“Assembling a We” in the Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Inquiry: Reflections on Intellectual Activism in the Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Inquiry


Xiuying “Sophy” Cai, Ph.D. in Education
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Drawing upon Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), Holman Jones (2016), in ICQI 2016 under the theme, “Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times,” argued for the importance of “assembling a we in critical qualitative inquiry” (p. 130). For Holman Jones, “it is important to consider critical qualitative inquiry as action and speech that creates a space between participants—between we, as a community of scholars, artists, and teachers” (p. 131). Following Holman Jones, here, I am thinking about the Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Inquiry as an act of “assembling a we.” That is, we consider the Forum as what Hannah Arendt (1958) called, “action and speech that creates a space between participants which can find its location almost anywhere and anytime” (p. 158. Cf. Holman Jones, p. 130). Further, we consider our intellectual activism in the Forum by connecting, mentoring, and supporting each other to act critically, ethically, and responsibly, with and toward one another.

First, our intellectual activism is, and should be, as we did during ICQI 2017, invested in connecting, in “gathering people together to create an us” (Holman Jones, p. 131). Throughout our discussion on Wednesday, May 17th, 2017, almost all of us found our presence in the Forum as a collective in which, and with which, we can finally connect. We articulated the isolation, confusion, passion lost in our own respective institutional space. In the Forum, we celebrated the presentations, relations, and passion found in our collective, in our “assembly” of a “we.” The Forum is open, public, and shared, as we act to connect fellow critical Chinese (diaspora) qualitative researchers from around the world, in all disciplines, at all professional and educational stages. By doing so, we assemble a bigger “we.”

Second, our intellectual activism is, and should be, as Professor Hsiung insisted in our discussion session, invested in mentoring graduation students, emerging scholars, and each other, in doing critical qualitative research, as Chinese diaspora, within and beyond Chinese contexts. As we act to mentor, we connect, relate, and respond to fellow critical qualitative researchers across disciplines, across institutions, and across ages and stages. By doing so, we assemble a stronger “we.”
Third, our intellectual activism is, and should be, as we did during our roundtable at dinner, invested in supporting each other to act, critically, ethically, and responsibly, in our call for justice and equity in the world. From Professor Hsiung’s stories about Norman Denzin’s commitment to social justice through qualitative research, to our sharing of experiences in intercultural relationships, interdisciplinary inquiries, and international journey, we support each other in our pursuit of critical inquiry and activism. By doing so, we assemble a more persistent and resilient “we.”
This reflection has not meant to be a five-paragraph scholarly essay about the Forum.

This reflection is meant to show the Forum as originated not only in our conversations in ICQI 2017, but also in the tradition of critical qualitative research as intellectual activism, as shared by Professor Hsiung, Holman Jones, Norman Denzin, Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, in and beyond ICQI, in 2016 and before.

This reflection is meant to articulate my vision, my imagination, and my pursuit of intellectual activism as a critical Chinese qualitative researcher.
I thank you for “assembling a we” in the Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Inquiry.


Why do we need a Critical Chinese Qualitative Research Group?


Catherine Man Chuen Cheng, Sociology PhD candidate
University of Toronto

 I had the pleasure to form a panel with Yige Dong at the Critical Chinese Qualitative Research this year. The original intention of this panel came out of my frustration as a graduate student studying in North America but doing research in Chinese societies. As a self-identified young critical feminist scholars studying Chinese societies, I mostly travelled two worlds of academic communities—the community of critical feminist scholars and the community of Chinese study scholars.

Critical feminist scholars have challenged the uncritical transfer of many preconceived notions produced in the west to studying East Asian societies, and have argued forcefully the importance of attending to locally grounded meanings instead of looking at research context through already constructed categories. Despite the enlightenment I received at conferences organized by this critically engaged community, I often wish there could be a stronger presence of critical Chinese feminists with whom I can exchange ideas and observation with.

On the other hand, at conference organized specifically on China studies, I was disappointed at the lack of criticality in discussing gender issues happening in Chinese societies. Within the field of marriage migration, for example, women’s intention to marry across border is often assumed, particularly by quantitative sociologists doing China studies, to be the result of “global hypergamy” rather than constructed narratives produced by Chinese women that are intimately connected to globally connected geopolitical economy.

This gap between critical feminism and China studies was what propelled me to organize a young feminist panel with Yige Dong. At this conference, I was grateful to be able to get in touch with fellow feminist scholars Di Wang and Jiling Duan, to understand their research and concerns as critical Chinese feminists studying in North America. I was also pleased to meet other China study scholars who are interested in producing critically engaged scholarship.
My hope for this Critical Chinese Qualitative Research Group is that it could provide a platform of critical exchange between feminist scholars who are at different stages of their career doing research in Chinese contexts. I hope that this platform not only can be place for feminist mentorship, but also a land for breeding intellectual activism that potentially changes the “view” and “landscape” of “knowing” of Chinese societies with the vision of producing knowledge that is more reflexive, more relational, and more grounded to where we stand.


Yige Dong, Sociology PhD candidate
Johns Hopkins University

As an advanced PhD student in sociology, I have been to many academic conferences, presenting my work to interdisciplinary audiences from sociology, history, gender studies, etc. But I have never encountered an arena as unique as the critical Chinese qualitative research forum, which pushed me to think hard about the role of methodologies in knowledge production and to reflect on what it means to be a critical scholar. Both could be easily missed when a PhD student is busily doing her empirical investigation and constantly occupied with various publication obligations.

It was in the process of working with my colleagues in preparing a panel at this forum, “Seeing like a junior Chinese feminist,” that I have gradually developed a reflexive methodological consciousness. Before, qualitative methodologies such as oral histories and ethnography to me had meant some generic paragraphs to fill out in the method section in research proposals. After the forum, I have become aware that each methodological approach is a unique mode of knowledge production and has its particular strengths and limits. More importantly, researchers should not stop at where a particular method reaches its limit but should push ourselves further, asking in what way tensions and weaknesses in a given format of inquiry can shed light on our critical examination of the process of knowledge production. In other words, we should “always problematize the problem,” as Dr. Hsiung put it at the forum. That was really a moment of enlightenment.

I also enjoyed the cozy and democratic space this forum provided, which made voices of junior Chinese qualitative researchers heard, encouraged and inspire each other. In the era when “big data” has taken over social science inquiries, scholars who sense the urge of doing conceptualizing and interpretative work through inductive, qualitative approaches have inevitably felt insecure and sometimes isolated. Participating in this forum made me realize I am not alone and there is so much work to be done. I would like to see this community of critical inquiry to grow and become a platform of producing solidarity and new ideas.


Family Matters: A Reflection on the Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Research


Ming Yuan Low, PhD in Creative Arts Therapies Program
School of Nursing and Health, Drexel University

I have always been a part of the minority race – in my home country of Malaysia, and now as a student in the United States. Throughout my academic career, I have found myself feeling out of place, especially through my undergraduate, masters, and now in a doctoral program of music therapy. Models and systems of healthcare and music have been presented exclusively from a euro/western model. Even in classes on multiculturalism and ethnomusicology, everything is seen from a euro/western centric lens. Classes on human development, aesthetics, and group dynamics came from a euro/western centric point of view that I felt, didn’t apply to the culture and community I grew up with.

This was my first time attending the ICQI conference, and it was a class requirement. I was excited and curious to see that there is a whole day dedicated to Chinese Qualitative Research. I wondered if this was where I could fill the gap that I always felt existed throughout my education. I entered the room Union 209 tentatively, and was immediately greeted by Professor Hsiung and the other presenters. Every person in the room was communicating in mandarin which struck me as a fresh and curious experience. I have only used English in my academic and professional life, so I had to rapidly translate in my head to communicate in mandarin. I then created a comfortable nook for me at the back of the room, and started this fascinating journey through the day.
The presentations were inspiring and courageous. The researchers took a critical look at research methods and existing societal systems in China, and came up with many fascinating results. Among the most inspirational ones were Yige Ingrid Dong’s The Limits of “Double Burden” in Studying Women and Work in Socialist China that challenged the application of western feminism standards on China. This presentation affirmed that there is no one-size fits all model of understanding society.

There were times in my studies where my professor asked me why do I not compare western philosophies with Chinese philosophies. Attending this forum confirmed that there is no way to compare them on an equal footing because there is not enough knowledge of Chinese philosophies published, and in certain circumstances it would be like comparing apples and oranges. At the end of the forum, there was a rousing call for Chinese researchers to use our unique understanding of the world, especially with Chinese culture and peoples, to contribute to research and knowledge. I, for one, am motivated to answer the call.


Di Wang (王迪), Sociology PhD candidate
University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This is my first time attending at International Congress of Qualitative Inquires. Critical Chinese Qualitative Research provided me an invaluable opportunity to engage with scholars of similar empirical interests, both theoretically and methodologically. This forum has built an intellectual hub by connecting scholars from different institutes. This space, carefully curated with unconditional support and constructive feedback, is critical for junior sociology scholars, like myself. In addition, the forum’s objectives for advancing Chinese qualitative studies speaks to the heart of ICQI. As an action-oriented taskforce, it visions a blueprint to mobilize sustainable resources to continually fuel qualitative researches, facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, and address gaps in cross-methodological communication. I am thrilled to join this forum, as well as its effort to build a robust critical Chinese qualitative scholarship.


Man Xu, Sociology PhD candidate
University of Toronto


ICQI provided me with a great opportunity to critically reflect on the epistemological and methodological issues in my previous and current research practices. I was especially glad to present at the Critical Chinese Qualitative Research Forum, and exchange ideas with other Chinese students there. I found the conversations at the forum inspiring, not only because they cover topics across disciplines but also because they manifest the passion and aspiration of a new generation of critical Chinese scholars. It was encouraging for me to meet so many fellow students who share the ambition of intellectual activism, who strive to foster intellectual dialogue across national borders through and beyond academic research.

The influence of transnational experiences on intellectual practice emerged as an interesting issue for me. Many participants in this forum are Chinese students who have lived and pursued academic study abroad. The methodological discussion at the forum allowed us to think about our intersectionality, the ways in which our cultural background and transnational experiences affect our intellectual development. I find the interdisciplinary conversation at the forum especially fruitful and necessary, as it illuminated my “blind spots”: after spending years conducting research in and about the Middle East, I have become less familiar with social issues and critical research in China. Throughout the conference, I have reflected on and have come to realize the bias I had in my previous work. Lastly, engaging in such a platform also forces us to think about how our research can address social inequality. While recognizing our privilege to live across national and cultural borders, I hope our intellectual activities can have some modest contribution to social justice – within the Global South, and across global societies.


Pengfei Zhao, PhD, Inquiry Methodology Program
Indiana University


I am trained as a qualitative research methodologist and most of my empirical work has been conducted in China. ICQI is a major conference that I regularly attend. In the previous ICQI conferences, while I enjoyed sharing ideas with scholars from different methodological and disciplinary traditions, I always hoped to have a space where the conversations on methodological and substantive issues can be more tightly integrated. Therefore, I could not be happier to meet the attendees of this year’s Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Studies (FCCQS)—a group of wonderful scholars who either are from China or conduct empirical work on China. For me, the experience of participating FCCQS was more like attending a support group meeting. We not only presented our projects, but also engaged in much broader conversations about doing and teaching qualitative research in China, engaging in feminist movement in an authoritarian state, and supporting each other’s work. What I love most about FCCQS is, as the attendees, we all share a critical methodological approach, and doing qualitative research for us is simultaneously a political activism in a country where different voices could easily be silenced or ignored.

I am very grateful to Dr. Ping-Chun Hsiung for taking the lead in organizing FCCQS. I certainly hope I can continue to engage in conversations with the colleagues I met on the Forum, and I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way. FCCQS has connected like-minded scholars successfully. With everyone’s commitment, I am very positive that FCCQS will grow into a progressive platform where active political activism and thorough qualitative studies mutually strengthen each other.