Folk Literati, Contested Tradition, and Heritage in Contemporary China

Folk Literati, Contested Tradition, and Heritage in Contemporary China

Incense Is Kept Burning
Ziying You
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 03/01/2020
Format: Hardback 15 b&w illus., 4 maps, 1 table
ISBN: 978-0-253-04635-2
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In this important ethnography Ziying You explores the role of the "folk literati" in negotiating, defining, and maintaining local cultural heritage. Expanding on the idea of the elite literati—a widely studied pre-modern Chinese social group, influential in cultural production—the folk literati are defined as those who are skilled in classical Chinese, knowledgeable about local traditions, and capable of representing them in writing. The folk literati work to maintain cultural continuity, a concept that is expressed locally through the vernacular phrase: "incense is kept burning."

You's research focuses on a few small villages in Hongtong County, Shanxi Province in contemporary China. Through a careful synthesis of oral interviews, participant observation, and textual analysis, You presents the important role the folk literati play in reproducing local traditions and continuing stigmatized beliefs in a community context. She demonstrates how eight folk literati have reconstructed, shifted, and negotiated local worship traditions around the ancient sage-Kings Yao and Shun as well as Ehuang and Nüying, Yao's two daughters and Shun's two wives. You highlights how these individuals' conflictive relationships have shaped and reflected different local beliefs, myths, legends, and history in the course of tradition preservation. She concludes her study by placing these local traditions in the broader context of Chinese cultural policy and UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage program, documenting how national and international discourses impact actual traditions, and the conversations about them, on the ground.

Author Bio

Ziying You is Visiting Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies at The College of Wooster. She is co-editor (with Lijun Zhang) of Chinese Folklore Studies Today: Discourse and Practice (IUP, 2019) and of a special issue for the journal Asian Ethnology, titled Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia: Traditions in Transition.


""[This book] provides a comprehensive, thoughtful look at the way in which a relatively small community has maintained and recreated and understood a set of local traditions and beliefs, and in particular the role of "folk literati" in this process. It offers a thorough analysis of the historical discourses and contemporary attitudes toward the practice of a local tradition that also has national (and perhaps international) import." — Michael Dylan Foster, editor of UNESCO on the Ground: Local Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage"

""[This book] focuses on the repertoire and worshipping practices related to the ancient sagekings Yao and Shun as well as Ehuang and Nying, who are both Yao's daughters and Shun's wives... The author explores the ways different social actors have competed and negotiated with each other in the process of transmitting, reproducing, and representing local beliefs, legends, and historyZiying You show[s] how [eight scribes of these texts] have reconstructed, shifted, contested and negotiated local traditions in discourse and practice, and how the conflictive relationships among them have both shaped and reflected warring representations in the course of tradition revival." — Kristin Kuutma, editor of Burden of Remembering: Recollections and Representations of the 20th Century"

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Table of Contents


A Note on Romanization, Chinese Characters, and English Translation


1. Background: Situating Local Beliefs about Ehuang and Nüying in Hongtong, Shanxi

2. Incense Is Kept Burning: The Role of Folk Literati in Continuing and Representing Local Traditions

3. Contested Myth, History, and Beliefs: Worshipping Yao and Shun at Village Temples in Hongtong

4. Tradition Ecology: Debating and Remaking Ehuang and Nüying's Conflict Legends by Folk Literati

5. Reproducing Tradition: Folk Literati, Sociocultural Differentiation, and Their Interaction with Other Social Actors

6. Making Intangible Cultural Heritage: Folklore, Tradition, and Power


Appendix: In Commemoration of the Reconstruction of the Shun Temple