LRCCS Spotlight: Yasmin Cho

Yasmin Cho LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Anthropology

Yasmin Cho

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow
Anthropology

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, we sat down with Yasmin Cho, LRCCS Postdoctoral fellow, who talked about some of her adventures (and misadventures) during fieldwork in China.

LRCCS: How did you get interested in China?

Dr. Cho: I studied Chinese literature and language as an undergraduate, and I guess I was initially fascinated by the poetic sound of the language as I learned classical poems in the classroom. Later, I took a summer trip to China during my first year of college and I went back every summer after, backpacking around the country by myself. During my trips, on the cheap overnight trains and buses, I was able to talk with college students, businessmen, senior citizens, and soldiers and this allowed me to go beyond my initial literary (or, rather, my romanticized) understanding of China and to think about contemporary social issues more broadly. 

LRCCS:  So, what are you working on right now?

Dr. Cho: I am working on my book manuscript and also writing up a few articles. 

LRCCS: What’s the book about?

Dr. Cho: My book deals with multiple issues. First, it looks at an alternative migratory trend in China. A great deal of scholarship has been built on the issue of Chinese peasants working in factories in cities. My project examines a “reverse” migration by drawing on a growing number of Tibetan girls moving to Yachen, a very isolated and remote place, to practice Buddhism. Yachen is now one of the largest Buddhist communities in the world, and the young girls who gather and stay there sustain their lives by building their own huts and engaging in daily spiritual practices under highly restrictive political circumstances. Their numbers now surpass 10,000. Second, as I studied the scholarly literature around this community and the larger Buddhist revivalism in China, one thing struck me: there are virtually no serious accounts of the existence of the nuns who make up the vast majority of practitioners in this revivalism. This fact has driven me to think about a conceptual blindness we bring to the way in which we treat religion and religious practices. The nuns’ physical labor has never been counted as a significant contribution in religious revivalism. What eventually counts as religion and as political practice? My book tries to answer these questions. 

LRCCS: How did you get into this community specifically?

Dr. Cho: I’d heard about it when I was in graduate school in Beijing, but I didn’t have the means to go there when I was studying in China.  It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I had the funds to go to Yachen as a novice fieldworker. This was in 2010. It was the most isolated and least modernized place I had ever been. Since 2010, I have visited this community at least once a year, including long-term field research between 2012 and 2013. 

LRCCS:  What was that like?

Dr. Cho: Well, everyone there builds their own huts.  The huts are built out of cheap plywood, some bricks… they build them in about a day or two (so you can imagine how shabby they look, at least from the outside). I ended up building my own at the beginning of my long-term field research. The nuns helped me build it and we finished it in one-and-a-half days. Building a hut for oneself sounds cool and fascinating, and it is indeed! But in this context, building requires a lot of careful maneuvering skills and political sensitivity about measuring the proper building time and space, and dealing with the Work Team (the Chinese officials). The nuns become well equipped to deal with these things over the course of their lives in Yachen. Building in Yachen is fundamentally a political issue. 

LRCCS:  How do the monks live?

Dr. Cho: Thanks for asking this question! The monks also need to build their own huts, but they have much better resources from their families and home monasteries, so their huts are in better shape, and much larger. Importantly, unlike the nuns, (this is a largely neglected fact) they do not have a shortage of quarters or land issues, because many of them have home monasteries that they can return to during politically troublesome times. In contrast, the nuns stay in Yachen forever, and must struggle to find land for building their huts and securing their livelihoods because there is nowhere to return for them. 

LRCCS:  What sorts of interesting stories happened while you were there?

Dr. Cho: There are so many, it’s tough to choose. One funny story is about the wild dogs. They’re very scary there. People sometimes die because of a dog attack. I am serious! In fact, I was bitten by a dog during my second year of field work in 2011.  The injury didn’t look bad at first, and the nuns told me that as long as I wasn’t bleeding a lot, I should be OK. So I waited, because as a field worker, I didn’t want to make a big fuss about this. But it kept getting worse and worse. It was swelling, turning black and blue.  A nun advised me to go to a local hospital, which was about seven hours away by bus.

I said goodbye, told the nuns I should be back in about three days, and took a very simple backpack with me. I thought I’d be back soon. I went to the nearby town and found a Chinese doctor (he is himself a Buddhist).  He saw my wound and told me we would have to cut my leg open and squeeze the blood out, something like that. There was no electricity there on that night, so he was using a tiny flashlight to look at my leg.

The doctor suddenly asked me, “Do you have a lama? Can you call him and ask him whether we need to cut your leg?” It was sort of an ethnographic moment for me to see that he wanted to give over his medical authority to a religious figure. Of course, I also noticed that he was scared, because he realized that I was a foreigner and that if anything happened to me, he’d be in big trouble.  

Anyway, ten days after being bit, I ended up having to go all the way back to South Korea and was hospitalized for a week. I went back to China that summer after my treatment in Korea. I have a large, permanent scar on my leg, a nice souvenir. 

LRCCS: Sounds like a crazy adventure. Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to promote?

Dr. Cho: This is completely different from my research, but if possible, I want to work to improve the living situation of these nuns; specifically, to get them more toilets. For a community of 10,000 people, there are only two or three toilets.  It’s horrible.  I’d like to raise some money to get more bathroom facilities there. 

If you're interested in helping Dr. Cho raise money to get toilet facilities built in Yachen, please contact Eric Couillard - coueric@umich.edu
Thanks for reading the latest edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series.  Stay tuned for more interviews!