This book explores the cultural traditions of Cantonese villagers who first settled in South China’s Pearl River Delta during the Tang and Song dynasties (10th to 12th centuries). The authors lived and worked in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s rural hinterland, during the 1960s and 1970s.
Two villages, in particular, are featured in this book: San Tin and Ha Tsuen, homes (respectively) of the Man and Teng lineages. These are single-surname communities of the type that once dominated rural politics in South China. In the 60s and 70s, village life revolved around the performance of expensive and time-consuming rituals associated with birth, marriage, and ancestor worship. Geomancy (fengshui) was a universally accepted system of belief that linked the living to the dead. Men and women lived in separate social worlds that were closed to members of the opposite sex. The Watsons worked as a team and thus were able to document both sides of this gender divide.
Many of the rituals and social activities described in this book are no longer performed in the New Territories, or in adjacent regions of Guangdong province. The physical landscape has also changed dramatically in recent decades. Several of the tenant communities studied by the Watsons were demolished in the wake of “New Town” development during the 1980s and 1990s. Nonetheless, indigenous villagers of the New Territories still constitute a vibrant, recognizable minority in Hong Kong’s rapidly expanding population. Globalization and hyper-urbanization have combined to create a new, postmodern society in an area that was, until recently, a rural hinterland. Village Life in Hong Kong constitutes a unique ethnographic record of a cultural system teetering on the threshold of this historic transition.
James L. Watson is Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society and Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University.
Rubie S. Watson is Howells Director, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. The Watsons have conducted ethnographic research in South China (Hong Kong, Guangdong, and Jiangxi) since the late 1960s.