Culture, Politics and Ecology in Southwest China (Anth 247A; Summer 2020) is a three week, two-credit, optional (by application only) field component to the regular (and prerequisite) Spring 2020 course (ANTH/ENVS 306).  Faculty leaders and students will spend 21 days exploring key issues in natural and cultural ecology and diversity in the rugged ‘Three Rivers’ region of northwest Yunnan Province, China. 

Program Dates:

  • May 22 – June 12, 2020


This field course is located in Southwest China and the group will visit Kunming City and various locations in northwestern Yunnan Province, China, including the Three Rivers region. This region of Yunnan Province is home to an extraordinary range of biological habitats and distinct ethnic divisions. The area has long been a place of political contention, and is today a key site for environmental debates over water resources and wildlife and cultural preservation.

Program Itinerary*:

  • May 22: Depart Seattle
  • May 23: Arrive Kunming
  • May 24-25: Kunming City Walking tour including the Yunnan Provincial Museum and the Kunming Institute of Botany
  • May 26-June 9: Travel by bus to various sites in the Golden Sand (Yangtze) and Lancang (Mekong) River watersheds in northwest Yunnan.  This will include well-known destinations, such as Dali, Shangri-la, and Mt. Kawagebo (Deqen), but also a host of remote locations for studying cultural and ecological diversity, including Buddhist monasteries, Tibetan Catholic villages, upland yak-breeding stations, rural industry sites, a wide range of agricultural zones and technologies, old growth forest at Laojunshan, ethnic Naxi, Yi, Tibetan, Lisu and Bai villages, and the traditional indigo dye works at Zhoucheng. 
  • June 10: Return Kunming
  • June 11: Kunming—student presentations of field research
  • June 12: Return Seattle (arrive same day)

*These are anticipated dates which will be finalized when the optional group flight has been booked.

Course Title: ANTH 247A Culture, Politics and Ecology in Southwest China
Credits: 2 credits
Counts as:

Major credit:

  • Anthropology
  • Environmental Studies
  • Asian and Middle East Studies

Distribution credit:

  • Cultural Pluralism
  • Social Science

Global Studies Concentration:

  • Off-Campus Education requirement
Prerequisite: ANTH 306/ENVS 306 Culture, Politics, Ecology
Knowledge of Chinese language is not required

Course Objectives:

  • To introduce students to historical and contemporary concerns regarding natural resource exploitation/conservation and cultural integration in this remote corner of Yunnan Province, along the Burma and Tibet borders.  The Chinese state has only penetrated the region in relatively recent times, and the incredible natural and ethnic diversity creates a textbook ‘laboratory’ for understanding.
  • To understand how the major lowland rice-growing states of China, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand have intersected with tribal pastoralists and swidden agriculturalists in the neighboring highlands over the last 5,000 years.
  • To explore issues of state power, peripherality, integration and resistance more generally.
  • To consider difficult questions surrounding water use in SW China and SE Asia, especially as concerns damming for hydropower, pollution, and population relocation.
  • To understand the complex relations between neighboring peoples with vastly different subsistence patterns, and cultural and political outlooks.


Participants will be expected to complete a journal with digital photos as well as an independent research project as part of this course.


  • Chas McKhann, Professor of Anthropology
  • Eunice Blavascunas, Asst. Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies

Pre-Course Orientation:

The Faculty Leaders will hold 2-3 mandatory predeparture meetings for all participants during the spring semester. Essential predeparture topics will be covered to help students prepare for the field course including academic expectations, geography of China, travel arrangements, living conditions, health, safety, medical insurance, personal budget, cultural norms, and an introduction to the Chinese language.

Chas McKhann is a professor in the Anthropology Department at Whitman.  He has been working in northwest Yunnan for more than 30 years.  Professor McKhann's main interests concern ethnicity, religion, cultural ecology, state-minority relations, and tourism development.

Eunice Blavascunas is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Whitman. She is an expert on the main topics of cultural and political ecology, environmental degradation and protection, and socialist politics. China is at the center of much international discussion on environment and politics, and Prof. Blavascunas is well-versed in, and frequently teaches, the China literature, with a focus on hydroelectric dams and population displacement, nature preserves, mountain resource exploitation, and the changing lifeways of indigenous minority peoples.

Zhao Wencui is a Senior Adjunct Instructor of Whitman's Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures (Chinese).  Professor Zhao is a Naxi native of Shangri-la Prefecture in northwest Yunnan and has been leading Whitman summer programs in China for more than 10 years.


The group will reside primarily in modest hotels and guesthouses (2 students per room) in the various towns that the group will be visiting.


Meals will be covered by program fees. Generally speaking breakfast will be provided by the hotel or guesthouse. For lunches the participants and trip leaders will usually eat together in local restaurants as a group. Most days students will be provided with a stipend for their evening meal and will have the opportunity to eat their dinner on their own at many of the local eateries in China. During travel to and from China (at airports and on flights), students are responsible for purchasing their own meals.


  • This program involves a significant amount of walking, standing (during site visits and guest lectures) and some moderate hiking. City and town streets may be cobblestone or uneven so sturdy walking shoes are essential.
  • The group will be eating almost entirely in restaurants and will not have access to a kitchen. The Chinese diet typically includes rice, stir-fried veggies, meats, soy sauce and fresh fruits. Vegetarian and vegan diets are a foreign concept in China and therefore it may be difficult to avoid meat products entirely. (Pork lard is frequently used in cooking, for example.). Peanuts and peanut oil are also common ingredients used in Chinese restaurants.
  • Because the group will move from town to town frequently during this course, access to in-person mental health counseling services will not be available.
  • Because this program will travel to remote regions of China medical care may be several hours away and medical facilities very basic. Students with chronic medical conditions are advised to consult with their physician and with the OCS staff about the suitability of this destination and about any questions they may have.


Culture, Politics and Ecology in Southwest China welcomes applications from all Whitman undergrad students who:

  • are in good academic standing
  • will be continuing students in Summer 2020 (May 2020 graduates are ineligible)
  • are registered for classes at Whitman in Spring 2020 (ie students who are off campus on a Leave of Absence or on Off-Campus Studies during the Spring 2020 semester are ineligible)


  • ANTH/ENVS 306 Culture, Politics, Ecology (offered Spring 2020)

How to apply:

  • To apply to this program you will need to submit an online Crossroads Summer 2020 Application available mid-September through the OCS website.


  • Applications will be accepted thru Tuesday, October 15, 2019. This is not a rolling deadline and applications will be reviewed following the application closing date of October 15, 2019.

Group size:

  • Space is limited to 16 students


  • Applicants will be interviewed by the Faculty Leaders as part of the selection process.

Admission Notification:

  • Students will be informed of the status of their application in early November.

Enrollment Deposit:

  • Students admitted into the Crossroads program will be expected to pay a nonrefundable enrollment deposit of $500 within two weeks of acceptance. The enrollment deposit will be counted towards the course fee.

The program fee of $2,500 covers the following:

  • Tuition for 2-credit course and course materials
  • Housing accommodations
  • Group meals and meal stipend for other meals
  • Chinese visa fee
  • International medical insurance
  • Group travel within China, program excursions and field trips
  • Pre-departure orientation on campus and in-country orientation in Kunming

The program fee does not cover the following:

  • International airfare to and from China
  • Passport fees
  • U.S. medical insurance
  • Cell phone and data plan
  • Personal expenses such as social activities, toiletries, laundry, school supplies, and souvenirs

International airfare: $2,100 (estimate)

  • International airfare is separate from the program fee and estimated at $1,800-$2,100. A group flight option will be available.

Total Estimated Costs:

$ 2,500 Program Fee
$ 2,100 International Airfare (estimate)
$4,600 Total

Enrollment Deposit:

  • Students admitted into the program will be expected to pay a nonrefundable enrollment deposit of $500 within 2 weeks of acceptance to the program. The enrollment deposit will be counted towards the course fee.

Scholarships and Financial Aid:

  • Students with financial need are encouraged to apply for funding. Need-based scholarship assistance is available through Whitman Crossroads funding. Both partial and full scholarships may be awarded.
  • Students will be notified of their aid awards in their course admission notification letter.