Barbara Ward was born in 1919, read history at Cambridge, took a diploma in education at the Institute of Education in London, and went out to teach in Ghana in the 1940s, where her interests turned towards social anthropology. Subsequently she studied under Raymond Firth at the L.S.E. and was among the first social anthropologists of the post-war era who went out to begin fieldwork in the Far East. Barbara chose Hong Kong as her region and it remained her chief base for research. Her focus for attention was the fishing community who lived afloat in large numbers when she arrived in 1950.

An initial three years’ field work among the Cantonese-speaking (Tanka) group anchored off the remote island of Kau Sai in the Eastern New Territories developed into a longitudinal study which continued until her death. She also made further studies of small factory organization (centred on a factory that made flood lights for fishermen), and of Cantonese opera, with the boat people again as her research group. She is remembered with much affection by the Kau Sai people as the first person to take a serious interest in their way of life.

Barbara Ward always challenged the view held by some of the contemporaries in Chinese studies that Hong Kong, a somewhat insignificant place at the time of her first visit, was merely a second best for China, the ‘real’ but ungettatable thing. She encouraged the students whom she inspired to work there to regard it as a place of anthropological importance in its own right, and it was largely because of this positive attitude that their studies as well as her own are of value not only to academics but also to the local people and those working among them. Barbara also challenged the Chinese scholarly view, which is also the view of much of the Hong Kong Chinese land population, that boat people were not ‘real’ Chinese (and thus not really worth studying). She showed in a series of stimulating articles that the Chinese traditional culture and society in which they participated were moulded to a different shape by their life upon water, but that most of the ingredients by which Chinese define themselves were there all the same.

An inspiriting public lecturer, Barbara Ward always loved teaching, which she did with such skill at Birkbeck, S.O.A.S., briefly at Cornell, Cambridge, and from 1978-82 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She managed to persuade Chinese students that anthropology was a valid method for studying sophisticated cultures such as their own, and was planning a project for study of the New Territories which would have involved them. Today there is a department of anthropology at the Chinese University, and many people study Hong Kong society. But as she herself remarked in a recent symposium paper in Hong Kong, she ‘started the whole thing off’ and spent most of her academic life teaching, reading, researching and writing about Hong Kong.

Marjorie Topley

This obituary first appeared as: Topley, Marjorie. 1983. 'Obituary'. RAIN 55, p. 13-14. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

TOPLEY, MARJORIE. 1983. 'Obituary'. RAIN 55, p. 13-14. (available on-line:


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