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(cover picture) Sniadecki, J. P.
2007 Songhua. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 28 minutes
Reviewed 26 Jul 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Songhua depicts the intimate and complex relationship between Harbin residents and their "mother river," the Songhua in northeastern China. By attending to the everyday activities of leisure and labor unfolding along the banks and promenade, this nonfiction video also explores the interface between aesthetics and ethnography as it addresses environmental crisis within a major waterway of China.

ABSTRACT:    This very short film is a project in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, highlighting the promise and the limitation of the perspective of sensory ethnography within the favorite media (print and film) of academic anthropology.

Men drag a fishing net in the river. Passengers board a ferry to Sun Island. Couples vacation at the river bank. A boy plays with the sand. Food vendors sell their wares, and vendors and customers comment on the presence of an American filmmaker. Balloon and other vendors hawk their goods, while people fly kites, fill sandbags, play cards, and stroll by. A vendor tries to interest tourists in his windmill-toy. Women rinse some sheets in the river, as children wade in the water.

What exactly have we just seen? It is a little pointless to critique “Songhua” as a stand-alone piece of film. It can only be understood as an element of a bigger project, which itself is an element in a still greater project. “Songhua” is a product of the Sensory Ethnography Lab of Harvard University. The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) describes itself as “a unique collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies (VES). Harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of SEL is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone. SEL provides an academic and institutional context for the development of work which is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — that is conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word. The instruction offered through SEL is thus distinct from other graduate visual anthropology programs in the United States in that it is practice-based, and promotes experimentation with culturally-inflected, nonfiction image-making.” Readers may learn more about the SEL project at its home site, More details on the initiative, including some representative film clips, can be examined at and The Sensory Ethnography Lab is a manifestation of the emerging perspective called sensory ethnography, which already has a textbook in the form of Sarah Pink’s Doing Sensory Ethnography (2009). In her text Pink says that the approach “takes as its starting point the multisensoriality of experience, knowing and practice. By a ‘sensory ethnography’ I mean a process of doing ethnography that accounts for how this multisensoriality is integral both to the lives of the people who participate in our research and how we ethnographers practice our craft” (p. 1).

As such, as Pink herself admits, all ethnography is sensory ethnography, in that we ethnographers use our senses to gain access to culture and that those being observed use their senses to express that culture. However, anthropology has increasingly come to realize that the senses, and more generally and accurately the body and its parts and processes, are a key (if not the key) to understanding and describing human experience. For too long, a variety of prejudices have operated not only in anthropology or in science but deep in the heart of Western civilization. Among these is an overly mentalistic and cognitive approach to knowledge and being, with its concomitant discrediting of the body. One expression of this over-valuation of cognition is a focus on propositional knowledge and on language—both ‘word’ and ‘text.’ However, anthropologists, simultaneously with other scientists, have begun to appreciate not only the centrality of the body and its sensory faculties in human knowledge but also the cultural construction of the body and senses in diverse forms.

Is “Songhua” a successful piece of sensory ethnography? In a way, it is too early to tell. In another way, it is doomed from the start, not as a film but as a captive of the limitations of its media. Film can really only deliver two of the senses, sight and hearing, which unhappily are the two senses that Western civilization has perennially elevated. Touch, taste, and smell have been since ancient times and throughout the Middle Ages disparaged as ‘low,’ even ‘animalistic’ senses, most associated with beasts, women, primitives, and witches (see Howes 2005, especially the chapters by Constance Classen and Carla Mazzio on the senses of witches and on the social division of the senses in early modern England, which are followed by many excellent ethnographic examples of cultured senses that illustrate the promise of sensory ethnography). I would presume, and hope, that a full-bodied sensory ethnography would desire to engage all of the senses: perhaps the film could come with a scratch-and-sniff card as well as some way to feel the heat on one’s skin and the salt on one’s tongue. We anthropologists know all too well the smell, the feel, the taste, not to mention the emotional quality, of the field; if only we could convey that experience.

“Songhua” the two-dimensional sight-and-sound production cannot possibly cash the check of sensory ethnography, but it is a sign that anthropologists are on the case. It is one small step in the expanding appreciation of the place of the body in the human sciences, an appreciation present in Mary Douglas’ (1973) Natural Symbols, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh, the embodiment movement, and all of the wonderful work in the anthropology of the body and of embodied experience. It will be fascinating to see where this road leads and what new and better media are developed to convey the crucial message.

“Songhua” ends with a caption (there is no narration of any kind in the film) that reads: “The Songhua flows from the Changbai Mountains through Manchuria and is the main water source for Harbin’s four million people. It joins the Amur River to form a natural boundary with Russia.” An excerpt from China Environmental News Digest further explains that “China’s Songhua River, the site of a massive chemical spill last year that halted water supplies to tens of millions of people, has been hit by more than 130 water pollution accidents in the past 11 months, state media said.” None of this is or could be adequately communicated in the film, so those who want to learn more about Songhua River pollution and the Amur River benzene spill might start at

Level/Use: Suitable for college and graduate courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of film, anthropology of the senses/sensory ethnography, and China studies, as well as general audiences.


Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols. Harmondsworth UK: Penguin.

Howes, David, ed. 2005. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.