Diary of an Ethnologist in China
Study areas: Ethnographic documentary film, Folk Religion in China, Taoism
This film is a unique ethnographic documentary on China in the late 1980s by French scholar and filmmaker, Patrice Fava. With support from local researchers, the Chinese Ministry of Television, and local television networks, Fava dexterously did most of the camera work, sound engineering, directing, and editing by himself in order to describe dimensions of Chinese life and worldview through the eyes of an ethnologist. In the film, Fava travels across the People’s Republic of China from the big cities of Chengdu and Shanghai to the small villages of Hunan and Shanxi provinces. There, he observes people’s ordinary lives and beliefs, and as an ardent ethnologist, he visually records, in detail, what people were eating, celebrating, cherishing, talking about, and praying for. In this way, we can relive the experiences of the ethnologist, seeing firsthand where he went and what he saw in China. At a glance, however, audiences may have an impression that the film is just filled with a series of scenes of lively China. Fava does apparently seem to pick up eye-catching scenes at random, but the smooth sequence of scenes vividly depicts an image of China in which the beautiful resonance between human beings and nature is observed. Also, the rich visual description of people’s ordinary lives and faiths in China during the late 80s should be highly appreciated as valuable firsthand ethnographic data for this era.
The film begins with the scene of a Buddhist monastery in Chengdu, the capitol city of Sichuan province. On July 5th, Fava’s camera captured images of devoted monks and nuns pursuing closing day rituals at 6 o’clock in the evening. He describes how the religions and myths of China have been maintained for over 1,000 years. Depictions of colorful images of people’s lives are followed by a sequence showing people’s practices of Duan Wu Jie, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
The Dragon Boat Festival is an occasion for commemorating the Chinese great poet and patriot, Qu Yuan, who was the Minister of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. Eventually, the State of Chu fell under the rule of the Qin dynasty and Qu Yuan, downhearted, left the government and took up a mendicant life near Dongling Lake and Miluo River in Hunan province. In 278 B.C., when his country was conquered by the army of Qin, he jumped into the Miluo River and drowned himself on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. When fishermen heard of Qu Yuan’s death, out of admiration for his sincerity and patriotism, they set forth in their fishing boats to look for his body and beat drums and gongs to frighten away the fish and keep them from eating his body. Because they failed to discover Qu Yuan’s body, the fishermen and the nearby people threw rice wrapped in leaves into the Miluo River in order to distract the fish from Qu Yuan’s body.
In this film, the traditional practices of the Duan Wu Jie festival in memory of Qu Yuan, such as dragon boat racing and preparing ceremonial foods, can still be observed in China. The film recounts people’s passion for cerebrating the traditional event by showing the tablet of Qu Yuan in a temple in Hunan province in which he is enshrined, the women preparing zongzi, the men on boats smoothly going down the river while beating drums and firing blanks into the air, and people participating in song contests on the river bank. Fava’s camera captures a moment in which village women are preparing zongzi, glutinous rice wrapped and cooked in bamboo leaves, as an old woman sitting on a low chair skillfully puts uncooked rice in a triangular shaped bamboo leaf, and a mother holding and cheerfully talking to her baby. Fava explains that the death of Qu Yuan was marked with a large-scale dragon boat race even in the late 80s because dragons were believed to bring rain for good harvests.
In this way, Fava carefully presents scenes of people’s ordinary lives and the nature of China in a well-constructed ethnography. At one point he expresses astonishment at his encounter with fishermen resuming their work in the evening at the edge of a canal. He explains that the scene was the very same as what might have been seen in 15th, or even 10th century in China. Also, in another scene, he uses a long range shot to show the perfect unification of human body and tool by filming a village man harvesting barley and wheat with a simple wooden farming instrument worn on his waist. Gradually, we can grasp his hidden assertion in the film: the remarkable resonance of human beings and nature.
In the middle of the film, Fava meets a local calligrapher who writes two lines of the poetry of Du Fu for him as a souvenir. It reads as follows: “I have read and finger-marked ten thousand books. When I take up my brush, my hand seems guided by divine presence.” Obviously, this anecdote reveals Fava’s obsession with the resonance between human beings and nature. The line “my hand seems guided by divine presence,” expresses the idea that there is nothing in the world except for divine presence and the synthesis of “I” and “surroundings.” The following scenes are filled with other examples of the rich relationship between human beings and nature; people doing martial arts in a park in Shanghai reveal that the movements were inspired by animals such as eagles and snakes; and medicine markets in Chengdu reveal to us the legacy of the Daoist tradition in China. Furthermore, cherishing birds and niaolong, or birdcages, is another fascinating pastime, especially for men. Fava notes that people are sentimentally attached to birds, and in this way, they stay close to nature. The sounds of birds singing and men’s imitated bird sounds mingle together as the camera captures the image of a Chinese garden, so we cannot differentiate which sound is whose.
The film ends with the impressive scenery of Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain. Suddenly, the whole landscape transforms into a sea of clouds, which is similar to the opening to the Daoist land of the immortals described by Fava. In this way, the film Diary of an Ethnologist in China is a unique ethnographic documentary providing rich firsthand ethnographic visual data of China in the late 80s. It vividly describes the beautiful resonance of human beings and nature in China.
Ryoko Sakurada is researcher of the School of Letters at Kyoto University, Japan. A cultural anthropologist by training, her particular area of expertise is housing culture and Chinese kinship in Malaysia, including religious practices among them. She teaches courses on societies and cultures in Southeast Asia, cultural anthropology, ethnic studies, and overseas Chinese studies and is currently working on the relationship between marriage and house among urban dwellers in Nanjing, China.
Diary of an Ethnologist in China is available online from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) Video Library website.
The CNRS Video Library offers several of Patrice Fava's films which principally focus on surviving Chinese traditions, mainly of Taoist origin.
The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research) is a public organization under the responsibility of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research.
Last Updated: March 7, 2013