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The Inside Story of the AFS China-US Project

Monday, June 12, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Tim Lloyd

AFS has been working in partnership with the China Folklore Society since 2007—and has been supported by the Henry Luce Foundation since 2011—to build larger and stronger networks between folklorists and folklore-studies institutions in China and the US.

You may know about the major activities of this effort so far (information about these primary activities, and links to PDFs of the six conference programs, are available at, including:

  • Six binational, bilingual conferences on folklore and intangible cultural heritage work and ethnographic museum practice: Guangzhou 2011, Nashville 2012, Wuhan 2012, Washington, DC 2013; Santa Fe, New Mexico 2014, Guiyang 2015
  • Four short-term China-US exchange programs for early-career folklorists and ethnographic museum professionals
  • Eight planning meetings for future activities involving folklore scholars, public humanists, and ethnographic museum professionals

And you may know that 2017-2019 funding from the Luce Foundation will make possible a series of folklore summer institutes for early-career American, Chinese, and Japanese folklorists, as well as a series of field research, documentation, and exhibition planning activities for Chinese and US ethnographic museums.

But did you know the inside story of this project: the many other participating organizations and funders, the many additional positive, though unforeseen, outcomes of this work; and the range of American and Chinese folklorists who have taken part?

1. In addition to AFS and CFS and the Luce Foundation, since 2007 the project has built an extensive network of participation and support comprising a large number of organizations and funders, including the:

Anthropology Museum of Guangxi
Asian Cultural Council

Beijing Normal University

Central China Normal University, National Research Center of Cultural Industries
China Ministry of Education

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Ethnic Literature
East China Normal University

Ford Foundation
Guizhou Museum of Nationalities

Indiana University: Arts and Humanities Council, College Arts and Humanities Institute,
  Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology; Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Office
of the
  Vice President for Research, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, School of Global and
  International Studies

Inner Mongolia Normal University
Library of Congress: American Folklife Center; Asian Division

Lingnan Foundation
Michigan State University Museum

Minzu University of China
Museum of International Folk Art

National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Research Programs
Ohio State University, Center for Folklore Studies

Peking University
Qinghai Academy of Social Sciences

Shandong University
Shenzhen Folklore Society

Smithsonian Institution: Office of the Under Secretary for History, Arts, and Culture; Center for Folklife
  and Cultural Heritage
Sun Yat-sen University, Institute of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage

Vanderbilt University
Western Kentucky University, Programs in Folk Studies and Anthropology

Yunnan Nationalities Museum
Various local and provincial government offices and ministries in Beijing; in Guangdong,
  Guizhou, Hubei, Jiangsu, Shandong, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Zhejiang Provinces; and in the Inner
  Mongolia Autonomous Region

2. Beyond the conferences and other activities listed above, the project has stimulated a number of additional activities, not anticipated or called for in our original proposals, that evidence a growing China-US folklore-studies network, including:

  • The Qinghai Academy of Social Sciences, whose director Prof. Zhao Zongfu attended the AFS annual conference in October 2011, invited several AFS representatives to a series of ICH conferences QASS sponsored in Xining in summer 2012. These activities preceded the creation of the Qinghai Folklore Society later that year.
  • The Asian Cultural Council awarded separate grants to AFS and to the Michigan State University Museum to supplement Luce Foundation support of our 2011-2016 professional exchange activities
  • Vanderbilt University’s US-China Center, located on the campus of Sun Yat-Sen University, sponsored a 2013 collaboration focused on opera traditions in both countries, and a traditional opera ensemble from Sun Yat-Sen University toured the US and Mexico in 2014.
  • The Ohio State University’s US-China Center in Shanghai, and several other such centers in China, supported a fall 2014 lecture-and-performance tour of US scholar-performers of US folk and traditional music to Beijing, Kunming, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.
  • AFS and CFS are now working with the Indiana University Press on the publication of a volume of English translations—each with extensive headnotes to provide historical, intellectual, and political context—of the major journal articles in 20th- and 21st-century Chinese folklore studies. The Press is also publishing a collection of essays on current ethnographic work by young Chinese and US scholars of Chinese folklore.
  • Our six China-US museum partners developed a major proof-of-concept exhibition, Quilts of Southwest China, which is now touring the United States with key additional support from the Luce Foundation. A companion catalogue to the exhibition (MacDowell, Marsha, and Zhang Lijun, eds. Quilts of Southwest China. Nanning: Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, 2016), was published by the six museum partners and is being distributed by the Indiana University Press.
  • Our museum work has also generated two 2015 exhibitions not anticipated in our original proposal: “Putting Baskets to Work in Southwestern China” at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, and “Zhuang Patchwork Art Exhibition” at the Anthropology Museum of Guangxi; and one 2017 exhibition not anticipated in our original proposal: “Beijing’s 798 Art Zone,” at the Mathers Museum.
  • AFS and CFS, along with the Folklore Society of Japan, are now taking the leading roles in the creation of an International Federation of Folklore Societies, to be affiliated with the UNESCO-based International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH), a federation of federations of learned societies in the humanities and social sciences.
  • The Folklore Society of Japan has become a partner with the AFS and CFS in the production of folklore summer institutes in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
  • In summer 2015, Dr. Wang Wei, director of the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities (now the Anthropology Museum of Guangxi) took, part in a “Museums at the Crossroads” conference at Indiana University; and in December 2015, Dr. Jason Jackson, director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, took part in an international conference on the digitization of ICH sponsored by Sun Yat-Sen University.
  • In spring 2016 a group of cultural institutions in the Jiangnan region of Jiangsu Province invited a team of AFS-based foodways scholars to take part in activities establishing a research base for the traditional food culture of the region. These activities have led to the summer 2016 participation of one of these scholars in a summer folklore institute at East China Normal University.
  • Several US folklorists have been invited to serve as visiting scholars at Chinese universities, most recently Lisa Gilman of the University of Oregon, who will be in residence at the Minzu [ethnic minority] University of China in Beijing in fall 2017.
  • At the last three AFS annual meetings there were 13 sessions on Chinese folk traditions and folklore studies. Between 2011 and 2016, Asian (significantly but not entirely Chinese) membership in the AFS doubled.
  • In 2011 and 2013, the Chinese folklore journal Minsu Yanjiu published lengthy professional interviews with US folklorists Jason Jackson and Timothy Lloyd, respectively. 
  • The summer 2014 issue of the Journal of American Folklore contained a three-way conversation about the states of the folklore profession in China and the US co-authored by Kang Baocheng, then the director of the Institute of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage at Sun Yat-Sen University; Robert Baron of the New York State Council on the Arts; and Wang Dun of the Renmin University of China. 
  • The summer 2016 issue of the Journal of American Folklore was a special issue on “Living Epics of China and Inner Asia,” edited by John D. Niles. The issue contained essays on Tibeto-Mongolian and Kyrgyz epic traditions, and a case study of the Institute of Ethnic Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, directed by China Folklore Society President Prof. Chao Gejin.
  • In 2015, the open-access journal Asian Ethnology published a special issue, directed toward Western readers, titled “Chinese Folklore Studies: Toward Disciplinary Maturity,” containing essays by several young Chinese folklorists.
  • The Spring 2017 issue of Western Folklore is a special issue on “Intangible Cultural Heritage in China,” edited by Juwen Zhang of Willamette University and containing four essays by Chinese and US scholars
  • Carrie Hertz of the Museum of International Folk Arts, a participant in our China-US museum activities, published the article “Picturing the Future: Quilts of Southwest China” in the summer 2017 issue of El Palacio.
  • US folklore scholars have been invited to take part in a November 2017 international conference on ethics and intangible cultural heritage being produced by the Institute for Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
3. This project is not about Chinese folklore or American folklore per se; it is about connecting the fields of folklore studies in China and the US. AFS’s primary focus in these activities has been on engaging our general membership with counterparts in China who share similar research interests; for example, of the more than 60 US folklorists who have been involved in our 2011–17 activities, only nine are China specialists. (Approximately 150 Chinese folklorists have participated in our 2011-2017 activities; very few of them are Americanists.)
All these activities have used the lenses of the field of folklore studies and intangible cultural heritage work to compare and analyze a wide range of activities in China and the US—supported by government, the private sector, and community-based organizations—intended to sustain tradition-based culture through research, documentation, education, presentation, and conservation.


By design, the AFS-China Folklore Society program works at a small scale, outside of official government channels in both countries—unofficially, scholar-to-scholar, institution-to-institution—and strives to advance the field of folklore in the US and China by sharing theory and practice in scholarship, teaching, and public folklore work among active participants at all stages of their careers in our field.


While China specialists in the AFS membership have been helpful in developing AFS-CFS projects and relationships, the primary focus of our program has been on involving a diverse group of American folklorists of all interests. Building on shared topical interests and approaches, the US folklorists who have participated in our project have exchanged their own theories and best practices with China colleagues, and advanced their own work by engaging with and learning from our Chinese colleagues’ concepts and projects. 

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