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

II. The Importance of Folk Literature 民間文學的重要性

There were large scale collections of folk literature in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, which exerted tremendous influences on various European cultures and arts—especially their literature. When I was invited to lecture in France in 1981, I met a graduate of National Taiwan Normal University who had gone to France to study on her thesis “The Birth of Lao-tze.” I did not know from where her title and content came, and she told me: “The title of my thesis was assigned by my adviser. I went to Yi-Lan(宜蘭) to record the legend of Lao Tze’s birth as narrated by an elderly person.”

This is an interesting master’s thesis on authentic folk literature, orally presented. She recorded the stories in the Southern Min dialect, then translated them into Mandarin Chinese and French, and finally wrote a thesis analyzing its significance. This event provided me with a great stimulus at that time, and I thought that only in a place like Europe, where there was a deep and profound tradition of collecting, sorting, and studying folk literature would the professor encourage students to work on such a thesis. In the conservative atmosphere of Taiwan’s academic community at that time, especially in Chinese departments, no one would think that the title of a master thesis or doctoral dissertation could be something not already set down in some tome but rather narrated by an elder. This stimulus was the equivalent to planting a seed deeply in my mind, at a time when Taiwan was still a folk literature desert.

Afterwards, I checked the records of the collections of folk literature around the world, and all sorts of feelings welled up. More than a hundred years ago, in Finland, a Scandinavian country historically invaded and bullied by neighboring countries, a great number of “foolish” people were outfitted with backpacks to visit the remote backwater countryside to collect folklore. When they were done, they edited and published a great Finnish epic: Kalevala. This is an epic that we in Taiwan had never before heard of, because we only know about Odyssey, Iliad, and Chinese the Book of Songs. From whence does Kalevala come? What is the consequence of its compilation? An independent Finland, one that is admired worldwide, has emerged from a Finland nearly torn asunder of old as a result of its strong sense of national solidarity—that is, a sense of self nurtured by the persistent efforts and endeavors of field workers who collected, edited, published, and studied Finnish folklore. Today, the headquarters of the World Association of International Folk Literature Workers is in Finland. Since the last century, countries taking the lead in studying folk literature include developed countries such as Germany, the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and Japan. To be sure, each of these countries values the collection of folklore at least insofar as it focuses attention on local cultural traditions.

Let us turn to the case of People’s Republic China (PRC), which is relatively underdeveloped politically and economically. Under the auspices of the Department of Cultural Affairs in the State Department (the equivalent of the Executive Yuan in Taiwan’s government system), a decade ago they began to undertake a census, investigation, and collection of folklore at the levels of provincial, municipal, and county governments, down to the level of towns and villages, because they fully realized the importance of folk literature. The lesson is one that Taiwan—a country economically affluent but culturally poverty-stricken—has yet to learn. Mining the treasury of folk culture of the counties, municipalities, and provincial governments from towns and villages, they finally edited, compiled, and published Zhong-Guo Min-Jian Wen-Xue Ji-Cheng (《中國民間文學集成》or The Compiled Works of Chinese Folk Literature) with public funds. Even though PRC’s performance in the sectors of politics and economy is not quite satisfactory, they have benefited from the positive influence of Russia, Germany and Finland and other countries in this respect, and have had good results from their work. The data that they have collected are truly amazing: from 1984 to 1990, they gathered 1,380,000 folk tales, 3,020,000 ballads, 7,000,000 entries of proverbs… all in only six years. In total, the number of Chinese characters published runs to 4 billion, and the effort is ongoing. The traditional culture of every ethnic group within the PRC’s territory may be able further sustained and developed after the data is sorted out and conserved. It is, truly, a great work.

In contrast, Taiwan claims to be a developed country, but here few people understand folk literature. We only know about the newly edited and published collection of American fairy tales (George Washington chopping down the cherry tree) and the story of a brave Dutch boy plugging a crack in the dyke with his finger. We have compiled and edited a great number of tales by folklorists from many other countries, but where are our own tales? Is it possible that we have never had our own legends and stories? It is truly pathetic that the Taiwanese do not seem to believe that they possess anything native of worth, and believe that they have no true folk tales. Taiwanese children listen to American stories, and sing Western songs when they go to college. Earlier, the singing of some Taiwanese songs in public was forbidden or regarded as a means of losing face. Taiwanese are good at making money, but not at understanding or appreciating the characteristics of their own culture. Paradoxically this failure is a result of our educational system’s successes. We have successfully encouraged everyone to enter to higher education, and the more education one has, the more money he can make. But what about culture? Generally speaking, our students do not know anything about their own native culture, for this seems irrelevant to economic success. Thus, students in Taipei know where New York is, but cannot tell Yun-Lin(雲林)from Yuan-Lin(員林).2

If we do not collect our folk tales at once, most of them will be lost, because folk literature is handed down orally and by and large, only the elderly still remember the tales. If we do not excavate, collect and record these tales, it will be difficult to retrieve them. Therefore, we must set out to promote this work as soon as possible, lest we—all too soon—be rendered forever ignorant, and look back with regret and shame on our failures when we stand face-to-face with our ancestors and descendants.  

2.Yun-Lin is a county south of the Zhuo-Shui River(濁水溪;or the Muddy River)whereas Yuan-Lin is a town in Zhang-Hua County in central Taiwan.

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