2019 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University

Cultural Identity and Sustainable Future: A Case Study of Two Heritage Towns in China

Mentor: Sophia Geng, Associate Professor of China Studies
Students: Ian Bush, Runmin Geng, Cameron Odden, Meghan Reeves

Project Abstract

Project Story Map

Our project aimed to investigate the role urbanization plays in shaping the cultural identity of towns and cities rich in cultural heritage as well as local people’s ingenuity in searching for a community-centered sustainable future. Hu Ji Town of North China and Zou Ma Town of Southwest China were our chosen sites of case study, both recognized as “China’s Town of Opera and Arts” and “National Intangible Cultural Heritage Site.” Nonetheless, these two heritage towns are distinctive: Hu Ji has gone through urbanization with the villagers relocated to apartment buildings while Zou Ma’s town and villages have remained largely intact. Through observation, conversations, and interviews, we pinpointed the ramifications of urbanization, especially relocation, in shaping and changing the cultural identities. We also examined the town people’s search for a shared future centered on community and sustainability.

As a collaborative research group made of student and faculty researchers, we have worked closely with a variety of individuals and organizations who were stakeholders in the sustainable development of these communities. More importantly, we lived and conversed with the town people, gaining a real-world understanding of the struggles and aspirations of Chinese communities by listening and engagement. Actively participating in the research processes, we practiced and strengthened skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, academic presentation and writing, analytic reasoning, and intercultural communication. Working closely in a cross-cultural setting developed our teamwork and adaptation skills, which are vital for the success of our future careers. Our active participation in data collection and analysis, presentation via academic platforms, and dissemination of research findings will undoubtedly contribute to our professional development. This research experience has considerably deepened our understanding of China’s urbanization and the significance of safeguarding cultural heritage amidst rapid technological and social changes.

Our research project has had tremendous positive impact on the student fellows in relation to Student-Faculty Fellowship Core Ideas. The project gave the student fellows an opportunity to study a significant research topic—the sustainable futures of cultural heritage towns. The project provided the opportunity for the student and faculty fellows to interact with local Chinese people from all walks of life. Our conversations and engagement with the locals have been and will continue to be leavens for us to further explore Asian cultures. The student fellows gained valuable practical and professional skills from the initial grant writing stage to the dissemination of the end products. Our abilities, such as critical thinking, reasoning and evidence-based analysis, have grown considerably. All student fellows are highly interested in academic and professional pursuits in the Asian region. Our positive research experiences in China have prepared us to engage in such worthy pursuits in the near future.

Ian Bush
Our work since September included compiling and organizing the footage and photos collected during the trip to OneDrive. Using Google My Maps, we created a map of our experiences within Zou Ma, marking locations with video and pictures we collected. We had scheduled a presentation for an on-campus Thursday forum, which we unfortunately were forced to reschedule due to quarantine. We were, however, able to complete and submit a paper, “Heritage Towns and their Sustainable Future”, to the Annual Conference of Macau Studied 2020, where it is planned to be presented during December’s conference.

Thanks to the Student-Faculty Fellowship, my understanding of China has grown in ways beyond my expectations and I am very thankful for this amazing experience. During the trip, we were able to interact with people of multiple background. These interactions helped give context to my research experiences by giving me a more thorough understanding of modern China. I had the opportunity to engage with a variety of activities, which have greatly enhanced my practical and professional skills. The research experience boosted my analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Of the people on this trip, I was by far the least proficient in Mandarin, I learned to trust my teammates and to work together towards our shared goals.  The trip gave me a greater sense of personal responsibility. For the two years I have been working towards the project, I have found a sense of purpose and belonging. The trip has transformed my understanding of the world and opened up amazingly diverse ways of life to me. I hope in my future career, I will be able to continue my exploration of China’s rich traditions. I believe they can be illuminating to our lives in the United States.

Ruby Geng
As China increasingly undergoes urbanization and globalization, megacities bloom across the landscape. Will the towns rich in traditional arts be able to create a sustainable future for themselves in the changing landscape? The goal of our group is to survey the local population of two towns known for their folklore tradition: Zou Ma in southwest China and Hu Ji in north China. Our project aims to shed light on the aforementioned research question by studying the dynamic interplay between cultural heritage, urbanization and sustainable development. 

Conducting and recording interviews in rural villages were a tremendous amount of work. However, our work was also very fulfilling and enjoyable. The locals were friendly and shared their likes, dislikes, hopes and frustrations with us with openness and candor. The best meals we had were homemade ones that we cooked together in the locals’ kitchens, with vegetables plucked fresh from their gardens. This research trip was transformative to me as I grew up learning Chinese but never have had the opportunity to see and experience China. 

As a group we had gathered many footages and interviews of our research trip in China. We had created interactive digital maps for both towns, documenting the towns’ cultural heritage and tracing our deepening appreciation of the places and the people. In addition, we have scheduled presentations on and off campus to share our research project and disseminate our findings.  

During our journey, I greatly benefitted from talking with people from all walks of life. I enhanced my problem-solving skills as well as sharpened my skills in applying my major—computer science— in a real-world setting. What is more, my skills in organization and planning have considerably grown by managing bookings and setting up travel plans. 

 The trip has left me optimistic about the future of cultural towns like Zou Ma and Hu Ji as I see the local people are committed working together towards a sustainable future. I hope in the near future I can go back to Zou Ma and Hu Ji to help the residents document their rich folklife and heritage with digital technology.

Cameron Odden
Since September 15, we have continued working on our project as a team. We worked on technical needs such as converting files, organizing files on OneDrive, creating a Google My Maps as well as a StoryMap so that we would have all of the information we collected readily accessible. Together we completed a draft of the research paper “Cultural Identity and Sustainable Future: A Case Study of Two Heritage Towns in China.” We also prepared a presentation which would have been given at the Thursday Forum at Saint John’s University. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to COVID-19. We were able to fully achieve each of the first four SFF Core Ideas from initial research prior to our trip to our post-on-site research phase. Research done before the trip as well as experiences gained while in China allowed us to gain a new understanding of urbanization and sustainable development in the Asian context.

Those experiences in China were gained through interactions with the people we met and collaborated with every day in order to conduct the research for our project. Interactions with the residents and collaboration with Chinese university students and scholars were great practice of interpersonal skills. The group work of the project has also been great practice of skills which will benefit us in our future career and allowing us to be effective at achieving goals as a team. These skills as well as the new perspectives and experiences we have gained will allow us to strong candidates in our future career pursuits. They have enhanced our critical thinking as well as problem solving skills. I feel very privileged to have this life-changing opportunity.

Meghan Reeves
Since coming back from China, our group has met consistently to work on the materials we collected and on our paper. One of the first things we did was to combine all of our videos, pictures, audio recordings and uploaded the files onto our school OneDrive. With the help of Dr. Geng, our faculty mentor, we started translating the video and audio footages. Through Google My Maps, we were able to make a physical timeline that recounted our research experiences in Southwestern and Northern China. In our paper, “Cultural Identity and Sustainable Future: A Case Study of Two Heritage Towns in China,” we focus on the issue of urbanization in China’s heritage towns and how that affects the towns cultural identity. Getting to see first-hand the difference between towns that have gone through urbanization and those that have not was very beneficial to understanding this complex issue in China.

Our project also requires a lot of direct interaction and collaboration with people from the towns we studied. We would not have been able to gather the information we did if it was not for all the people we met during our time in Zou Ma and Huji. Collaboration with the people we met at both towns provided a real world understanding of both the people and the culture we were engaged in. Our practical and professional skills immensely improved as we gained skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, academic presentation and writing, analytic reasoning, intercultural communication and adaptation. Working closely in a cross-cultural setting as a group helped develop our teamwork and communication skills, which are vital for success in all of our future careers. As someone that will be applying to medical school this year, I though this project increased my career and professional preparation. Knowing how to effectively communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds is vital for the medical field and many other careers. Overall this research experience helped prepare me for my future in the medical field and in my development as a whole person.