I often find myself sitting on the fence between — to overgeneralise, for once — the conservationists impulses of Westerners and the developmentalist impatience of Chinese. But in a recent issue of the weekly newsletter of Peking University’s Center for African Studies, I learned that, even in this bastion of official scholarship led by the scholar-official par excellence, Li Anshan, there are researchers who seem oddly disinclined to developmentalism.
Li’s editorial reproduced what Li wrote was the text of a letter the centre’s young researcher, Pan Huaqiong, sent from her field trip to Mali. She described the poverty of the place and the hardships of traveling there, but also noted the cleanliness of the villages and the patience of the people. Then she made two unexpected comments.
She wrote, first, that her view of children begging in groups changed after she learned that these children were sent out by teachers in Islamic boarding schools that provide room and board but have difficulties covering the costs. “I used to think that meeting with hardship so early would sow the seeds of hatred in the hearts of these children,” she wrote, “but since I realised they absorb the sea of learning from the Koran every evening, I believe they will not sink [in society].”
Next, she commented that no matter how poor Malians are, “their ‘happiness index’ is definitely higher” than that of poor Chinese. One reason was that “Here there is polygyny, so there are no bachelors”: inability to marry is a major source of social tension in rural China.
I don’t know. On the one hand there is an open-mindedness here that is refreshing, compared to the official Chinese line is that religion and polygamy are both manifestations of backwardness, but also compared to many Western accounts that would automatically put the situations described here to social oppression. It is solid research not to assume that begging reflects lack of care. But to assume that begging under religious authority and then reading the Koran makes one contented, or that polygyny ensures family happiness, seems to go to the opposite extreme and disregard power issues entirely, in the spirit of some early versions of European orientalism. Here, I am with Marx. Coming from a researcher of Africa, these comments also raise concerns about the depth of her research.
Perhaps this assessment based on a casual letter is unfair; I look forward to reading the proper output of Pan Huaqiong’s research. But that such reactions come from Chinese researchers and are disseminated in an official newsletter is interesting in any case.