2008 Student-Faculty Fellows: Loras College
Chinese Towns in the Past and Present
Mentor: Lee S. Zhu
Students: Christopher Bodane, Andrew Border, Nickolas Helten, Erin Horst
The Loras student-faculty fellows team travelled to Tongli and Zhujiajiao, two ancient towns in the Yangzi River Delta, to conduct research and film for a documentary entitled “Chinese Towns in the Past and Present.” Our research in Tongli focused on its history in the late imperial period, and our findings support the theory that Chinese market towns were governed autonomously by the local elite. However, while scholars often connect the rise of large market towns in the Yangzi Delta to the development of handicraft industry, we found that Tongli became a major town mainly because it served as a regional rice processing and distributing center. Scholars also argue that Chinese merchants in the imperial period did not develop their own culture because of the influence of Confucian scholars. However, we found that, while merchants in Tongli were clearly influenced by Confucian moral principles, they also had some particular values and cultural tastes that characterized their class and were different from those of the scholar-officials. Our research in Zhujiajiao concentrated on its current physical and social transformation. We observed firsthand the rapid urbanization of the rural area around the town, and found that this transformation was not only caused by the development of industry in this area, but also was driven by the suburbanization of Shanghai, which is only about forty miles away. Currently, students are working on the script for the film and editing video shots. We plan to complete the documentary by the end of fall semester.
My responsibility in this joint project was to produce content research for our documentary film, and my research focused on current changes occurring in the market town of Zhujiajiao. The town has seen rapid growth and dramatic physical transformation in recent years. The impact of globalization is easy to find in this town because its three industrial parks house many factories set up by foreign companies. However, in our research, we found that industrial development was not the only cause of this town’s growth and the urbanization of the rural area around it because there has also been a boom in construction of vacation houses and condos for the super rich of Shanghai, which is only an hour away by Freeway. As this happens, farmers are being removed, against their own will in some cases, from their village houses and newly developed land, to urban apartments specifically built for them.
Conducting content research for a documentary film on the market town of Tongli revealed how much tourism has become an important part of its economy. The town charges a high general admission fee (80 RMB) to enter its historical section, and local residents have adapted to tourism as a means to enhance their income by making traditional goods for sale, conducting fishing demonstrations, and demonstrating how to make wine or conduct the ancient tea ceremony. However, while the revenue from tourism has helped preserve this town’s historical appearance, one also sees instances of neglect and poor preservation as is the case in an expensive hotel where a private collection of ancient artifacts is displayed throughout the lobby much like hunting trophies.
In Tongli, I filmed the residential compounds, built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, of Chinese elite families, along with the old streets, ancient stone bridges, and scenes that characterize the traditional way of life in this water town. To place these sites in historical perspective, our field research delved into Chinese culture and class structure in Chinese urban society during the late imperial period. Tongli is well known for producing a large number of Confucian scholars who passed the civil service examinations and became government officials during the imperial period. This class had the highest social status in the community and exerted a significant cultural influence on other residents in the town, including rich merchants. However, our research also discovered that the rich merchants were proud of their own social identity and had particular values that characterized their class and were different from those of the Confucian scholars. Our research and filming in Zhujiajiao focused on industrial development and new real estate ventures. Here I discovered firsthand the complex social consequences of the impact of China’s rapid economic growth.
While in the towns of Tongli and Zhujiajiao I was involved in shooting footage for a documentary film and interviewing Chinese. We also shot many stand-ups, where I was in the video explaining to the viewers where we were and the value of the sites being filmed. I was also involved in developing content research for the documentary. In the process of all these film production activities, I gained first-hand knowledge of Chinese history and culture and came to understand the profound social transformation that rapid economic growth has brought to China.