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  • Folk Literati, Contested Tradition, and Heritage in Contemporary China: Incense Is Kept Burning by Ziying You
  • Levi S. Gibbs (bio)
Ziying You. Folk Literati, Contested Tradition, and Heritage in Contemporary China: Incense Is Kept Burning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020. xiii, 276 pp. Hardcover $75.00, isbn 978-02-53-04635-2. Paperback $32.00, isbn 978-02-53-04636-9. E-Book $16.99, isbn 978-02-53-04638-3.

A major twenty-first-century cultural trend in China has been the UNESCO-inspired preservation of local cultural traditions now referred to as intangible cultural heritage (ICH). These efforts have led to large-scale economic support from the government and impacted local and regional tourism. This book offers insight into how this process is negotiated on the ground in a particular locality for a particular tradition, and how participants at different levels from the local to the national interact with one another. The author has written an in-depth ethnography that focuses on the role of grassroots scholars in “transmitting, producing, and reproducing local traditions,” looking at how their efforts become part of the “controversies and conflicts” that emerge during “the [End Page 76] reconstruction of tradition and the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) within local contexts in contemporary China” (p. 1).

The book focuses on people involved in perpetuating a tradition located in southwestern Shanxi Province—the “living beliefs” of people in Hongtong County, Shanxi Province, who worship the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, together with Yao’s daughters who became Shun’s wives—Ehuang and Nüying. Each year, local people hold an annual ritual procession known as “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” (Hongtong zouqin xisu), which was designated as a national-level item of Chinese intangible cultural heritage in 2008 (p. 2). The book’s author, Ziying You, coins the term folk literati to describe the local intellectuals in Hongtong (as in other parts of China) “who are skilled in classical Chinese, knowledgeable of local traditions, and capable of representing them in writing” (p. 1). Their goal, she says, is “to maintain cultural continuity,” an idea colloquially symbolized by the vernacular phrase that serves as the book’s subtitle—“incense is kept burning” (xianghuo buduan) (p. 1).

You explores the life narratives of eight local folk literati involved in the interpretation, preservation, and promotion of this tradition, and the roles that they play in “tradition revival and reconstruction” (p. 23). The book is based on fieldwork that You conducted in Hongtong County in 2007, 2012, and 2013, during which time she interacted with a wide a range of local people and witnessed first-hand efforts to preserve and promote the local tradition, interviewing folk literati, local community members, cultural workers, members of local associations, ritual specialists, local officials, villagers, and so on, all of which helps her to delineate an overall perspective of the tradition’s ecological system (see chapter 4, discussed below). The book presents a fascinating case study of the roles that grassroots intellectuals play in negotiating the preservation and interpretations of local heritage in connection with other social actors and institutions. More broadly, it provides the reader with an in-depth, well-contextualized, contemporary view of the various participants involved on the ground in China’s promotion of ICH preservation.

The book’s introduction traces the evolution of Chinese and Western scholarly discourses surrounding the terms tradition, heritage, intangible cultural heritage, and chuantong (the Chinese term commonly translated as “tradition,” yet one with its own long and complex history), putting them into conversation with one another as You focuses on the case study at hand. You introduces Hongtong’s local tradition that venerates legendary figures who are significant to Chinese cultural history and also seen as deified ancestors of the local population. She highlights the role that local folk literati play in maintaining the tradition and how they fit into her larger participant observation fieldwork, and contextualizes the folk literati’s agency with a discussion of the shifting role of literati in modern China. [End Page 77]

In chapter 1, You introduces the setting of her case study, Hongtong County, Shanxi Province, outlining its history, local...