Media Creation in China’s Na Villages

A review of Scenes from Yongning: Media Creation in China’s Na Villages, by Tami Blumenfield.

Tami Blumenfield’s dissertation is a refreshing anthropological study of media production and presents pioneering work based on community-based participatory research. The author’s methodological approach to collaborative fieldwork — a form of “decolonization of research” as she calls it — makes this dissertation unique in the field of Chinese minority studies in particular. The dissertation’s main ambition is an ethnography of media production processes; it successfully contributes to a study of the visual and political economies of representations about the Na (or Moso), an overly targeted and much-fantasized-about minority of the booming tourist industry in Southwest China, Yunnan Province. Placing collaboration issues and research ethics at the core of Scenes from Yongning makes for a very interesting case study and ethnographic experiment for ongoing discussions of methodology within the field of anthropology at large.

As Blumenfield writes, the Na people at the heart of her study could not “be viewed as experimental research subjects or a treasure trove of source material for video or scholarly production, but should rather be engaged on equal footing with media producers and researchers” (p. 9). Taking this as a methodological starting point, this work raises the issue of the ethics of research and representation, and advocates the positive role of collaboration between outsiders and insiders; one concrete example of this is the first-ever Moso Film Festival (2006) that Tami Blumenfield helped organize and that became an arena for dialogue with and among community members. It should be noted that the dissertation is only one component of her work output, alongside a website, a digital video compilation, and a film (Illuminations at Lugu Lake: The First Moso Film Festival. A film by Onci Archei, Ruheng Duoji, Feng Weiyang, and Tami Blumenfield, 2008).

The approach to participatory methodologies and research orientations are greatly inspired by what has been developed by indigenous activists and feminist scholars. Blumenfield refers to a variety of works about collaborative anthropology, community empowerment, and the decolonization of knowledge and methodologies, emphasizing that what is at stake is a new form of producing knowledge that would benefit the researched community, while still being relevant from a scholarly point of view. This tool kit has rarely been used in China, however, given the usual constraints and limitations imposed on the researcher that necessarily shape her/his relations with her/his interlocutors. Blumenfield’s research provides evidence of its value for researchers and practitioners working within Chinese ethnic minority communities.

The case under scrutiny is a very good choice in the Chinese context. The Na — this is the name they often use for themselves — are well-known nowadays for having practiced (and still practicing to some extent) a system of free sexual union called tisese (literally “walking back and forth”), or zouhun in Chinese (literally “walking marriage”), alongside marriage. Although denounced in the Communist era and regarded as a supposedly archaic and “primitive” form of marriage, this custom has survived and over the past decade has even become a tourist attraction. Cai Hua’s A Society without Fathers or Husbands (New York: Zone Books, 2001) sought to show that Na society is a unique case worldwide of the absence of both marriage and paternity — a much-debated issue that Blumenfield’s work addresses by offering the seldom-heard voices of the Na themselves in reaction to the polyphony of representations of their own society.

So many iterations and fantasies exist about the idea of the Kingdom of Women (Nü’er Guo 女儿国) — as the region of the Lugu Lake where the Na live is often referred to — that Blumenfield is justified in referring to the notion of simulacra used by Jean Baudrillard (Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994). The Na community is subject to so much attention and (mis)representation that the line between representation and reality has become blurred, and the overwhelming media reality comes to constitute what she refers to as the “strange world of Na hyper-reality” (p. 260).

For this reason, she leaves the term “Nü’er Guo” untranslated — for a choice of translation would set the associated representation, when it is the very complexities of the different versions of Nü’er Guo that constitute the field of representations under scrutiny. Similarly, we can only shift between the use of two (or more) ethnic referents to speak about the community, for the question of who are the “real” Na (Moso, or Mosuo) remains a dynamic and relational process of identity construction and invention.

The dissertation is divided in two parts. In the first of these, “Na and the history of Moso media,” we are taken to the core of the contemporary media production machinery. The detailed ethnography of media production brings to light the key role of the producers and the economics of film production in the shaping of a cultural product, the packaging of “Moso” culture, that raise issues of authenticity and the representation of cultural practices such as the now-renowned “visit system” (zouhun).

The dissertation unfolds by first exploring the changing representations of the Na, and their role in these. Chapter 1, entitled “Na history and politics,” offers a fundamental discussion that explains the historical and socio-political context within which Na people struggle to take part in shaping their culture. In contrast to the various forms of essentialization that any rigid approach to group identity tends to create, there often seems to be some heterogeneity and variations in ethnic affiliation, and this justifies the author’s treatment of the identity issue as a form of negotiated invention. Chapter 1 recounts the fascinating story of how the Moso, in spite of not having gained official recognition as a minority nationality (minzu), nevertheless came to be seen as one through the multilayered forces of the tourism industry. This new Moso zu ethnic identity created by and for tourism is indicative of the contextual nature of an increasingly internalized identity that not only Na people, but also Pumi or other members of the community with a different ethnic affiliation, can claim for the sake of tourism. Blumenfield demonstrates how tourism created a de facto recognition of “Moso” as a separate category, which the media then reinforced. It is in this context that the Moso Folk Museum, whose directors have become close collaborators, came into existence.

In Chapter 2, “Growing acquainted with Moso media,” the description of the author’s involvement in several film and TV projects contributes to examining the ways in which films and television programs are produced. It vividly recounts several of the author’s experiences of film productions about the Na, from being hired as a foreign actress by a Yunnanese TV crew to planning the shooting of a documentary for National Geographic. Thanks to this glimpse inside, we gain a better understanding of filming practices and how the content is negotiated with — and sometimes imposed on — the people in front of the cameras. The stories Blumenfield scrutinizes lend substance to this process through which authenticity and fiction are merged and channeled by the production of media representations.

Chapter 3 delves deeper into the question of authenticity. It analyzes the dynamics between outside filmmakers and the people they film, and discusses the imaginations of Moso people that prompt so many filmmakers to capture Moso communities on film. Blumenfield questions, through a presentation of several films about the Moso, the construction of partial truths and claims of representativeness. This problem of projecting onto reality one’s preconceptions and claims about Na society and culture goes beyond filmmaking and has been much debated with regards to their “scientific” depiction as a society with no fathers (Cai, Society without Fathers), and more generally what Blumenfield calls the “tragicomedy about researchers of the Na” (p. 151), “a problematic process of positivist knowledge construction at the expense of people and relationships” (p. 150). In the case of the over-represented Moso, the frontier between reality and fiction easily becomes blurred. Sorting through notions of accuracy and authenticity while examining the interactions between the filmmakers and those filmed, Blumenfield comes to the intriguing realization that her Na interlocutors and friends were not concerned with an abstract idea of truth that the camera might convey thanks to the authoritative role of film. In fact, even in “zouhun-saturated tourist zones” (p. 166) where outsiders’ fantasies about the visit system are unleashed, we find the young generation ready to spread the standard version of Moso culture that they have been taught. They are often returnees after months or even years of working in the ethnic performance industry in far-flung corners of China, from Shenzhen to Beijing, or Hainan.

In Yunnan province in particular, encouraging tourism and cultural consumption has become the new state propaganda. Chapter 4 discusses two government-funded projects as examples of heavy investment in media by the Chinese state to promote ethnic tourism: the Yunnan New Film Project, funded by the province, and Moso Music Videos, funded by the Lijiang-Lugu Lake Tourism Management Committee. The government of Yunnan Province invested $3.75 million (USD) in the Yunnan New Film Project, funding ten female directors to make films in the province’s ethnic minority regions, including Lugu Lake. Although it redressed gender inequities in filmmaking, it did not alter the cultural appropriation that such a project represents, nor the role of the media as a vehicle for economic exploitation of cultural resources. Yang Lina was one of the directors to go to the Na area, and we learn about her pre-production approach — a form of participatory consultation to develop script ideas typical of documentary filmmakers from the Chinese New Documentary Movement — that involved the locals in a more open dialogue and exchange. However, none of this paid off for the project director. The final script was written by someone else who replicated the common exoticization of the Na community to make a potentially more profitable story. Contrary to all the other stories by outsiders that present the Moso, the Nü’er Guo Music Trio was a project in which Moso people participated directly. This new endeavor aimed at generating tourism and at showcasing the Mosos’ singing. The Mosos wanted their own stars too. However, the production of music videos by the newly created government bureau, the Lijiang-Lugu Lake Tourist Management Committee, also exemplifies its role in the branding of Lugu Lake as a “Nü’er Guo” and its representative figures, which is yet another form of cultural production.

The project might well have ended with this ethnography of image production of a Chinese minority by outsiders. However, this work makes a much larger contribution by introducing an arena of media production and identity representations provided by members of the minority group themselves, something that is seldom ethnographically investigated. In the second part of the dissertation entitled “The Moso media project,” we are given a description of how the Moso Folk Museum directors and Blumenfield collaborated to organize a training course on filmmaking so that Na community members could make their own productions.

Chapter 5 introduces the notion of indigeneity into the discussion about local media production. Considering the rigidity of the official discourse about ethnicity in contemporary China, there is little public space for this otherwise internationally dominant notion. As Blumenfield shows, however, local discourses that could be framed according to trends in indigenous movements are not necessarily relevant and empowering. Moreover, this chapter presents some of the findings of an engaged scholarship that took community-based media production as the central object of research and an alternative to other forms of ethnographic work. Such a methodology might possibly remedy “the inaccessibility of Na voices to Na individuals in unfiltered form” (p. 235). It is with this aim in mind that a digital video training workshop was held at the Moso Folk Museum in 2005, followed by a film festival in 2006, in a concerted effort to make audiovisual media formats accessible to a larger community. Given the specific history of ethnic consciousness among China’s minorities, their claims to autonomy and to political representation, the term “indigenous” is problematical in itself; a stimulating discussion about the difficulties of applying it to the Na community is provided. As Blumenfield puts it, “political activism is not an appropriate agenda” in China for researchers (p. 244). In the Chinese context, indigenous media cannot be mainly an arena for political struggle. The emergence of indigenous media, presented as somewhat parallel to the reflexive turn in anthropology that followed the influential Writing Culture (James Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), can be seen as a form of reaction against the silencing of members of the community being researched. However, visual anthropology “as a panacea to the problems of representation of anthropological subjects” was an illusion (p. 239), as is the idea that media projects necessarily empower the social actors. Blumenfield rightly sees this as a rather ethnocentric form of patronization where community members would be dependent on an outsider to “empower” them. As Blumenfield demonstrates, “community-based media” is a more appropriate term — and a more ethical one — for a project whose goal was to create a space for collaboration, that is, complicity. As she goes on to narrate the organizational aspects and the outcome of the media production workshop held at the Moso Folk Museum, Blumenfield explains how she took a step towards the transformation of anthropology as a more engaged discipline, turning anthropological subjects into consultants, or even collaborators. One of the main outcomes was a real partnership that was forged between the anthropologist and the Museum directors and which laid the groundwork for a productive collaboration on the film festival project.

In Chapters 6 and 7, the organizing and planning of the Moso Film Festival is described and analyzed. This fostered local media production and provided a forum for discussing a range of issues, and notably changes in the communities brought about by the development of tourism and the cultural representation it is often built upon. In Chapter 6 we are given a detailed description of how the idea of a Moso film festival came about, as well as the complexities of organizing it: a festival whose targeted audience were the Na people who were the subject of the films they were to watch, “a festival aiming to unite a community around a particular theme” (p. 297). One section is devoted to a short synopsis and comments about the films that were selected by an informal committee chiefly made up of community members, and to the latter’s reactions to the portrayals in these films, with debates about the question of accuracy and authenticity. The film screenings, commented on in Chapter 7, became a venue for Na villagers to reflect upon and debate about the changes their home community has undergone after more than a decade of intense tourism, research and media coverage. Interestingly, the issue of the ethics of filming seldom surfaced during post-screening discussions (p. 341), and while one of the Moso Film Festival’s goals was to undermine the authority of cinematographic representations, the screenings also became a source of entertainment for the viewers. Issues about religious knowledge and its transmission, as well as reactions to tourism and the social changes it introduced, were the topics most often discussed. As post-screening discussions revealed, the film festival became less about filming ethics and more about first reminiscing then reacting to changes; yet it certainly created the shared public space necessary for promoting broader discussions (p. 363) and indirectly contributed to Na cultural revitalization. Na voices have finally been heard and they convey their reactions, and adaptation, to“intense gazes from outsiders” as well as “their agency in creating their own representations” (p. 382).

It is to be hoped that this study of media production in Southwest China, which is very novel in its approach within the field of anthropological research in this cultural area, will bring to the wider community of scholars some insights into participatory research and engagement. The author provides a vivid example of the possible ways collaborative projects with community members, as forms of scholarly production, can be fruitful not only for the researcher but also for the community being researched. This work may therefore benefit researchers from a number of fields beyond Chinese or Himalayan studies, from anthropology more generally to media studies and visual anthropology, and may be of interest to documentarists and community workers alike.

Stéphane Gros
Researcher
Center for Himalayan Studies
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – France
sgros@vjf.cnrs.fr

Primary Sources

In-depth, semi-structured interviews
Participatory observations
Films and documentaries
Media production training

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2010. 445 pp. Primary Advisor: Stevan Harrell.

Image: A Mosuo woman near Lugu Lake.Photograph by Zoharby, Wikimedia Commons.

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