Luce Chinese Studies Grants

A Note on Methodology

Full access to the inner workings of the complex relationship between the UNESCO Beijing office and the local, provincial and national government in creating development and preservation policy and ensuring its thorough implementation at the local level remains occluded. Though there are numerous publications concerning the subject, only a few are available to non-governmental researchers and of these, an idealistic description of efforts both past, present and future obscures an objective vision of the changes in the area beyond the pervasive propaganda. I therefore have chosen the liberty of emphasizing not the written material on the preservation of this site, but rather that aspect more within my grasp: local perceptions through a series of interviews. During the course of my interviews I was reminded again and again of the disparity in official rhetoric and local perception in the history and transformation of the Wudang Shan region since its inscription as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

A methodology prioritizing the spoken word can solve some of the more pressing problems in analyzing the local effects of development and preservation, while giving birth to a whole range of others. Though such a methodology seeks to circumvent the opacity prevalent in official publications, it may nonetheless be subject to some of the same weaknesses in approach and expression. Just as these official documents often work backward from pre-conceived results to the specific issues themselves and their factual justification, so too may my research have commenced with pre-conceived understandings in need of justification. Furthermore, questioning in the interview format inevitably reflects the inherent biases of the interviewer, as it is they that control the questioning and the direction which the interviews follow. Questions were often raised with the intention of searching out specific topics and may therefore not necessarily reflect issues on hand and most important to those interviewed, but that of the person conducting the interview. Yet regardless of the possible problems created in such an interview format, it nonetheless served to concentrate on issues most relevant to the debate on international development organizations and policy, while allowing room for the profound digressions and anecdotes of those being interviewed.

There is no way to fully gauge the effect of my role within the Wudang Shan community as researcher and the influence this may have had upon the answers obtained. Despite attempts to lessen my role as an outsider, that barrier no doubt remained, to some extent, intact. Though I attempted the most accurate translation possible, the difficulties in transcending a language barrier defined by not one but often two separate stages of translation (Wudang dialect, Mandarin, and English) likewise may have adversely affected the outcome of the interviews. In addition to this language barrier, the format of the interviews may have further exacerbated the difficulties in attaining the most accurate rendition of the interviewees' statements. Fearing a tape recorder might detract from my ability to acquire candid and sincere answers, especially concerning more sensitive topics of which fear of reprisal was an ever-present obstacle, I chose instead to take written notes and only later to record them in their entirety. For the same reasons, I likewise have used pseudonyms wherever fitting to protect the identity of those interviewed.

Although the final transcripts have neglected to include the entirety of the conversations, this format nonetheless helped create an atmosphere where our `interviews' could become `conversations'. There are instances where, upon my own discretion, inessential and superfluous comments are intentionally excluded from the final account. Given the need for a comfortable atmosphere while conducting the interviews and my proclivity towards a laconic rendering of those statements, the transcript as such precludes an all-encompassing account of the interviews conducted, in favor of the most practicable rendition for the present purpose.

Many of the answers given during interviews contradict those of other interviewees as well as the `factual' information provided in various materials concerning the site. Taken as a whole, these answers can be seen as fraught with inconsistencies and therefore questionable in the academic context. But this is primarily the point. The diversity in the expression of peoples' perception reflects the range of the interviewees' background, personal experiences and hopes for the future. The disparate views and convictions reflect the complexity of the topic and the challenge confronting any wholesale analytical interpretation of the changes occurring at Wudang Shan.

Rather than representing an authoritative and permeating understanding, these interviews can be read as individual viewpoints, each reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the person interviewed. It is my intention to give voice to these differing opinions and to attempt to both empower those whose voices have been left out of the official canon on development and preservation in China, as well as to construct a balanced articulation of this topic by incorporating all of the players at the local level. Interviews of this sort aren't as concerned with the `facts' per se, but with the manner, method and intention behind the expression of those facts. In other words, what people said interested me as much as how and why they said it. Needless to say, such an approach opens the door to what could be argued as `non-informed' subjectivity. But again, this is precisely the point. It is my hope that in the lacuna provided by these subjectivities, contradictions and inconsistencies lies a more balanced and realistic picture of the effects of development upon local peoples than that available solely from official sources.

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