From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Prairie Ethnography (3c)—The Thousand-Ask Question-c

[a] Sacred questions RF
Thousand-Ask (a)                Thousand-Ask (b)                Thousand-Ask (c)
[b] Written culture RF

Finally, we'll conclude this breezy introduction to a serious methodological approach with some bits from my current research. This concluding example is far less political than the others, but has taught me about enormous swaths of Chinese culture. You will see that my initial question in 1985 (quite particular—what is the relationship between China and Taiwan?) led eventually into far more general questions of use to me all over China. Asking broad, general questions not only helps to give us a sense for the "map" of answers, but also allows us to learn much more than we could from more specific questions that might frame the initial understanding too tightly.

There is a kind of practiced naivety in all of this that one former student characterized as "mildly unethical." I am quite open to such challenges, so I rather enjoyed this criticism. "I rese...mble that remark," I think I thought at the time. For me, this is mildly ridiculous. All outsiders are clueless on many levels....and we are all (always) outsiders. Yes, I can envision a post-colonial diatribe here, but my basic methodological approach comes from the superb nonfiction stylist and New Yorker writer, John McPhee. I quote Princeton English professor William L. Howarth from the introduction to The John McPhee Reader.
       When McPhee conducts an interview he tries to be as blank as his notebook 
       pages, totally devoid of preconceptions, equipped with only the most elementary
       knowledge. He has found that imagining he knows a subject is a disadvantage, 
       for that prejudice will limit his freedom to ask, to learn, to be surprised by 
       unfolding evidence. Since most stories are full of unsuspected complexity, an 
       interviewer hardly needs to feign ignorance; the stronger temptation is to bluff 
       with a show of knowledge or trick the informant into providing simple, easily 
       digestible answers. Neither course is to McPhee's liking; he would rather risk 
       seeming ignorant to get a solid, knotty answer.

       As a result, some of his interviewees have mistakenly believed he is thick-
       witted. At times his speech slows, his brow knits, he asks the same question 
       over and over. When repeating answers, he so garbles them that a new answer 
       must be provided. Some informants find his manner relaxing, others are 
       exasperated; in either case, they talk more freely and fully to him than they 
       normally do to a reporter. While McPhee insists that his air of density is not a 
       deliberate ruse, he does not deny its useful results. Informants may be timid or 
       hostile, unless they feel superior or equal to their interviewer. By repeating and 
       even fumbling their answers, McPhee encourages people to embroider a topic 
       until he has it entire. In an ideal interview he listens without interrupting, at liberty 
       to take notes without framing repartee or otherwise entering the conversation.[1]

[c] Peak RF
In other words, I find it useful (and really quite natural) to be a little dense. Naivety is a useful interpretive tool, and we are better off being told something twice, thrice, or a thousand times than to feign depth of knowledge. My student might have seen it as "playing" the audience, and that intrigues me. From my perspective, I was speaking Chinese (it was clear that I knew a little), yet I wanted to hear the answer again, and again (and again). This is the heart of thousand-ask, and it is as relevant in your own family's culture as it is if you travel to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, or even countries that don't have -stan in their names. 

Ask. Over and over.

Here is how it has played out for me in China since 2007. The last five years of my research has moved my understanding to new levels. Thousand-ask has everything to do with that, but so, too, has the combination of my study of a peculiar Chinese classic—the Chinese almanac—and my fieldwork on China's "Daoist" sacred mountains. I have spent twenty years studying the Chinese calendar and almanac and 400 days in the last five years climbing (they have steps, so don't imagine K2 here) the sacred mountains. Questions? They are everywhere. How many steps from base to peak? About 7,000. How high are they (from 1200 meters to 2000 meters, or .75 to 1.25 miles—Denver-ish).

The one that riveted me from the start was related to a bunch of gray rocks with five red characters, found in little shops all over the eastern sacred mountain (Mt. Tai; Taishan). They are all over the town, Taian, at the base of the mountain, too. Every stall all of the way up to the peak has them, and there is a profusion of these stones for sale at the halfway point, where the buses belch thousands of travelers who skip the first half of the climb in favor of a ¥30 weaving ride. The stone "says":


Don't ask. But wait. Do. The very literal translation would be Tai Mountain Stone Dare Ought. That sounds almost like thousand-ask, so we are not very far along the path, are we? Ah, but we are. If you know those five independent and, (at least for the first two) linked meanings, you have the foundation for thousands of askings of questions.
[d] 泰山石敢當 ADV
          What do these five characters mean?
          What does the rock say?
          Why are they for sale...everywhere?
          What do they have to do with this mountain?

On and on it can go. Here are the two extremes I have heard in five years of asking (even to Chinese friends in the United States, and, of course, on the mountain). What is it?

          I place it in a corner and it protects me from malevolent spirits.

          I keep it on my desk; it's a paperweight.

O.k., I suspect that you can sense the diversity of opinion here. The clusters tend to relate something more deeply interpretive, even if they don't have the argumentative power of either of the extremes, above. The "clustered" answers tend to say that the stones refer to a Tang dynasty (CE 618-906) historical figure who took on mythical proportions after his death and came to be known as a protective figure. In time, the rock and the five characters were merged into a generalized protective shell, of sorts, that was then commodified in numerous forms on the eastern mountain.
[e] Mt. Tai RF

Oh, how tempting it is (and satisfying) to pretend that the paragraph above is the whole story—to leave it at that. I work very hard in my teaching and research to avoid such simplistic social science. The extremes matter. Big time. Both the all-embracing protectionism voiced in the first extreme and the haughty secularism of the second are powerful parts of the interpretive equation. In fact, I would argue that we cannot understand the clustered center without these extremes, and I am not alone in this view. It's a little like a Chinese anthropological version of Keynes and Hayek or John Sharp Williams and Fighting Bob LaFolette).

I have enjoyed the give-and-take of these conversations. It is often, for the foreigner speaking in Chinese dialect, a public event. If you have never been obviously foreign in China, you have missed something. Sure, if you don't get outside of Beijing or Shanghai, only a few gapers will stare at you, so secure are they in their globalized identities. Head for the train station. In Beijing or Shanghai, you will still be fairly widely dismissed, in much the way that a Korean in Grand Central Station would be seen as just part of the picture.

So you're in Beijing. Now take the train to Taiyuan. Spend some time in the station when you arrive. Now say a few words in Chinese. Ask a question or two. Notice something? Yup, there are three or four rings of people—several tens—around you. Outside of the largest cities, if you open your mouth in China to say anything in Chinese (or even English, for that matter), you will draw a crowd. Even if you speak no Chinese, your red (or blonde or brunette) hair and/or your hairy arms, tattoos, piercings, or lipstick will make 'em come a runnin' (and then stop dead in their tracks about three meters from you, quietly staring).

This is the backdrop for my thousand-ask questions on China's eastern sacred mountain. "What does this five-character phrase mean?," I ask. I start in dialogue. People gather. Then more people. A few minutes later, I am ready to call for loaves and fish. This could take a while.

[f] Reward RF
As a teacher and lover of public speaking, I sort of like it. Still, the lecture dynamic that any foreign utterance seems to create does change the situation. Here is an example. One day in 2008, after climbing and talking all day, I asked "the question" (what do these characters on this rock mean?") for seemingly the thousandth time. I had started at 6:00 a.m., and the sun was beginning to set. I was ready for a bowl of dumplings at my favorite mountain base restaurant. 

"What do the characters on this stone mean?," I asked.

The shopkeeper's answer clustered with a wide array of others I had heard. Trust me. I smiled, thanked the gentleman, and headed toward the end of the stone path, toward a place called First Heaven Gate (一天門). Not ten steps down the path, a cluster of people ran up to me, shouting "He's wrong; I'll tell you the right answer!" and various versions of that sentiment. I listened. Most of those answers clustered, too. The more important lesson, for me, was the contestation of cultural knowledge, though. They listened to their fellow countryman's (quite accurate, I would say) answer...and quibbled.

Now that's culture.  

Be wary of those who make too high a place for survey data, questionnaires, and quantifiable measures. Don't get me wrong; they have their roles in good research, but think also about the kinds of questions that require long, rich answers that you must process in terms of your knowledge of history, culture, and the world all around you.

And then start listening. 
[g] Tip RF
It will change everything. Ask, and ye shall be...befuddled. In a good way.

Thousand-Ask (a)                Thousand-Ask (b)                Thousand-Ask (c)

[1] John McPhee, The John McPhee Reader [Edited by William L. Howarth] (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), xii-xiii.

John McPhee. The John McPhee Reader [Edited by William L. Howarth]. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.


  1. Deeply wishing I had read some of these before going abroad. I did a little "thousand-asking," trying to glean personal opinions of the relationships between England and its sister cultures, but not nearly in this depth! Next time, I suppose.

  2. I sort of stumbled onto it as a "method," but I have found these sorts of questions to be invaluable--and just as much "at home" as abroad.