Inside the Living Waterfall: Research in the Yuanyang Terraces

Nina Whittaker (Kenyon College) studied on SIT’s China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities program in spring 2015. Below, she writes about the research she conducted on that program.

Nina wearing Hani traditional dress

Nina wearing Hani traditional dress

On May 4th, 2015, after over 8 hours in rickety buses and unmarked vans, I arrived in the small and remote town of Dayutang rather abruptly. As the grey van that had driven me there rumbled away into the distance, some curious faces appeared to say hello. Nervous as I was, I had no idea that in a month’s time I would be leaving not only with the most unique experience of my life but also with an independent research project that would ultimately be published in the Princeton Journal of East Asian Studies. Instead, I spent the evening eating water-buffalo soup, exchanging toasts with the wildlife reserve crew, and listening to the wind, which was roaring incessantly up the mountainside.

I had arrived in China that February for SIT’s China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities program, set in the beautiful and diverse southern province of Yunnan. I had chosen the program on the gut feeling that I needed something other than the conventional “China experience”—the bustle of Beijing, the lights of Shanghai. Honestly speaking, I didn’t know quite what I was looking for, but SIT made sure I found it.

After some time in Kunming doing language study and living with host families, we went up through the southern Silk Road and into the towering mountains of Shangri-La. We worked in fields with rural families until our hands blistered and did tai ji with a master on the slopes of a great mountain. I realized that my independent study would have to match these experiences in uniqueness, excitement, and challenge.

The only problem was, I had no idea what to do. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to design a study that would provide the unique, real, lived experience that I was looking for. As such, I turned to one of SIT’s impressive local resources—Professor Wang Jianhua, a guest lecturer from Yunnan Minzu University. Instead of telling him what I wanted, I simply asked him if he knew of a place where something truly unique was happening, that I would never be able to find on my own. He told me about his research in the Yuanyang terraces, a Hani and Yi ethnic minority autonomous region and UNESCO World Heritage Site near the Vietnamese border. And that is how, on May 4th, I wound up standing on the curb of Dayutang, on a mountainside which I later realized was a living waterfall, feeling rather overwhelmed.

Yuanyang terraces

Yuanyang terraces

That month was one of the most challenging of my life. I was completely alone, in a remote town where barely anyone spoke Mandarin, with little previous research experience. However, as I stumbled through the first week, and then the second, I slowly settled in. I learned the basics of the Hani language (hani-dor matonyah means “I don’t speak Hanihua”). The nature reserve officers often took me out to see their work in the sacred forests above the town, where I would go berry-picking with the workers. We spent days wandering through the mountains and terraces, foraging for leaves and berries and catching water-snails, frogs, and dragonflies for dinner. I also spent many hours alone, surrounded by clouds, following irrigation channels up and down the mountainside.

Having this research published is of course a huge milestone, giving me valuable publishing experience and opening doors for future opportunities. However, this achievement pales next to the amazing reality of my time in Dayutang, actually immersed in the research process. This experience gave me a deep and powerful understanding of research methodology and design that will stay with me for the rest of my professional life. SIT gave me a small window into a culture, knowledge system, and way of life completely different from anything I had seen before. Not only that, but they gave me the opportunity to live it. And that’s definitely not something you get to do every day.

At Monastery Jizushan

Read Nina’s Independent Study Project.

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