In the spring of 2017, five students and two teachers traveled to Xizhou, Dali. I was one of the five students that were chosen to be part of this amazing adventure. Each student chose a topic of high personal interest to study in Xizhou, and they will study it for four weeks. For my topic, I chose Local Legends/Spirits/Stories, but my focus was mainly on jia ma. I chose this topic because I always found legends and stories interesting, so I was more than excited when I saw the topic on the list. During my stay in Xizhou, I made lots of connections with the locals and also gathered a lot of information for my topic. Mr. Du (the antique dealer), Mr. Tian (the jia ma gallery owner), Mr. Zhang (the jia ma master), Mr. Yang (owner of Old House Cafe)and others all helped me immensely. Mr. Yang actually gave me a book about jia ma (made by students) that was very helpful. They were extremely patient and kind while I asked questions, and were more than happy to tell me about the art. Most of my sources came from my 3-to-5s, like Mr. Du and Mr. Yang, but others like Mr. Tian and Mr. Zhang were unplanned. Some of my questions were guided by my 10 big questions, but others were just for interest. I altered and changed my questions depending on each person. For example, Mr. Zhang knew a lot about the technical side of jia ma, so I asked a lot of questions related to the printing and techniques. Mr. Tian knew more about the legends behind the jia ma, so I asked him more about the stories. During my journey, I learned to differentiate between good questions and bad questions. In order to understand my personal journey and growth of learning about traditional woodblock printing (called "jia ma"), one must consider three time frames: before my arrival in Xizhou, my awkward first steps in Xizhou, and after I had settled into my new home.
My final product is the video above. If the video above does not load, feel free to watch it here.
The inquiry project was definitely one of the most memorable things about Microcampus. I have learned and grown from this experience in ways I would have never expected. The inquiry project forced me outside of my comfort zone by just simply forcing me to talk to new people. In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble talking to new people, especially in Chinese. However, as the weeks went by, I gradually became more comfortable and confident. I have heard people's stories, perspectives, and more through the inquiry project.
My overarching topic, Local Legends/Spirits/Stories did not change, but my focus certainly did. In the beginning (prior to the trip), I was planning to study the ficus trees in this area. However, when I got to Xizhou and started talking to people about it, I realized that I did not have much interest in it. After that, I went into a period of time where I was simply looking for my focus and gathering a lot of random information. However, I discovered jia ma and that became my new topic!
The most difficult part of my research was probably the first week. because I was not used to talking with strangers or their accents. Most of the people here, especially the older ones, have a thick Bai accent. Since my topic is Local Legends/Spirits/Stories, I had to talk to the elders. I remember feeling terrible after my first session because everybody around me was talking about how great their first inquiry session went, while I was very discouraged. However, I believe that the first week allowed me to learn from my mistakes and also helped me to where I am now.
Discovering jia ma was definitely my biggest breakthrough moment (or the a-ha moment). Before my questions did not have much direction and I could not use my 10 big questions anymore. Having an a-ha moment gives you the greatest feeling you can ever have. I felt like a heavy weight was lifted off of me because I was feeling really stressed beforehand. Jia ma was something that intrigued me, and I knew immediately that I wanted jia ma to be my focus.
This project allowed me to learn a lot more about the local gods and the Chinese gods. Before, I did not have much knowledge of the gods and deities in Chinese mythology, but I do now. I learned a lot of stories behind the jia ma, which was incredibly interesting. One of my favorite stories is about Da Hei, a patron god of many villages. According to Mr. Yang, Da Hei was sent by the Jade Emperor to punish the people by poisoning them. However, Da Hei pitied the people and drank the poison himself. The snake in his hand tried to suck the poison out of him, but the poison ended up being too strong. Da Hei and the snake's skin started turning black, hence the name "Da Hei" The people in Dali were amazed by the feat and decided to worship him in order to thank him.
This project forced me to connect with people outside of my bubble. I had to learn how to talk to the locals in a way where they would feel comfortable, and I also had to adapt to body language. The inquiry project allowed me to be more confident while talking to people and also helped me learn to interpret some of the words.
The inquiry project helped me understand that I do my best work when I am not under pressure. Doing everything way before the deadline is something that has helped me a lot. Another thing that I have realized is to make sure that I learn best when I am actually doing it instead of learning it from the textbooks. I have had a feeling before that I am a hands on learner, but coming to Microcampus proved that I am.
If I could go back in time, I would make sure that I did not procrastinate and slack off. I learned to not slack off the hard way, during the first week. Having a good work ethic and being disciplined is something I struggle with, but Microcampus has helped me discipline myself and stay on task. I would also make sure that I always listened carefully to Mr. T and Ms. Mai's instructions. One of the biggest things I struggled with was probably following instructions, but it eventually became a lot easier throughout the trip.
If someone else were to continue my project, I would advise them to find out more about the carving techniques and process. I was not able to learn more about carving, but I would like to know more about it. I would also suggest them to talk to the older/more traditional Bai Minority people because they are the ones who mainly use jia ma. Learning about each person's perspective about jia ma would certainly be an interesting direction to investigate.
Lastly, I would like to give some thank some very special people that have helped me bring my inquiry project to life. First of all, I would like to give a big thank you to Ms. Mai and Mr. T, for always supporting us and putting up with us even when it is hard. Another thank you to Ms. Song and Ms. Zhao, for accompanying me during my inquiry sessions and always patiently answering my endless questions. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the people in the village who have kindly given up their time to help me with my inquiry project: Mr. Tian (jia ma gallery), Mr. Zhang (jia ma master), Mr. Du (antique dealer), Mr. Yang (Old House Cafe), and many more. They have all helped me so much with my inquiry work and answered all my questions. Also, big thank you to everyone in the village for being such welcoming and kind hosts.
Microcampus is truly an adventure and a once in a lifetime experience. I will never experience Xizhou the way I have experienced it with the Tactical group. I came to Xizhou hoping to gather some information about my inquiry topic, but I left with memories and lifelong lessons that I will never forget.