I have spent some years doing linguistic fieldwork in China, interviewing people face to face and documenting their spoken language. Recently I was asked to advise someone who is beginning an interviewing project — how should one go about finding informants or subjects for interview. Below is what I told her.
Let the Chinese genius for interpersonal networking (rénjì guānxi, dǎ jiāodào) work for you. Tell lots of people what you need, and some of them will find you contacts.
Of those contacts, many will be unsuitable. Often the more prestigious-sounding the background of the person, the less useful they will turn out to be. There are lessons in this about how human life is organized. Never mind for now — the important thing, tactically speaking, is to pursue every lead and make the best use of every contact that you can. Don’t waste too much time with an unsuitable person, and don’t discard someone because they seem unsuitable at first. Don’t make an unsuitable person feel uncomfortable in how you break off with them — make them feel they’ve been helpful, and perhaps some of them will be able to put you in touch with other people.
I think it’s best not to pay research informants unless you’re using a lot of their time or are contracting with them for work. If you are hiring someone to serve as an informant, that is a different thing from an informational interview. Unless you really really have no other options, I’d just avoid anyone who wants money in exchange for an interview proper. But a small gift, perhaps on a second, courtesy visit, after the interview is concluded, is a nice thing – especially, if you can find out from someone else what might be considered an appropriate small gift.
Making use of the Chinese genius for interpersonal networking requires time and persistence. It cannot and should not be done quickly. You must start at once and keep pushing, gently but persistently, for as long as you can stand to. Don’t give up! Don’t give up! No matter how you feel.
Quid-pro-quo gifts, and anything that could be mistaken for them, are not a good idea in China if you are in a friendly relationship with someone. They look like payment, and payment should never ever be offered for friendship. On the other hand, a gift is a nice thing to give to a friend. If you visit someone’s home, it is proper to bring a small gift. Food — one of the central vehicles of Chinese interpersonal interaction — is always appropriate — it could be some fruit (in even numbers, and not the unlucky number four!) or a package of something nice to eat or drink. I’m not sure what the propriety is of a young woman like you visiting older male officials and giving a gift of liquor. Misunderstandings are best avoided ahead of time! If you do your interviews in your hotel then merely offering tea would be sufficient. If someone is really helpful, then you should remember them, when you leave, with a really nice gift.
However, we foreigners often fail in many basic issues of Chinese courtesy. During my years of fieldwork I was lucky to have my Taiwanese wife with me most of the time. She asserted her place by making smalltalk and tea and kept me in line if I said or did inappropriate things. She was a really great help, and enabled me to get on with people much better than if I had been alone. In a sense she became the Chinese “handle” by which my guests could grasp me. She also kept me from being forced to drink to excess — getting a guest completely soused was considered a hilarious party game to the people I was working among. Among the old men of Fujian in those days it was considered arrogant to cross one leg over the other, especially for a young man to do in the presence of an older man, and naturally I would forget that as soon as I got comfortable with the interviewee, and my wife was very helpful at reminding me about these things unobtrusively. No one ever tried to get me drunk when I was with her, although when I was on my own it was a different story.
If you do your interviews in someone’s office, quite possibly someone there will make tea. You should try to find out — ask, if you can, or observe, if you can — which of two seats is more honorable. I mean, if two people are sitting, Chinese polite-conversation-style, side by side with a small table between them, which seat does the honored guest sit in? In the Fújiàn countryside the honored guest usually sat on the left. The younger person might sit in such a way as not to look entirely comfortable, leaning forward a little, as if to say to the older, “I am ready to do something for you if it needs to be done.” But my guests would try to seize the less honorable seat and force me, guest in their land, into the more honorable one. Sometimes they would try to make tea for me!
Anyway, try to observe how people do these things. Watch TV: how does a younger woman carry herself when interviewing a respected older person of one sex or the other?
Remember that it is good manners to make a little chitchat before the interview, rather than rushing into it, unless the person you’re interviewing is very busy and sparing you a few minutes. It’s good to have a clear idea how long and how short the interview will run, so that you can control your time closely. I like to have a clock visible to myself that I can see the time without making the interviewer uncomfortably aware of the time.
Recording an interview, or not recording it, is a big decision and I don’t know what to advise you about it. There may now be legal rules in China about how to do this. It certainly affects the tenor of an interview. When I did research with Uyghur and Zhuāng college students in Beijing (in my dorm room, door open when the young women came) I would have the chitchat with the recorder off and then ostentatiously turn it on and say (so that the recording would pick it up) “Hǎo, kāishǐ lùyīn le.” Sometimes if your relationship with someone becomes friendly and you have a lot to say to one another, you can turn the recording off and continue to chat — I think that shows thoughtfulness and sincerity.
Sometimes, interviewing people in villages, people I didn’t know would show up and try to get involved. You have to watch your informant in order to see how to respond. Once a young man showed up and stood right next to me, almost in my face. I wanted to shoo him away, but the older man I was interviewing did not react and so I just smiled and nodded briefly to the young man and then ignored him. I later learned that that young man was the son of the older man, and developmentally not at the level of a normal adult. I did the right thing by not shooing him away. At other times, people tried to intervene in interviews — to harass my informant (one of them had been the village scapegoat during the Cultural Revolution and was still mistreated by many of his neighbors) or to get me to interview them instead of my informant. At such times my informant might look flustered or cowed, and it was my responsibility to assert firmly my informant’s place of respect in my eyes.
Doing language surveys, I always fill out the forms I have prepared, using an indelible pen, during the interview, even if I am recording. Never trust the recording device to catch everything for you. Machines, including also human machines, are not completely reliable. Make sure you are taking actual notes during the interview — they may be all that you succeed in getting down.
If you have left any of your electronic equipment outside of your immediate personal control at any time that you are in China, assume that spyware has been installed on it when you were not looking. That certainly includes your phone and your computer. Assume that your hotel or dorm room is bugged. Assume that some of your informants are either recording the conversation or will go, directly after your interview with them, to a security officer to describe you and what you are doing. I was not aware of being followed when I was in China, but some of my informants, after they knew me for a long time, said there was always a Chinese stranger who showed up in their village a little after I did and left a little after me. Do not take risks that are not necessary to your research, since your research is the primary thing.
Having official sponsors is important in China so that people can feel at ease that you are not going to get them in trouble. This is especially true with low-ranking or retired officials. If issues come up that are sensitive for them, they will let you know, by body language or verbally, that they are uncomfortable, and you must be ready to drop the subject without showing any resentment. Things can become much more problematic for them than for you if something goes wrong.