From the Capital City to the New Global Village

SFU and CUC’s Double Degree students in Global Communication visit the Countryside

By Byron Hauck

When studying abroad most of us are attracted to the programs in global cities and stay there. This has not been the case for our Double Degree students of Global Communication in their graduating year. Just a month into their studies in Beijing, Dr. Yuezhi Zhao, founding director and current co-director of the Double Degree program, was able to arrange a special invitation for the SFU members of the cohort to attend the second annual Heyang Forum on Culture and Communication and concurrent local cultural festivities. Through a series of culturally embedding events and participation in discussion with renown Chinese scholars and local officials these students got a first hand taste of rural life, which has added a new layer of understanding and reflection for their academic and professional career goals.

The first thing everyone agreed on when we got off the fast train in Jinyun County, a mountainous hinterland of Zhejiang Province in coastal China, was, “wow the air is different here”. Gone was the smog that so many had grown accustom to in China’s capital and major cities. The second thing that struck most of the students was the unfamiliarity of the local dialect, like strangers thrown into a new land their budding standard mandarin skills were of less use to them in this remote region with its own distinct dialect. Despite this difference in being able to understand and make one’s self understood, our global communication students lived up to the ideal of ‘going down to the village’ by sharing their expertise with locals and finding their own subjectivities shifted by learning the locals’ ways.

This began by getting their hands dirty. Not in the soil with farmers, but in flour, when top local master chefs gave them personal lessons on how to make shaobing. These meat and dried vegetable filled pancakes are a local specialty of Jinyun and our students had just been witness to the county’s third annual shaobing-making competition when they were asked if they would like to try it out for themselves. Soon everyone was dressed for the part and Elizabeth was learning how to put the filling in. Not every stage was so easy as she had to try over four times to get her shaobing to stick to the inside of the barrel oven the way Melika’s teacher complemented her on.

The day after learning this local tradition, our students attended a national level cultural celebration of the ascendency of the ancient Yellow Emperor to heaven at Xiandu, a famous Taoist mountain resort. While most tourists traveling around China might experience a mocked up celebration of one sort or another, this event was a most solemn occasion and each attendee had to wear a special golden scarf draped simply across their shoulders. When we arrived at the main temple there was an elaborate dance which Xiaoxing Zhang, a SFU PhD student of Communication, explained included more ballet than traditional performances might have and signified the modern elements of the ritual. We were all impressed however, when we saw Dr. Zhao join a host of other scholars to offer a wreath of flowers to the Emperor’s memory.

After this bit of historic remembering the students went on a guided tour of Heyang, a village made famous for its ancient Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. Originally starting off with a local guide, our first stop, of course, was Dr. Zhao’s Heyang Rural Research Institute, a research facility dedicated to grounding global communication and cultural studies in rural reconstruction, under the motto of building the “new global village”. Not simply tourists admiring the buildings Artemisia soon struck up a conversation with an old villager to gain a better sense of life here. Following the tour we joined the scholars attending the Heyang forum along with the leaders of the village council and local government cultural heritage management committee to discuss the difficulties of retaining local customs while trying to develop.

The next day the troop headed to Haoxi, hosting village of a major traditional regional post-harvest festival. While a guest room and a protected stand had been set up for our group away from the crowds, Nicole stayed in the mix the whole time admiring the different kinds of performance each village contributed. Dr, Kang, our Communication University of China accompaniment, pointed out which groups displayed more traditional forms and which had adopted modern aspects in these performances. Following the festival we joined the village leaders to discuss the festival and the village’s plans for future development. Here we learned that this festival had continued over hundreds of years purely because of the villagers’ enthusiasm and participation. We also listened in on the Heyang forum scholar’s suggestions regarding the village’s plans for future development including concerns about equity and equal participation, and thoughts on how involved local entrepreneurs should be given that there is little money from the government for such projects.

The last major event the Double Degree students took part in was an invited tour to Lishui College, the major post-secondary institute of the region. Here students who were learning to teach English, who thought they would have a little fun with us by posing a tongue twister competition, were our hosts. This was a great opportunity for our students to practice their Mandarin skills with the various rhymes we were given, but caught unaware they had to rely on Elizabeth and Nicole to look up some tricky ones for their side. Later, Artemisia and Malika, were greatly impressed with a whole building that was dedicated to hosting student business offering them free rent and utilities so that they could try out their entrepreneurial skills. Here each student bought pieces of celadon, a world-famous exquisite green porcelain that is unique to Lishui, and had been produced by the school’s students. Afterwards our tour took us to the workshop where students actually make the porcelain and, answering Camilla’s unspoken hope, our students got to try their hand at making pots and vases.

In all, these experiences helped to inform the students’ reception of the keynote speech of the Heyang Forum given by the well-known Chinese communication scholar Lu Xinyu. In her speech she foregrounded the centrality of the urban-rural relationship perspective in understanding China and compared multiple interpretations of how to make interventions in and develop the countryside. Leaving Jinyun county our global communication students return to Beijing, primed with an urban-rural relationship perspective and ideas about how rural ways of life are promoted and supported.