2009 Student-Faculty Fellows: Edgewood College

Local Identity and Change in 21st-Century Suzhou:
A Multidisciplinary Perspective

Mentor: Jinxing Chen
Students: Kellian Hartshorn, Renee Hartshorn, Patrick Meuer, Ruthie Rolfsmeyer, Zachary Uher


The Edgewood College Team on a Bridge in the Shantang Area, Suzhou

Project Abstract

Interviews, surveys, and observations were the three major sources of data for our research project in China. Interviews were conducted either by our entire group, a small group, or individually. Interviewees included undergraduate students, graduate students, college professors, local business owners, ex-patriots living in Suzhou, scientists, museum curators and government officials. The surveys we distributed contained questions about the respondent’s background and questions designed to probe into the past and present local identity of Suzhou. In the end, we collected nearly 200 completed surveys. The sites we visited included schools, factories, museums, exhibitions, gardens, theaters, cultural centers, and Suzhou residents’ homes.

Interview with Deans, Professors and Graduate Students of Suzhou University of Science and Technology

Our investigation allowed us learn more about Suzhou’s cultural heritage and what Suzhou may lose if historical areas and its cultural legacy are not protected. We discovered that English is actually a huge competitor with the local dialects, and although Pingtan and Kunqu are surviving, without government help they will probably die out. We discovered that local residents whole heartedly embrace the new opportunities in business linked to the growth of Suzhou and downplay the negative effects of growth on the environment. Few residents of Suzhou know much about what is actually being done to improve the environment. We also learned that Suzhou’s arts are booming, yet observed how dependent they have become on tourism.

Each member of our research team has a clear role as we move forward with the final stages of our research. Renee will be our team president, and is in charge of setting up meeting times and making certain that everyone remains on task and completes their jobs on time. Kellian is in charge of completing work with the surveys, and will be assisted by Renee. Ruth is responsible for putting together a DVD presentation of our photos and videos that will be used as we present our findings. Patrick will manage the transcription of the interviews, and Zach will act as secretary and head the work that is undertaken to produce the final report for ASIANetwork. In addition to our planned presentation at the annual ASIANetwork conference in Atlanta in the spring of 2010, our arrangements for sharing what we have discovered through this research experience include: submitting articles to “On the Edge,” Edgewood College’s newspaper, presenting a poster session at Edgewood College during the International Education week in October 2009, submitting an article to “Asian Wisconzine” — a publication on Asian culture and Asian Americans in Wisconsin and also to “Our Community Spirit”-a local newspaper in Amherst, Wisconsin, and presenting a panel presentation at the Edgewood College Student Research Conference in the spring of 2010.

Kellian Hartshorn

Visit to the Suzhou Industrial Park Cultural Arts Center

My research focused upon the local dialect of Suzhou, centered upon the arts of Pingtan storytelling and Kunqu opera. I and our group conducted many interviews in Suzhou on the use of the dialect and efforts being made to preserve Pingtan and Kunqu. Those interviewed included migrants to Suzhou, college students, foreign language students, and government officials in the culture and arts departments. We were also able to observe Kunqu and Pingtan performances, visit a pingtan story house and the opera museum. We discovered that English is a significant competitor to the local dialect. While in Suzhou, I honed many important research skills such as conducting interviews, making observations, and learning how to work in a group setting where one can trust one’s group to do their work and to do it well. I also learned that people can communicate with each other with only limited understanding of the other person’s language. In Suzhou, we visited a foreign language school to interview students, and the head of the school offered us all jobs teaching there after we graduate. At first, I did not take this offer seriously, but now, I have decided that I will take him up on this offer and teach for a year in Suzhou before entering graduate school.

Renee Hartshorn

My research focused upon environmental issues related to the dramatic transformation of Suzhou. I and our group interviewed a range of people including a government official at the bureau of environmental protection in Suzhou, students at the Suzhou University of Science and Technology who are studying the environment, a professor and wildlife biologist involved with the Suzhou Zoo, and a large number of people not directly involved in environmental conservation. We received mixed messages about the quality of the environment in Suzhou and discovered that the general public knew little about what is actually being done to improve the environment. The scope of this project was beyond anything that I have previously done; it challenged me and pushed me to learn new skills and to further develop my research capabilities. It also helped me discover the degree to which I enjoy doing research which has led me to consider combining my interest in becoming an equine veterinarian with that of conducting research in the field of veterinary medicine.

Patrick Meuer

After the Kunqu Opera Rehearsal at the No. 6 High School

My research on the history of Suzhou and resident perceptions of this history was informed by interviews with history professors, history majors, and elderly people. In addition, we visited ancient gardens, Buddhist temples, pagodas, and other important historical and cultural sites to better understand Suzhou’s rich cultural heritage and to gauge the danger posed to Suzhou if they are not protected. Through this hands-on research experience, I have developed much stronger research skills and gained a better understanding of what it is like to conduct scholarly research inquiry. I have also discovered that five persons working in unison to reach a common research objective can do much better than any one individual working on his/her own. This project has given me helpful research skills, a firsthand look at what living in China would be like, and a new and brighter view of China and its people.

Ruthie Rolfsmeyer

The Canal that Runs Along Shantang Street

My focus on the arts of Suzhou centered primarily on the famous Suzhou style silk embroidery. Our group visited a silk embroidery town on the outskirts of Suzhou and conducted interviews at the Suzhou Silk Embroidery Institute and a silk embroidery factory. We also visited the Suzhou Museum where we were able to study ancient as well as modern paintings, sculptures, and carvings. Suzhou’s gardens are another form of art for which the city is famous. We visited the “Humble Administrator’s Garden,” the “Lion’s Grove Garden,” the “Ever Green Garden” and “Tiger Hill.” This research led me to realize that a tension exists as Chinese cities modernize and Chinese seek to become more prosperous while at the same time wishing to preserve their history, art, and traditions. As an artist, this research experience in Suzhou has helped me realize that art is unique and also ever changing, and now images from my time in Suzhou shape my own artistic endeavors.

Zachary Uher

Visit to Tiger Hill

My study of business development in Suzhou focused upon the Singapore Industrial Park (SIP) and its effect on Suzhou, on how local businesses operate, and how foreign businesses are behaving. Interviews were held with an official of SIP, a manager of a foreign business, residents of the SIP, customers at Chinese and foreign businesses, and local business owners. Preliminary findings suggest that local residents whole heartedly embrace new business and growth in Suzhou while downplaying the adverse effects of this development on the environment. Local businesses have been able to thrive in the traditional downtown because government policies protect this area from foreign investment. My experience in China has helped me change as a person and led me to reconsider my college major. I no longer aspire to become a businessman interacting with Chinese executives, but instead hope to secure a degree in political science and work in a communications office for a governmental agency.