Writing a PhD thesis in the time of Covid

I came out of the Covid-19 madness alright. In fact, I was more than alright. The lockdowns and travel restrictions in South Africa gave me the solitude to sink, think and sync. After two years of ethnographic research and another two years of reading and writing – mostly done during Covid – I  finally submitted my PhD thesis, passed the examination, and became a Doctor who could not help much with patients and viruses.

My thesis is about the “middlestage” of China’s carefully managed cultural globalisation. I argue that for state-sponsored Overseas Chinese Academics (OCAs), there is a middlestage behind the frontstage “performances”, through which they are tasked with promoting Chinese language and culture to the world as cultural ambassadors. Yet there is no real backstage because their everyday behaviour is an instrument of China’s cultural expansion. I further argue, with the support of thick descriptions of ethnographic data collected from my fieldwork in South Africa and Australia, that this middlestage is a space of curations, negotiations, and re-imaginations for these OCAs. To protect my participants’ identities – without which, their career prospects and even their safety in mainland China could be jeopardised – I presented part of my thesis in the format of an ethnographic fiction titled The Islanders.

What really strikes me, as I theorise about this middlestage, is that I can observe a clear middlestage rising from the very process of writing my thesis as a Chinese PhD candidate in South Africa. The writing-in-solitude experience during Covid-19 led me through a multi-faceted experience of re-imagination, particularly the re-imagination of knowledge and knowledge production. 

Reflecting on knowledge production

During my schooling in China, knowledge was taught as absolute truth to be memorised, comprehended, and applied in exam scenarios. These deeply embedded mindsets and habits created conflicts within myself, and often threatened to derail my newfound, serendipitous ethnographic research process. I became aware of my deeply-embedded obedience to authority in the knowledge production process because I was unable to challenge existing knowledge and struggled to contribute my own, original voice when I engaged with established theories.

The primary and secondary curriculum I went through as a student in Beijing was, quite simply, not designed to foster independent thinking. It involved a lot of repeated exercises with the end goal of me producing ‘the correct answer’. There was a hidden curriculum in parallel: I learnt that in order to survive in the system and move up to the next level, I must know all the rules of the games by heart and play by these rules to get ahead. I was only able to see a bigger picture of life when I moved to Hong Kong for tertiary education at the age of 18. It was natural that I carried on playing the same game of trying to figure out the rules of the new games in order to win in Hong Kong, only to realise that success could be defined in diverse ways, and that I actually didn’t really care about winning. 

It was a profound realisation – but what should I do now, having denied the path that defined who I was? I needed an answer, so I started to search for one outside my own culture. I travelled places and stayed with locals, went to exchange programmes and hung out with students from different backgrounds, did my Master’s in Intercultural Studies, taught travel writing, kicked off my PhD journey at a university as far and as foreign as I could get away from home, University of Cape Town (UCT), in search of my own voice.

When I first submitted a draft proposal on Overseas Chinese Academics, my supervisor, anthropologist Helen Macdonald, asked whether publishing research on China might be risky, and even potentially harmful. I replied: “Well, education is not considered to be very political by most Chinese people (including me), and there is relatively more tolerance of criticism of the Chinese education system as compared to its social, economic, or political systems.” 

Helen was shocked, and pointed out that education is one of the most politicised fields in South Africa. I’d had my fair share of crash courses on how political education is during my time at UCT. I had experienced the anti-colonial “Rhodes Must Fall”, and later the “Fees Must Fall” movements, and watched as classes were halted and campuses set ablaze. Gradually, I realised how naive I was. Everything in life is political, and education is especially political as it shapes how everything is viewed.

Finding my own voice

I was writing my thesis while wave after wave of the pandemic hit my neighbourhood in Cape Town. The whole country was under lockdown and I had all the time in the world to think and write. I decided to ditch the burden of having to quote experts, and took a personal approach to knowledge production. At the advice of my supervisor Helen, I went through many imagined “theory tea parties”, in which I imagined hosting discussions between key theorists, with my research participants as the audience who participated in discussions and raised questions. It worked surprisingly well. Adopting my own research method of using ethnographic fiction to engage with data allowed me to re-imagine knowledge production as a process of pursuing questions and questioning instead of seeking final answers – an approach encouraged by the anthropologist Francis Nyamjoh, who pleads with us to embrace “incompleteness”

I also had to find ways to negotiate with my mother tongue Mandarin Chinese and my working language English, and re-imagined translation as a productive force in conceptual thinking. I first wrote a draft of the ethnographic fiction part of my thesis in Chinese as I needed to frequently refer to quotes from my OCA participants, most of which were recorded in Chinese. But I found myself restricted by narrating the stories in Chinese, as I tended to use difficult words and decorative language devices. This was a habit I formed from my schooling in China, where I was trained to produce essays that demonstrated my Chinese language ability via complicated sentence structures and difficult vocabularies. With the help of Covid solitude, I was finally able to shed these learnings and expectations when I translated the Chinese draft into English. I could focus on the conceptual framework behind the characters and plots, without the burden of conventions that, as I now see so clearly, imprisoned my mind.


In the coming season at WhoKou, I will share snapshots of my research on the middlestage of China’s managed cultural globalisation and the behind-the-scenes stories from the research and writing process. No matter where you are and what level of travel restrictions that you experience, I hope to bring a piece of my anthropological Africa-China world to you, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback.

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