoping’s organic farm co-op that now also serves as a model for villages across the township. In contrast with the peasant-tourism cooperative association that receives financial and organizational support from the local government, the organic farm co-op was started and still operates as an entirely independent and self-governing enterprise, with the local government taking no part in their policymaking or day-to-day operations. At the end of our interview with Gaoping’s Township Party Secretary, he said:

“The co-op really invented this idea of growing organic high-end vegetables for urbanites. And even though the enterprise belongs to this village [the shareholders are all from this village], they have motivated the whole township to try this model – so maybe other villages can learn from this village. In China, because of the Household Responsibility System, land is chopped into small pieces and allocated to individual families; in order to really build something of a larger scale, to make bigger profits, you have to develop a model like a co-op – you have to concentrate all the land together.”

DSC_0157

Mr. Bao is pictured in the middle, in front of his home.

Prior to 2008, Mr. Bao, the founder of Gaoping’s organic co-op, was a migrant worker in Suichang’s county seat. Despite the stigma often associated with migrant workers, after leaving Gaoping village he became quite successful, acquiring a savings of a few million yuan while working in Suichang. Then, in 2007 everyone in his home village voted him to become the Party Secretary. That year he decided to maintain a seat on the village committee, but not to return home. In 2008 the villagers again voted him to become the village Party Secretary – 470 out of 500 villagers voted for him. Knowing that everyone had such high hopes for him, this time he decided to return.

DSC_0178

Under Mr. Bao’s guidance, in the past six years the village has transformed dramatically. Echoing what the township party secretary had told us, Mr. Bao said that prior to 2008 ‘Gaoping’ was interchangeable with ‘remote and poor’.  Even though villagers had been growing the type of mountain vegetable the co-op now specializes in since 2000, they were all producing individually, and rather than selling their products directly in the market they relied on a ‘middle man’ who came to their village and negotiated with the peasants by household. So even with a high yield, they were weak and vulnerable because they had not banded together.

DSC_0162

A local farmer, picking vegetables in the co-op’s greenhouse.

When Mr. Bao returned, his goal was to unite the farmers, build a cooperative, and help the village make more money.  His personal savings were not enough to cover the start-up investment, and he asked each one of his friends (‘the brotherhood’ he called them) to put their homes up as collateral for a loan. In the beginning only 62 households joined the co-op, and then within a month that number declined to 54. Mr. Bao knew that in order to be successful they needed to build a brand, and this required farmers to be more discriminate about the quality of the vegetables they picked to be sold – some farmers didn’t see the point, and felt they were investing more effort to just grow the same type of product they had grown before; no one regulated the quality of their vegetables when they sold them as a household through a middle-man.

DSC_0165

A view overlooking the co-op greenhouses and fields.

However, by cutting out the middle-man, banding together, and selling their brand name products directly for wholesale in big cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai, as well as to wealthy urban households through a ‘fresh vegetable home delivery program’, they were able to turn their initial investment of just 210,000 yuan ($34,250) into a huge profit: over the past six years the value of the co-op has increased to 20 million yuan ($3,260,000), and 147 households (out of 180 households in the village) are currently shareholders.  Prior to the co-op, the total savings for the town was about 5 million yuan ($814,000) and today it is 60 million yuan ($9,765,000).

DSC_0300

A box of fresh vegetables, prepared to be shipped to an urban household.

Mr. Bao has since stepped down as the village Party Secretary, and now mainly works with the co-op. He is their largest shareholder (with 8K out of 15K total shares), but they are self-governed by a shareholder ‘representative congress’, while a shareholder ‘operational committee’ manages the day-to-day operations.  So, if the operational committee sees a policy that needs to be changed, they bring it to the representative congress for a vote.

DSC_0258

Their brand received widespread recognition a few years ago when it became known that the Zhejiang provincial government was ordering their vegetables for their exclusive dining canteen. The government officials were ordered to stop ‘indulging’ as part of an anti-extravagance campaign, but the scandal was free advertisement for the co-op, and because their brand was associated with the privilege and luxury enjoyed by provincial cadres, their business from wealthy urbanites increased. Today, the co-op is the main driver for the local economy, and therefore the local government’s most important source of revenue. They are held up as something like the ‘golden child’ of Suichang county – as mentioned, they serve as a model for emulation by other villages across the township.

DSC_0164

In my next post, I’ll discuss Gaoping’s new e-commerce facility that was established in January of this year through a partnership with Alibaba and the local government to help villagers purchase products online. I hope the e-commerce story, juxtaposed with the stories behind these two  ‘grassroots’ models, will elucidate the complex confluence of interests that are guiding the trajectory of China’s rural development.

Advertisements
Posted in Urban-to-Rural Migration, Zhejiang Province | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Seeking Truth From Fact”: The Relevant Role of Experimental Models in China’s Rural Development

I returned to Suichang last week as an assistant to a professor I met at a conference last summer who hired me as a mentor for a group of US undergrad students she lead on a month-long trip across China. After visiting Lanzhou and Hangzhou, the final rural leg of their journey was Suichang County, where I conduct my own research on Zhejiang’s ‘poverty alleviation resettlement’ program. My contact from Suichang’s Party School was their primary contact and guide as well, and he arranged for us to spend the week in Suichang’s Gaoping township, where we had the opportunity to explore a range of innovative local institutions, cooperatives, and enterprises that are transforming economic development in the area, and transcending the mainstream western concept of the relationship between state, society, and the market.

Group photo - village 1 “To seek truth from fact” (实事求是) is a phrase I learned from Wei while in Jilin, and it has stuck with me because the initiation and proliferation of new economic models, along with rapidly evolving political institutions and associations at the community level – like what we saw in Gaoping – are an underemphasized yet key aspect to the state’s resilience and adaptability, and as such, they underlie China’s potential impact on the global debate about models of development. “To seek truth from fact” implies that receptivity to on-the-ground generation of local knowledge and practice is a more rational approach to development than formulating plans and regulations founded on pre-existing theories and ideologies.

Take, for example, the apparent contradiction between achieving economies of scale (aka economic efficiency) and protecting basic livelihoods. In China, this debate is more than a battle of ideologies among academics; it is a high-stakes struggle involving the conflicting interests and competing claims over resources between powerful actors like transnational agricultural corporations, Party officials and policymakers from the central to the local level, and small-scale peasant farmers. This is because, on the one hand, the small family farms brought about during the rural reforms in the early 1980s (when rural land, still owned by the collective, was divided into noodle plots and allocated to individual households) cannot operate efficiently within the national and international market system. Yet, on the other hand, (and contrary to popular belief that rural farmers are ‘tied to their land’), China’s high population relative to the amount of arable land means that most farmers rely on their land as a subsistence resource, and therefore it cannot be treated simply as a production resource.

“Basic farmland protection boundary marker"

“Boundary marker of basic farmland protection”

Beside the boundary marker, a local man indicates the land in Gaoping is protected from development

Beside the boundary marker above, a local man indicates the land in Gaoping that is protected from development.

It is this contradiction between the ‘small peasant household’ and the ‘big market’ that has catalyzed the New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRRM) as a solution to overcome the rural crisis or sannong wenti*. For those connected to the movement, this means building cooperative and community social relations that go beyond the interests of the individual households and their mediation by the market. Reconstructing rural community culture and social relationships around cooperation rather than competition enables villagers to scale up their operations while protecting themselves against the exploitative behavior of market forces and state actors (Day, 2008: 57).

As Alexander Day, paraphrasing Wen Tiejun, posits: “With such a large surplus labor in the countryside [about 200 million] , is it possible to treat labor-power as a commodity? And if not, how is the rural population to sustain itself within a market economy? If the urban employment market cannot absorb the rural unemployed, then who will support them?…Chinese peasants need to survive somehow, and if privatization of agricultural land pushes them off the land**, what are their alternatives? If land is primarily a “subsistence resource”, and not a profit making resource, then it must be distributed equally among villagers; economic efficiency becomes second to equality under these structural conditions. These arguments form the foundation for the NRRM as a movement to protect rural society from its utopian marketization.” (Day, 2008: 55-56)

Lone man - street

Which brings me back to “seeking truth from fact”: if NRRM is an alternative to the ‘utopian marketization’ of rural society, what does the heart of the NRRM – cooperative relations, rural experimentation, and institutional innovation – look like in practice? In Gaoping, we had the opportunity to speak with local officials and village leaders, and to visit the homes of villagers that are part of a ‘peasant home and tourism’ cooperative association (nongjiale, 农家乐), as well as an organic farm cooperative, and a new e-commerce shop – all of which reflect new experiments in rural development.

People - front stoop

First, some background on Gaoping township is necessary to understand the demographic, socio-economic and environmental context in which these enterprises developed and now operate.  The township Party Secretary provided this overview, before describing how the ‘peasant home and tourism’ cooperative association led to the ‘Four Unifications’ model, a model that has proven so successful it is now promoted across the prefecture. To avoid one massive run-on blog, I will cover the organic food cooperative and e-commerce shop in two upcoming posts.

Township gov outside

Outside the township government office

Township gov Mtg

Center left is the township party secretary

A few years ago, the name Gaoping was interchangeable with ‘remote and poor’, the Party Secretary began. The town, which is composed of six administrative villages, is set high in the mountains (one of the highest in Suichang), the winters are cold, and infrastructure and transportation are still developing. Up until five years ago, the peasants mainly relied on three cash crops for income: high mountain vegetables, bamboo, and a type of Chinese medicine. Or, they sought work as migrant laborers.

Mountain View - bend

The tourism began with azaleas. Every April and May, over 10,000 mu (1,650 acres) of these flowers are in bloom, and in 2008 the villagers and local government together started to promote it as a ‘leisure-oriented’ tourist destination. At that time only scattered, individual households opened their homes for visiting tourists, and the town was unprepared for the amount of guests that arrived – tourists couldn’t find places to eat or sleep.

Man - cart - village 1

In the next stage of development they built family restaurants – the community hadn’t yet promoted the idea of staying for more than a day so tourists were only looking for something to eat.  When the community decided to encourage tourists to stay for longer, they built larger homes with extra rooms on the second and third floors to accommodate more guests; the original houses in the village were old – they were made of clay and dirt and usually only had a small number of rooms (like 4).

cooking tofu - woman

Next, they contacted a travel agency in Hangzhou. The first group of overnight tourists to arrive were a senior citizen’s group – they came for six days and five nights. It was a huge success, but the villagers realized the fee they charged was really low – only 45 yuan per day, including food and accommodation. Considering not just cooking, but also the time and effort to take care of the clients, there was not much profit.

Village 1 - homes

A view overlooking the Hutong village within the Gaoping township

Houses - village 1

Some of Hutongcun’s newly constructed homes

It was at this point that they decided to work together as a cooperative association. They arranged a ‘roster system’, so each family didn’t have to cook for each of their guests every day, but one family would cook for an entire group of tourists one day, and the next day the following family would cook for all the tourists and so on. This way, rather than competing with each other, they could share resources and scale up their services. It is this type of cooperation that led to the ‘Four Unifications’ model.

Sifting Rice

Villagers gather to sift their rice

‘Four Unifications’ refers to:

1. Unified promotions: each nongjiale cooperative association promotes their tourism services collectively as a village (five of the six admin village in Gaoping have nongjiale cooperatives) through contracts with travel agencies in Shanghai and Hangzhou.  The Suichang County government’s ‘tourism committee’ acts as a sort of middle man to create these connections with the travel agencies, and promote the area as a tourist destination at expos or other events in the big cities. Without the platform or human resources, it would be very difficult for the villages to make this connection on on their own. But once the connection is established, it is up to the villages and travel companies to work together on promotion.

2. Unified Reception: each nongjiale cooperative association then distributes the guests among the households in their village as fairly as possible. This is not just about preventing one household from profiting significantly over the rest, but also to foster sustained growth- if one household attracts more clients than the rest, but is unable to accommodate them all, the clients may have a bad impression of the village and be less likely to return.

Although each nongjiale cooperative works to fairly distribute the clients their village receives among the households, the tourist agencies do not try to distribute clients evenly across the five villages. Rather, the clients choose themselves which village they want to visit, and this is where the cooperative model meets the market: the five villages are all at different altitudes, so the village at the highest altitude will be most popular during the peak of summer, and when that village is saturated, the ‘spillover tourists’  will flow down the mountain. During the colder parts of the year, the village at the lowest altitude will be most popular, and spillover tourists will likewise flow up the mountain.

3. Unified Standards: all the households need to adhere to the same quality standards of accommodation and services to ensure tourists receive an equally pleasant experience, no matter the household they are assigned to.

4. Unified Payment: the payment from the tourists is administered by the nongjiale cooperative association, rather than going directly to the individual households.

Just three years ago, the total amount of savings in the local credit cooperative union was only about 18 million yuan ($2.94 million). Now it is about 69 million ($11.3 million), so the villagers have experienced a 20 percent increase in savings. Villagers’ household income has increased by 20,000 to as much as 100,000 Yuan ($3270-$16,300).

The ‘Four Unifications’ model, by fostering cooperative community relations over competition, has led Gaoping to become a leader in the tourist industry: as mentioned, the entire Lishui prefecture is now promoting the Gaoping model.

Man - canvas covering behind

In my next post, I’ll talk about Gaoping’s organic food cooperative which is run by a self-governing organization that operates entirely independent of the local government. The co-op came up with the idea of growing high-end vegetables for urbanites in Hangzhou and Shanghai, and motivated not just the village, but the entire township to get involved. ______________________________________________________________ Notes:

*sannong wenti refers to the ‘three rural problems’: “peasants”, “rural society” and “agriculture”; the phrase has replaced  agricultural economics (nongye jingji) and rural development (nongcun fazhan) in mainstream discourse on rural issues, so that rural problems cannot simply be framed as an issue of agricultural production or urbanization, but the well-being of the peasantry and surplus rural labor are key to understanding China’s current problems and its long-term development strategy. (Day, 2008: 52)

Day, Alexander. 2008. “The End of the Peasant? New Rural Reconstruction in China.” 2008. Boundary 2 35:2 Available at: http://alexanderday.net/wp-content/uploads/New-Rural-Reconstruction.pdf

**for more on the land privatization debate, see: Zhang, Qian F. and John A Donaldson. 2012. “China’s Agrarian Reform and the Privatization of Land: A Contrarian View”. Journal of Contemporary China, (80): 255-272. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2012.734081

Zhang, Qian F. and John A Donaldson. 2008. “The Rise of Agrarian Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Agricultural Modernization, Agribusiness and Collective Land Rights. The China Journal (60): 25-47

Posted in Zhejiang Province | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Urban-to-Rural Migration: From Business Marketing in Beijing, to Fish Farming in Sichuan?

Rapid urbanization, rural-to-urban migration, social stratification and the environmental consequences of poorly regulated economic growth and resource degradation – including the pollution of air, soil, and water, loss of arable land to development, deforestation, and desertification – are all central concerns facing China, and therefore the world’s, sustainable development.

So, take nearly every one of those issues, think of it’s opposite, and that is the story of the Chen family.

Mr. and Mrs. Chen run an organic aquaponics farm about an hour outside Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. After ten years of living and working in Beijing – Mrs. Chen worked in marketing and Mr. Chen was in the air force – last year they moved to Liaoxing village to ‘escape the pressures and pollution of the big city’, and start a dual farm/restaurant that opens it doors to the local community and groups of school children eager to learn about their growing business and life on the farm.

DSC_0191

Mr. Chen, scooping the gravel bed for the filtration system beside their aquaculture pond.

DSC_0367

In addition to aquaponics and vegetables, they raise goats, chickens and rabbits. Six full-time employees help on the farm, and there was also another volunteer from Hungary, Adrienne, who is an MA student with a focus in soils and waste management.

For the groups of school children that often visit, one of the many activities Mr. Chen arranges is an aquaponics demonstration, where students learn about the symbiosis between fish and plants: combining the hydroponic system where plants are grown with the aquaculture system where fish are raised prevents fish poop from accumulating in the water and increasing the toxicity. The fish-poop water is fed into the hydroponic system where the by-product is broken down and absorbed by the plants as nutrients, before the water is circulated back into the fish tank.

After learning how the system works, students split into groups and assemble their own mini-aquaponics tanks. But prior to each demonstration, Mr. Chen plays the following video to help explain why he and his wife left the city to start a farm:

After playing the video, Mr. Chen then asks the students what the movie is about. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. But one day this one kid, no older than eight, totally nailed it, saying: in the city your heart can feel sick, but on a farm what you do is basic to who you are, it is basic to a community and it is good for your heart.

DSC_0430

DSC_0459
DSC_0418

One day, Mr. Chen’s friend, Philip (his English name), who runs a local kindergarten, visited the farm in preparation for a field trip he was planning for his students later that week. After we were introduced, Philip invited Adrienne and I to visit his school the following day, meet the teachers, and teach a few English lessons to the kids.

IMG_1552

DSC_0231

Philip, in the doorway of the school.

On our drive over in the morning, Philip explained that around five years ago the central government set a goal of getting 97 percent of children 3-6 years old into kindergarten schools. Millions and millions of yuan were invested in the project, and new schools with modern facilities sprung up in small towns and villages all across the country. However, once the infrastructure was in place there was no real plan for staffing, teacher training, or a clear curriculum – at this point the towns and villages were pretty much on their own.

They spend all this money, he explained, but they don’t pay attention to the actual implementation. Usually this is the [responsibility of the] director of the kindergarten. There are not guidelines for the teachers. It is too hard for them.

DSC_0206  When the students arrive in the morning, a teacher will first check their temperature…

DSC_0220…and then they bring their ID card over to this red machine where their attendance is recorded electronically.

In rural areas starved for resources and qualified teachers, the task of transforming shells of schools into holistic, engaging learning environments is nearly sisyphean. Yet it is difficult to imagine anyone more qualified than Philip to tackle the challenge. After receiving his master’s degree in ‘Education for National Development’ in Hong Kong, he went on to get a doctorate in the US and spent a number of years working for the UN, helping Vietnamese refugees enter and navigate the Hong Kong education system. In 2005, he gave up his job as a professor in Educational Philosophy at a Hong Kong university to come to mainland China and work with the Education Bureau in Gansu province to help build the capacity of an entire county of kindergarten schools – 200 in total. He said that was when they realized there was no way to help all of the schools at the same time; they had to move step by step, first to identify one school to be a model, help them to change first, and then help the others to follow.

Philip stayed in Gansu for three years, but he moved to Sichuan in 2008 after the earthquake hit, and has been at this school ever since. When he first arrived there were less than a handful of teachers for two hundreds students. Today he oversees eighteen teachers, and 80 percent he hired from the local village.

DSC_0269For my English lessons, I organized some games of ‘red light, green light’…

DSC_0281

…’Mother, May I?’…

DSC_0299

…and ‘duck, duck, goose’ for the tiniest squirts.

As dedicated as Philip is to the students and their families, the core focus of his passion and energy is invested in the teachers and the training he provides to help them break free from the traditional emphasis on rote memorization, and encourage them to be creative and interactive with lessons that range from games and story-telling to poetry and ‘theater therapy’. The teachers are the key to the sustainability of his efforts.

That afternoon he arranged for the three of us to chat freely with a group of teachers, to help them practice their English and exchange ideas like cultural differences to personal values and future goals. At one point, he asked each of the teachers, who were all no older than 23, to imagine themselves at 60 years old and describe how they would like their life to be.

What I initially mistook as a simple attempt to encourage them to practice the future tense, he later explained as I was getting ready to leave: ‘you see, they were very reluctant to imagine, but I have to push them to imagine… it is so critical to encourage young people today to think about the future, because we can no longer just focus on the now.’

DSC_0277

Posted in Urban-to-Rural Migration | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Defense of WWOOF (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms)

Wwoof, rather than any relation to academia, often elicits images of stinky, broke backpackers, smugly aloof in their rugged ability to brave rural home stays and exchange their labor for room and board while scoffing at the pseudo-culturally-immersed delusions of their stinky, broke hostel-hopping backpacker counterparts: “If only those hostel sluts would open their eyes to the capitalist luxury of their ten dollar dorm bunks!”, they might exclaim, “that they probably found in the newest edition of some Lonely Planet guidebook, no less!”

My first wwoof host family.

My first wwoof host family.

Stinky-broke or not, I’m still a proponent for wwoofing anywhere. But, I do think there are a few political-socio-economic factors that set wwoof in China apart from wwoof outside China, and lend to it’s viability as a rural pedagogic entrée:

1. China’s citizenship is divided between urban and rural. Temporarily suspending judgment on the plethora of political/social/economic hurdles this household registration system has institutionalized, this does mean that every rural citizen is allocated a plot of land through the collective and therefore eligible to register as a wwoof host (wwoof made an exception in China so hosts don’t technically have to farm organically); in no other country is the definition of farmer, and therefore the host eligibility, so broadly cast throughout the countryside.

Meanwhile, should one have an interest in conducting ethnographic research on the political/social/economic challenges this system reinforces (does the hukou ‘tie farmers to their land’?) wwoof is a viable launch pad.

2.  Wwoof was promoted in Dushu. Some of my past wwoof hosts told me it was through this intellectual monthly journal that they heard about the website and decided to register as hosts.

Dushu is a forum for academic discourse on New Left views; the most notable New Leftist, Wang Hui, is coeditor of the magazine. Although a disparate group, they are primarily intellectuals of the younger generation. The New Left has highlighted the rising economic inequalities, social polarization, declining public services, unbridled corruption, environmental degradation and “loss of humanistic spirit” that accompanied China’s economic reforms and opening up to the world (Goldman, 2007: 29)

 New Leftists advocate economic justice rather than economic growth at any cost. They contend that deeper economic reforms could continue to disproportionately benefit employers and agribusiness while undermining the economic and social position of China’s workers and farmers. They have tried to revitalize the role of collective landholding and village-based enterprises as a buffer to the potential insecurity that may accompany further privatization and global economic integration. For further reading I would suggest checking out Dale Jiajun Wen and this article, Wen Tiejun and this, this, this or this article, or any of the articles at chinaleftreview.org (though even with my vpn I can’t access the ladder link, so the site may have been taken down).

That wwoof offers an outlet for foreign students and travelers to hear from and work alongside rural farmers is epic. That it also a channel to hear from grassroots individuals who may have opinions, whether positive or negative, on the the New Left critique is a double-whammy.

3. General access to rural villages is laden with obstacles, especially via direct invitation by a farmer. While access as an outsider presents limitations for nearly any field study, the Chinese elements of political sensitivity combined with the cultural emphasis on personal networks and connections can throw seemingly insurmountable wrenches into project feasibility.

For foreign students/travelers with limited time and social capital, wwoof may be the only means to catalyze a rural experiential learning opportunity.

Meanwhile, for students interested in undertaking long-term rural projects that involve ethnographic or participant observation, wwoof is your best resource for realistic yet low-risk opportunities to learn, practice and discuss how to conduct this type of fieldwork.

The skills critical for the success of rural field studies simply cannot be acquired in a classroom, and unfortunately trial and error is often the name of the game. Yet the pressure one confronts in the field, especially when first starting out, can be overwhelming because the ‘field’ is not sympathetic to blunders and missteps: How do you establish trust? How do you frame your questions without sounding (too) critical? (Contrary to my initial perception, vomiting all of your questions out at once in the interest of full disclosure is not the best strategy.) How do you hand someone a survey? (Likewise, whipping it out right off the bat is also not the best answer.) When should you pull out your tape recorder, and when should you take hand-written notes? How do you write legible notes while keeping up with what someone is saying? etc. etc. etc…

For most of these questions, classroom simulation just doesn’t cut it because there are no straightforward rules, with maybe one exception: people will relate and respond to authenticity. But to be authentic you have to be comfortable, and to be comfortable you have to try different strategies to figure out what works best for you, which inevitably means you have to be willing to make mistakes.

Wwoof offers an opportunity to limit these mistakes when the stakes are high. Aside from just figuring out how to feel (or at least act) comfortable in what can be uncomfortable situations at first, some of my most memorable conversations have been when I discussed with wwoof hosts the challenges I confronted as a foreigner doing research, and asked for their advice. These conversations often take place in a (literal) field, in a kitchen, or around the dinner table, and always without the anxiety of an official or professor within earshot.

Whether you’re preparing a thesis proposal or your image of rural life is synonymous with that of a faceless farmer standing ankle-deep in a rice paddy wearing one of those triangle-shaped straw hats (my initial notion), a wwoof experience will profoundly deepen (y)our understanding, and methods for understanding, China’s vast rural landscape.

Plus, you get to join the elite pack of aloof stinky-broke woofers with their ‘real‘ cultural experiences, and unabashedly scoff at all the pseudo-immersed stinky-broke hostel-hopping bourgeoise-backpackers.

And yet, these methods [ethnography and participant observation] remain marginal…perhaps most important, there has been no real push to build a coalition behind the critical appreciation, application, and teaching of ethnography and participant observation. I believe an appropriate step forward would be for researchers who use these methods – either exclusively or in combination with other methods – to work toward building a coalition or users group within the discipline.” (Carlson et al, 2010: 382)

Carlson, Allen. “More than an Interview, Less Than Sedaka: Studying Subtle and Hidden Politics with Site-Intensive Methods.” Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. 328-420. iBooks.

Goldman, Merle. Political Rights in Post-Mao China. Michigan: Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2007. 29-49. Print.

Posted in Urban-to-Rural Migration | Tagged | Leave a comment