The Chinese Text:Professor Wan-Chuan Hu
The Advisor of English Home Page:Academician Ching-Chuan Cheng
English Translator:Dr. Yuan-Wen Chi
English Editor:Mr. Jeffrey N. C. Cuvilier

I. How to Understand Folk Literature? (怎樣來認識民間文學?

Many people talk about literature, yet few have heard of “folk literature” in Taiwan. Indeed, some may ask whether there is any literature among these folk. The terms “folk” and “literature” seem to compound something strange, simply because in Chinese the word “literature” refers to written language that is composed of works arousing thought and reflections. Folk literature, also known as oral literature, is composed of popular, orally transmitted folk tales and ballads. The existence of folk literature may provide a sharp contrast with the written literature of professional authors. Since folk literature is a kind of literary form handed down orally, it does not — traditionally — exist in written form. How, then, is it “literature”? This seems somewhat peculiar. 

However, the term “folk literature” has become recognized worldwide. Yet, there are numerous peoples who do not possess any written form of language, including Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Do they have no literature? They have no written language, yet possess forms of literary works resembling literature, such as tales, ballads, and so on. These stories are handed down orally, not written down, and there is no existing nation without its own variation of this particular cultural tradition.

When a nation has no written form of language, the cultural tradition depends on oral communication for conveyance to the next generation. Take the Taiwanese indigenous people as an example: each group passed down their belief, customs, and rules orally in the forms of mythology, tales, and ballads. That is folk literature. Even when a society develops literacy, not every member will be literate. This is so even in modern times, despite the popularity and availability of education, to say nothing of the case in traditional Chinese society. Even in Taiwan, which claims to be well developed, the number of illiterate persons outnumbered the literate only thirty years ago! Although Chinese, in written form, can claim more than four thousand years of continuous development, the number of literate persons was not very great among the Chinese, even down to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911.

During the long period of illiteracy, how did the majority of Chinese communicate, and create the conventions with one another to forge the so-called “Cathayan” or “Han”(漢)character? They did so by handing down orally their own ethnic conventions, reciting stories which cover the full scope of experience from cosmogony down to sentimental romance. No matter the form—elegies sung for relatives, friends, and acquaintances on the occasions of departure or funeral, or pleasant lyrics and drinkers’ wager games sung at festive parties and ceremonies—folklore is consistently composed on the basis of shared conventions, utilizing a unique language to consolidate a special pathos. Folk literature is both contrapuntal and supplementary, with tales enriching and fertilizing one another, so much so that the literature and culture of a nation with a written language will be richer when its development is informed by such a tradition. Most of the Book of Songs, which was canonized as a Chinese classic in a later age, originated from ritually performed folk ballads or the songs recited by, or for the nobility during specific rites. Afterwards scholars, or other authorities, collected and categorized the songs, which were gradually recognized as highly important and accepted as part of the literary cannon.

In the West, there were two great epics when Greek civilization was at its peak. Although attributed to Homer, we know that the ancient literati had collected popular sagas, editing and compiling them into two great epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. These two works have exerted tremendous influence, and been praised and emulated by Europeans through the generations.

In ancient China, some literary figure (conventionally believed to be Luo Guan-Zhong [羅貫中]) collected and compiled a number of heroic romances, sorting and editing them into a work known as San-Guo-Yan-Yi (《三國演義》or The Romance of Three Kingdoms). This work has become a part of the canon, influencing, in turn, written and folk literature. Literary works of this sort mutually enrich one another, generation after generation, without exclusion. We cannot, with justice, say that only the literature of professionals counts whereas folk literature is vulgar and of no consequence. The Book of Songs, the Odyssey and the Iliad are indisputably classics, which no one would regard as vulgar, but each is derivative of folk literature. If one holds fast to the notion that there is a single form of legitimate literature and looks down upon all others, this only demonstrates a narrow-minded and ignorant view of literature. Anyone truly interested in literature should be mindful of its various origins.

As we have stated above, those who major in literature and those concerned with folklore should understand clearly the importance of folk literature. But it is otherwise in Taiwan. In the departments of Chinese in Taiwan’s universities today, there are not many students who know anything of folk literature. Why? “Because folk literature comes from the people,” and is too much concerned with the language, customs, culture, and emotions from every walk of life. More than half of the curricula taught in traditional Chinese departments focuses on the literature of the intellectuals and nobility, and are, therefore, reflective of the intellect. Popular movies and plays which speak to the ideas and emotions at play in lives of the folk are largely despised within Chinese departments, which relegate them to the status of cheap, dispensable goods: that is, mere commodities. Folk literature, which more often actually comes from among the people, fares still worse. Teaching no popular literature in the classroom, professors of Chinese demonstrate a great indifference to the folk literature passed orally among their grandparents. “They do not care a farthing. It is not because they are noble; it is because they are ignorant.” Ever since the advent of the twentieth century, no developed country has neglected to collect and compile its folk literature and culture… save for Taiwan, which is poised to join the ranks of the truly ignorant should it insist on remaining oblivious to importance of folk literature to the national cultural treasury.

In addition to the reasons outlined above, a further major factor contributing to the ignorance of, and negligence of folk literature in Taiwan is political interference by a government fearful and reluctant to face the consequences of acknowledging the independent traditions of Taiwan’s native culture. As a popular artistic form, folk literature represents people’s emotions and cognition in their local mother tongues, but these were for many years suppressed and tramped down by successive authoritarian governments. We should all remember that previously we might be fined for speaking the Southern Min dialect, Hakka (客家話), the Fu-Zhou dialect (閩南話), or any of the indigenous languages when we were children. Could there be any room for acknowledging the raison d’etre of folk literature if one cannot use one’s mother tongue to sing or narrate stories?

Under a variety of influences, Taiwanese intellectuals who had known the importance of folk literature in the Japanese Occupation Period ceased to pursue their studies. In Mainland China, during the May Forth Movement (1919), for a time folk literature became an issue of concern for scholars. But when the Nationalist Government retreated from the Mainland to Taiwan, very few great masters of folk literature came to the island, and ordinary professors tended to know little or nothing of folk literature. Setting up departments of literature here and there, what they taught was nothing more than a severely reduced canon of classical works and philological techniques. Intellectuals of Mainland China, and Taiwanese intellectual alike, began investigating folk literature at the same time in the 1920s. That work was largely, although not completely, disrupted when the Nationalist Government moved to Taiwan. Still some experts of Academia Sinica and the Department of Archaeology of National Taiwan University in 1950s and 1960s were able to continue investigating the indigenous people’s mythology and legends related to etiquette, customs, and beliefs. However, folk literature has a broader scope than this, and indigenous peoples are not the only ones possessing myths and legends. Certainly there were some persons who adapted or rewrote the stories collected by their predecessors and declared that they were working on folk literature. But this approach is rather unscientific, and sometimes they misunderstood the nature of folk literature. What the fellows of Academia Sinica had done earlier deserves some credit, but their work was limited to the etiquette, customs, and mythological legends of minority ethnic groups, and was focused on the study of ethnography: therefore, the scope and methodology were somewhat narrow, and shifted away from our subject. As a result, today, a great deal of unfinished work remains, awaiting attention. Now even the professors and students in Chinese departments of various universities do not know much about folk literature. Many literary circles are unfamiliar with the concept of folk literature. We have presented, above, the background necessary to overcome such unfamiliarity.

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