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AFS Review: Essays

Folklore Studies in China and the China Folklore Society: A Brief Introduction

Monday, January 14, 2013   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman
by Juwen Zhang (Willamette University/Dartmouth College) --

At the beginning of the 20th century, China experienced the decline of the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the rise of the Republic of China (1912), and a number of wars against invading countries, as well as domestic predicaments. A group of young scholars who had studied in Europe and Japan turned to folklore as a means of rescuing and rebuilding the nation by arousing the pride of the Chinese on their tradition and history, adopting not only the methodology but also the ideology of folklore at that time from Europe and Japan. Modern folklore collection and study began to take shape, along with the introduction of (French) sociology (which also included anthropology, ethnology, and folklore), as part of the New Culture Movement in the late 1910s and 1920s. The Book of Songs (Shijing) and other classics from two thousand years ago marked the very earliest history of folklore collection in China.

For example, in 1918, Peking University launched a project to collect folksongs and ballads, publishing them through its university newspaper, with the support of the University President, Cai Yuanpei, a pioneer of the New Culture Movement and a European-trained ethnologist. In 1920, the University established the Peking University Ballads Society, and three years later the Custom Investigation Society. In the 1930s, a number of folklore societies and courses were started in different parts of China.

The Sino-Japanese War and Civil War in China soon put an end to the development of folklore studies in the 1920s and 1930s. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 provided an opportunity for folklore studies to "serve the people.” In 1957, the China Folk Literature and Art Society held a meeting and suggested to continue folklore studies (under the new government and society). But the notorious Great Leap Forward Movement in the late 1950s and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) once again discontinued not only folklore studies, but also all academic work and normal life in China. Toward the end of the 1970s, China’s opening to the world brought a new life to its field of folklore studies, marked by the new institutional status and diverse perspectives. In 1980, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, and Fudan universities established Folklore Studies Societies; the next year, Liaoning University started courses on folklore and established a Folklore Society; and in 1983, the China Folklore Society (CFS, Zhongguo Minsuxue Hui) was established, with Zhong Jingwen as the President and Liu Kuili as the General Secretary.

CFS’s initial goals were to investigate, collect, classify, and study the folklore of all the nationalities in China; to build a folkloristics with Chinese characteristics; and to contribute to the change of customs, the construction of socialist material and spiritual civilization, and the communication among the world cultures. At present, CFS has about 2,000 members. The current President of CFS is Mongolian epic scholar Chao Gejin, head of the Institute of Ethnic Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing; the vice president is Huang Yonglin of Central China Normal University in Wuhan; and the General Secretary is Ye Tao, also of CASS.

In the past two decades, CFS has built cooperative relations with many folklore institutions around the world, and has received folklorists from different countries. Apart from China folklore specialists, among those who have already visited China from the US are Richard Bauman, Berry Bergey, Peggy A. Bulger (as Director of the American Folklife Center and as AFS President), Kurt Dewhurst (as AFS President), Alan Dundes, Bill Ivey (as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and as AFS President), Michael Owen Jones (as AFS President), Tim Lloyd, Marsha MacDowell, and Beverly Stoeltje. AFS’s recent partnership with the CFS and other folklore institutions in China has increased this number over the past two years.

Folklore programs in China are growing both in size and number. At present, there are nine PhD programs in folklore (Beijing Normal University, the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Central University of Nationalities, and Peking University, all in Beijing; East China Normal University and Fudan University, both in Shanghai; Central China Normal University in Wuhan; Shandong University in Jinan; and Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou), as well as other PhD programs in related fields, and over thirty MA programs, as well as a great number of courses on folklore offered to undergraduates.

This phenomenon coincides with the widespread movement to document and preserve tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and the increasing awareness of local identity that is associated with the use of local cultural expression for economic development. These movements receive significant financial support from the Chinese national, provincial, and local governments: it is estimated that in 2010 the national government alone provided US$290 million to the support of intangible cultural heritage activities—an amount just slightly less than the combined 2010 budgets of the US’s National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2011, China issued a national law on Intangible Cultural Heritage, which will clearly exert influences to the academic fields like folklore.What is more meaningful may be the transformation of the concept of "folklore” to that of "cultural heritage” or "intangible cultural heritage,” to describe both the traditions we study and the academic field whose practitioners study them. Folklore studies in China may have presented a new question to those who uphold more traditional definitions of folklore.


Amy E. Skillman says...
Posted Thursday, January 31, 2013
Juwen, This is so helpful in understanding the state of folklore in China today, especially as I prepare to visit this summer. Thank you! Amy Skillman
Lee Haring says...
Posted Monday, January 14, 2013
Thanks to our colleague Juwen for this objective, comprehensible summary of facts most of us have not known. _Lee Haring

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