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More efforts needed to integrate dialect and cultural studies

Author  :  GAO FENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-09-10

Northern Shaanxi Province, Shanxi Province, the Jin-dialect area of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Gansu Province all practice the custom of striking fire (dahuo) to ward off evil and cure diseases. Most related dialect phrases contain huo (fire), such as striking fireworks (da yanhuo), striking fire towers (da huotazi), building fire towers (lei huotata) and building bonfires (lei huodui). Photo: QUANJING

Dialect and regional culture are complementary and inseparable. Dialect is a carrier of regional culture; important components of traditional culture; and valuable, non-renewable cultural resources and intangible cultural heritage. Regional culture is an integral part of Chinese culture and the root of national culture.

Dialect culture refers to locally featured cultural phenomena expressed in the form of dialect, including local customs, folk activities, auspicious speech and taboos, proverbs and idioms, and folk literature and art. As the Project for the Protection of Language Resources of China has been making great progress, it is now necessary to integrate dialect and cultural studies and explore scientific research paradigms. 

Dialect and culture separated

Western scholars have combined the studies of language and culture for more than a century, and China also has a decades-long history in this regard. Language and Culture published in 1950 by famed Chinese linguist Luo Changpei was a pioneering work of language and culture research in China.

In 1985, You Rujie and Zhou Zhenhe published the article “Dialect and Chinese Culture” for the third issue of Fudan University Journal. In it they put forward the concept “cultural linguistics,” proposing examining rich linguistic materials together with time-honored, colorful Chinese culture. 

The period from the 1980s to the early 1990s saw a wave of cultural linguistic studies in China, but they quickly ebbed after the mid-1990s. The fundamental reason for the fast decline lay in complex research objects, varying content and methodologies, and a lack of scientific research paradigms.

The following two decades witnessed the rapid development of Chinese dialectology. However, dialectologists focused mostly on linguistic issues, paying little attention to regional culture, particularly folklore, which is inextricably bound up with dialect. 

Take the study of dialects in Shaanxi Province as an example. Representative works such as A Study of the Shenmu Dialect, An Investigative Study of the Suide Dialect and Serial Books on Key Investigative Studies of Shaanxi Dialects, depict and probe linguistic systems in great detail and depth. Related folk culture is reflected in the “Classified Vocabulary,” but the explication of words is the main content.

At the same time, studies of folklorists were mostly delineating and tracing folk events and phenomena along with their cultural dimensions, touching less upon dialect. Therefore, dialect and cultural studies were largely isolated from each other. 

New context created

In recent years, with the implementation of the Project for the Protection of Language Resources, dialect culture has been recorded, preserved and represented. It has come into the view of dialectological studies as a whole.

Publications such as the Series of Chinese Dialect-based Local Customs with Illustrations and China Language Culture Archives have not only offered comprehensive and systematic portrayals and records of dialect cultures but also investigated the oral cultures contained in endangered and ordinary dialects. 

On Jan. 25, 2017, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued the Opinion on Implementing the Project for the Inheritance and Development of Chinese Fine Traditional Culture, which included the protection of dialect culture.

The emergence of new materials and the creation of new contexts have raised the bar for reexamining the relationship between dialect and culture and establishing new research paradigms for the study of dialect culture.

Preserving and showcasing dialect cultures via multimedia, database and network technologies, the Chinese Language Culture Archives represents a new research paradigm for language culture. It is a model for protecting the resources of language culture. When vigorously protecting language culture resources, it is likewise essential to promote the deepening of the study of dialect culture, while taking into account external and internal relations between language and culture, in order to explore a model in which dialect and culture can explain and verify each other and a model that gets to the sources of language culture phenomena. 

Probing new paradigms

To build a new paradigm, we can absorb rational elements from studies of cultural linguistics in the 1980s and 1990s, but the real connotations and extensions of the elements should be changed substantively.

Among Chinese cultural linguists, few have ever devoted themselves to the study of dialect culture. Their attention has been focused on cultural phenomena in books and archives, Chinese characters and idioms, alongside implications of the phenomena. 

In the new paradigm, dialect and culture are viewed as a complementary whole. Based on massive investigations and recordings of dialect culture phenomena, the aim is to observe the interaction between dialect and culture and to explore the geographical distribution and synchronic differences of the phenomena, thereby making dialect and culture mutually explainable and verifiable while revealing the cultural significance and sources of dialects.

The model to protect language culture resources is a new research paradigm for dialect culture studies in the Project for the Protection of Language Resources. The research framework of the Chinese Language Culture Archives encompasses every aspect of material and oral culture of a dialect. These aspects fall into nine categories: house buildings; domestic wares; apparel; diet; agricultural and industrial crafts; daily activities; marriage, childrearing and funerals; festivals; and entertainment. The nine broad categories are further divided into sub-categories and third categories, consisting of more than 800 investigative entries. Most notably, the archives keep track of proverbs, idioms, two-part allegorical sayings and folk songs concerning phrases from dialect cultures to reflect the unique cultural and linguistic value of the folk phrases to the greatest extent. 

The model in which dialect and culture can explain and verify each other can guide researchers to understand dialect words and phrases more precisely by examining folk culture, thus avoiding taking them literally. In turn, dialect words and phrases can help make out the cultural meaning of related terms and phenomena and correct misunderstandings.

For example, the book Shaanxi Folklore and Dialect Etymology authored by renowned linguist Liu Xunning blends investigations of dialect and folklore. Resorting to folk culture, he clarified the semantic meaning of ambiguous characters that are not used alone in written language. In addition, the geographical distribution of dialect and folk culture can also corroborate each other. In light of the distribution of dialect characteristics and folk events and phenomena, we can see that dialect and culture spread in the same direction and even synchronically in different dialect areas. 

The model for tracing language culture phenomena is to investigate different forms and implications of language expressions in the folk culture of a certain region, so as to explain and track the sources of dialect culture phenomena on the basis of pertinent descriptions and recordings. This research paradigm stresses starting from the dialect to explore and unveil the cultural significance of the dialect’s words and phrases and folk events and phenomena.

Take the folkloristic study of dahuo, literally to strike fire, as an example. It is a grand folk activity carried out around the Spring Festival in northern Shaanxi Province, centering on igniting bonfires (huodui) and fire towers (huota). 

First, we studied the ceremony and process of striking fire in Yan’an, and the significance of striking fire at different times. From the linguistic manifestations of the activity in different dialects of northern Shaanxi and surrounding areas, we found that all of the dialect phrases contained huo (fire), yet the other words varied according to the materials for and shapes of the fire, such as striking fireworks (da yanhuo), striking fire towers (da huotazi), building fire towers (lei huotata) and building bonfires (lei huodui).

In terms of distribution and representation, this folk custom has been practiced in northern Shaanxi Province, Shanxi Province, the Jin-dialect area of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Gansu Province. When the bonfire is stoked up, people either roast food, dry clothes, or walk around the bonfire or fire tower to ward off evil and cure diseases (liaobing). 

Finally, we traced the folk event to its cultural roots according to its geographical distribution, process and meaning, and discovered that it is a continuation of the “burning firewood” (liaochai) tradition in ancient China and very likely to be associated with the shamanistic worship of fire among ethnic groups in the north of China.

In Yan’an, the convention of striking fire to worship Supreme Lord Laozi (Taishang Laojun) on Jan. 15 of the lunar calendar is related to Taoism, while the resemblance of fire towers to pagodas obviously hints at the influence of Buddhism. 

Therefore, the fire striking custom is a product of integration among cultures of multiple ethnic groups in China and between Chinese and foreign cultures, which is evidenced by its linguistic forms, dialectal disparities and specific processes. In the new era, the tradition has been inherited and developed. Apart from the theme of curing diseases, it more symbolizes the thriving life of local people.

All in all, the Project for the Protection of Language Resources and the Project for the Inheritance and Development of Chinese Fine Traditional Culture have not only discovered and preserved affluent resources of dialect culture, but have also created a new context and heralded new research directions and trends. In the new context, more efforts are needed to continuously explore new paths and paradigms for studies of dialect culture. 

 

Gao Feng is an associate professor from the School of Literature at Xi’an University.

 

 

 

Editor: Yu Hui

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