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  • Fieldwork Connections: The Fabric of Ethnographic Collaboration in China and America by Bamo Ayi, Stevan Harrell, and Ma Lunzy
  • Mary Scoggin (bio)
Bamo Ayi, Stevan Harrell, and Ma Lunzy. Fieldwork Connections: The Fabric of Ethnographic Collaboration in China and America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. xiv, 384 pp. Paperback $30.00. isbn 978-0-295-98668-5.

Fieldwork Connections is a companion piece to Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China (Harrell, University of Washington Press, 2001). Certainly without Harrell’s association this book would not have emerged as the University of Washington Press volume it is, even though Harrell is only one author, alphabetically patched between his coauthors Bamo and Ma, trimmed with one additional contributor, Bamo Qubumo (the first Bamo’s younger sister). The bobbling balances of these not quite equal credits forms the lining beneath the surface of this piece, while the fabric displayed on the surface is four overlapping stories woven together chronologically, concentrating on the thirteen years between 1987 and 2000. Geographically, the field research at the heart of this book took place in rural, ethnically complex patches of Liangshan, in southwestern Sichuan Province. To the extent that it tells the story of a culture, that culture is called the Nuosu. Each of these angles is complicated, and that is the main point of this book. Ethnic boundaries and ways of observing or belonging to the Nuosu are fraught with local and global political tensions. While most field trips recorded here are travels to globally remote towns and villages in China, a few destinations target urban America, including institutions related to the University of Washington, Seattle churches and houses, and even Harrell’s Washington vacation home. The historical story related here threads through temporal switchbacks, such as the mountainous route of the Chengdu Kunming train line as it passes through Liangshan, occasionally reaching further back in time to make sense of a peculiar commitment or underscore the relevance of a transformation. The stories are carried by the forcefulness of these four voices, each passionately individualistic, providing a coherent alternate perspective on events and meanings that are distinct enough to reflect significant differences, but concordant enough to present a united front and a successful collaboration.

The central needle of this tapestry — scrappy, provocative, and thoughtful — is Ma Lunzy, a native Nuosu thrown into this story, and indeed into ethnology altogether, by circumstances beyond his control. He recounts that at his first introduction to Steven Harrell at the Liangshan Nationalities Research Institute in 1991, he ridiculed Harrell’s bald head to his boss in Nuosu language, confident that Harrell would not catch on, before accepting his assigned duty to assist him. “Smart or not, I have no choice but to accept your arrangement and lead his horse on the road” (p. 99). The open acknowledgment of awkward power tensions, and interest in reevaluating and transforming them, is Ma Lunzy’s primary pretheoretical commitment. His chapters include an account of the inter-ethnic battles that shaped his education, primarily between Yi (of which Nuosu is a subgroup) and [End Page 452] Han Chinese. Insult-slinging children in elementary school grew up to be wiser adults, who knew the epithets to be hollow, but were also embittered by living realties peppered with injustice and limited opportunities. Ma gives us only a few glimpses of his own research interests on Nuosu and Yi political culture, but his discomfort with the burden of explaining a slave-holding social system and a culture that suffers from continual representations as primitive, dangerous, and backward is clear. He brings his interest in power dynamics into the peripheral realms of Harrell’s research whenever it appears, from the rural schoolhouses they visit to the conflicts that emerge in American and Chinese academic conference protocol. Ma is keenly interested in producing more balanced relations generally. He applauds the symmetry in the fact that, when it was Ma’s turn to go to Seattle, it became Harrell’s turn to “lead the horse” (as it happens, Ma’s Chinese surname means horse). In this book, however, Ma confines his discussion, for the most part, to his own contribution to Harrell’s field project and...