Folklore in China in Relation to My Life | Digital Traditions

by Christine Jiang. Jiang is a student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2011 class "Folklife in America."

Between 1917 and 1919, China had the biggest developments to its entirety. In these years, the “Fourth of May Movement” led by students at the National Peking University became iconic. The movement was politically important because it was the first student led rebellion against an oppressive government that did not accurately represent the values and views of the Chinese people (Eberhard 3). The purpose of the movement was to rebuild Chinese culture and society. Aspects of the movement had emphasis on emancipation of the individual and national independence as well (May). In the late nineteenth century, the Chinese had begun translating some works of Western literature. They were mostly books of technical and scientific nature, but translations of literary works had begun to expand too. The movement to add translations of Western literary works expanded the intellectual horizon for the Chinese. Before this, Chinese writers did not detail the world their heroes defended.

They had never tried to describe men as individuals, possessed and often torn by contradictory traits of character, nor had they sought to depict their actions, even the most trivial and unimportant ones, in every detail, or ventured to describe sex as it really was. (Eberhard 3) Literature in China was very censored, due to government imposed restrictions on expression. Many different styles were being developed, but they were only assessable to the scholars. There was a lot of disconnect between the scholars and the commoners – “the traditional writer made use of a literary style which is incomprehensible to the common man” (Eberhard 3). The translation of European works into Chinese was hard due to the colloquial terms and idioms. Once translated to Chinese, the phrasing does not work. This lead to a sort of “literary revolution.” Hu Shih studied abroad, and he and his friends tried to show the Chinese using popular language for literature was not a new concept or un-Chinese. Hu published the History of Literature in Colloquial Language, which compiled early Chinese literature, written very stylistically, in colloquial terms (Eberhard 4). Groups that represented this ‘translation’ were considered to be liberal nationalists (Eberhard 5). On the other hand, there was a group that supported the claim that in order to formulate literature the commoners could understand was to go out and study their language. The first leaders of this group were Lu Hsun and Ku Cheh-kang and located at the National Peking University. The students at the university set out to collect folksongs. The collection of folktales came later – there are few tales that document the exact words in the original form. Authors modified folktales to make them more ‘beautiful’ so the original forms were hard to discern. Collectors in the 1920s were primarily interested in folktales, sagas, legends, and anecdotes (Eberhard 5). This group was similar to the Europeans in that “they believed that tales, legends, and sagas contained survivals of China’s oldest traditions. They thought they could compare the works they gathered in the field with classical literature to see how the literary scholars at the time distorted and falsified folk traditions. Under the leadership of Ku Chieh-kang, the group concluded most reports of early history were legends and tales, with some basis in what actually happened (Eberhard 6). Folklore became a tool for channeling liberal nationalism in Europe, but this idea never reached China. Chiang, the Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China at the time, did not support folklore studies. He related to the rational, liberal, and evolutionary ideas Western thought embodied. “He regarded the study of folk traditions and tales as dangerous because he thought that this would lead to a destruction of the traditional and glorious history of China” (Eberhard 7). In the early 1900s, prominent Chinese folklorists did not know of Western theories or methods. It was not until the late 1920s that works about a general introduction to folklore were translated into Chinese – such works included The Handbook of Folklore by Charlotte Burne and Le Folklore by Arnold van Gennep. The state of disconnect is not any better today – the works of modern Western folklorists still remains completely unknown (Eberhard 7).

Popular Festivals

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals, both economically and socially, in China. This festival is traditionally celebrated to honor the gods and ancestors, but now, for the younger generations, it has morphed from a time of honor to a time of relaxation. This holiday was documented to have been observed since at least 14th century B.C. (Chinese). Chinese New Year is based on the ancient Chinese calendar, which “functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide” (Chinese). The Chinese calendar had a dynamic structure that changed depending on the reigning emperor, and it was based on the lunar phases, solar solstices, solar equinoxes, and yin and yang. As modern culture depicts with the black and white pendants, yin and yang are “the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world” (Chinese). Yin and yang had an impact not only on the calendar, but also on the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. The 12 signs are “the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog[,] and pig” (Chinese). The style of celebration of Chinese New Year has morphed since it first started, as many traditions do. Traditions grow to adapt to the celebrator’s lifestyles and the advent of new technology. The tradition Chinese New Year begins in the middle of the 12th month and ends around the middle of the first month, with the waxing full moon. During the celebration, all activities members normally engage in are put to a stop, and the focus during the time is centered on the family and the home – business life nearly comes to a stop. In preparation for the festivities, houses are completely cleaned in hopes of ridding the home of “‘huiqi,’ or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year” (Chinese). A majority of the rituals done during this period are meant to bring good luck. The cleaning is also done to appease the gods, who come down and make inspections. Paper icons and sacrifices of food are also presented to the ancestors and gods.

The most important aspect of the traditional celebration of Chinese New Year is the feasting. Members of the extended family would all gather for a meal. The last course of the meal, which was not eaten, included a fish dish to symbolize the abundance of the household. During the first five days of celebration, long noodles are eaten. The length of the noodles symbolized the longevity of the consumer (Chinese). This tradition is now sometimes used on birthdays, especially of the elderly, as well. Round dumplings, shaped like the full moon, are made and eaten together on the last day of Chinese New Year – they are “shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection” (Chinese).

With the adoption of the Western calendar (the Georgian calendar) by the general population in 1912, the Chinese started to celebrate New Year’s Day on the first of January. Chinese New Year is still observed, but the celebration is shorted, and it was given a new name – the Spring Festival. The Jesuit missionaries brought the Georgian calendar into China in 1582. In 1949, under Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the government forbade the celebration of Chinese New Year. However, by the 20th century, the government loosened up and accepted the Chinese tradition. “In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday – now called Spring Festival – giving people the opportunity to travel home and celebrate the new year” (Chinese).

The color red is prominent during the festivities. “Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck” (Chinese New Year: 2012). This belief is still held true in modern China. Many people wear braided necklaces made from red thread for luck. Elders also pass red envelopes with money to the children – “lucky money” (Chinese New Year: 2012). The firecrackers, originating from the belief that the crackling would scare off the evil spirits, that are set off are also red in color.

Modern twists that utilize technology include the CCTV New Year’s Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会): “an annual variety show featuring traditional and contemporary singers, dancers and magic demonstrations” (Chinese). The celebration of this holiday has mostly lost its religious background, but it is still utilized to bring members of the family together to enjoy a meal and time together. The year of 2012 is the Year of the Dragon (Chinese New Year: 2012).

The way my family observes this tradition has changed throughout the years. Before the birth of my younger brother, my family and I were part of the Chinese Association in Florence. Every year, a different household would hold a party to celebrate every Chinese New Year. All the attendees would bring a dish or a bottle of wine as their contribution. The adults sang karaoke, watched the CCTV New Year’s Gala, and played poker. As I got older, my brother was born, and the Chinese population in Florence grew. We moved the celebrations to a public vendor, and the children were all asked to perform something.

Lunar Festival

Chang’e is the “Chinese moon goddess whose loveliness is celebrated in poems and novels” (Chang’e). The story behind the goddess is she had stolen the drug of immortality given to her husband, Hou Yi. When he set out to find her, she found protection from him in the moon. This myth is also used to explain rabbit in the moon – which is formed from the shape the craters make. On the 15th day of the eighth month, in accordance with the lunar calendar, the Chinese honor her memory.

The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

This occasion is celebrated in honor of Chu Yuan, a patriotic poet. The poet drowned in 277 B.C., on the fifth day of the fifth month (by the lunar calendar). Observers of this holiday now throw out rice filled bamboo leaves, tzungtzu, so the fish would eat that instead of the remains of the poet. Boat races occur during this celebration – which originated from the attempt to rescue the poet. Today, this holiday is celebrated as protection against disease and evil for the rest of the year (Fang).

Western Impact in Beijing

I spent this past summer in Beijing, visiting my relatives and the city.  The last time I visited was when I was in 5th grade. The contrast in how much the city changed in eight years was shocking – the city itself is cleaner, and the general atmosphere is friendlier. The culture of the city was also different. The Western impact on modern Chinese culture is also very evident. Large shopping malls all have popular stores found in the US and Europe, such as Coach, H&M, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and North Face. The complex at Wang Fui Jing, also called the Oriental Plaza, integrates the popular Western stores with traditional shops tailored towards the tastes of tourists. This shows how the traditional ways change to adapt to what is currently demanded.

Jing Tai Lan

Jing tai lan, the Chinese form of cloisonné, was first definitively recorded to have been used under the rule of Ming Xuande (1426 – 1435). However, this technique may have been introduced under the Mongol rule, and there are a few items that date “to the Yongle reign (1403 – 1443) of the early Ming dynasty” (Chinese Cloisonné). Jing tai lan styled ornaments are created using a base of some sort (pottery, beading, candle-holders, etc.), colored glass paste, and metal wiring. Shapes are made from the metal wires and the colored glass paste is used to fill in the outlines made by the wires. These objects were primarily used as decorations for palaces and temples, for their ornate designs added to the atmosphere (Chinese Cloisonné). These objects are a good example of how cultural relics change over time to ensure longevity.  In the beginning, jing tai lan ornaments were made for the royalty to display in palaces and temples. Now, the makers cater to the tourists and younger generation. There are jin tai lan style beads put onto cell phone charms and hair clips.

Myths and Folktales

When I was younger, between the ages of 5 and 10, I was super interested in camping. My parents, however, thought that camping in the great outdoors would be dangerous, so they set up a tent in the screened porch. Before bedtime, my dad would come in and tell me stories he read or heard about from his youth. This pertains to the aesthetic of the performance. Though many of these tales were not passed down orally through many generations, it still has a folk aspect due to the setting and performance. There was also definite variation between the original tales and the ones my father told me. He changed up the settings of the stories to it more applicable in my life. Many of the stories my father told me came from the famous novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

My father grew up in the countryside of China, where there was little electricity and everyone in the village spent a lot of time together. He heard many tales from the members of the village, and from his mom and dad – my grandmother and grandfather. He says:

During the summer time, we begged the older folks to tell us stories. These stories came from their parents, who heard it from their parents or read it from popular fictional novels. Also, during the winter time, we didn’t have anywhere to go because it was so cold outside. Then was a good time for storytelling.

The importance of face-to-face interactions can be seen here. Since there was little to do then, the people spent more time together learning about their culture and hearing stories. Now, children spend most of their time on the Internet. The composition of myths started in the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420) with inspiration rooted in the fundamentals ideals of Taoism and Buddhism (Owens). The stories written at this time were focused around supernatural elements, such as ghosts, and gods. The writing of myths continued throughout history. The most well-known works of fiction, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Pilgrimage to the West, The Scholars, and Dreaming of the Red Mansion, were written in Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The Chinese myths, in accordance with myths of other countries, are intertwined with historical events. The history from the time “before recorded history began is partly based on legend, which is interwoven with mythology” (Owens). Chinese myths, like Western myths, also detail the story of Creation, the importance of self-sacrifice and love, and warn the reader against the evils of sin and rebellion. Chinese myths differ from Western myths in that they also discuss topics such as reincarnation and fatalism (Owens).