Seminar as Method, Helina Yuheng He, BFA ID 2023 ￼
Week 2-4: hosting online seminars
This summer, I am exploring different innovative techniques to help sustain a grassroot Sino-Tibetan environmental group, LDONGTSOG, located in Kehe village, Sichuan. Public education is one of my main focuses.
I once asked a volunteer from LDONGTSOG for her advice on entering the Tibetan community. She answered, acknowledging two different cultures and keeping your gesture low are the key. Keeping the gestures low, I invite you, dear audience, to do the same with me. To set aside all existing judgments, because “environmental protection,” “Tibetans,” “indigenous people,” and “nonprofits’’… these concepts are not equivalent in PCR discourses as they are in the US.
Towards the end of the Spring semester, I attended a dinner at RISD to discuss community engagement. At dinner, one of the students talked about her idea when one enters a community that he or she is not familiar with. That is not doing “research for them” but doing “research with them“. Following that, I contemplated the implications.
To “research with them” means making it clear to my research subjects that the research will have an impact on both sides, rather than hiding my purpose from the subjects. Taking this notion in mind, I came up with the idea of holding a public online seminar targeted at Chinese youth. This seminar fulfills two purposes: 1. For the Sino-Tibetan community, it is to highlight the efforts of Tibetans (such as LDONGTSOG), who have always been underrepresented in the mainstream, creating a shared space to help people understand them; 2. For me, as the researcher, it is to widen my research scope and to learn more about their culture.
Seminar as Method
From July 10th-July 24th, I have been hosting public online seminars related to the Tibetan environment and its cultural heritage. My guest speakers include normal travelers, environmentalists, anthropologists, artists, and educators. My starting point was intuitive and simple: to let more people know about the Sichuan-Tibetan nature and culture, represented by LDONGTSOG, the organization I am helping. Nevertheless, the seminar has been developed to a level that I never imagined before. I personally gained friendship and trust through the seminars. And new ideas burst out of the process.
I became the host, the organizer, the communicator, and the designer of my seminars, which left me a ton of work. Thankfully, I have found three other friends who are willing to collaborate and help. We all share the same interest in Chinese ethnic knowledge and mythology. They are: Yiwei Chen (INTAR ‘22), Chenxi Wang (Ceramics ‘23), and Yiqing Lei (Sculpture ‘23). They helped me organize meeting notes and host the panels.
It is through hosting seminars did I realize that it can be an anthropological research method. I titled it, “Seminar as Method”. This notion is borrowed from Xiang Biao （向飙）, the Chinese academic celebrity in social anthropology. He published a book called Self as Method in 2020, and tells Chinese youths “to think for themselves and through their own experiences in making sense of the contradictions around them” as if doing scholarly research1. Xiang’s idea inspired me to look at the medium of online seminars, which grew popular thanks to covid. The online seminar has become a medium for me to approach and observe my research subject.
I have found seminars a way to bond communities together, which suits the principle of “Research with them”. On the one hand, holding seminars spreads the influence of my guest speakers, who share an affinity with the Tibetan community in China. On the other hand, hosting seminars forces me to absorb knowledge in a short amount of time. By hosting the first two events (the last seminar will be happening soon), I felt such a sense of satisfaction by doing things for the Tibetan group. Also, I gained general trust from the Sino-Tibetan community and made new friends, since they saw my efforts and respect for their culture.
Holding seminars is different from holding personal interviews. In one-on-one interviews, I post questions for myself, and the only audience at that moment is the interviewer. By contrast, the seminar is a performance for the audience, and I play the role of the host. In this case, I do not ask questions for myself but for the audience. Thus, the seminar has created a safe space to ask critical questions that seem embarrassing to post during interviews. The guest speakers answer questions in a more articulate and informative way. Besides, I can ask guest speakers to make in-depth presentations for the audience, which will be hard to request in one-on-one interviews.
It is through these seminars that I gained a deeper understanding of not only LDONGTSOG, but also the relationship between nature and the culture in Tibet.
Takeaways from the First Two Seminars:
the Twinning Relationship between Nature and Culture
As I mentioned before, it is through my seminars that I understand what LDONGTSOG(玛荣峒格) really is. LDONGTSOG is a grassroots organization located in Kehe Village (柯河村). Kehe(柯河) is the name given by the PCR after the cultural revolution. However, all elderly Tibetans refer to it as Dmar-rong (玛荣, དམར་རོང་), which is where the first two characters of its name, LDONGTSOG, originate. Dmar-rong is its own center, its own world before it is called Kehe Village. Dmar-rong’s relatively remote location has allowed Bon (བོན), the indegenous Tibetan religion, to grow there.
In my opinion, Dmar-rong has one of the most breath-taking natural views. However, this hidden gem is under threat at any time. The government is building a new road, which produces slope debris flow. Debris flow reflects the surface problems; the disease of local animals reveals the rooted illness in the environment. This results in Zhou Ba, the founder of LDONGTSOG, approaching the moss disease of local animals. The approaches that LDONGTSOG took include making documentaries, building the botanical garden, and educating local citizens.
During the seminars, I asked Zhou Ba, “Why do you focus on cultural protection if LDONGTSOG is an environmental protection organization?”. Then I realized that the traditional Tibetan culture provides a deep insight into how humans interact with nature. In fact, the most efficient way to educate environmental protection in Tibet is not through scientific data but through lamas’ lectures2. It is the religion that supports Tibetan environmentalists like Zhou Ba to insist on their causes.
In my first seminar, I interviewed a Chinese theater student as well as an avid hiker called Zhuo Xue. Xue has been teaching Shakespeare in China since he graduated from Oberlin College. He attempted to combine culture with nature. In 2019, he has organized a hiking event in Yunnan Tibet with Chaofan Han. They hiked in the daytime and read Shakespeare in the evening. After that, he entered Tibet several times, and he was mentally surprised by the Tibetan worshippers along the way.
Xue argued in his lecture that Tibet is one of his favorite sites so far. Unlike the modern-day practice that separates nature from society manually, the nature in Tibet is its culture. Sacred mountain gods live in the caves and on the cliffs. Because of the belief, the Tibetans put prayer flags in even the most dangerous spots in the yard, summoning their respects to their nature gods. Xue’s lecture showed that living in harmony with nature has been an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. The present-day global concerns for sustainable development and conservation of natural resources are suggested by traditional values in Tibet.
Thanks to the first two lectures, I decided to look into the traditional values and practices of Kehe Tibetans. Because culture plays a big supporting role in Tibetan environmental protection. A path to civic engagement is opening up in front of me…
- David Ownby, Xiang Biao, Excerpts from Self as Method, Reading the China Dream. https://www.readingthechinadream.com/xiang-biao-excerpts-from-self-as-method.html#:~:text=Self%20as%20Method%20essentially%20tells,how%20one%20scholar%20did%20so.
- See 《守山：我与白马雪山的三十五年》, 肖林 & 王蕾, 北京联合出版公司, 2019。 Xiao, Lin & Wang, Lei. Guarding the Mountain: My thirty-five years with Baima Snow Mountain. Beijing United Publishing Company, 2019. Xiao is one of the first environmentalists in China. In this book, he demonstrates his life-long practices of environmental education as a Tibetan.
- S.M. Nair, Cultural Traditions of Nature Consevation in India, http://ccrtindia.gov.in/readingroom/nscd/ch/ch11.php