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  • The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature
  • Jörg Bäcker (bio)
The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Edited by Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature is the first large-scale anthology of the folk literature of China ever published in the West, and the compilation of such an anthology is indeed an ambitious undertaking: it has to cover a period of about 3,000 years and should include, besides the Han Chinese “majority people,” more than fifty “minority peoples.” The editors have resolved the problem of how to select representative samples from such an immense corpus very well by choosing twenty-five folktales from eleven minority groups as well as some Han Chinese dragon tales; more than seventy folk songs and—often neglected—samples of ritual literature from a number of ethnic groups and the Han Chinese; and epic literature with samples, for instance, from the Mongolian Geser and Jangar and from the Miluotuo creation myth of the Southern Chinese Yao. Next follow texts from Han Chinese folk drama. The second half of the volume is devoted exclusively to Han Chinese professional storytelling (with two samples from the Bai minority). These texts, which raise conflicts but almost completely lack elements of the märchen, are often tragic love stories and other life stories imbued with Confucian and Buddhist values.

The historical dimension comes in (for about the last 400 years) in a few cases of folk songs and professional storytelling; otherwise we are given recent recordings. The guideline rationale of the editors has been authenticity of the recording. This is a must in the case of China, where during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) all traditional culture was condemned as “poisonous herbs” that had to be eradicated from the surface of the earth to create a “new type of man.” Thus after this disastrous period many storytellers or folksingers did not dare to open their mouths again for years, if they were still alive at all. Then, in the 1980s, during a period of “searching for our roots,” Chinese folklorists, often with great enthusiasm, were busy saving all the remnants that could still be saved. A large-scale search was [End Page 259] unfolded, culminating in the monumental Zhongguo minjian wenxue san tao jicheng (The Complete Collection of China’s Folk Literature in Three Sets), which contained folktales, folk songs, and proverbs from each province. Nowadays the oral traditions are in rapid decay again—this time, however, because of the modernization and industrialization process and the dominance of pop culture, TV, and other media. Sometimes folktales get the chance to be transposed into the mass media. The younger generations of the minorities often take little interest in their native language and culture, and with the older generation dying out, the living tradition in its original surroundings will end.

As the editors of the Columbia Anthology state, the volume is intended for use in the classroom and is thus meant as introductory material for this vast field. However, it will not be easy for nonspecialists to find their way through this bewildering diversity of texts and cultures. There is little that traditional Kazakh culture shares with the culture of the Mon-Khmer Wa of Yunnan or that the Yi have in common with the Ewenki. The one- or two-page introductions to the texts are helpful; the texts are offered as “cultural documents” of the respective peoples. This is surely acceptable. Yet it may create an impression of uniqueness of the texts, which is misleading, and it is not clear why the science of folklore has to be excluded in such a volume. Therefore one wonders why no word is said in this volume about typology and classification, which leaves readers without orientation as to the “international position” of the texts.

Some parts of the anthology, such as that on Jiangsu folk songs (shan ge or Wu ge) are richly and aptly annotated; others, such as the folktales, often require more cultural notes and commentary. “The Ginseng Tale,” for instance, reflects the close relationship between a maternal uncle...


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pp. 259-261
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