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Folklore in China in Relation to My Life

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 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 th