> topics > History

Folklore deepens social history studies

XU ZHENA | 2020-07-15
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
People attend a grand prayer ceremony for the sea goddess Mazu in Putian, Southeast China’s Fujian Province. Folk belief in Mazu has played a significant role in the development of new social relations. Photo: XINHUA
In the Chinese language, minsu, translated as “folklore” in English, consists of folk (min) and customs (su). Chinese folklorists have extended the definition of folk from villagers to any group of people, and widened the definition of customs from ancient conventions and cultural remains to life culture and the world. The boundary of folkloristics has been pushed continuously, as it has been connected with more and more disciplines and developed from a research object into a methodology for some fields. Interpreting the course of social history from the unique perspective of folklore has become a basic path for social history studies and a practical focal point for down-to-earth research advocated by scholars of the field.  
 
Bonds of social identity
According to folklorists, folklore refers to the knowledge and lifestyles universally accepted by a certain group of people. Therefore, it can perform the functions of communication and integration and serve as a bond of social identity. 
 
Today, many folk beliefs have been associated automatically with certain industries or regions, which is exactly a result of the social identification function of folk beliefs. For example, Zhao Shiyu, a professor of history at Peking University, held that building the Temple of Lu Ban, founder of Chinese carpentry, was a move to strengthen industrial identity after handicraft trades were freed of the shackles of the craftsmen-household system, or jianghu zhi, which sealed the fate of a household as craftsmen for generations in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1271–1644). 
 
Many other studies also show that guilds are common homes for regional beliefs. For example, the guilds of Fujian Province are in most cases held in the Temple of the Queen of Heaven that was built to enshrine and worship the sea goddess Mazu, and Shanxi guilds are usually located in the Temple of Guan Yu, a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). 
 
Since modern times, folk life has played an equally big role in the development of new social relations. Gail Hershatter, a distinguished professor of history at the University of California Santa Cruz, found that by participating in folk activities, workers in Tianjin not only enhance their relationship with their rural hometowns, but are also likely to foster new networks in urban life. 
The above scholars elucidated the formation of social networks based on folklore’s function of social identification, offering new perspectives, aside from economic base and political system, to studies on social organizations or communities. If Zhao’s study changed the previous model of simply mentioning folk customs as spiritual and cultural activities for some social organizations, Hershatter’s research highlighted the academic effect of the interaction between folkloristic observation and social history studies. She rectified the bias of regarding folklore as backward and woke people up to the role of folk customs in cultivating new social relations. 
 
Mirror of social structure
 
Many folk activities actually clarify social obligations and responsibilities for individuals, defining individual social roles while confirming and strengthening their positions in their own social networks. As a field examining all kinds of social relations, folklore studies has become an effective starting point for observing social relations, structure and changes. 
 
Renowned Sinologist Valerie Hansen and Professor Hamashima Atsutoshi from the University of Osaka both constructed their knowledge about the society of Jiangnan, or regions south of the Yangtze River, through the lens of folklore. 
 
By interpreting new folk customs like deities “responding to” businessmen’s prayers and folk beliefs spread overseas by businessmen, Hansen corroborated social transitions driven and manifested by commercial revolutions in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). 
 
Atsutoshi noted that the seemingly strange punitive measures taken by the government to suppress rent resistance riots, such as escorting statues of deities in village temples to the City God’s Temple (Chenghuang Miao), proved that officials fully recognized the unique and significant role of folk beliefs in social mobilization for riots. Hence the punishment of rioters was extended from the mortal world to folk beliefs, the mirror of real society. 
 
These studies have deepened people’s understanding of folklore’s social symbolic meaning. The establishment and change of social structure hinges not only on the parallel interaction between social organizations but also on the vertical pressure between state and society. 
 
Different from the top-down angles of traditional historiography, folkloristics, taking folk as its subject and centering on acts and activities, has become one of the best points of departure for social historians to examine state-society relations from the top down.   
 
Famed American anthropologist James Watson’s identification of the phenomenon “standardizing the gods” reflects the state’s flexible control over folk society. Hansen and Zhao contended that local societies attempted to safeguard their interests and raise their status by involving folk deities in national sacrificial ceremonies or inviting governmental forces to folk activities. The much-talked-about phenomena of official and illegitimate sacrifices also suggest the strained, complicated and subtle relations between state and society. 
 
Some scholars have even compared folk activities to social drama, which also stresses folklore’s role in mirroring life, as how a stage performance demonstrates life contradictions through dramatic conflict. Thus, folklore is more capable of revealing indiscernible yet crucial factors in social structure than other historical phenomena. 
 
Resources for social reorganization
 
Folkloristics occupies a vital role in the methodology of historical anthropology. Zheng Zhenman, a professor of history at Xiamen University, pointed out that historical anthropology is to study history from the perspective of folklore. 
 
Reputed historical anthropologist David Faure paid particular attention to the academic value of ritual studies to understanding South China society, considering rituals as the basis for interpersonal relations in Chinese history. 
 
Faure defined “ritual markers,” one of the three keywords in the study of historical anthropology in China, as what members of local societies call “objectively observable indications of ritual traditions.” The rituals in Faure’s terms are vastly different from the traditional concept, or official, orthodox rites. They coincide with customs in multiple ways. 
 
Faure argued that probing Chinese history and society based on rituals in his eyes, which approximate folk customs, is the best approach to studying history from the angle of the public and the best route for localizing Habermas’s civil society theory in Chinese history studies. 
 
Historical anthropologists are most concerned with two fundamental issues—man (manpower) and money (capital), the two resources necessary to sustain social operation. Who organizes folk activities and how they organize them reveal local social organization and structure; where funding comes from reflects local economic structure; and what the money is spent on hints at the development direction of local social culture. 
 
Folklore is not only about social events, but also spiritual activities. The public chooses deities on diverse logical grounds. They make the choices for the practical rationality of believing in responsive gods or realistic needs to win over discourse power. Hence it is necessary to place folk customs in specific contexts when expounding them. 
 
Historical anthropology deems local social relations a product of constant social reorganization in different situations and pays more attention to the proactive role of folk beliefs in the course of local social history. In reorganization processes, ritual markers are translated into exploitable resources, demonstrating the great power of folk customs to turn life culture into political culture.
 
Deep interpretation of human society 
 
In recent years, Chang Jianhua, a professor of history at Nankai University, proposed deepening the research of social life history to delve into daily life history and called on efforts to relate daily life to historical changes and explore connections between daily life and non-daily life factors. Daily and non-daily life both have much to do with folklore.   
 
Folklore is not only the lifestyles inherited throughout history, but more of social norms rooted in daily life. Through research of temple fairs in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), Zhao Shiyu pinpointed daily mechanisms and the secular order underlying carnivals. 
 
Folk customs cover cultural phenomena in daily and non-daily life, so folkloristics can link studies of daily life and historical changes and unveil non-daily life factors in daily life, thereby explaining the life of human society to the fullest. 
 
As a “potential foundation and background world” of human society as termed by literary theorist Xia Zhifang, folklore plays a rather stable part closely tied to daily life, such that the forces driving historical changes discovered by means of folkloristics are reliable. 
 
For instance, in modern times, the ritual of bowing replaced kneeling and garnered higher social identity. The change was not entirely due to the sense of humiliation brought by the feudal and autocratic model of kneeling as pointed out by cultural elites. It is more because that bowing can lessen physical burden and show respect through moderate physical punishments for being inferior. 
 
The public chooses, changes and reconstructs the national ritual system in various forms based on physical feelings, experiences and appeals. This is the fundamental driver of changes in social rituals and customs. And it is hard to figure this out through non-daily life factors, such as laws or monographs. 
 
As an important component of life history, an effective mirror of social structure, a basis for social relations and a narrative model for human daily and non-daily life, our evolving cognition of folklore reflects the improvement and strengthening of folkloristics’ status as a methodology in social history studies. 
 
Distinguished folklorist Gao Bingzhong worried that anthropology and historiography are encroaching upon the territory of folkloristics, shaking the latter’s position as a discipline. However, this instead verifies the positioning of folkloristics as a fundamental and pillar discipline in modern countries. Running through many disciplines of the humanities, it has achieved many remarkable results, such as “tying the knots” of historiography and anthropology into historical anthropology. 
 
Xu Zhena is an associate professor from the School of Social Development and Public Administration at Suzhou University of Science and Technology. 
 
​edited by CHEN MIRONG