Fieldwork Notes 1st year: 2017-2018
I conducted field research in Sichuan from June 13 to July 6 of 2018, primarily in Chengdu city and areas immediately surrounding it, as well as one visit to the Tibetan grasslands area of Lhagong (Tagong), in Kangding County, Gandzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Because my project focuses on the period from 1890-1945, and also includes questions about contemporary developments of these Qing and Republican era trends, my summer fieldwork involved a substantial ethnographic as well as archival component.
This summer, I focused on mapping areas of interest within the city, dialoging with Chengdu-based colleagues, locating books and photos, and conducting ethnographic observations. I also explored the soundscape of Tibetan language usage as well as emerging forms of cultural practice, in conversation, temple settings, and at cultural events.
My Chengdu field sites this summer included two Buddhist temples in / near Chengdu: Shijing si and Zhaojue si.
These have historically been sites where Tibetan Buddhism has been present in Han-majority religious spaces, and/or where Han converts to Tibetan Buddhism transmitted Tibetan Buddhist lineages. For comparison, I also conducted observations at the urban temple sites of Wenshuyuan and Daci si.
I observed religious visitors and their devotional practices; shrine iconography; forms of “cultural arrangements” within temple spaces; posters, books and other materials for sale in temple bookstores; and the temples’ informational presentations about their own Buddhist lineages and religious history in posters and wall signs.
Other ethnographic sites included Tibetan language and Chinese language bookstores, Tibetan folk dancing groups in local parks, Tibetan stores and restaurants, neighborhood streets, an art/performance venue, a concert of a Tibetan rap/pop band, and a co-working and cultural space. In archival terms, I have continued to explore travelers’ accounts, both by foreign missionaries and adventurers, and pilgrimage guides (Tib. lam yig) by Tibetan travelers.
Despite sensitivities surrounding Tibetan Buddhism, the category “Tibetan” and the category “Tibetan Buddhist” are highly appealing and fashionable to a range of demographics in the city, across a range of age groups. This leads to unexpected emergences of Tibetan cultural presence within Chengdu, as well as the mobilization of Tibetan Buddhist religious signifiers in public urban spaces, often specifically not spaces designated as religious.
Of particular interest in terms of spatial mappings and religious geography within the city were architectural and design motifs using Tibetan materials and Tibetan Buddhist imagery in non-religious public or semi-public spaces, as well as forms of public and communal cultural practice, ranging from folk dancing to wearing rosary beads, to new modern art styles and techniques.