Jie Gao. Saving the Nation through Culture: The Folklore Movement in Republican China. Contemporary Chinese Studies. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2019. 364 pp., 20 b/w photos, appendices, notes, glossary, bibliography, index.
Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the “Father of the Republic,” often lamented that the Chinese people were “a sheet of loose sand,” for their supposed failure to cohere as a nation. Indeed, between the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), many intellectuals, reformers, and revolutionaries in China were vexed by the apparent problem identified by Sun: how to build a modern nation-state on the rubble of traditional dynastic empires, with a people not used to the idea of national belonging? One group that manifested very high levels of enthusiasm for this nation-building project were early-twentieth century academics, who believed that introducing Western fields of study (often filtered through Japan) could serve as an antidote to what they saw as a stifling traditional Confucian education with its emphasis on hierarchies and virtue rather than fraternité and power. Happily, for the twenty-first century researcher, these intellectuals wrote a lot. In Saving the Nation through Culture, Jie Gao plumbs the extensive library of one sub-group of these intellectuals, the folklorists. As Gao puts it, the folklore movement emerged in China “as a means of providing evidence of unity and a rich, vibrant popular culture that would, they believed, rally the people around the flag in a time of great national difficulty” (3).
Gao tells the story of the emergence, brief flourishing, and eventual demise of the folklore movement in China in roughly chronological fashion. Her narrative also traces the shifting geographical centers of folklore activity, with the field emerging in the late 1910s at National Peking University (Guoli Beijing daxue, commonly referred to as “Beida”), then moving first to Guangzhou followed by Hangzhou in the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, before finally migrating to southwest China during World War Two. Through it all, Gao provides extensive explanation of the background and actions of the main actors at each phase and highlights the major (and many minor) writings of the movement. Clearly, Gao has closely examined the vast majority of the relevant published sources in this enterprise.
In chapter one, after a very well-written introduction to the intellectual ferment that led up to the New Culture Movement of the late 1910s, Gao describes the emergence of folklore studies at Beida. Beida was the center of New Culture activism, and one significant element of New Culture was a push for literature reform and increasing use of the vernacular. Gao shows that in its earliest iterations, the folklore movement was intimately connected to the push for the vernacular, as folklorists dismissed classical texts in favor of the words of the people. As Gao notes, for advocate-for-the-vernacular par excellence Hu Shi (1891-1962), “folk ballads sung by country people were elevated to the same status as the three hundred poems collected in the Book of Odes, and popular fiction had an equal rank with the great classics” (41). With the support of Beida’s radical president, Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), folklore studies was born at Beida through the founding of the Folksong Collecting Bureau in 1918, grew through the advent of the nationally-distributed Folksong Weekly in 1922, and broadened beyond folksong through the Customs Survey Society within the Institute of Sinology starting in 1923. Unfortunately, in the mid to late 1920s, Beida suffered financially due to warlord politics, and folklore studies was cut when the budget became tight.
Chapters two and three detail the experience of folklore scholars from the late 1920s until the onset of war with Japan in 1937. Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou became, for a time, the national center of folklore work, offering classes on folklore and opening a public display room of artifacts collected by professors and students. The moment in Guangzhou was not to last, however, as it came under criticism from some in the Nationalist government who considered the collection of bawdy songs and superstitious tales to be unhelpful for the task of building a new China. The effort was further hurt as some potentially sympathetic scholars accused the folklorists at Sun Yat-sen University of producing low-quality scholarship which, Gao admits, was probably true, as their interest was clearly in quantity over quality (118). Amid such pressure, some leaders in folklore studies moved to Hangzhou. While there, they made some effort to professionalize the emerging discipline, primarily through engaging with folklore scholars abroad. This effort was cut off by Japan’s invasion in 1937, however, and chapter four follows the majority of the university-related folklorists as they retreated west to areas held by the Nationalist government, now operating from the new academic centers of Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming. In southwestern China, the folklorists were confronted by an array of ethnic groups, heretofore largely unknown to them, and many focused their research now on these groups. After World War Two, civil war raged in China, and while the Communist Party saw some use for folklore, it was primarily in baldly instrumentalist fashion, to use old tunes or tropes to fan the flames of class warfare. After 1949, such tools were deemed no longer useful.
Saving the Nation is a comprehensive look at the attempt to build a nation-wide program of folklore studies in China. While impressive in its detailed examination of a wide array of sources, the volume also has its faults. One weakness is the tendency, at times, to appear to be simply a catalogue of names of folklorists, titles of journals, titles of books and articles, and the like. This tendency to list things is not bad in and of itself, and will be beneficial to other researchers, but the point of all the lists is sometimes lost. Is this ultimately just one scholar celebrating the achievements of other scholars? Gao could have made more effort to link her study to issues of interest to wider scholarship on early twentieth century China. If the larger point is to show the creation of a new discipline, there needs to be much more explanation of what constitutes a discipline or method. For instance, why should folklore be considered separate from earlier practices of ethnography? She fails to engage with scholars working on the history of academic disciplines in China, and so misses many of the concerns in the field, such as whether disciplines can become, somehow, indigenous.For example, see the contributions to Arif Dirlik, ed., Sociology and Anthropology in Twentieth-Century China: Between Universalism and Indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2012). A related concern: although Gao does an exceptional job summarizing the major contours of New Culture and May Fourth Movement thought, her explanation of the relationship of the folklore movement in China to global folklore studies and to Chinese tradition is, unfortunately, quite thin. After a very brief survey of nineteenth-century German folklore studies in the introduction, there is no interest exploring why scholars in China accepted “folklore” as a category and adopted part-and-parcel, it seems, Western standards for folklore studies. Nor is there any evident interest, on the part of Gao, in proto-ethnographic traditions in China (like the “Miao Albums,” for instance), that surely must have influenced Gao’s subjects in some manner (or if not, that would also be worth explanation).On the Miao albums, see Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). A couple examples of studies that attempt to understand the emergence modern disciplines in China, in the context of both apparent Western disciplinary authority and local traditions, are: Fa-ti Fan, British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) and Grace Yen Shen, Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
A final conceptual problem that bedevils Gao throughout is how to think of the “Chinese nation” in the first place. Although this topic is obviously a contested one, still Gao does not seem to have a clear perspective on it, which leads to much confusion as to what exactly the folklorists are up to. The introduction sets the tone, when Gao makes the highly dubious claim that before the Manchu Qing Dynasty, “the Chinese nation was identified with the Han Chinese” (5). With a few exceptions, she seems to take as a given the assimilationist vision advocated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party that everyone within the geo-body of China belongs to the Zhonghua minzu, with the Han as the base, ignoring the vast literature on the question of ethnic identity in Chinese history and the constructed nature of “the Han.”Cf. Thomas Mullaney, et al., eds., Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
This defect, on occasion, leads Gao to present sources in a wholly uncritical manner, where a wider perspective is clearly warranted. For instance, Gao offers, without any critical comment, a 1943 study linking the Yue ethnic group with the Han, due to a supposedly shared snake totem (184). The fact that such a study plainly implied that the non-Han Yue belonged to the Han-dominated Zhonghua minzu, and thus was exactly the view of the Nationalist state at the time, is not brought to the reader’s attention. A more critical view on what the folklorists were actually up to in terms of nation or even discipline-building would have been welcomed and made the book considerably more engaging.
Criticism aside, Gao’s work presents to English readers an important but not well-known component of the New Culture Movement, the folklore intellectuals, who searched for national roots among the people. Saving the Nation will be of interest primarily to scholars studying modern Chinese nationalism in the early twentieth century and to those interested in the formation of academic disciplines, though this would seem to be, ultimately, a case of the failure to form a proper discipline (as Gao puts it, the folklorists were always “influenced and dominated by other disciplines” (204)). It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say Gao has looked at, and capably presents a synthesis of, the vast majority of published documents related to the folklore movement in China at that time. Further, for the scholar interested in related topics, Gao presents nineteen appendices, containing her translations of important texts of the movement. For what it might lack in theoretical sophistication, the volume makes up for it in thoroughgoing attention to gathering all available sources.
|↑1||For example, see the contributions to Arif Dirlik, ed., Sociology and Anthropology in Twentieth-Century China: Between Universalism and Indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2012).|
|↑2||On the Miao albums, see Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). A couple examples of studies that attempt to understand the emergence modern disciplines in China, in the context of both apparent Western disciplinary authority and local traditions, are: Fa-ti Fan, British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) and Grace Yen Shen, Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).|
|↑3||Cf. Thomas Mullaney, et al., eds., Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).|
Jeff Kyong-McClain: contributions / website / firstname.lastname@example.org / Idaho Asia Institute and Department of History, University of Idaho
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