As a part of a unique "outside the classroom walls" approach to learning, I have been given the chance to spend 28 days in the rural Chinese village of Xizhou. Prior to departing Shanghai, I chose architectural destruction as a topic that I would explore for a month.
I chose this topic because Chinese architecture has evolved quite dramatically over the years — from the imperial courts of Chang'an to the drab, looming residential towers in modern China. Many of these changes reflect the many social changes and reforms China has experienced in history and even now, still. These changes were fascinating to me and destruction, of course, is a necessary part of change.
Over the course of a few weeks, I have reached out to many local experts on my topic, including Mr. Yin (the owner of a guesthouse on Ranyi Xiang), Mr. and Ms. Zhao (two unrelated teachers at Xizhou No.2 Middle School), Mr. Duan (a former village official), Ms. Liu (the lone caretaker of Daci Temple), Ms. Yang (the owner of a guesthouse past the Linden Centre), and Ms. Li (an embroidery teacher at Happy Embroidery).
I chose these sources because many of them (Mr. Yin, Mr. Duan, Ms. Liu) experienced the Cultural Revolution and must have extensive knowledge of the events, and others (including the Zhaos, Ms. Yang, and Ms. Li) as they either have parents who remember the Cultural Revolution or are history teachers.
In these personal interviews, I attempted to answer some of my ten Big Questions, which I came up with in Phase 1 and later answered in Phase 3, which related to the sub-topics of politically motivated destruction, destruction in the name of 'progress', and destruction due to forces of nature.
All of the information collected in these interviews and more presented in the movie will support my thesis: In order to fully examine architectural destruction in Xizhou, one must consider destruction for a political agenda, destruction in the name of so-called 'progress', and destruction due to forces of nature.
Sharing My Learning
Please refer to the video above for my final product.
Most of what I took away from this experience was not knowledge but experience. Sure, I could look up all of the information I collected on the Internet or in some library, but books and texts are not the same as truly connecting with local villagers and being able to answer my questions based on the answers I received. I learned that to truly find answers, one must look inside oneself first. Asking questions is not as much about finding answers as it is about understanding the context of the question itself; questions exist not to be permanently thrown into the corner with an answer, but to act as a stepping stone to another question. I guess that, in a sense, I finally understood the true meaning of a question.
My topic narrowed down for a bit to focus on destruction rather than with preservation as the scope of the project was simply too large. In the movie, I attempted to answer some of my questions regarding forms of destruction other than simply political. This afforded me the opportunity to explore what the word 'destruction' means in different contexts.
The most difficult piece of my project was finding experts and contacting them online. As my topic was very focused on Chinese history, few English-language websites had any sources of information, and most Chinese-language websites are behind a paywall and withhold the contact information of authors. I finally found contact information for a architecture professor in Hong Kong who was originally from Shanghai, but he did not reply to an email I sent him.
One of my biggest "a-ha" moments was when I went to Mr. Duan's home to interview him. When asked who was responsible for much of the damage, he simply replied, "We did it." I was shocked, as my 3-to-5's all said that the Red Guard did most of the damage. As I dug deeper and interviewed more locals, they all gave me the same answer, but offered me some more insight into why villagers themselves did it. According to some, the Red Guard essentially coerced villagers into damaging politically sensitive materials. It was simply mind-blowing, as it had contradicted all my previous findings.
This project helped me understand the topic better because I had to dig deeper than just the surface and find out more about the context of my information, not just facts straight off a book. As one may expect, the whole point of this project was to dig deeper and acquire a more profound knowledge of the topic. It required me to interview local experts and have to focus my investigation by changing my questions and rewording some as well. I do not comprehend how one could not gather a greater understanding of one's topic through this project.
This project helped me interact with the community in and around Xizhou because it forced me to go out into the village and interview locals on their knowledge of the topic. Through these interviews, I gained an understanding of the interviewee's life, his or her perspective, and, of course, more knowledge on the topic itself. My interview with Mr. Duan was particularly revealing about the topic itself and attitudes toward it; he patiently explained his perspective and his knowledge of villagers' attitudes. It particularly struck me how eager he was to interview me and take me around the village to see some of the damage for myself.
I think I discovered more about myself than I did about my topic itself during my time in Xizhou. I finally found out that I absolutely love history and investigating causes and context of events and happenings. When I visited some villagers like Ms. Liu and Ms. Yang, I realized how fast I was blowing through every interview; I had to slow down and take things one at a time and focus on people's stories and perspectives rather than cold, hard facts. I think that I finally realized how fast the pace of life that I was used to compared to Xizhou.
If I could go back to the beginning of the project and start over again, I would focus on one thing at a time and really focus on thinking about my topic itself and not worry about what my final product would look like in the beginning. I think that I could have taken more time in the village to visit local contacts like Mr. Duan multiple times to form relationships with them and acquire an even deeper understanding of the topic. In the end, it is still about time management. I would recommend starting out with a smaller focus and tell a story, but also keep in mind that there are due dates.
If a future Microcampus student were to continue my research but in a different direction, I would recommend that he or she focus specifically on one home or courtyard and tell its story from the perspective of a single villager and make a sort of a documentary. My topic is too general to boil down to one specific case, but I did focus more on political damage than the others. I think that he or she may also consider how Clara C's project may also overlap with mine, as some of the symbolism used in traditional Bai architecture may have drawn the ire of the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. Some of my work includes local contacts who live in old courtyards that may have experienced damage during the Cultural Revolution and my facts are a little too general; however, it can be used as background information to build future projects upon.
Mr. Tafel – for pushing me along the way, even when I was a little unwilling to
Ms. Mai – for graciously providing local contacts and setting appointments to meet with them
Fay – for always being right around the corner when I needed some more local contacts
Annaliese – for providing your help and advice for interviews
Mr. Duan – for sharing your knowledge and perspective on the topic (and your tangerines)
Mr. Yin, the Zhaos, Ms. Liu, Ms. Yang, and Ms. Li – for all of the information I gathered from you and being awesome people in general
Extreme Team – for all of the encouragement and humor you brought to the table
Linden family – for providing a wonderful place to stay and adding two bundles of joy to the team during the first three weeks
friends back at SAS – for providing all the support even as they did not understand a single word I said
my parents – for providing their financial support for my trip that truly changed me
you – for patiently reading through my inquiry project
everyone who left a comment – for sharing your knowledge and perspective on the topic
It was truly a pleasure to be a part of the Microcampus learning experience. Being able to go out in a village to study this topic first-hand, with the help of those listed above and more, was an unique and once-in-a-lifetime event. Through this month of questions, answers, and discovery, I was able to grasp more of who I really am, where I am, and where I want to be. I hope that, in addition to cementing my personal experience and knowledge, this project will provide a stepping stone for endeavors by future Microcampus students. Good luck!