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: 02/11/2020
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 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"

"Dr. Ziying You's book is one of the most important and far-reaching books of folklore scholarship today. The depth of her ethnographic interviews with folk literati, the local folklorists who document and shape cultural traditions, is matched by her insightful discussion of the larger questions she raises about the concepts of tradition and cultural heritage. Drawing on and engaging with decades of global legend scholarship, Dr. You's book is crucial reading for scholars of Chinese folklore, for scholars interested in how competing local legends are transformed and reconstructed over time and reflect social change, for oral historians documenting the intersections among legends and local histories, for public folklorists endeavoring to understand the role of culture brokers or others who document and shape traditional cultural practices, and for theorists interested in the understanding of tradition as a dynamic process."

Amy Shuman, winner of the Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award, The American Folklore Society

"Ziying You explores a particular Chinese history to illuminate important general processes in the integration of nation-states and the construction of cultural heritage. Her "folk literati" are revealed as complex individuals whose role in sustaining local traditions in time of upheaval has gone largely unrecognized by scholars or policymakers. The account of Shanxi village adaptations to the cultural politics of Reform Era China and UNESCO conventions is conceptually sophisticated as well as ethnographically rich. Readers will welcome her excellent social history of Chinese idioms for intellectual activity and cultural continuity as she places them in dialogue with Western keywords."

Dorothy Noyes, President, The American Folklore Society

"Drawing on intense fieldwork, author Ziying You offers new perspectives on the life of communities, families, individuals, and village temples in Hongtong, Shanxi province. Focusing on the roles of "folk literati" in the transmission of tradition, You examines how contested concepts of deeply rooted myths, legends, histories, and beliefs play out in the local social ecology over decades of modernization and socialist construction, most recently in the age of Intangible Cultural Heritage agendas. The contests over tradition center on annual ritual processions structured around the act of visiting the "sacred relatives," Ehuang and Nüying, daughters of the most ancient Emperor Yao, that are woven of multiple strands of folk activity. This ground-breaking study of folk literati, who record and document local culture outside the strictures of formal research or political agencies, has implications for recognizing the existence and value of local, grass roots intellectual agency elsewhere in China and the globe."

Mark Bender, The Ohio State University

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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