China Fieldwork Semester Program


Click here to download the brochure.

Program Description


The Sidwell Friends School China Fieldwork Semester (CFS) is an intensive project-based student research program in Xizhou, Yunnan, for sixteen 11th or 12th grade students, working together in a research “collaboratory” housed in a historic residential facility. The CFS coursework in history, literature, science, language, and math will be credited by Sidwell Friends School.

CFS will be held annually during the spring semester. Students will arrive in China the third week of January, in time for Spring Festival, and will return the third week of May. The cost of the program (excluding international airfare) is $19,000, which covers all expenses, and a personal $500 spending account for each student.  For Sidwell students, SFS tuition and financial aid apply to cover nearly all program costs.

Multidisciplinary Study of Place


The CFS program’s content focus is on landscape studies as the unifying principle for research projects using a multidisciplinary approach: How do people interact with place, and how have those interactions changed over time?

The program’s four core subject areas are coordinated in a series of fieldwork projects:

  • History / social science research on changes in space/ place and livelihood
  • Environmental science / Landscape Ecology research on diverse landscapes, ecosystems, biodiversity, and sustainable development
  • Chinese literature in translation focused on the cultural encounter with place in rural China
  • Intensive Chinese language at varying levels through tutorial and immersion related to projects

    [note: students can study math with a local tutor, continuing their home school curriculum]

CFS curriculum also includes,

  • A digital ethnography unit, intentional representation of space, of photography instruction
  • A digital humanities component through the program’s relational database,  xml coding,  and digital archive of all CFS research
  • Experiential learning through hands-on organic farming with Xizhou villagers, apprenticeships to local craftsmen, and tai chi / martial arts practice
  • A community service project in collaboration with Xizhou Middle School Number 2 and Gyalthang Minority Nationalities Middle School focused on sustainability or cultural preservation.


Program Methodology


The program’s fieldwork method does not follow the standard school day, but rather devotes significant blocks of time to the sequence of immersive projects:

  • Project sequence designed to connect different facets of experience, across disciplines
  • Projects emphasize the production of knowledge rather than its consumption
  • Projects are collaborative, with individual responsibilities:
    • Each semester is approached as a collaborative documentary composed of coordinated individual work and group projects, entered into the program’s digital archive/database
    • The collaborative approach enables peer interaction and challenges students from different grades, schools, and educational systems to work together

The program’s subject content is sequentially organized around six core thematic units





Human geography, macro-regions; fengshui time and space; Empire and state formation

Classics and Foundations: Book of Songs, Daoism, Confucianism, Tang Poets

Geology past & present – the restless crust & materials of the lithosphere. Climate, biomes, ecosystem & community ecology


Home; family structure; architecture; genealogy

Lineage; civil society;

Architecture and Power:

Su Tong, Raise the Red Lantern

Population ecology & biodiversity. Land use & water resources. Landscapes shaped by water & ice


Agriculture; handicrafts; markets; labor; merchants and trade

Storytelling / Performance: Stories from a Ming Collection; Chinese Storytellers

Agriculture & aquaculture. Ecosystem disturbance, habitat loss, invasive species, over exploitation & pollution impacts on landscape & biodiversity


Temples, Buddhism, Popular Religion, and Revolution

Chinese Modernism; Lu Xun:Selected Stories

Human population & climate change impacts on landscape & biodiversity


Ethnicity, ethno-history, Tibet, construction of national identity

Landscape and Identity: Mo Yan, Red Sorghum

Tibet: Biodiversity & species decline; biological reserves, conservation & restoration ecology


Modernization and the developmental state; challenges and prospects

Modernization and Irony: Liao Yiwu, Corpsewalker

Urbanization, species & landscape management, ecotourism, conservation & sustainable development in human modified landscapes


History: Grassroots China

This course will explore local histories as counter-narratives to the History of the nation-state; environmental history and the changing cultural landscape of rural China; place formation and local identity along the ethnic and ecological frontier; and issues of economic development and sustainability in contemporary China.  The fieldwork activities will explore specific themes—home, work and exchange, ethnic identity—within which students will trace the arc of historical change from traditional patterns established in the late imperial period of the Ming-Qing Dynasties, through the radical transformations of the revolution, to the current period of reform and the transformed revival of traditional practices and beliefs in the process of rapid modernization.  Students will research particular features in the cultural landscape collecting survey data and then analyzing, synthesizing, editing, and uploading that data into an online database.    The course closes with a unit focusing on historical interconnections of trade along the ethnic and ecological frontier between agricultural China and the pastoral Tibetans.  Students will explore Tibetan folkways in comparison with the data from Xizhou, and focus on issues of sustainability in the fragile yet crucial ecology of the Tibetan plateau.

Chinese Literature in Translation

How can encounter with place inform our reading of Chinese literature, and how can that literature in turn shape our understanding of place? In this course we will explore literary works—from classical foundations to modernism to the ironic turn of contemporary fiction-- in connection to specific fieldsites.  We will read the ancient classic, the Book of Songs, in the context of an agrarian society that still has a vibrant epic folksong tradition. We will explore local historical changes in architecture as we read the Su Tong novella Raise the Red Lantern, set in a traditional family compound, and we will encounter senses of place and memory in rural China through Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's novel Red Sorghum.  Students will draw on those fictional representations of space to reflect on the explicit and implicit meanings of the built environments (houses) they are studying in Xizhou.  In markets and temple opera stages, students will understand the social context of the rich story telling tradition that is the foundation of much of Chinese written literature, and encounter the popular religion tradition through the eyes of the early twentieth century iconoclast and ardent modernist Lu Xun.  Our visits to these sites will enable us to make meaningful connections between place and literature.

Landscape Ecology


The Landscape Ecology course will focus onapplied geology and conservation biology research. Students will investigatethe diverse landscapes, ecosystems, and biodiversity of the Yunnan province.The course will be taught using case-based and problem-based learning,communicating with an SFS instructor via Skype and Haiku for the firsttwo-thirds of the course; the course will terminate with a concentrated fieldresearch component with the SFS instructor on-site in Yunnan. As a culminatingexperience, students will complete a conservation plan for the region. In thiscourse, students will learn how to use scientific evidence to make decisionsabout conservation and landscape management. Throughout the semester they willengage in group work, debate, and develop critical thinking skills inevaluating literature and other sources.

Chinese Language

Students at all levels—from novice to advanced—will study Chinese language daily through intensive tutorial and through immersion in the local community of Xizhou.  CFS program staff, including many native speakers, will teach students in small groups and individual sessions customized for each student’s particular level.  The curriculum for each level of Chinese language is designed to fit with the site visits and fieldwork research projects in the other courses.  Students will have structured language practicums and informal opportunities to immediately put into practice the vocabulary, sentence patterns, and grammar they learn in the Chinese language course.  There is no Chinese language requirement or prerequisite for this coursework; students may start their Chinese learning experience through the CFS program.



John Flower is director of the Sidwell Friends School Chinese Studies Program. Dr. Flower (PhD, University of Virginia) is former associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and fellow at the East Asia Center and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.  His scholarship includes articles and book chapters on local history and folklife in China and Tibet, as well as the digital monograph Moral Landscape in a Sichuan Mountain Village, co-authored with his wife, Dr. Pamela Leonard.

Pamela Leonard received her PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge University, and served as adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has authored and edited publications on China, “postsocialism,” and environmental issues, and worked with international NGOs on environment and development issues in China.

Paula Wang has been teaching biology for 27 years and environmental science for 17 years. She holds a BS in biology from Virginia Commonwealth University, an MS in microbiology from the Medical College of Virginia, and an MSSE from Montana State University. Paula is a long-time volunteer with the Audubon Naturalists Society Stream Monitoring Program and with the U.S.G.S. Whooping Crane Captive Breeding Program at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. Her MSU research comparing dinosaur nesting sites with modern ground nesting birds is ongoing.

Program Setting


The China Fieldwork Semester takes place in Dali, Yunnan, one of the most culturally and ecologically diverse areas on earth.  At an elevation of 6700 feet on the same latitude as Key West, the town of Xizhou in the Dali region has a cool, mild climate year round, with plenty of sunshine and water from the surrounding mountains, making it an ideal climate for agriculture.  Xizhou is situated close between Erhai to the East, a 140 km long alpine fault lake, and Cangshan mountain to the west, reaching over 10,000 feet as it rises up to the Tibetan plateau.  To the north, in the Three Parallel Rivers nature reserve, the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rush down from Tibet to become the major rivers of China and Southeast Asia; to the south, mountain passes lead to Burma.  The Dali region is also incredibly rich in culture and history.  A key intersection of the Southwest Silk Road to the Indian Ocean, and the Tea-horse trade route with Tibet, Dali was the seat of the ancient Buddhist Nanzhao Kingdom, a rival to the Chinese Empire that included large parts of Burma and Thailand in addition to Yunnan province.   The region is a diverse borderland of ethnicities, where Bai, Yi, Hui (Muslim), Tibetan and Han Chinese nationalities have interacted for millennia.  A full unit of the CFS program will be held in the Tibetan town of Gyalthang, an ancient trade and religious center recently rebranded as “Shangrila” for ecotourism development, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Lijiang is within two hours of the CFS base in Xizhou.  Local markets, festivals, folk music, handicrafts, and vibrant religious temples—all these living traditions from the past continue to be relevant in a modern world undergoing tremendous change.  We will explore these fragile natural and cultural ecosystems by walking, hiking, biking, and living among the local people, learning from them through a deep encounter with place.

Websites and Application

three pagoda temple, Dali

China Fieldwork Semester Websites:

Program cost (excluding international airfare): $19,000 (includes all fees and a student spending account of $500)

Tuition and financial aid apply for SFS students. 

2015 China Fieldwork Semester Application