Dr. Rubie Watson

Rubie Watson in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, with Yan Yunxiang, Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, January 1994. The Square and its convoluted history is the subject of Dr. Watson’s research on memory and historical consciousness in China (see her edited book, Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism).

Rubie Watson engaged in field research at a Cantonese wedding, Sik Gong Wai, Ha Tsuen District, Hong Kong New Territories, 1977. The young women in the background are sung-ga, a Cantonese term meaning "wife-senders." These women are from the bride's village. They accompany the bride to her new residence (the home of the groom) and assist her during the first day of marriage. Rubie and an assistant, Ms. Jennifer Teng (resident of Ha Tsuen village), are taking notes on dowry items transferred by the wife-senders. During weddings, Rubie found herself completely engaged in the observation and recording of complex rituals that lasted for three days and three nights (with little time off for sleep). The results of this research are reported in her book Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (coedited with Patricia Ebrey) and in other publications.

Rubie Watson taking photos at the tomb of a founding ancestor buried in Yuen Long District, Hong Kong New Territories. This tomb belongs to the Teng lineage which is settled in Ha Tsuen village, the site of Rubie's long-term field research. The occasion is the Chung Yang festival on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, 1978. The ritual depicted here is the subject of an essay entitled "Remembering the Dead: Graves and Politics in Southeastern China", in the book Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China.

Ancestral tablets (carved wooden plaques) on display in an ancestral hall in Fan Tin Tsuen, San Tin, Hong Kong New Territories (where Rubie Watson lived from 1969-1970). Each tablet represents a male ancestor. It displays his posthumous name, the surname(s) of his wife or wives, titles awarded during his lifetime, and his generation number. The oldest (and hence most senior) generations are situated on the top tier of the altar. Recent generations are arranged in alternating sequence from top to down (1st to 23rd generations in this case). Each tablet contains an "aspect" of the ancestor's spirit (another aspect is located at the tomb). New tablets are added during the renovation of the hall, which occurs on average every 150 years. Families must purchase an altar "seat" for ancestors they wish to install on the renovated (expanded) altar. Given the costs involved, only a minority of male ancestors end up on the altar. Rubie Watson discusses tablets and ancestor worship in her book, Class and Kinship in South China.

Shrimp boats in the brackish-water canals surrounding Wanqingsha, Panyu Xian, Guangdong Province, March 1991. Rubie Watson has conducted research in this region since the late 1980s. The project deals with land reclamation, fishing, and interethnic relations in China's Pearl River Delta. The fisherpeople in the photo are referred to, in Cantonese, as "People of the Water." (In English language sources they are called Boatpeople.) They spend most of their lives on the water, living in boats and selling their fish to local farmers. Rubie Watson discovered that the Communist revolution has done little to improve the status of boatpeople who remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the Pearl River Delta.

In 2003, Dr. Watson (with colleagues Maris Gillette and Raymond Lum) curated the Peabody Museum exhibit "Portraits from China, 1923-1946: Photographers and their Subjects."

Dr. Rubie Watson

Curator of Comparative Ethnology for the Peabody Museum (Retired)
Senior Lecturer for the Department of Anthropology (Retired)


B.A. Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1969
Ph.D. Anthropology, London School of Economics, 1982


Dr. Watson was Curator of Comparative Ethnography (retired) in Harvard's Peabody Museum and Senior Lecturer (retired) in the Department of Anthropology.

She was Director of the Peabody Museum from 1997 to 2004, the first woman and the first social anthropologist to hold that position.

Prior to coming to Harvard, Watson taught at the University of Pittsburgh were she was Associate Professor of Anthropology.


Complete list of Publications

Class and Kinship
Village Life in Hong Kong
Marriage in China
Memory and History
Chinese Music

Articles, English
Women's Inheritance in Hong Kong PDF
Ancestral Halls PDF
Ancestor Worship PDF
Bridal Laments PDF
Class and Afinity PDF
Fengshui and Landscape PDF
Opening the Museum PDF
Palaces and Museums PDF
Women's Names PDF
Geomany and Colonialism PDF
Two Chinese Museums PDF

Articles, Chinese
Guangxi Journal Introduction PDF
Colonial Encounter in Hong Kong PDF
Contents, Village Life in HK PDF


Dr. Watson taught courses on Cultural Heritage and Women, Work, and Family in East Asia. During the fall semester, 2009, she has taught Cultural Heritage at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

research & interests

Dr. Watson is a field-working anthropologist who specializes on Chinese rural society, especially in the Hong Kong region. Her research has focused on Cantonese women’s sub-culture and the dynamics of family change. Since joining the Peabody Museum in 1992, she has developed an interest in material culture, repatriation, and museums and memory. Currently, she is working on three research projects:

1. Colonial Legacies: Custom and Privilege in Hong Kong’s Old Villages

2. Unmarried/No Children: Low Fertility in Hong Kong

3. The Death of a Moral Community: Farms and Churches in Rural America

4. Repatriation: Museum Encounters with Native Americans

Throughout her association with the Peabody Museum, Dr. Watson has been deeply involved in the museum’s repatriation efforts, creating an electronic catalogue and digitizing collections, developing a program of temporary exhibits, and building a fully professionalized museum staff.

"Rubie Watson: Connecting to the Past in a Personal Way"
The Harvard University Gazette

"Diplomacy of Lewis and Clark stressed in exhibit"

The Harvard University Gazette

"NAGPRA Conference at Peabody To Discuss Repatriation Issues"
The Harvard University Gazette

"A totem pole comes ho me: Tlingit artifact is returned to Alaska"
The Harvard Crimson