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Anthropologist rises from outcast to academic

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Yan Yunxiang didn’t hold a pen or more than a few books between the age of 12 and his early 20s.

He spent his adolescence as a shepherd, a laborer and a farmer in two Chinese villages after his family was booted out of Beijing on grounds of class in 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Some 200,000 people were sent to the countryside.

Now a professor of anthropology and co-director of Chinese studies at UCLA, Yan has returned many times to northeastern China to conduct fieldwork in Xiajia, where he lived for seven years. Among anthropologists, he is known for his studies of villagers’ private and emotional lives, an achievement that would not have been possible without his own hopeless days spent on society’s bottom rungs.

In 2005, Yan’s remarkable life was chronicled in the documentary film, “Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village,” the story of three members of China’s “sent-down” generation — now U.S. citizens — who returned to the remote villages where Mao sent them three decades ago. Yet Yan recalls a period of struggle, but not of pain.

“To be honest, we were young,” he said. “I don’t think we were feeling that bad. … Of course you feel angry. You feel cold. And then you cried. But five minutes later, you found something more interesting, and you began to love.”

With only five years of formal schooling, Yan learned primarily by observing rural people and customs. He’d never seen wide-open fields or domestic animals before moving to the village where his father was born in the northern Shandong province. There, Yan and his family were at the very bottom of society where they were bullied mercilessly. His father had never been a wealthy man, only a Beijing shopkeeper “promoted” to the despised rank of capitalist.

In 1971, when Yan was 17, famine drove the family to a decision that would change his life. He set out on his own to Heilongjiang province — more than 800 miles away in Manchuria, China’s northeastern extreme. The lower population density there meant a little more food; more important, Yan had relatives he could seek out.

Ultimately, a cousin got Yan accepted into Xiajia and its small agricultural collective. He lived for seven years on one side of a small house, carrying water for the landlady as a form of rent until the policy that prevented people with “bad” class labels from advancing in society was finally lifted.

In 1978, Yan passed the national college entrance exam and went to Beijing University. He briefly styled himself a folklorist, but what he wanted most was to understand contemporary rural society. He left an assistant professor’s job for graduate school at Harvard University, with no previous exposure to English or Western categories of thought, he said.

When he returned to Xiajia to do fieldwork, Yan says, “I went to the same place again and again without a clearly defined goal of what kind of data I was going to collect. I just went there and immersed [myself] with villagers and renewed my ties.”

The result has been described by Yan’s peers as intimate and irreplaceable. In his book, “Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999,” he describes a rapid shift in power from parents to children. Ceremonies and villagers’ testimonies allude to new sexual freedoms, including prevalent premarital sex.

Yet while the individual is on the rise in China, Yan said, individualism is not. “You have tremendous freedom in private life in China now, but, politically, the public sphere is still very much under state control,” he said.

Yan applies his past to teaching by encouraging contact between students and regular folk. Elderly Chinese are frequent interview subjects for students at the UCLA International Institute's summer Global Learning Institute in Shanghai, where he teaches each year.

His UCLA students have surely learned one lesson Yan absorbed early on: “I firmly believe that learning is different from studying. You could study really hard without learning much.”

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