Home, Work, Homework, and Fieldwork

Home, Work, Homework, and Fieldwork

by Yukun Zeng

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

China was the first country hit by COVID-19. Due to the government-enforced Wuhan lockdown and strict self-isolation, most Chinese people—including me—have stayed at home since January, becoming pandemic spectators, both national and global: reading news, watching the case numbers waxing and waning. In this spectatorship, only macro-scale actors like governments and WHO seem to do the real work. As China’s situation has improved, and China became seen as an expert response-provider rather than merely the source of the pandemic, a catchphrase begun to go viral in China: 抄作业chao zuoye, or ‘copying homework.’ Drawing on a classroom metaphor, it means that the Chinese government has submitted a perfectly completed “assignment”—the model for how to deal with the coronavirus—and now other countries must copy it, or inevitably fail. In this piece, I describe how the quarantined yet global pandemic spectatorship on “copying homework” flattens people’s imaginaries of epidemiological responsiveness into zero-sum geopolitics, and how individual homework could be possible now from an anthropological point of view, in order to cultivate a real preparedness for global precarity.

No Work at Home

January 18, 2020 marked the end of my fieldwork. I flew back to my hometown in South Central China, yearning for the upcoming Spring Festival—also often referred to as Chinese New Year. The next day, already feeling the celebratory spirit, I have a lunch gathering with two friends, one a teacher at Wuhan University, my alma mater. We had all heard about the reported pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan. We even joked about it, adding a whimsical flavor to the meal. I take the subway back home, feeling a bit cold, but satisfied that I have done my work and I am back in my hometown.

Then came breaking news on January 20. Zhong Nanshan, the distinguished respiratory doctor and leader of the state expert team sent to Wuhan, confirmed human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 in its later official name. I immediately associate my post-meal nausea, an imagined fever, and occasional cough with the new contagious virus in light of my friends’ trajectory from Wuhan and the lunch two days ago. I quickly went to a local hospital for clinical examination. Although no dubious symptoms were found, I decide to quarantine myself at home. It was now January 22.

The situation became increasingly serious. Wuhan shut down on January 23 and most other cities enforced strict social distancing policies. My self-quarantined life was now the norm as most people in China were also quarantined now. I watched the skyrocketing number of confirmed cases, calls for help, and viral videos of busy ambulances ceaselessly moving in and out crematories. Feeling isolated yet over-mediatized, I can’t do any work at home, neither my own dissertation-related work nor meaningful contribution to ease the pain in Wuhan and elsewhere.

The presumed disjunction between “work” and “home” is not always problematized. The division of public and domestic spheres; the tripartite division of work, rest, and play; or the ethnographic polarization of home as retreat and field as work, all rest on a productive separation of “home” and “work.” Working at home collapses this separation, making the worker unproductive. And fieldworkers at home are perhaps worse off, becoming almost akin to the armchair anthropologists of our discipline’s past.

Copying Homework

In its common pedagogical meaning, homework is one of a few inevitable occasions that home and work naturally come together. Schooling, after all, dwells in the intimate limbo between home and work, childhood and maturity, preparing and actualizing.

On January 24, homework suddenly appeared in a catchphrase. “Come copy the hardcore [硬核yinghe] homework of Henan,” several official social media accounts praised the preventive policies of Henan Province.

Adjacent to Wuhan, Henan is among the most populous provinces in China. And it is the province with the most itinerant labor force. Millions of people who worked outside the province were anticipated to return home during the Spring Festival. Therefore, the challenge was how to slow down the movement of people and viruses. 

What was the “hardcore homework” Henan handed in? The government sent rhymed, slogan-like text messages. The Henan government’s “hardcore” preventive measures also included full-scale blockades of villages and roads; coercive banning of public gathering; and strict quarantines of people from the whole Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital.

People’s Daily, the major official media, reposted the “hardcore” message sent by Henan Government. It was reposted on Jan 24 and has accumulated 654,587 likes so far. Screenshot by the author, May 9, 2020. Caption reads: “Dear Citizens, don’t make visits during the Spring Festival. Coronavirus hides in Wuhan. The situation hasn’t been controlled. The origin hasn’t been found out. Infection cases skyrocket. No special drug for the disease…”

This piece isn’t about the performance—or “over-performance”—of Henan Government. For the quarantined yet media-saturated subject, online spectatorship and monitoring was now focused on Henan and other local governments’ degree of success in copying Henan’s homework.

In judging the success of another’s efforts at “copying homework,” one is not a metaphorical student. Nor is the observer a teacher, since teachers, of course, don’t encourage students to copy homework. Rather, the metaphor draws on the figure of parents who want their children to succeed by coping the homework of more successful neighbors’ children. 

As it relates to government action, “work” is clearly the enforcement of “hardcore” preventive policies. But the meaning of “home” is twofold. On the one hand, it references Henan, where preventive policies were well-enforced compared to locations with less administrative success. On the other hand, the “assignment” was distributed to the whole of China. For the online spectators of homework, “home” is not only a private space of parental sovereignty, but also a public frame for evaluating the success of “copying homework.”

In the Mandarin phrase 抄作业chao zuoye, or ‘copying homework,’ chao means ‘to copy.’ Zuoye is more complicated, traceable to the Buddhist idea of Karma as it was transposed into a socialist labor culture of pre-assigned jobs. Today, zuoye is predominantly used in educational contexts, referring to students’ assignments that need to be done at home, usually handed in the next day in school.

In early March, “copying homework” went viral again. It was used to criticize other countries’ inability to follow China’s successful example, specifically Japan, the US, Italy, Germany, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the UK.

A “Very Important” account (signaled by the golden V alongside the name) commented that “China’s preventive policies have successfully reduced at least 100,000 cases, but no other countries seem to like copying homework.” The accompanying graphic features a grid of comic images of global leaders all mumbling or taking ineffective actions. Only China, in the center, shows doctors united by their commitment to treat and contain COVID-19. Posted on March 5, it has accumulated 20,489 likes so far. Screenshot by the author, May 3.

As “copying homework” is scaled up, the meaning of “home” changes. By addressing other countries as tardy or clumsy homework copiers, for the quarantined media spectator, “home” is the home country, China. Online judges’ sentiments resonated with the fervent nationalism not only in China, but in divisive global geopolitics. 

On a global scale, “copying homework” became an explicitly political metaphor. It infantized the international community coping with a global pandemic, turned transnational collaboration into zero-sum competition, and exceptionalized China as the only successful model. Non-coincidentally, China’s domestic propaganda was quick to triumphantly celebrate preventive policies against COVID-19, associating this success with China’s unique ideology and political organization.

Prior hopes for humanitarian collaboration between China and the global community was shaken. On March 24, the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell warned the EU of a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives,” specifically targeting China’s ideological narrative of its COVID-19 experience. On April 9, Lijian Zhao, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied that China ever required that anyone “copy its homework.” The unofficial catchphrase of “copying homework” was incorporated into state rhetoric through Mr. Zhao’s official disavowal.

China News Service, an official media outlet, posted Mr. Zhao Lijian’s disavowal of the expectation that other countries should be “copying homework.” Posted on April 9, it has 2,507 likes so far. Screenshot by the author, May 3.

Not Done Yet: Reflections on Homework and Fieldwork

I’m not interested in grading different countries’ COVID-19 responses, for the same reasons that “copying homework” has become a tired metaphor. COVID-19 still rages. Even for countries like China that have contained its spread, social life is far from recovered. Homework is not done yet.

Getting back to the isolated yet mediatized observer, for whom homework is done in some locations and undone in others. This handy metaphor invites simplistic comparisons. Homework is also an easy metaphor to embody. Observing from isolated, yet media-saturated conditions, “copying” is one of a few agential actions that remains imaginable when it comes to “homework.” And judging others’ successes—or failures—in  “copying homework” is one of the few agential actions one can take from a distance.

As an anthropologist, it’s easy to be critical of “homework” discourses and to reject its frames of comparison as such. But especially for anthropologists who used to travel, the isolated (yet mediatized) subjectivity of social distancing is inescapable. Even if “homework” does not reconcile the lost divide (however spurious) between home and work, fieldwork doesn’t fare much better. For many, fieldwork is interrupted. Even for people in my situation, whose data-collection was completed before the outbreak of COVID-19, our “fields” have still been transformed dramatically—not only during the pandemic itself, but likely for years to come though unemployment; restrictions on migration and commodity flows; the rise of online education, commerce, and entertainment, etc. 

My own research is about grassroots Confucian alternative schooling. Most of the schools I visited have been impacted by COVID-19. Some have tried to use distance-learning technology. But some just disappeared. With them, my fieldwork changes, re-emerges, or vaporizes retrospectively. I may lose the relationships and accountability cultivated during fieldwork. 

Yet there is also a COVID-19 research and “productivity” boom. CFPs proliferate. I wonder to what degree these COVID-19 reflections privilege our own experiences and recreate an anthropological fetish of anything new. I almost wish there was a model homework on how to be an anthropologist in the time of pandemic that I might copy.

In mid-April, for some reason, I started reading the notorious A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (1989) by Malinowski, the definer of fieldwork in the strict sense of the term. It’s generally well-known that, due to World War I, Malinowski was “quarantined” in the Trobriand Islands for almost four years, a duration significantly surpassing the precedent of fieldwork, both at that time and since. In September 1918, Malinowki completed his fieldwork, returned to Australia as the war ended, and in 1919 married his fiancée Elsie Masson in Melbourne, or E. R. M. as she is known in her abbreviation in the Diary. 

These anecdotes are well-known anecdotes. Less well-known is the fact that the married couple suffered from Spanish Influenza after they returned to white society. Both survived. The recuperative period offered a crucial intellectual asylum for Malinowski to stay at home and work on several of his earliest ethnographic writings based on his fieldwork.

Repudiating the “eureka” story—according to which modern anthropological fieldwork is narrated as a creation from Malinowski’s “quarantined island life”—Spanish Influenza is absent from Malinowski’s accounts. This was obviously because of the colonial order of anthropological knowledge-production: an anthropologist should write about the “primitives” and leave out the white world quarantined by the raging Spanish Influenza. Once we recognize that “home” and “work” often intertwine, Malinowski’s hierarchical treatment of quarantined experience is not copiable. 

Homes, Work, and Fieldwork We Live By

So far, this article has addressed several senses of homework: the infantilizing classroom metaphor that went viral in Chinese media; the quarantined social life that re-embeds any form of work at home; the specific dilemma confronted by anthropologists who lose access to their field; and the unwelcome human condition for any isolated yet mediatized subject. All these senses are interconnected.

When it comes to the isolated human condition, we have no homework to copy. How can the isolated—yet mediatized—subject avoid falling into a form of comparative, geopolitical spectatorship while remaining caring about what’s happening in the world?

In prefacing her book-long analysis of metaphors of illness, Sontag reassures us “that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (1978, 3).  But like Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) famous title reminds us, metaphors are what we live by—and sometimes suffer from or even die with. 

I offer some explorations by dissecting and scrutinizing the notions of “home,” “work,” and “fieldwork,” and gauging how they may replace “homework.” If we move past homework as a “viral” metaphor, what may be the alternative? 

Home: one needs to play with the scale of “home” carefully, for it can be scaled up to the encompassing unity of anonymous human beings, while still indexing the special belongness of the subject who metaphorically claims “home” (cf. Woolard 2016). 

Work: some people can work from home. Many people cannot. Work necessarily transcends the binary between “domestic” and “public,” thereby sourcing creative metaphors that can mobilize agency and responsibility (Gal 2002).

Fieldwork: unlike homework, fieldwork is not copiable. Unlike homework, fieldwork doesn’t have a correct answer. It’s not solvable in the same way as homework. It suggests a long, almost haunting, and permanent relationship with people and events in the field, even if, practically, this relationship often proves to be precarious. It also necessitates participation. To say “China has done nice fieldwork of COVID-19” grants agency even to people quarantined at home, participatorily contribution through online volunteering, donating, retweeting SOS information, mourning death and loss, and critically monitoring the work done by governmental and volunteer agents. All of these are crucial to the fieldwork being done by those in Wuhan and other parts of China. This fieldwork is erased in the metaphor of “homework” that singles out governmental agents and distances netizens as passive judges. 

I recognize that, on the one hand, fieldwork is a highly institutionalized practice with (often) carefully designed length, format, and outcomes. To say “X is doing fieldwork of COVID-19” is not to slot X’s COVID-19 experience into an ivory-tower teleology. On the other hand, fieldwork is individual, therefore easily reduced to unshareable affects and mentalities. The metaphor of “fieldwork” highlight the fact of its un-copiability while still asserting the shared imagination that is produced by engaging with others’ fieldwork. This constructs not only the fieldwork, but also the personal and political agency we live by. 

Gal, Susan. 2002. “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 77–95. 

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1989. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 2016. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Yukun Zeng is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on grassroots Confucian alternative schooling.