by Meredith Dault
September 17, 2011
“I’ve been doing work on religion and ecology in China,” he explains, “but I hadn’t done work in minorities or nationality groups. It was interesting to me because it would extend my area of research, and would be a new learning experience for me as well.”
Armed with a prestigious China Scholarship Council grant from the Chinese government, An Jing arrived at Queen’s in October 2010, settling in to classes on campus. Soon after, she and Dr. Miller began preparations to pursue field work together in China.
In July 2011, they set off for the Southwest part of the country to spend time researching the Blang minority nationality -- a small indigenous group who live in a remote, mountainous terrain straddling the border between China and Myanmar. Previously subsistence farmers, Blang villagers now use much of their land for the production of tea leaves, a venture which has helped improve their economic situation significantly.
An Jing had been to the village twice before on previous research trips, and knew something of what to expect, but for Dr. Miller, it was a brand new experience. Conducting their fieldwork during the annual Buddhist festival that marks the beginning of the rainy season (a three month period when restrictions are placed on monks and laypeople -- including a prohibition on cutting down large trees, which once would have been used for building houses, but which are now cut down to make way for tea production), Dr. Miller says he was fascinated by how lavish the celebrations were.
Photos of the Temple both inside and outside
“I think for me, to see the relatively recent wealth, and how it was being used to fund these religious activities, that was quite eye-opening. In China, I am used to seeing the restoration of temples and a renewed interest in religious activities (in association with wealth), but here it was clear that modernization hadn’t resulted in a watering down of cultural traditions, but was in fact enabling them to be renewed and renovated.” As Dr. Miller explains, where modernization often ends up diluting local identities, among the Blang people who are relatively isolated, it has only strengthened their rituals.
Photos of Blang Village - mountain view, working the tea fields and preparing for the festival.
As An Jing explains, both she and Dr. Miller were attracted to studying the Blang people because of the relationship between the way they live, and the environment. “Their lifestyle is connected with ecology,” she explains. “They have a different attitude towards nature.” As Dr. Miller notes, their research “provides a fascinating insight into the role played by religion in balancing economic development and ecological stability in this remote area, and will benefit the development of culturally appropriate conservation efforts and environmental education programs.”
An Jang inteviewing some of the Blang people during her stay.
An Jing, who hopes to finish her PhD in a year, says she and Dr. Miller hope to co-author a paper about the festival they attended before she heads back to China in two months. She says she has enjoyed her time at Queen’s, describing it as a “totally different experience that I will cherish my whole life,” laughing as she thinks back on some of her experiences in Canada -- including trying ice skating for the first time. “I feel that Queen’s is really open to international students,” she says, “and studying in the School of Religion, my classmates and the faculty all welcomed me.”
Dr. Miller says working with An Jing has definitely been a “two-way” learning experience that has allowed him to take his own work in new directions while he’s been engaged with new ideas. “I think that’s the best kind of learning experience between faculty and students -- where each is contributing something to the other.”