Paul HOCKINGS (United International College, Beijing Normal University/Hong Kong Baptist University), Gaoqiao, a Second Look at a Well-Studied Yunnan Village , English/13pages, June 2006.


Changing political and social conditions in China have made long-term studies of small communities difficult if not impossible. The outstanding exception has been Fei Xiao-tong's longitudinal study of the village of Kaixian'gong, west of Shanghai, which began in 1935. The New Zealand anthropologist William Geddes did a brief restudy there in 1956; and then in 1957 and 1980 Fei was again able to visit that village for fieldwork.

Amidst all the descriptive literature of such communities, there is an excellent ethnography of a Yunnan village by Cornelius Osgood, an American cultural anthropologist of wide-ranging interests who was an important figure in his discipline during 1930-1980. He visited China in 1938, to find a place for fieldwork in the south. In just five weeks in a lakeside village near Kunming, he gathered enough data to produce a 400-page book (1963).

Today that village, Gaoqiao, is much expanded, to 1330 people in 2002. By pure chance, it turned out that following my brief field visit in that year 28 old houses in the very centre of the village were bulldozed, and some ricefields nearby were taken over; all to put a larger highway through. Thus Gaoqiao will soon become a suburb of Kunming, and gentrification of its houses continues.

The villagers are solely Han Chinese, but immigrants have come here from elsewhere. Today this village is seeing social, political and economic changes, though the geographical layout has changed little in over sixty years. Farming and fishing are giving way to more urban activities.

Back in 1938 the lower end of the village had 211 boat-dwellers: a third were fishermen and the rest were in the transportation business. Horseloads of salt etc. were loaded onto sampans and ferried across the lake to Kunming. These people were either integrated into the mainland community and given houses, or moved away to become farmers. The few boats that remain are used for fishing with nets, but in 2002 the pollution of the lake had made this unprofitable if not dangerous. Kunming's suburbs have iron, tobacco, cement and other industries, but the lake has suffered the consequences. Now many of the village residents work in these locations, or commute to Kunming for their daily jobs.