- Reinventing Chinese Tradition: The Cultural Politics of Late Socialism by Ka-ming Wu
This new volume in the University of Illinois Press's Interpretations of Culture in the New Millennium series looks at how local folk traditions in north China form a discursive site [End Page 361] wherein "the cultural logic of late socialist China" is played out (p. 5). Focusing on three folk traditions from northern Shaanxi province in northern central China—paper-cutting, folk storytelling, and spirit cult practices—Ka-ming Wu attempts "to provide new interpretations of the meanings of folk culture" in late socialist Chinese society (p. 3). These account for "the dynamic interpenetration among the party-state, cultural practitioners, rural villagers, urban consumers, and the uneasy politics of appropriation and engagements involved" in ways that "juxtapose the highly conflicting logic and interests of the state, the capital, and that of local rural society" (p. 5).
The book is based on extensive fieldwork in and around Yan'an city, an area in the southern part of northern Shaanxi province where Mao Zedong established his revolutionary base after the Eighth Route Army's Long March in 1934–1936. Wu provides several contemporary snapshots of the day-to-day workings of local folk artists, cultural officials, and intellectuals. Wu notes in the introduction that "Yan'an" and "folk culture" have become interrelated keywords since the revolutionary period, becoming synonymous with "an official model of appropriating and adapting local traditions for party-state policy promotion" that "has since shaped several decades of [the] CCP's cultural policy nationwide" (p. 2).
One of the theoretical contributions that Wu makes early on is the idea of the "hyper-folk," referring to "the late socialist cultural condition in which the practice and representation of folk culture is no longer associated with any ritual reality, rural environment, or cultural origin in today's Yan'an" (p. 20). Building on Jean Baudrillard's concept of "hyperreality" (1988), Wu suggests that "the sign of a Yan'an waist-drum performance is now constantly mass-mediated, performed, and consumed out of its original and spatial contexts, and its live performance now engages rural performers and urban photographers, tourists, and government officials much more than rural neighbors" (p. 20). Similar to Michael Dylan Foster's notion of the "folkloresque" (The Folkloresque, Utah State University Press, 2015), the "hyper-folk" builds on the perceived authenticity of folk attributions while at the same time suggesting that contemporary cultural productions are in some way disconnected from "traditional" notions of folk transmission.
Reinventing Chinese Tradition is organized into five main chapters. The first two chapters examine the northern Shaanxi folk paper-cuts (jianzhi) tradition as a site where multiple agents negotiate the meanings of cultural tradition, modernity, and gender roles. Outlining a history of representations of paper-cuts from the revolutionary period to the early reform period and the 1980s on to post-2000, Wu sees the portrayal of this art form as tied, in part, to the urbanization of Yan'an and intellectual attempts to preserve both the natural environment and traditional culture. Readers who attended the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be especially interested in chapter 1, which begins with a visit to Gao Fenglian, "one of the most renowned paper-cutting masters in China" (p. 31), who performed her art on the National Mall in Washington, DC, during the two-week-long festival. After tracing various historical portrayals of this art form, chapter 2 then uses the case of northern Shaanxi paper-cuts to look at how "narrative battles" ensue as various actors attempt to describe and appropriate local traditions.
The following two chapters turn to the second tradition explored by Wu: northern Shaanxi storytelling (Shaanbei shuoshu). This genre of narrative chantefable, accompanied by the three-stringed plucked lute (sanxian), has a history of being used to promote political agendas during the socialist era. However, Wu argues that in the current state of its performances, it "neither resists nor colludes with...