A Personal Epic
Anthropologist Hong Zhang mirrors the strengths of the people she studies
By Stephen Collins '74
Published August 10, 2004 | Issue: Spring 2004
Illustration by Fred Field
Resilience in the face of uncertainty is among the most impressive characteristics of the Chinese people that anthropologist Hong Zhang sees as she studies peasant families and labor migration trends in a rural Chinese village called Zhongshan.
Adversity, uncertainty and resilience-in nothing short of epic proportions-are part of Hong's personal story as well. Her own migration from central China to central Maine included a lengthy rural "reeducation" program for urban youths during China's Cultural Revolution.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), it would have been hard to predict China's recovery or foresee what Hong describes as a current mood of optimism among the Chinese people. After she was sent in 1975 from the industrial city of Wuhan to tiny Zhongshan to be reeducated by peasants, Hong's primary worry was that she would never be able to return to the city. She wouldn't have dared to imagine someday returning to the village to study Chinese peasant culture as a Ph.D. anthropologist from Columbia University and a member of Colby's faculty.
Hong was the eldest daughter of intellectuals, teachers in Wuhan. "I was only nine years old and it [the Cultural Revolution] lasted ten years, so all my formative years were completely formed in this whole political movement," she said. "I witnessed my own parents' struggle." Educated by American missionaries, "they were not clean. So they had to confess what they had done in the Thirties and the Forties." Teachers were labeled "the stinking ninth," and for months Hong's mother was confined at the school. "She had to write countless confessionals. It was very painful."
She was forced to clean bathrooms, "do the dirty work," Hong recalls. "You just felt you hated to be born in that kind of situation."
Soon enough the Cultural Revolution would disrupt Hong's life more directly: "Mao said, 'those city youths need to be reeducated by the peasants.' So after we graduated from high school many of us were sent to the village to learn manual labor."
"That's when I learned about the hard life in the countryside. China was poor, but there was a big gulf between the city and the village," she said. "Even twenty years later when I returned there again as an anthropologist [in 1993] there were changes, but there was still no running water in the village."
Bright and energetic, Hong distinguished herself and was asked to leave the relative comfort of her cadre and become a teacher in the village school. Apprehensive about never being able to return to the city, she nevertheless accepted and remained in Zhongshan from 1975 to 1978.
But after Mao's death in 1976, one of Deng Xiaoping's early reforms was the reinstatement of college entrance exams. Hong was in the first group to take the exams, and despite a 10-year backlog competing to be in that first class, she gained entrance to study English.
Her success there led to a master's program at Wuhan University. From hundreds of applicants, she was one of five admitted-the only woman and the only student in the program new to the university.
In the late 1980s her intellectual curiosity led her to Columbia University and a graduate program in a discipline that didn't exist in China at the time-anthropology. She worked three jobs, raised a toddler and earned two master's degrees and her Ph.D., despite initially struggling with a language she knew only from classroom experience. She taught two years at Colby and one at Drew University before being hired in 2000 for a tenure-track position at Colby in East Asian studies.
Hong has written about eldercare in China, shamanism and gender issues in Chinese proverbs. Doing what she calls "virtual ethnography," she conducted online research about SARS jokes in China that garnered attention at Harvard, Stanford and Yale.
But her primary research interest takes her back to the site of her "reeducation." In 2002 she was stunned to find her village almost devoid of people in the 16-to-24 age bracket. The village, country and economy had changed so drastically that young people were leaving for wages in China's booming industrial economy.
While relocation was disruptive to the Chinese peasant families, Hong sees a bright side to the migration. "This mobility ultimately will do good for the population. They need to see the outside, and not just on TV. They need to experience it," she said, citing awareness of human rights and regional inequities as important benefits.
"There is this spirit of hope and optimism for a better future or a better society. It's encouraging," she said.