Photo by Jon Chase


Interview on Chinese Women's Lives
EAA Interview

James Watson (left) in local teashop with two old friends, Mr. Tang Tim-sing and his father, Mr. Tang Ying-lin, in Ha Tsuen Village, Yuen Long District, Hong Kong New Territories (summer 1995). They are drinking a local favorite consisting of coffee, black tea, sugar, and canned condensed milk. James and Rubie Watson lived in Ha Tsuen for 15 months, 1977-1978. They return regularly to visit friends and learn of changes affecting village life.

A village girl with family friend at a local McDonald’s restaurant located in one of Hong Kong’s “new towns” (Tin Shui Wai in Yuen Long District, New Territories). This huge new city emerged from reclaimed land in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the first public facilities to appear was this McDonald’s restaurant, which immediately became an important center of community life. Prof. Watson’s 1990s research dealt with the “localization” of transnational fast food chains. To the child depicted in this photo (taken on June 1st, 1994) McDonald’s is not a foreign institution. The Big Mac has become local food for local people. Ronald McDonald (known in Cantonese as Uncle McDonald) is very much at home in the Hong Kong New Territories.

Dried and salted fish shops in Macau, 15 March 1997. Preserved fish like this once constituted a central feature of the diet in south China and was far more important that pork or poultry (which were too expensive for most people to consume regularly). The market in preserved fish has declined dramatically since the 1980s as families became more affluent and demanded fresh fish, pork, and chicken. Shops like this could once be found on every street corner in Macau, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Today a remaining few cater to yuppies who treat dried-salt fish as nostalgia cuisine and pay high prices for “home-style” dishes prepared in fancy restaurants.

Local women engaged in the worship of the local goddess Tianhou (known at Tin Hau in Cantonese) in San Tin Village, Yuen Long District, Hong Kong New Territories. The occasion was the opening ceremony of the local temple which was renovated in 1970 (it was originally built in the 14th century). James and Rubie Watson lived in San Tin for 17 months in 1969-1970. Rubie Watson has made a life-long study of Cantonese village women’s lives.
See Also: Dr. Rubie Watson

This is a vegetarian meal to celebrate the opening of a new temple in the Hong Kong New Territories (note the Coca-Cola cans). Oysters are considered "vegetarian" (jai in Chinese) because they do not move; they "grow" like any other crop and are "planted" (by inserting stones) in tidal flats along Deep Bay in Pearl River Delta. During Buddhist festivals great mounds of oyster shells appear in New Territories villages.

This is dowry gold on display in gold shops located in the town of Yuen Long, Hong Kong New Territories. Gold jewelry is worn at weddings and becomes the personal property of the bride (she can keep her gold as security in case of family emergency or special gifts for her children and/or daughters-in-law).

Rubie Watson has written at length about dowry gold, see her article, “Class Differences and Affinal Relations in South China,” Man vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 593-615 (1981).

This is the goddess Tianhou (Cantonese Tin Hau), the patron deity of the two lineages (Man and Teng) studied by James and Rubie Watson. This representation sits on the altar of Sand River Temple, along the Laufaushan Coast, Yuen Long District, Hong Kong New Territories.

Tianhou is discussed at length in several of Prof. Watson’s publications, including: “Standardizing the Gods: The Empress of Heaven (Tianhou) Along the South China Coast, 960-1960,” in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, ed. by David Johnson, et al., University of California Press, 1985.

See "Standardizing the Gods"

James L. Watson, Professor Emeritus

Dr. Watson is Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus. He retired from Harvard in 2011, after 40 years of teaching. He previously taught at the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of Pittsburgh, University of Hawaii, and University of Houston.

He is Past-President of the Association of Asian Studies and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was appointed Harvard College Professor in 2003 in recognition of services to undergraduate teaching.


B.A. University of Iowa (Chinese Studies), 1965
Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley (Anthropology), 1972


Professor Watson is an ethnographer who has spent over 4 decades working in south China, primarily in villages (Guangdong, Jiangxi, and the Hong Kong region). He learned to speak country Cantonese in the Hong Kong New Territories during the late 1960s and has subsequently worked in many parts of the People’s Republic (using Mandarin). His research has focused on Chinese emigrants to London, ancestor worship and popular religion, family life and village organization, food systems, and the emergence of a post-socialist culture in the PRC. Prof. Watson also worked with graduate students in Harvard’s Department of Anthropology to investigate the impact of transnational food industries in East Asia, Europe, and Russia.

selected publications


SARS in China
Prelude to Pandemic?
Between Two Cultures
Asian and African systems of slavery
Golden Arches East
Cultural Politics of Food
Class and social stratification in post-revolution China
Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China
Emigration and the Chinese Lineage
Village Life in Hong Kong

Articles (English)

Waking The Dragon
Chattel Slavery
Funeral Specialists
Adoption and Lineage
Ancestral Hall
Chinese Death Ritual: Introduction
Chinese Diaspora Formation

Chinese Kinship Reconsider
Big Mac Attack
Globalization in Encyclopedia Britanica
Obesity in China

Guide to Kinship Jargon
Standardizing the Gods
Feeding the Revoution
Forty Years on the Border
Geomancy and Colonialism
Rites or Beliefs
Transactions in People

Articles (Chinese)

Rites or Beliefs
Adoption of Outsiders
Chinese Lineage Reexamined
Funeral Rites

Of Flesh and Bones
Banqueting Rites in Hong Kong
Diaspora Formation

Articles (Japanese)

Adoption and Lineage
Diaspora Formation
Killing the Ancestors
Structure of Death Rites

Full publication List

San tin village, hong kong

The ethnographic photos in this series were taken by Prof. Watson in San Tin Village, Hong Kong New Territories, 1969-1970. San Tin is a single-lineage/single-surname village, which means that all people born into this community are direct descendants of one man (Man Sai-go). Members of the Man lineage have lived in this village for over seven hundred years. Today this kinship group constitutes a transnational diaspora with representatives living in over a dozen countries.

See Also:
Prof. Watson’s Journal of Asian Studies article on this subject.

This is the main altar in the San Tin ancestral hall dedicated to the founder, Man Sai-go. Each wooden tablet is engraved with a specific (male) ancestor's name, the surname(s) of his wife (or wives), his generation number, and any titles he might have earned or received. Each tablet place (or wei, "seat") must be purchased by the family of the ancestor. New tablets can only be installed with the ancestral hall is renovated (once every two hundred years, on average); the altar is expanded during renovation making room for new generations. Elders told Prof. Watson (in the late 1960s) that each tablet contains an aspect of the ancestor's soul (shen); other aspects reside in the tomb and in the paper list of ancestors kept in the home. Copyright James L. Watson©

Descendants of Man Sai-go (the founding ancestor of the San Tin Man lineage) are gathered at his tomb during the 1970 Double-Nine Festival (ninth of the ninth lunar month). Roast pigs are presented at the tomb and later taken back to San Tin where they are divided among attendees. The local schoolmaster is reading an annual report ("worshipful words") to the ancestor, detailing the accounts of the founder's estate (proceeds from land and property owned in Man Sai-go's name). The report is being read in classical Chinese (wenyen), pronounced in Cantonese -- hence the smiles on some faces (no one but the ancestor and the school master can really understand what is being said). Each generation bows (Cantonese: kautau) to the ancestor as a unit; distinctions based on class, wealth, or status are ignored during the ritual. All descendants are equal in the eyes of the ancestor. The only person singled out for special attention is the lineage master (zuzhang), the oldest surviving elder in the most senior generation. In this photo the lineage master kneels in the first row along with his other generation mates. He holds a small tray containing a single teacup (which is used to pour out libations to the ancestor).

This is the gate to Yan Sau Wai, the original hamlet that was built by Man lineage farmers when they moved to the San Tin area. San Tin is the general name for a nucleated cluster of eight hamlets (not all of which are walled). Each hamlet has its own earth shrine and neighborhood rituals. Walled hamlets have been built in the Pearl River Delta for at least eight hundred years, dating from the first Han Chinese settlers. The wall compounds are called wai in Cantonese (wei in Mandarin) which means enclosure; most Wai had at least one watchtower. In effect, Wai are small fortresses that contain up to 100 small houses. Gates, including this one, were closed at night; the walls were six to ten feet high and approximately three feet thick (composed of rocks, gravel, and bricks sealed in a special lime-based covering). Delta villages like San Tin were prey to bandits and river pirates until the 1950s. Villagers had to provide their own security (including local militias and crop-watching societies) in the absence of effective state control. Rubie Watson spent many hours interviewing older women in walled hamlets like Yan Sau Wai. Once they reached advanced age, women seldom left the confines of their own hamlet and became active participants in the village security system (they kept close watch on everything that happened in their realm). This photo was taken in 1969. Yan Sau Wai's gate was "modernized" in the 1970s and is now covered by ceramic tiles.

In 1970 members of the Man lineage gathered in San Tin's central plaza (depicted here) to make the annual pilgrimage to their founder's tomb (see photo above: Founding Ancestor Worship). The local school children (90 percent of whom were Man) were given a holiday for the day. Elders (men aged 61 or older) were driven to the tomb in small buses hired for the day; children, youths, and one visiting anthropologist rode in the lorries shown in the photo. During that era, women did not participate in the ancestral rites at the founder's tomb (beginning in the 1980s Man daughters did start attending). The trucks and buses passed by neighboring lineage villages (honking horns and making as much racket as possible) to demonstrate to their traditional rivals that the Man lineage was prospering. Until the 1950s (when Hong Kong Police put an end to such violence) pilgrimages to founders’ tombs were occasions for battles between rival lineages. In 1970 several of the older men (some of whom are shown in the photo) confided to Prof. Watson that they missed the "good old days" when a little blood was shed in the service of the ancestor. By comparison, they said, the events depicted here were tame and a little boring. But the young people had a marvelous time, and looked forward to the event every year.

In 1970 the Man lineage at San Tin renovated the local Tianhou Temple and held an opera to honor the deity. (Tianhou, or Tinhau in Cantonese, is usually translated as "Empress of Heaven"; she is the patron deity for San Tin as well as many other lineage communities along the Pearl River Delta.) A temporary opera shed (depicted here) was erected and a Cantonese opera troupe was hired to perform for five days and nights. Relatives, neighbors, and friends from other villages came to San Tin for the festivities. Many of San Tin's emigrant workers returned from Europe (where they worked in the restaurant trade) to attend the opera. The event was financed by remittances from Europe.

Every year major lineages in the Hong Kong New Territories share pork among descendants of key ancestors. In this photo elders of the Man lineage (located in San Tin Village) carefully weigh and divide shares of meat paid for by the ancestor himself (even though he has been dead for seven centuries, he is very much "alive" socially - through the mechanism of his ancestral estate). Shares of this pork were given only to male descendants of the relevant ancestor, as verification of lineage membership. Pork divisions (fen jurou) like this are still observed in many parts of the New Territories. Prior to the 1960s, this may have been the only meat many people ate all year. Today the meat does not have real nutritional value, but it has great symbolic value to members of local lineages.

This is a typical Cantonese village house located in San Tin (the hamlet of Fan Tin Tsuen). The photo was taken in 1969. The dramatic arch at the top of the house is designed (according to San Tin elders) to deflect ghosts and bad fengshui (wind and water, known in English as geomancy). The terra-cotta frieze is an indication that the original builder was affluent by village standards. Other indicators of affluence are the stone threshold and the high-fired, thin bricks (known locally as "blue bricks," which are harder and longer lasting than standard low-fired, "brown" bricks). The wooden door is decorated with wood-block prints depicting door gods, which are thought to protect the household from intruders. These hand-drawn prints were purchased in the nearby market town of Yuen Long. Lunar New Year posters adorn the sides of the door; these are couplets of a poem in classical Chinese, produced -- on the spot -- by an itinerant calligrapher. The ceramic jug contains water carried from one of the village wells. The small stove on the left was used primarily to prepare pig feed from vegetation dredged from a nearby pond. The entire corpus of material culture depicted in the photo has disappeared. This house was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new, two-story, modern house with electricity and running water. That house, in turn, was torn town in the early 1990s and a three-story house (with central air conditioning and satellite TV dish) now stands on the spot. Prof. Watson has been keeping track of housing changes since he first lived in San Tin during the late 1960s. The new houses were built by returned emigrants who made their fortunes in Europe or Canada.

Unless otherwise noted, the photographs in this gallery were taken by, and are copyrighted by, James L. Watson©.

These images are not to be reproduced, copied, or published without the written permission of Professor Watson.