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How did emigration transform Chinese villagers into global consumers?

September 04, 2018
Selia Tan and Barbara Voss investigating an excavation sample (Image credit: Barbara Voss)

Through research examining how 19th century emigration from southeastern China transformed village residents into global consumers, a Stanford archaeologist, pioneers interdisciplinary research of qiaoxiang villages in China.

Emigration from Guangdong province in southeastern China is one of the largest and most important voluntary population movements during the modern era. During the 19th century, an estimated 2.5 million people relocated to destinations throughout Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Americas, and Australia/New Zealand. You will find “Chinatowns,” neighborhoods of Chinese immigrants providing resources and a sense of community in major cities all over the world. When it comes to migration, the tendency is to focus on the experience of the diaspora, the immigrants’ experience assimilating in a new country and this has been extensively researched in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

However, to date, archaeologists have conducted very little research on qiaoxiang, the home villages from where these migrants originate. Barbara Voss, an associate professor of anthropology and her co-investigator, Jinhua (Selia) Tan, an associate professor of architecture from Wuyi University, are developing new interdisciplinary approaches to qiaoxiang studies. Their recently published paper in American Antiquity (co-authored with Stanford doctoral student Laura Ng and Tulane University zoo archaeologist J. Ryan Kennedy) challenges the previously held assumptions of archaeologists studying Chinese diaspora.

The Office of International Affairs (OIA) interviewed Voss, a recipient of an OIA 2016 International Research Exploration grant, about her research.

How did your interest in Chinese qiaoxiangvillages develop?

Most of my research takes place in the Bay area within an approximate 40 mile radius from campus. I had been doing research on an archaeological collection from San Jose’s historic Chinatown. As I was working on this project, it dawned on me that I was only looking at half the story.

Archaeological studies of immigrant communities tend to assume that migration flows in one direction. However, migration is more complicated than that. In 19th century China, villagers didn’t just leave their homes, but instead they expanded their villages into their new home countries. Migrants formed various types of associations that supported newly arrived migrants in foreign settings and kept them connected with their home villages.

Simultaneously, rural villages throughout the Pearl River Delta were transformed into qiaoxiang – migrants’ home villages – as migrants sent remittances to support families and cultural institutions back home. Returning migrants also shared new cultural influences with other village residents.

There has been a lot of research on the Chinese diaspora. What is the significance of conducting research on the home country?

Through the artifacts that we uncovered in our excavations at Cang Dong Village, we can determine what cultural influences returning migrants brought home with them, and how that influenced daily life in the village. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th century, there is an increase in the use of medicines, grooming products, and clothing produced in Europe and the United States. But other aspects of daily life remained the same. It seems that there was very little change in what people ate and how it was prepared and served. This is very interesting to us, because in United States Chinatowns, we see a lot of dietary changes. So now one of our new research questions is, why did some aspects of village life change as a result of migration, but not others?

Graduate students and discovered artifacts (Image credit: Barbara Voss)


What our research makes clear is that the home village can no longer be viewed as simply a repository for tradition. Even village residents who did not leave China became global consumers. People, objects and aesthetics became the connections linking the diaspora and home village communities.

How did you meet you collaborator from Wuyi University and what does she bring to your research project?

In 2012, Gordon Chang, professor of history and Shelley Fishkin, professor of English and American studies, invited me to join the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. This transnational project provided the first opportunity for me to meet researchers from the Pearl River Delta region who were studying qiaoxiang. In 2013, a delegation of researchers from Wuyi University visited Stanford and I made a presentation about our archaeological research in North America. Then, in 2014, we were invited to a research conference in Guangzhou. Our hosts took us on a trip to the Pearl River Delta area where we toured several qiaoxiang, including Cang Dong Village – the site of our current research.

It was during this trip that I met Professor Tan and we realized that our two specialties – architectural history and historical archaeology – were very complementary. She studies spatial practices and I study material practices, and we investigate similar questions through both sets of evidence. We also invited Matthew Sommer, professor of history at Stanford, to join the project. Matt is a legal historian specializing in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and so he and his students are able to contribute archival perspectives. So together we have three disciplines represented: architectural history, historical archaeology, and legal history. This is an unusual combination!

The excavation team at Cang Dong Village (Image credit: Barbara Voss)


As a first step, Dr. Tan invited us to begin our research to Cang Dong Village, where she directs an architectural heritage program. We established an Intention of Research Cooperation between Stanford University, Wuyi University, and the Guangdong Province Bureau of Cultural Relics. This was essential to ensure that we had proper permission to conduct the planned research.

Without Professor Tan’s leadership, this project would not have been possible. Having an in-country co-investigator brings invaluable knowledge and expertise to the project; local contacts and knowledge, cultural context, and an understanding of the local procedures and the required permits.

What is next for research?

Two of the Stanford doctoral students who participated in the 2016 and 2017 Cang Dong Village research are returning to Wuyi University this academic year, to develop dissertation projects on this topic.

We are also analyzing material from our subsurface tests in 2017 and to delve further into the influence of the diaspora on home villages. We want to know: What is the nature of import-export industry and what supply chain mechanisms were in place that may have influenced the presence of foreign goods in the home village? What is the influence of wealth creation for returning migrants when they return home? How does the American experience transform the village landscape?

The addition of archaeological methods to the interdisciplinary research being conducted at the Guangdong Qiaoxiang Cultural Research Center at Wuyi University opens up an entirely new field of collaborative research among Stanford University faculty and graduate students and between China and U.S. scholars.



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