In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Folklore and Popular Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Folk Stories
  • Epic in China

Chinese Studies Folklore and Popular Culture
Victor Mair, Mark Bender, Levi Gibbs, Peace Lee, Haihong Fu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0105


Classical poetry, lengthy romances such as Dream of the Red Chamber, and drama dominate accepted views of Chinese literature. However, a massive body of oral literature exists both in written forms and living traditions of oral performance. Many works that began as items of folklore in local areas were adapted into print mediums in the popular culture as print technology grew from around the 15th century onward. In more-recent times, electronic mass media have allowed for a wider variety of adaptations with new audiences. Scholarly interest in folk literature extends back to the age of Confucius with the Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经) in the 4th century BCE, as well as to the Han period, when the Music Bureau was set up to monitor song and music throughout the realm. Centuries later, in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), scholars such as Feng Menglong gathered stories and songs from storytellers and singers, compiling them in written collections and often rewriting them to fit conventions of the page. By the early 20th century, especially during the May Fourth movement of the 1920s–1930s, influences of Western and Japanese folklorists—a new profession at the time—helped raise interest among the emerging modern scholars in China about the vast but underappreciated body of folklore and vernacular culture. During the latter half of the 20th century, huge collections of oral literature and folklore, including epic poetry of many ethnic minorities, were made under the auspices of the Chinese government in the 1950s, the 1980s, and again in the 21st century, in conjunction with Intangible Cultural Heritage projects inspired by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Since the early 1980s, large numbers of scholarly books, articles, and anthologies have been published, and many research centers, publishing houses, archives, and museums have been founded in China. In addition, foreign researchers since the 19th century have also produced significant material on Chinese folklore and popular culture, and a number of important collections of Chinese materials reside in Germany, France, England, Holland, Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, Australia, the United States, and other places. This article will stress materials related to oral literature and popular literature with a strong connection to oral traditions, focusing on professional storytelling arts (quyi 曲艺), epic, folk stories, folk songs, folk drama and ritual, and vernacular literature. It regards China as a multiethnic state comprising fifty-six official ethnic groups, including the Han majority, with its distinct regional subcultures, and the other fifty-five groups classified as ethnic minorities, many of which have large numbers of subgroups.

General Overviews

The works cited here represent a kaleidoscope of approaches to Chinese oral, popular, and performing-arts literatures, with foci ranging from a general introduction on Chinese oral traditions, to the effects of People’s Republic of China (PRC) policies toward transformation of the performing arts, to a genre-specific examination of mythology. Duan 2005 offers a historical outline on a spectrum of genres in folk literature as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage, briefly discussing recent collection and preservation efforts of China’s folk literary traditions. Mair and Weinstein 1986 provides a general survey of the history of Chinese folk literature and sources for its study. The Eternal Storyteller (Børdahl 1999) is a collection of works on Chinese oral and oral-related performance traditions, including transcriptions, translations, synopses, and useful bibliographic information on Yangzhou storytelling. Johnson, et al. 1985 establishes a historical context for popular Chinese literature and performing arts, by examining a selection of vernacular literary works and, in particular, the development of the baojuan (宝卷) genre. This collection of works engages the discussion of the symbiotic and dialogic relationships between written and orally performed popular literature. Link, et al. 1989 introduces readers to a mosaic of cultural scenes, emerging problems, and constructed traditions that were not included in the construction of official post–Cultural Revolution-era Chinese culture. McDougall 1984 sheds light on the PRC’s recent attempts at building a new national identity by popularizing elite written culture and the politicization of popular performing culture. Mackerras 1981 introduces readers to the post-1976, post-“Gang of Four” era, and the revival, restoration, and reinvention of various branches of performing arts, including cinema. Mair and Bender 2011 and Yang, et al. 2005 are introductory source books on Chinese folk and popular literature, in English, appealing to a broad audience.

  • Børdahl, Vibeke, ed. The Eternal Storyteller: Oral Literature in Modern China. Papers presented at the International Workshop on Oral Literature in Modern China, held 29–31 August 1996 in Copenhagen. Studies in Asian Topics 24. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.

    Discusses and introduces Chinese storytelling traditions both from Asian and Western perspectives and examines Yangzhou and Suzhou storytelling performance traditions. Chinese transcription of episodes of Yangzhou storytelling and their English translations are included in this work.

  • Duan Baolin 段宝林. Zhongguo minjian wenxue gaiyao (中国民间文学概要). Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2005.

    A historical and categorical introduction to Chinese folk literature and its collection projects within China.

  • Johnson, David, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn Rawski, eds. Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. Studies on China 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    A collection of articles on Chinese popular literatures from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Provides historical and cultural contexts of burgeoning Chinese mass literature and engages in a discussion on the connection between written and oral literature.

  • Link, Perry, Richard Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz, eds. Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thought in the People’s Republic. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989.

    This work provides insight into diverse social and cultural issues and the currents that shape Chinese popular culture and society.

  • Mackerras, Colin. The Performing Arts in Contemporary China. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

    A study of China’s post-1979 restoration and reinvention efforts of its national performing arts and cinema.

  • Mair, Victor H., and Mark Bender, eds. The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    The first large-scale anthology of Chinese folk and popular literature published in the West, intended for classroom use. This anthology provides extensive collected and translated folk and popular literatures of Han Chinese and ethnic minorities, with concise and helpful cultural explanations.

  • Mair, Victor H., and Maxine Belmont Weinstein. “Folk Literature.” In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Edited by William H. Nienhauser Jr., Charles Hartman, Y. W. Ma, and Stephen H. West, 75–82. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    A general survey of the history of Chinese folk literature and sources for its study. Different categories and genres are considered, from jokes to anecdotes and a wide variety of ballads, narratives, and songs. Special attention is paid to storytelling types and techniques.

  • McDougall, Bonnie S., ed. Popular Chinese Literature and the Performing Arts in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979. Studies on China 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    A collection of essays that outline the general cultural history of China from 1949 to 1979, along with a discussion on China’s transformation of its popular and national culture.

  • Yang, Lihui, Deming An, and Jessica Anderson Turner. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Handbooks of World Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

    Written in English by Chinese mythologists for a general audience, this important book introduces several famous Han Chinese myths, along with living myths among ethnic groups.

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