Interviewing Wang Mingming
"I see myself as part of the movement of re-historicizing anthropology."
Wang Mingming (May 19, 2009)
Wang Mingming is a Chinese anthropologist, born in 1962 in the city of Quanzhou in southern Fujian, China. He was trained in archaeology and ethnological history at Xiamen University in the same southeastern province of Fujian. Later he went to study social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and gained his Ph.D. there. In 1994, he returned to China to teach in Peking University and is committed to staying there. Since returning, through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology. One description of his project is, in his own words, the re-historicization of anthropology. Another is the joining of what have been organizationally and conceptually severed in China and elsewhere: ethnology and anthropology (social and cultural). For the past several years he has held jointly professorial positions in anthropology at Peking University and in anthropology and ethnology at the Minzu University of China (previously Central University for Nationalities) in Beijing.
At Peking University, he was a junior colleague of the famous anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, until the latter's death in 2005. Fei's first fieldwork as an anthropologist and ethnologist was among one of the southern Chinese minority people; later, his fieldwork in a village in the Yangze basin area became the basis for a doctoral dissertation, supervised by Malinowski, at the London School of Economics; later still, in the 1950s he was put in charge of the investigation and validation of the claims of ethnic groups within the People's Republic of China to be treated as minority nationalities; finally in the last two decades of the 20th century, he was a senior figure in the re-establishment, after their suppression during the years of Maoism, of sociology and anthropology in Chinese universities and research institutes, including the one in Peking University. At Peking University, Wang Mingming worked closely with Fei, but he is not a disciple. He places Fei in a northern Chinese sociological anthropology that also includes Wu Wenzao, educated under Franz Boas in the USA. This social and cultural anthropology is distinguished from a much more ethnological and ethnohistorical "southern" Chinese anthropology and archaeology, within which Wang Mingming received his initial university education before coming to London (Wang Mingming 2008b). Combining both, Empire and Local Worlds-his historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou-was published in English in 2009. We hope it will put the city of Quanzhou on the anthropological map.
What follows are Wang Mingming's reflections on the direction he has been taking in his Chinese-language writing and his teaching in China. They are presented as the result of an interview conducted in English that took place over several days in London in June 2009. One of us, Stephan Feuchtwang began to put questions to him, to which he responded.
He and Feuchtwang have a long-standing partnership in research that started before he returned to China and which continues. Together they wrote a book (Feuchtwang and Wang 2002) on charismatic leadership and its linking of religion and politics in a village in the Quanzhou region and in a northern Taiwanese village. Feuchtwang has published his version of previous discussions with him as one side of a dialogue (Feuchtwang 2006).
Wang Mingming has given many Chinese-language interviews, three of which are "Anthropology in my imagination" (interviewed by Xu Jiexun of the Journal of Guangxi Ethnic Minorities University in March 2006), "Intellectuals and 'views from afar'" (interviewed by Chen Chen of the magazine Nanfang Renwu in December 2006), and "Social sciences under pressure need humour" (interviewed by Shu Yu of Peking University Journal of Postgraduate Students in September 2006), all included as appendices of his recent book Jingyan yu Xintai: Lishi, Shijie Xiangxiang yu Shehui (Experience and Mentality: History, Cosmology and Social Theory), (Wang 2007a:329-411). …