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Reviewed by:
  • Minjian fengsu zhi ([Han Chinese] Folk Customs)
  • Kate Zhou (bio)
Gao Bingzhong . Minjian fengsu zhi ([Han Chinese] Folk Customs). Religion and Folklore Series, 9. Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1998. 471 pp. Hardcover RMB 60, ISBN 7-208-02343-3.

This book is an attempt to record the modern folk customs of the Han Chinese people, based on the author's own fieldwork and employing a multidisciplinary approach. For those interested in acquiring a background in Chinese society and culture, the book is both interesting and valuable, and it serves as a good reference work on Chinese folk customs.

The author defines folk customs as being grounded in the cultural life of a people. He places folk customs in three major categories—material, social, and spiritual—and the book's eight chapters are divided among three corresponding sections. The first section focuses on the folk customs of material life. Chapter 1 deals with the folk customs of production (basic production processes such as agriculture, fishing, mining, hunting, and animal husbandry); chapter 2 with the folk customs of business (raw-material processing, handicrafts, services, and trade); and chapter 3 with the folk customs of the household (the material consumption of goods such as food, clothing, housing, and modes of transport). In the second section, on the folk customs of social life, chapter 4 examines social organization (kinship, the village, the community, and associations); chapter 5 looks at seasonal holidays (the annual cycle of seasonal celebrations); and chapter 6 describes Chinese rites of passage (rituals of birth and birthdays, marriage, and funerals). In the third section, on the folk customs of spiritual life, chapter 7 deals with games, songs, and dances; and chapter 8 focuses on legends, stories, and sayings.

The author also discusses the historical evolution of some basic elements of folk customs, but his primary concern is the systematic construction of folk culture. In his description of a given category of folk customs, he usually begins with the basic elements and the way these elements are put together, and then introduces some typical examples, including examples of regional differences.

Gao's detailed study of regional differences is an important contribution: despite the identical names given to certain practices, the content of these practices may vary from region to region. Take the Chinese New Year's celebration, for example. Each region has a different symbol for good luck. Since wheat is the basic food of northern China, dumplings have become the required "good luck" food at New Year's, whereas in southern China where agriculture is based on rice, people eat rice cakes for good luck. Another example is related to the different ways that people in different regions send "money" to honor their deceased ancestors during the Qingming festival. In some regions, people burn paper money [End Page 446] so that it will change into the currency used by the dead in the next world, whereas in other regions, money is buried or suspended next to the tomb, because fire is forbidden in the Qingming season (pp. 277-279). There are many other interesting examples in this book of such regional practices.

Along with his descriptive detail, the author also includes commentary in every chapter. For example, in chapter 1, in addition to telling us what "production folk customs" is, namely the production activities and ceremonies related to spring sowing and fall harvest, he discusses the social and cultural meaning of these activities and ceremonies. In chapter 3, besides illustrating the folk customs connected with eating and drinking, he also briefly discusses the attitude of Chinese people toward saving money and, conversely, spending it on luxuries. In examining this contradiction, the author reveals the relationship between food and ethics, and between human relationships and face, in an economically underdeveloped society.

Although the book is written from the standpoint of folk society, the author often talks about the relationship between the larger tradition and the smaller, local tradition and between state and society. For example, the concept of li in Chinese folk customs is not quite the same as what Arnold Van Gennep calls "rite of passage," because li is a combination of "rite" in the larger tradition and "custom...


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pp. 446-448
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