Caroline Fielder is Lecture of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds and a member of the Centre of Religion and Public Life
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
As a teenager I decided to read Chinese at university and on my first visit to Taiwan I fell in love with the language. A year spent in Beijing as part of my undergraduate studies deepened my understanding of Chinese society. Being only two years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident many Chinese were understandably reticent to make friends with foreign students at that time but I was determined to meet people and was fortunate to meet a wonderful family who befriended me and helped me see a side of China closed off to many. I ate at their home (a one bed apartment shared by three generations), learned about cultural niceties (often by getting them wrong!), went to temples with younger family members on their days off, and was ‘volunteered’ to join grandma and her friends, many of whom had suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, in a bible study that she hosted in their hallway. Inspired by their friendship I vowed to return to China after graduation to ‘give something back’. A friend suggested I apply to work for one of the only Chinese charities legally able to take on foreigners at the time – the Amity Foundation. Posted to a small city in Jiangxi, on the ‘wrong side’ of the Yangtze river (the river was the cut-off point for heating) my three years teaching with Amity brought to life the joys and challenges of daily life in rural China, gave me a more nuanced understanding of the sensitivities surrounding religion in China, brought home the realities of poverty and deprivation, and gave me a much clearer understanding of the importance and enormous privilege of education. Fast forward a few years, and I found myself back in UK, taking up the post of Director of China Desk at the national ecumenical body CTBI. My role there was hugely varied and included supporting emerging Chinese FBOs, initiating development projects in China, inputting into the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue, accompanying grassroots and state-level visits to China and hosting reciprocal visits to UK. Informed by regular trips to China and collaboration with a range of academics and practitioners, research on the religious context in China became a core part of my role and was disseminated through a publication we ran with University of Birmingham The China Study Journal. During this time I completed an MPhil at University of Birmingham on the rural church in China. I turned to full time academic research when I was awarded a WREAC scholarship to undertake a PhD in Leeds, and that, in turn led on to my appointment as Lecturer in Chinese Studies within East Asian Studies.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
Having planned to submit a PhD research proposal on the development of civil society in China, a chance conversation with Professor Grace Davie (who I was lucky enough to be sat next to at a formal dinner event) led me to re-write my proposal, to draw more closely on the access I had to the emerging FBO sector in China and to use that as a lens to examine civil society. Her advice contradicted others who had suggested I move away from religious groups and explore secular NGOs, certainly if I wanted funding. Tapping into a field that excited me came through in my revised proposal (and led to the funding) and ultimately led to a more exciting piece of research in the end. Throughout my career I have worked hard, prepared thoroughly, and made informed choices. Throughout my career I have worked hard, prepared thoroughly, and made informed choices but I am also willing to admit to a fair share of ‘serendipity’ or luck getting me to where I find myself today! Looking back I can now see a distinct path in my research but it wasn’t always so obvious at the time and I am grateful to those who guided me along the way.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
In addition to work on my monograph, which looks at religiously inspired charitable organisations (RICOs) and the wider rehabilitation of charity in contemporary China I have recently been working on an article which looks at the ways in which the material – religious symbols, semantics, space and sensory perception – has been successfully drawn on as a means of negotiating and appropriating space for these groups in the absence of any legislative framework.
Looking ahead, I am hoping to start a new project on the Chinese community in UK. Focusing on different target groups of migrants this new project will challenge the preconception of a single, unified ‘Chinese community’ and seeks to explore the ways in which Chinese migrants contextualise their own journey. Exploring the various ways support is accessed whilst in UK, including through religious communities, I hope to better understand how this support influences their ability to ‘take root’ in their new life-space.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
Given the sensitivity of religion in the Chinese context and the reality that religious organizations have only recently been permitted to re-engage in social welfare and charitable work in China much of my research provides opportunities to explore the ways in which religion is seemingly ‘returning’ to public life in the PRC. Using RICOs as a lens I am able to explore and challenge some of the prevalent discourses and assumptions surrounding religion in China (such as the relegation of religion to the private sphere; and the secularization thesis which underpins much of Chinese religious policy). The work of RICOs provides highly visible channels to explore the ways in which religion can shape culture (seen both in terms of helping to shape a ‘culture of charity’ and in the shaping of values in wider Chinese society). The mere presence of RICOs calls into question themes such as the place of religion and belief in the public sphere. Some of my more recent work looks at RICOs as what Yavuz (2004) calls ‘opportunity spaces’ provide promising space for the close collaboration of state and religious actors, alongside the translation of transnational discourses into the local context. These spaces provide religious personnel with a discursive space within which they can challenge and strengthen their own beliefs, and a work space for secular partners to increase their own sense of religious literacy as they work together for societal transformation, to realize their common aim of a more just society.
Image Credit: Caroline Fielder