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  1. A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    June 15, 2012 by Fan


    A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    Fan Zhang


    “This is a self-reflective narrative, a wrenching dialogue with myself, based on my encounter with development …” (Shrestha 1995:266)


    The following text prepared for this particular assignment, not unlike Shrestha’s words quoted above, is autobiographical in nature. I don’t hold grudge against lofty ideas articulated on high theoretical planes. In fact, I have the highest regard for those who keep scientific detachment and distance from objects and objectives studied. But weakness of my position – and weakness of my character – decide for me that I could and should only begin my engagement of the issue of development with myself in order to reach certain degree of depth and sincerity. I only hope crucial questions of development’s moral nature, participant distance and its totality beyond technocratics would be succinctly but properly addressed in the process.




    In concluding my mini-ethnography of UofT’s Anthropology Students’ Association (ASA) written under Professor Tania Li, I wrote:


    “My observation of the Chinese peasantry or ASA members is: they don’t need anybody to save them. They have far more determination, intelligence, resource, and power to save themselves. What I see in anthropology, through this three months’ fieldwork, is a need for elitism. It is translated into a community that is not based on physical proximity but conceptual proximity. It transcends Fei Xiaotong’s native anthropology into the realm of Nicolas Rose’s nativity.” (Zhang 2012:14)


    A few explanations are necessary in order to develop the above paragraph’s relevance.



    In my observation of ASA which I treat as a microsm of current anthropology as a discipline, I notice that almost all its active members are Caucasians despite the association’s open membership. Its institutional culture can also be described as highly Euro-Canadian. Using Nicolas Rose’s analytical framework, in spite of the association’s university setting, it is a culture before the Age of the Third Way: its nativity is not yet decided by creative proximity but ethnic or geographical proximity (Rose 1999:168). At the same time, ASA is a highly active and efficient organization with great potential and in the process of rapid development: there is a natural rhythm in its own development.

    This correspondences to my observation of Chinese rural society where I do have familial ties. Needless to say, physical proximity has a far great presence there and in this proximity I see an almost visceral force driving towards what is called “development”. Most Westerners tend to think recent Chinese economic reform and “success”  begin and end with its export economy (and as a gift the West gives to China, signature mentality of development thinking).  Few of them realize that they are in fact continuation of its traditional peasant and mercantile economy in the age of globalization (Mai 1992:46).

    Chinese peasantry’s “visceral force” towards development is recorded as early as 1939 in  anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography Peasant Life in China, his PhD dissertation supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski in its preface declares that the ethnography marks “a new departure” in anthropology when anthropological works are done by a native among natives (Malinowski 1939:xiii) and when anthropology is not the hobbyhorse of elite outsiders but out of practical concerns of native people in their own struggles in the course of history. He ends the preface eloquently with this sentence:

    “The present account [in this ethnography] is not a record of vanished history but a prelude to a new chapter of world history that will be written not in ink but in the blood of millions.”


    Here comes full circle with regard to our current topic of development: the questions of distance and moral imperative, two convergeable topics.  A quintessentially English belief (Malinowski is quintessentially English despite his Polish origin) in the interchangeability of morality and self-interest – a belief that is not alien to the Chinese – and a trust in the organic force of bodily and material reality lay the foundation not only for a vision of development , the focus of Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography, but also a vision of the development of anthropology and activism that emphasizes native participation. In other words, the distance is close to but not exactly zero: Fei is a Western-trained yet Chinese anthropologist who studied development.

    For me, Fei Xiaotong, who as Chinese government’s advisor in his old age advocated freeing the visceral-economic force of Chinese peasantry, is one anthropologist, if not the only anthropologist, who has significant impact on world history. His relatively non-intervention approach, in fact, is consistent with Lao Tzu’s governing approach quoted by Professor Cohen in his lecture (lecture notes of June 08, 2012). I will tentatively call this approach “naturalist”. This approach does have a tendency to reject missionary zeal of converting the other. In Tao Te Ching where Professor Cohen’s quote appears, there is also a sentence to the effect of “the greatest favour a man can do to his neighbour is not to visit him” (quote from memory). This is the morality of distance of zero – when one has no intention of overcoming this distance.

    A salient comparison can be made to the role of religion in modern development discourse as cogently (and elegantly) described in our readings by John and Jean Comaroff: evangelist capitalists in their passion to covert the primitive other unwittingly showed their essential similarities, and developmental conversion was in fact competition (Comaroffs 2001:498-499).

    My fieldwork carried out in the anthropology department was inevitably influenced by my Sinic disposition and my reading of Lao Tzu since very early age, hence my preference for self-determination in my conclusion of ethnography of UofT’s anthropology department. I did offer a solution which is partially influenced by Nicholas Rose’s concept of “third-way”, or, the creative making of communities. I chose aesthetic identification in my approach to “others” (Zhang 2012:15).

    Professor Li in her commentary asked me: “Why just aesthetics? Why not political engagement or ethics?” I confessed my feeling of powerlessness in my reply:


    “The reason I think about an aesthetic approach in anthropology is that I sometimes feel that local populations might not need outsiders’ intervention. The greatest “cultural shock” occurred to me when I visited Chinese countryside many years ago, discovering their poverty and beauty. But many poor peasants I knew then have become enormously rich now, and they are no more innocent than city dwellers. I believe their mercantile tendency is even stronger. My concerns then seem to be irrelevant to them.”


    Here, the phrase “cultural shock” denotes a sudden close of distance and a sense of beauty as well as a sense of moral obligation inspired by this encounter. When this encounter occurred, the part of countryside I visited was already in the heat of development guided by Chinese government’s multiple successful (by their measurement of course) “Five-Year Plans”. The same plans were changing the urban landscape where I came from. My reception of the (then) poverty of rural area was immediately gained a sense of romanticism: from the very beginning I rejected the discourse of development that put technological renovation and bureaucratic sophistication above everything else: I was stunned by the beauty of poor simple peasant life in the depth of gorgeous mountains, and I lost myself swimming in sweet rivers later would turn black.

    Many years later, a lot of those poor farmers I had my sympathy for then become capitalists buying properties across the country.

    This is a world without me. This is a world that doesn’t need me

    But is this a world without anthropology? Does world need anthropology?

    Those are the puzzles I brought with me to Professor Cohen’s course on development. My initial project, unrelated in the beginning of this write-up, is in fact a project without a task. Since I don’t claim to be a Westerner, or “one of us”, I hope I’m allowed an initial position of Taoist “doing-nothingness” as my project for the world.  Anthropology, for me, was and to a great extent, still is a project of self-cultivation – the rich shades of nuances and ambiguity I discovered in it brought me great pleasure. But I’m ready to enter another side of anthropology from the shadow of subtle ambiguity: I’m ready to enter a world of doing-goodness that has the power of countering the hegemony of development.








    Comaroff, John and Jean Comaroff.

    2001. The Colonization of Consciousness. In A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Ed. Michael Lambek, 494-510. London: Blackwell.


    Esteva, Gustavo.

    1992. Development. In The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power. ed. Wolfgang Sachs, 6-25. London: Zed.


    Mai Tianshu

    1990. Zhongguo Nongming [Chinese Peasants]. Beijing: Renmin Press.


    Malinowski, Bronislaw

    1939. Preface to Peasant Life in China. In Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Village, Fei Xiaotong. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


    Rose, Nikolas

    1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


    Shrestha, Nanda.

    1995. Becoming a Development Category. In Power of development. ed. Jonathan S. Crush, 266-277. New York: Routledge.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. Third Way in the Post Third-Way Age: Community Building of ASA and Beyond.