China Fieldwork Semester Blog

The China Fieldwork Semester is an intensive project-based student research program in Xizhou, Yunnan. The program consists of a group of 11th and 12th grade students from Sidwell Friends and other US schools. Students work together in a research “collaboratory” housed in a historic residential facility.

Blog content shared here is a selection from personal reflections by students and faculty. Click here to see a video created by the students discussing their experiences. 

This is the second year the China Fieldwork Semester program has run. To read the 2014 blog, please click here.  

  • Logan Friedman '16, silversmithing

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    The second location of skill that I had not considered initially was the craftsman’s mind. As we watched the process unfold, I grew an appreciation for the fact that in a heavily industrialized world, we had the opportunity to spend time studying from a true craftsman whose primary hands are his tools instead of an assembly line of machines. There is something about handcrafted work that is much more appealing than machine produced “perfection.” I also noticed that handcrafted work tends to produce a greater variety, because there is no cost advantage to producing an identical product in bulk. While it is inefficient for a factory to produce a larger variety, and costly to buy all the additional equipment, it takes Hong shifu very similar amounts of time to make many of his designs, allowing for more diverse and interesting work. All of these observations led to my realization of a previously overlooked, extraordinarily important location of skill: the artist’s mind. Hong shifu’s mind is what allows him to create his many designs. His imagination allows him to see the direction he should take at each step of the process. When pouring the melted silver into his rectangular cast, he knows what dimensions to make the cast that will allow him to hammer the silver into an ideal shape for that particular bracelet. When hammering the silver, he knows exactly where and how hard to hit to give it the ideal shape. Upon first seeing the bracelets, I thought all the creativity of the craft was in the bracelet design, but, in actuality, every step requires great knowledge and imaginative power.

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  • Matthew Brown '16, woodcarving

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    Today Nate and I stood for a few minutes at the front gate, which was closed, as we waited for Chowder’s (our master’s dog) persistent barking to alert Li Shi Fu to our arrival. When he opened the gate we said our hellos, and it seemed as though our master had yet to wipe the shui jiao (sleep) from his face. We then walked over to his large tea table and drank copious amounts of bitter green tea, which our master slurped down and refilled repeatedly in a fluid motion. We engaged in some conversation, which normally consists of Li Shi Fu talking and Nate and I looking at each other before nodding or chuckling if he laughs. We do sometimes understand what he says, though. After tea, we were not led to work on our individual carvings as expected, but to the main workshop, where Li Shi Fu sat us down in front of log sections and instructed us to start chiseling away at the bark. “Not this again,” I thought with a sigh. But only a few minutes into our work, Li Shi Fu walked over with a grin on his face and a jackhammer in his hands. He motioned for me to step aside, and with the stuttering roar of a motor proceeded to attack the log, tearing off large strips of bark with ease. “Why couldn’t you have just given us this on the first day?” I asked, (half) jokingly. Our master then tasked us with removing the bark from two other wood sections as well as a very large log. Nate and I, drunk with the sheer power of the jackhammer, thoroughly enjoyed ripping away huge sections of bark. If Li Shi Fu saw us working in an inefficient way he would come over to give us a demonstration of proper technique. At one point he grabbed the jackhammer and jumped on top of the log before plunging it deep under the bark, dislodging a massive slab. He appeared to almost be wrestling with the wood, which reflects my experience with woodcarving so far, as it is difficult to work with the grain of wood.

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  • Nikhil Chaudhuri '15, house painting

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    According to Yang Laoshi, house painting is not simply an ornamental art; it is also a functional art. In Bai culture, house painting is both a reflection of a family’s status and values and also a shield that protects the family from evil spirits. For instance, the three types of flowers that Yang Laoshi paints - peony, lotus, and chrysanthemum - each have their own special meaning in Bai culture. The peony represents beauty (美丽 - meili) and a wealthy life (富贵生活 - fugui shenghuo). The lotus represents honesty (廉洁 - lianjie) and harmony (和谐 - hexie). The chrysanthemum represents nobility (高贵 - gaogui) and a good harvest (收获 - shouhuo). The water in Yang Laoshi’s landscape paintings represents unity (每个人离不开 - meigeren libukai) - literally translated to “every person cannot be separated.” The cranes that Yang Laoshi is so fond of painting represent longevity (长寿 - changshou).

    Yang Laoshi believes very strongly that Bai house painting was the basis for Han house painting. Yang Laoshi’s version of his art and culture’s history indicates his personal pride for the ethnicity he identifies with and the importance he places upon house painting as a facet of that culture. Yet, even though Yang Laoshi emphasizes the cultural importance of his craft, he is modest about his own role in Bai society. As he laughingly told me, “I am just a small nail (小螺丝钉 - xiaoluo siding).”

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  • Ren Freeman '15, silversmithing

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    At the start of my first week of apprenticing with Hong Shifu, he let me take a turn at shaping the silver. One thing I learned early is that anything Hong Shifu does is much harder than he makes it look. How can hammering be hard? I’ve hammered many nails throughout my life so hammering silver shouldn’t be much different right? Well was I wrong. I couldn’t even hold the silver in the tongs correctly without it slipping out of its grip when I tried hitting it with the hammer. Jack, the son of Mr. Flower, one of the teachers on this trip, also apprenticing with me, had to switch from the big hammer to the small hammer because his arm became too sore. Jack and I both struggled to try to shape the silver. Each time we hit it, we either missed the silver completely or it escaped from the grip of the tongs. We were told that we had to hit the silver in the center or else it would bounce around. Being a positive master, when Hong Shifu came over to check up on our progress, seeing our badly shaped silver piece, he used the only English he knew, which was, “Oh Yahhhhhh, Okayyyyyy!” Smiling broadly and chuckling to himself, Hong Shifu would take the silver from the last who had it, and pound it back into shape; what took us thirty minutes was five for him, leaving us both feeling embarrassed at how deformed we had made it.

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  • Jake Van Meter '15, stone carving

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    Despite the dry passion 董师傅 (Dong Shifu) shows towards his 墓碑 (mubei, gravetsones), the quality of his products has never declined. If anything, the modern tools his father introduced to the craft only improved the neatness, clarity and quality of the 墓碑 carvings. The true problem in 董师傅’s passion lies in the very nature of the craft itself. Although the 墓碑 characters are more neat and clear to understand, it also makes all of the 墓碑 seem so uniform, and in turn creates a distance between 董师傅 and his individual works. Even though the Chinese 墓碑 are much more colorful and “alive” then the plain gray style commonly seen in the West, they all follow a standardized style making the only difference between them being between the phoenixes carved on women’s and the dragons carved on men’s. This theme of uniformity could be understood as part of the Chinese societal tradition of standing out as a whole. Yet even when the society as a whole might stand out, more often than not the individuals within the society will be lost within this same uniformity.

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  • Abby Castillo '16, tie dye

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    The process of tie-dying a single piece of cloth involves many hands and hours of labor. A plain piece of cloth is chosen and painted over one of the hundreds of stencils they hold in the factory. Each stencil is made of plastic and is different in size and design. In order to make these stencils, one of the ladies must meticulously draw out the design on the plastic, then use a nail and rock to make small holes along the lines. Once the design has been painted on, it is quickly dried and made ready for stitching.

    During the Dali Kingdom reign up until the 1940’s, the stitching and patterns were very different from today, and have become extinct due to their complexity. Stitching is the most essential step in tie-dying because it requires one’s full attention. My days at the factory were spent watching Yang Li Fen complete this action effortlessly, while I struggled to replicate her swift movements. She began by licking the end of her thread, and sticking it through the small needle hole. Depending on the stitch she is about to perform, she chooses whether to knot one end of the thread, or to knot the two ends of the thread in half. For example, flower petals are made with a single piece of thread, because they are later bound by the thread. Butterfly wings and antennae on the other hand, must be stitched with two strands of thread, because they have to be thicker. Once the thread is through the needle, Yang Li Fen wraps the end around her right index finger, and slides it into a knot by rubbing it with her thumb. She then stitches along the small dots on the fabric in small and quick motions. Sections of the fabric that must be wrapped around with thread are characterized by a dot in the center of the petal or square. On these particular shapes, Yang Li Fen pulls on the thread, which then gathers the small amount of fabric together. With her left thumb nail, she presses on the fabric as she wraps the thread with her right hand. This forms a cone, that is then knotted off. The wrapping and knotting must be done very tightly, or else the pattern may not show up once the fabric is dyed. In order for the cones to be secure, one must pull tightly using their index and middle fingers, which forms calluses. Yang Li Fen wears tape around these fingers, and offered me some after three weeks of painful pulling.

    Once the entire piece of fabric has been stitched, it is taken to be dyed. This job is only done by men which means that if for any reason the dying man is not present, no dying gets done that day. Dying itself also has many steps because different materials are used for different colors. Many plants and chemicals are boiled with water to produce the desired color. The pieces of fabric are put in large cauldrons of dye, then washed off with water. They are then placed in a spinning drying machine, and the dying is complete.

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  • Raphael Cohen-Fuentes '16, musical instrument

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    Master Du’s experiences learning are reflected in the manner in which he passes on his craft, as often to begin my education with a particular song, he will play it all the way through once without stopping. Master Du’s lack of formal lessons meant that he was never able to listen to specific passages in songs in order to learn them, and thus he has no concept of repeating troublesome passages: any time I stop playing due to some mistake or unfamiliarity with the song, Master Du will immediately replay the song from the beginning with no pauses. Our method is more or less that of the Masters and Transmission, where the master would perform a “passage for the disciple… [And] the disciple must ‘return the story’” (Page 76), only that in our case instead of a passage, Master Du performs an entire song end to end. I gradually piece together larger and larger portions of the song, similar to the way in which “little by little the passage” of the storyteller’s apprentice would be enlarged. It was only in the third and fourth weeks of my apprenticeship that I was finally able to stop Master Du mid song and have us repeat these troublesome passages before moving on. While the teaching style that Master Du adopted took a certain amount of adjusting to, the most interesting obstacle when I began my apprenticeship was the language barrier that existed between us.

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  • Walter Ellis '16, cooking

    Posted: Tuesday, April 28

    Cangertianyuan is a beautiful restaurant with mainly outdoor seating. There is a large kitchen and a U-shaped building that encircles the vast central courtyard. Inside the building, there is the storeroom and larder, and then individual rooms with large tables. The courtyard is beautiful and is covered in grass and small plants but for the paved paths and trees throughout. There are tables of various sizes scattered all over, including one large one in a raised gazebo. As places to eat go, it is one of the more picturesque ones I’ve been to.

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  • Apprenticeship Pictures

    Posted: Monday, April 13
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  • The Art of Wood -木雕

    Posted: Sunday, April 5
    By Nathaniel Ostrer ’16, CFS Student
    Mr. Li carving wood by Nathaniel Ostrer ’16

    Hidden in a small town in the Dali region of Yunnan Province, unbeknownst to the outside world, a renaissance is occurring. The Cultural Revolution destroyed much of art and culture in China, and its scars linger to this day.

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