Sixteen months at the heart of China’s changes

As a PhD student at UNIL, Jérôme Gapany led an anthropological approach around urban changes and mobility in a large city in South-East China. One of the images taken there won an award in a scientific photography competition organised by the SNSF.

« Sunwalk ». A photo taken in Xiamen (China) by Jérôme Gapany, doctoral student at the Institute of Social Sciences. This picture received a Jury Mention in the « Object of Study » category at the SNSF’s 2020 Science Picture Competition. © Jérôme Gapany

On a sports track on the campus of Xiamen University (on the south-eastern coast of China), a woman walks alone in the shade of her umbrella. « I stayed there for a while to observe people in their daily lives, » explains Jérôme Gapany, an SNSF doctoral student at the Laboratory of Cultural and Social Anthropology (Faculty of Social and Political Sciences). This moment of urban solitude, in full sunshine, was distinguished by a jury mention in the « Object of Study » category of the SNSF’s 2020 Scientific Image Competition.

During a 16-month anthropological « field trip », Jérôme Gapany explored the city of Fuzhou, the administrative capital of the province of Fujian, located around 100 kilometres north of Xiamen. The megalopolis, which has a population of nearly 9 million in the prefecture, has a special economic status. This allows it to open up to foreign countries. This has led to significant development and rapid urbanization.

« How is the population experiencing these changes? How has mobility changed and what are the new practices? What are the public policies? What remains of traditional culture? » Or, to get back to the picture, how do people manage to escape the crowds? It was with a myriad of questions that Jérôme Gapany took to the streets of Fuzhou. His anthropological approach included observation and encounters with the locals, both privately and professionally. « I also conducted mobile interviews. I would walk with a person, in a place that was important to them, in order to get them talking about the urban environment. »

The researcher also experienced « the joy of local administration » to get all necessary authorizations. « My region of study is close to Taiwan, where I also spent time as part of my master’s degree in Asian studies at the University of Geneva. It is therefore a sensitive place. »A Swiss doctoral student studying in a city that still has relatively few foreigners finally attracts more attention than in Shanghai.

One of the interests of the Fuzhou region lies in the number of its dialects. Even as a teenager, Jérôme Gapany took Mandarin lessons at the Collège du Sud in Bulle. He has persevered as a self-taught speaker, in parallel with his studies. Today, confined in a Swiss calm that contrasts with the hustle and bustle of the Chinese city, he is working on his thesis thanks to his notes, photographs and interviews conducted on site.

How do you say « anthropology » in Chinese?

Jérôme Gapany has regularly had to explain his approach, both to the authorities and to the people he has met. By way of lesson n°1, here is the name of his discipline, anthropology.

In its version in simplified characters (the Chinese officially used in writing in mainland China and Singapore), it is written 人类学.

In traditional characters (used notably in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao): 人類學.

The character 人 refers to the human being; 类 refers to the species, classification, or attribute and 学 refers to study, learning, or science. Literally, the study of mankind.

Its phonetic pronunciation, according to the pinyin method of romanization, is as follows: rén lèi xué. The « r » is pronounced halfway between an « r » and a « j »; the « é » as the sound « et » in the word « jouet », and the « x » as the sound « ch », in the word « chut ».

More information

Summary of Jérôme Gapany’s thesis

Jérôme Gapany’s thesis is part of the project « Public Good(s) in Urbanizing China », supported by the SNSF. It is led by Anne-Christine Trémon, lecturer and researcher at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Culturelle et Sociale. Her team also includes two postdoctoral fellows, who have also carried out anthropological work in China. More on this topic.