Screening Room: Peasant Family Happiness

Photo by Jenny Chio.

We hope you were able to enjoy the film Peasant Family Happiness! The film has been taken down, but this page will remain up with the filmmaker interview and other teaching resources.

Welcome to another installment of the Screening Room! For the next two weeks, we are excited to screen Peasant Family Happiness (2013), directed by filmmaker and anthropologist Jenny Chio. Chio’s film takes us behind the scenes into the everyday work of rural tourism in the villages of Ping’an and Upper Jidao, China. This intimate portrait of the world of ethnic tourism provides viewers with an insightful look at how villagers prepare themselves and their villages for tourists. The film compares and brings together these two villages at different stages in the development of their tourist industries. By documenting everyday interactions, the film explores the confusions, ambiguities, and opportunities created through the development of tourist economies. The film also provides a unique look at the commodification of ethnicity as we see villagers don ethnic dress that may or may not reflect their ethnicity, sell handcrafts that are not necessarily made locally, practice choreographed performances, prepare traditional food, and develop historical narratives about their “ancient” villages for tourist consumption.

Peasant Family Happiness is a complex film that plays with our own tourist gaze and desires for the exotic and bucolic, even as it reminds us of the work, investment, and complex reality of those who put their everyday lives, culture, and history on display. The film is accompanied by an insightful and detailed interview with the filmmaker, as well as references and related readings and films for those interested in tourism, development, globalization, ethnicity, rural economies, and contemporary China.

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Jenny Chio

Jenny Chio is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and affiliated faculty member in Film and Media Studies and East Asian Studies at Emory University. She is also the coeditor of Visual Anthropology Review, the journal of the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA). In 2013 and 2014, she served as codirector of the SVA Film and Media Festival. Chio’s research explores contemporary rural subjectivity, ethnic identity, media, and modernization processes. Her publications include a single-authored monograph on rural ethnic tourism and regimes of labor and leisure in contemporary China (A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China, 2014), as well as articles and chapters on rural media, cultural heritage politics, mobility and migration, and visual research methods.

Her film 农家乐/Peasant Family Happiness won the 2013 David Plath Media Award given by the Society for East Asian Anthropology. Chio is currently working on two projects: a second book that examines vernacular media forms and the emergence of a rural modern, and a new ethnographic film on two Miao women and the gendered experience of modernization in Guizhou, China.

Interview with Jenny Chio

Patricia Alvarez: I really enjoyed watching your film. In it, we learn that you had carried research in Upper Jidao and Ping’an villages before starting to work on the film. Can you tell us a bit about your research there and how the idea to do the film came about? What is the relationship between the film and your broader research project?

Jenny Chio: My fieldwork in Upper Jidao and Ping’an began in early 2006. I was interested in exploring how residents of ethnic minority tourism villages conceptualized tourism as a form of social and economic development that aligned them more closely to state visions of modernity and progress. In particular, I focused on aspects of everyday life and personal ambitions that were tied to experiences and imaginations of both mobility (whether traveling as a migrant worker or as a tourist) and visuality (namely, the material and performative work involved in presenting oneself and one’s community as a place worth seeing and visiting). Because tourism development, particularly in rural regions, requires investment in the visual environment—from vernacular landscapes of agrarian production to the appearance of rusticity encapsulated by rural architecture to the recognizability of otherness embodied in clothing and personal dress—my research was always oriented toward the visual. I used video-recording and playback as a research method during fieldwork, regularly editing short videos about each village’s tourism industry and sharing them with residents in both Upper Jidao and Ping’an. I let village residents guide my shooting and recording by eliciting their feedback, suggestions on what to film next, and advice on what aspects of their villages they considered best or most worthy of tourist attention.

I intended from the beginning of my fieldwork to produce an ethnographic film, although I did not have a script or storyboard for the film itself. Rather, the film—like my writing—emerged anthropologically, so to speak, from the ethnographic research. I have written about my visual research methods (Chio 2011a) and the relationship between film editing and writing (Chio 2014b) in anthropological analysis. The film was completed in 2013, a few months before the publication of my monograph (Chio 2014a). In my book, I develop an argument around the work of tourism or, as village residents put it, “doing tourism.” Rural ethnic tourism as it exists in villages like Upper Jidao and Ping’an operates within a regime of labor and leisure that gives shape and meaning to contemporary subjectivities in China. Yet tourism studies as a field has largely assumed the tourist to be the acting subject. By employing mobility and visuality as analytics, I relocate the active force of rural ethnic tourism within the practices, experiences, and reflections of the people and communities whose lives and livelihoods are most at stake: the people who have to do the work of tourism, day in and day out. The book and the film are obviously related, both in terms of their content and their development, but the way in which they pose particular arguments about rural modernity, mobility, the politics of appearance, and ethnic subjectivity in China differ by virtue of the limits and possibilities of each medium.

PA: The film does a great job exploring the contrast between the tourist industries in the villages of Upper Jidao and Ping’an. How did you decide on which villages to film? Can you talk more about the decision of juxtaposing two rural villages that are part of this growing industry?

JC: This is a great question. The period when I was planning and conducting fieldwork, after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, was one marked by a huge amount of public attention to both tourism development (domestic and foreign) and state-led rural modernization projects. Tourism, and rural ethnic tourism especially, seemed to be everywhere—in public consciousness, mass media, quotidian conversations—especially in the regions where I was living, because of the concentration of ethnic minority communities there.

I first visited Ping’an in 2002, as a tourist, and again in 2004 during a pre-fieldwork exploratory trip. I was fascinated by Ping’an precisely because the tourism industry in the village was simultaneously very entrenched, with ticket booths and lots of guesthouses, but also very small-scale since the resident community is only about 850 people. In 2005, my dissertation advisor, Nelson Graburn, told me about a regional rural tourism development program in Guizhou province that was supported in part by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and, later, the World Bank. This project, which included Upper Jidao, was organized through the provincial tourism bureau, but it emphasized community engagement and seemed like a potentially interesting contrast to Ping’an, where tourism had emerged more organically through the efforts of village cadres and entrepreneurs. I decided to work in both communities, which turned out to be quite fortuitous because, as I soon learned, some people from Upper Jidao had visited Ping’an in 2004 as a part of a study tour in order to learn about rural tourism! So the links between these two places were already established well before I came onto the scene, and my task was, therefore, to explore exactly how people could study tourism and learn how to do the work of tourism for their own benefit.

PA: In many ethnographic films and other works of creative nonfiction, the directors’ voices are present. In Peasant Family Happiness, we hear you interviewing people, responding to comments and questions about what you are filming, making jokes, and having friendly interactions. I would love to hear more about the decision to keep your voice and make your position visible and central to the narrative of the film.

JC: On one level, the presence and inclusion of my voice, body, and movement through the handheld camera is simply the result of my attempt to be both an ethnographer and a filmmaker at the same time. Since I was a one-person crew, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to adopt the artifice of being out of the picture. I was very much in the field, and I wanted my shooting to reflect my positionality without necessarily making me the center of the story. The end result, I believe, works at two registers: first, in terms of ethnographic reflexivity and making known that the film is not an objective window through which viewers can look at Ping’an and Upper Jidao, and second, in terms of making my argument that the tourist gaze always already encompasses a reverse gaze: namely, that of the village residents returning the look and, in my case, asking me questions, suggesting that I invest in a hotel, or referencing past conversations we had had. Additionally, I think there is a critical function embedded in listening to and observing conversations, not just responses: how we might interpret what people say becomes more substantial and revealing when questions and interruptions are included.

PA: Something that came up at various points during the film is the relationship between dress and looking like an ethnic minority. We hear subjects explaining that tourists travel to see ethnic minorities. The girls who work as models in Ping’an comment they don’t necessarily wear dresses that reflect their ethnicity, but since they are ethnic minorities they are not really tricking tourists. During the scene with the woman removing kernels from the corn, she briefly mentions that the scene would look better if she were wearing traditional dress. Can you expand on this relationship between dress, the identities of ethnic minorities in China, and what they imagine tourists expect of them?

JC: The question of dress and identity is absolutely central to ethnic tourism, and in my book I write about the models in Ping’an posing with tourists and the more general anxiety among village women, in particular, over “looking the part.” I argue that there is a politics of appearance which conditions how, when, and why ethnic identity, and ethnicized differences more specifically, are externalized and materialized in clothing, architecture, and landscapes. I call these the visual expediencies of tourism, in which successful tourism hinges upon the necessity of fulfilling certain visual demands and expectations. It is important to realize that ethnic identity in China is determined along official state categories and that the Communist government embarked upon an ethnic classification project in the first decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (see Gladney 2004; Harrell 2001; Litzinger 2000; Mullaney 2012; Schein 2000). One consequence of this official classification scheme is that ethnicity in China is highly codified in both state policy and public representations (Blum 2001; McCarthy 2009).

What this means for tourism and the politics of appearance is that village residents are highly cognizant of and attentive to looking ethnic and to the values (economic, political, and cultural) placed on being seen, in the appropriate ways, as ethnic. Everyone understands that part of the appeal of places like Upper Jidao and Ping’an, for tourists, is the opportunity to see “real” ethnic minorities. The models in Ping’an provide one avenue for this type of encounter as mediated by photography, while at the same time people like the woman in Upper Jidao de-kerneling corn start to recognize how to increase value through image work. There is also a lot of worry, time, and money spent on maintaining appearances, literally, especially when it comes to village architecture and vernacular landscapes. Not only did people have to look the part, but village residents realized they would have to do a lot of work to repair and renovate their homes and fields to be visually attractive to tourists. And of course, there are visual tropes and discourses of rusticity, agrarian lifeways, and “traditional” buildings that sharply guided and predetermined what was considered the right look for a village.

PA: A scene that stood out for me was when it is raining in Upper Jidao and the tourists cannot see the performance. They start interacting with you and asking about your work, what you are doing in the village, and your opinion as a Chinese-American on tourism and change. Can you talk more about this moment?

JC: I debated over whether or not to use this scene in the film and opted to keep it because it is the one scene that overtly calls me out as an outsider: not just as a nonlocal, but also as a foreigner. In the moment, and I think this comes across in the scene through the sudden camera movements and my hesitant comments, I didn’t know how to answer the tourist’s question about whether or not things had changed in Upper Jidao (even though I was the one who brought up the topic in the first place!). The man’s response to me is really powerful in that he half-jokingly alludes to the various levels of complicity involved in tourism as development, from not wanting change (which he attributes to me, and by extension, to American desires) to the necessity of some changes (which speaks to domestic Chinese politics and debates over rural modernization and economic development). In the middle of it all is Teacher Pan, as well as the other village residents, whose everyday lives are both the object and subject of tourism.

PA: In both villages people discuss how important investment, especially foreign investment, is to developing tourist infrastructure. Is it common to find foreign investors in these villages? Did the villages find investors?

JC: Most of the investments in village businesses and industries come from domestic Chinese sources, whether individual entrepreneurs who come to Ping’an to rent land or space from residents and open a guesthouse or restaurant, or larger enterprises that work directly with government offices to manage and operate a tourism destination (in Chinese parlance, a “scenic spot”; Nyírí 2006). Ping’an is part of one such tourism management zone, which is run by a private company that invested a great deal of money into the area to build and maintain ticket booths, shuttle buses, and other infrastructure. Upper Jidao, at present, is still self-organized for the most part; tourism there has actually decreased in recent years because a larger, more heavily promoted tourist destination opened in 2008 (Xijiang, known as the Thousand Miao Household Village; see Schein 2000), which attracts the bulk of group and mass tours. In Upper Jidao, one household has received some support from private donors and local government offices to open and run a guesthouse, but that is the extent of the tourism infrastructure in the village.

PA: Various characters throughout the film bring up the topic of migration: how young people are leaving, how life as a migrant might compare to staying and working in tourism. How did the patterns of migration change as the tourist industries develop, if they did?

JC: I have written about how migration and past experiences with travel influence residents’ ideas about tourism and what tourists want (Chio 2011b). Even today, there are dominant orders of mobility that discursively position certain populations as mobile (perceived both positively and negatively) and other populations as immobile (or ideally immobile; Chio 2014a). Of course, in light of current events in Europe and political rhetoric in the United States, the orders of mobility and the question of who should or should not be allowed to be mobile (and to where) are completely front-and-center in public consciousness.

In China migration has been a central concern and point of anxiety in public debates, largely around the question of internal, rural-to-urban labor migrants. At the same time, domestic tourism has been booming and widely touted by the state as a means of increasing domestic spending and consumption. Tourism and migration are, therefore, coconstitutive opportunities in rural ethnic China. For village residents, whether or not to migrate really hinges upon the basic question of whether or not the local tourism industry is capable of providing sustained, sufficient incomes. In Ping’an, for example, there is a lot less outmigration for labor nowadays because there is enough opportunity in the village to earn some income through tourism and related businesses, such as buying vegetables and other supplies at wholesale prices in nearby towns and delivering them to the village for resale. What I have found in Ping’an is that, nowadays, some village residents are choosing to leave the village, but not necessarily because of economic pressures. Rather, these households now have enough economic resources to choose to do so. Some families have moved to the nearby county seat to send their children to school there, for instance. More and more young adults are attending vocational high school and university in Guilin, the nearest major city, and some graduates come back to Ping’an to help modernize and build their family businesses.

In Upper Jidao, on the other hand, because tourism has not yet become central to village household economies, the pattern of labor outmigration has continued. Many of the people I met and interviewed in 2006 and 2007 have left the village, some going only as far as the nearest city (Kaili) and others much further. I have become very interested in following the work and lives of a few women from Upper Jidao, one of whom now runs the only guesthouse in the village and is doing very well and another who, over the years, went from living in the village and tending her family’s fields to a factory town in southern China, then back to Upper Jidao for a while, and now to a small homestead she and her husband built just on the outskirts of Kaili, so that their daughter can attend school in the city. She makes a living selling vegetables and soft tofu in the city market. I am very interested in and committed to developing longitudinal perspectives on social transformations in rural China, particularly in this part of China where tourism has deeply shaped local subjectivities.

PA: The film interweaves beautifully shot verité footage as you walk through the towns, landscapes, and among the tourists and villagers. You did this shooting on your own, which is not an easy task. Can you talk about this experience?

JC: I appreciate that compliment very much. The most I can say is that shooting on my own felt quite manageable at the time. I was also doing my fieldwork, and so shooting became another tool in my methodological toolkit. Sometimes I would walk around the villages, shooting activities and talking to people along the way, and at other times I would arrange a time and place to sit down with someone to discuss a particular issue. When I didn't have a tripod on hand, I learned to use all sorts of things for stability, from fence posts to books to rocks. However, editing was difficult, precisely because I had only my footage to work with and I was creating a narrative after the fact. The narrative openness allowed my research and fieldwork to develop in important, unexpected directions (such as my focus on visuality and the politics of appearance), but it also made editing the film quite tricky. In the end, I benefited a lot from the feedback I received from village residents when I showed short clips and bits of footage to them, as well as from showing rough cuts to Chinese anthropologists and filmmakers, who helped me envision my film.

I am also working alone for my second film, which will be a portrait of the two women mentioned above, although I am open to the possibility of working with an editor when the time comes. This new film feels different from 农家乐/Peasant Family Happiness because the women I am filming are close friends who have known me and my videocamera for over ten years now. They are very generous in terms of giving me time and space to film them.

PA: I was really pulled into the film during the scenes in which you only had still images and ambient sound. These moments opened a space of contemplation and reflection on the reality you explore. Can you talk more about the role of this device in your film?

JC: I’m glad to hear that you found those moments in the film effective. My point was exactly as you put it: to provide viewers with the space and time, however brief, to pause and reflect on the previous scenes while looking closely at the still images and paying attention to sounds, whether they are ambient or, sometimes, spoken language. Part of my impetus for using still images was to provide a stable, visual difference from a lot of the footage that was shot while I was moving around. Additionally, because visual appearances and photography are so vital to each village’s tourism industry, I wanted to gesture toward that aspect of the tourism experience, which village residents work very hard at to create and maintain for tourist consumption.

PA: The epilogue is a wonderful end to the film. How did the decision come about to bring people from Upper Jidao to Ping’an? How did their views of the tourist industry in Upper Jidao change after the visit and the conversations they had with villagers from Ping’an?

JC: As I mentioned earlier, a few people from Upper Jidao had visited Ping’an in 2004 as a part of a government-sponsored study tour. So the trip I organized was actually the second trip for some of the individuals involved. I figured that since villagers in both Ping’an and Upper Jidao had heard and seen these villages during the period of my fieldwork, it made sense to try to coordinate a meeting and conversation. I write about this experience in the conclusion of my book, and there I go into detail on the discoveries and disappointments encountered during their very short stay in Ping’an. Afterward, I talked to a few of the Upper Jidao residents about their impressions of Ping’an, and most people were quite positive about it. They felt that while Ping’an was more commercialized, it also offered more opportunities for village residents to earn cash income. In the big picture, I can’t be sure it had a huge impact on their views of the industry at a grand scale, but I do hope that through this brief trip, people in both Upper Jidao and Ping’an gained a sense of what was happening in other parts of China and a better understanding of my research interests and my appreciation of their willingness to support my fieldwork.

Related Films

Cannibal Tours, by Dennis O'Rourke (1988)
Up the Yangtze, by Yung Chang (2007)
Global Villages, by Tamar Gordon (2005)


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