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Scholar spends lifetime systematizing Chinese folktales

Author  :  HUANG YONGLIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-02-26

Liu Shouhua was born in August 1935 in Xiantao, Hubei Province. He graduated from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Central China Normal University in 1957. Liu started to teach there in 1987 and later became the department’s director. He is the honorary president of Hubei Folk Artists Association and the editor-in-chief of The Yearbook of Chinese Folk Art and Literature. Liu has published over 400 articles in the world and more than ten books.

Liu Shouhua was born in an intellectual family in rural Mianyang, Hubei Province. Jianghan Plain is home to abundant folk art. The two favorite forms of entertainments of the local people are watching theater and shadow plays. Growing up in such an environment, Liu heard many interesting folktales.

The world of fairy tales ignited Liu’s imagination and curiosity, securing his indissoluble bond with fairy tales. He began to appreciate the beauty of folk literature. 

In 1979, Xinhua Digest reprinted the full text of Liu’s “Comparative Study of a Group of Folk Fairy Tales” after the article first appeared in Folk Literature. In 1982, he further enriched and polished the paper. After six revisions, the paper, whose length had grown to over 200,000 characters, was published as the book An Introduction to Chinese Folk Fairy Tales. It won the national outstanding research award for the social sciences in universities.

People have created many folk fairy tales for children. Filled with fantasy and fun, these stories are a kind of oral language art common around the world. Liu’s An Introduction to Chinese Folk Fairy Tales is the country’s first monograph on Chinese folk fairy tales. 

In the book, Liu explains how different ethnic groups in different eras have affected each other’s folk fairy tales and the reasons behind the tales’ scenes. With solid evidence, he puts forward a creative view, differing from earlier studies, claiming that Chinese folk fairy tales have significant ethnic characteristics. This received immediate praise from the academia at home and abroad. A number of newspapers and periodicals recognized the value of the book, stating that “its publication marks China’s first monograph looking at the mentality, art and developmental history of Chinese folk fairy tales across different ethnic minorities in a comprehensive and systematic way. It has adopted new perspectives, resources and methods, such that a new and creative research system of folk fairy tales has taken shape.”

Liu loves folktales. He often goes deep into villages for field research. He has traveled across Hubei Province and developed a sense of intimacy with rural art. He has tracked folktales’ and inheritors’ relationships with social environments, historical contexts and cultural backgrounds, and throughout the process Liu developed friendly ties with the writers and collectors of oral literature. Since 1981, he has served as the chairman and vice chairman of the Hubei Folk Artists Association. 

Based on Chinese academic and cultural traditions, Liu also took in the achievements and methods of modern international folk literature and comparative literature in a bid to show the similarities and variations of folktales from different countries and ethnic groups in the cross-cultural system. In this way, he could theoretically clarify the historical and cultural roots that made these stories similar or different, thus identifying their specific cultural meanings and values. Such studies led him to the fields of the comparative study of folktales and comparative literature. Meanwhile, he started to adopt a cultural approach to folktales.

At the end of the 20th century, Liu led a key National Social Sciences Fund project named “Study on Types and Inheritance of Chinese Folktales.” Other scholars considered Liu’s research as a cultural study on folktales in which he explored the cultural roots of Chinese folk oral literature in traditional Chinese culture. Liu Xicheng said that “Liu’s academic vision has expanded. He used to examine folktales in the scope of literature and art. Now, his cultural research has not only enriched this method, but also tackled the cookie-cutter study of folktale types which are mostly based on Western sources and contexts.” Liu’s academic effort on folktales has undergone a shift from literary study to cultural study. 

Liu tracked classic folktales about the pursuit of good luck for 30 years. Based on more than 210 essays, he edited and published A Chinese Folktale with Epic Charm. This book contains Chinese and foreign scholars’ 14 research papers on stories about pursuing good luck, and it selects over 80 relevant folktales originating from 18 Chinese ethnic groups and seven countries in Asia and Europe. This book is the first of its kind that collects both papers and texts associated with AT461 stories, following the Aarne–Thompson classification system that identifies folk narratives.

According to a 2016 media report, “as a leading scholar of Chinese folktales, Liu has been dedicated to the field for 63 years since his admission by Central China Normal University in 1953. Although he has spent most of his life engaged in this job, Liu Shouhua has never felt bored.” 

Liu has grasped every opportunity to learn. He emphasizes academic exchanges with his counterparts in China and abroad to absorb new ideas and methods. In the early 1980s, he established academic ties with such folklore scholars as American scholar Ding Naitong, Russian sinologist Boris Riftin, Alan Dundes who presided over the American Folklore Society, and Professor Iikura Shohei from Tokyo Metropolitan University. Liu has explored major academic issues about folk literature with them through letters and co-authoring articles. He also invited them to his university to exchange ideas and give lectures.

Liu took the lead in China using the historic-geographic method, proposed by Finish poetry researcher Julius Krohan, to investigate folktales’ paths and prototypes. He analyzed the narrative structure and regular pattern of folktales through Propp’s structuralist methods. A China Comparative Literature Bulletin article pointed out that “Liu Shouhua’s research has broken down national boundaries and become a part of global academia, no matter whether we are talking about his vision, subjects or achievements.” 

In 1985, Liu started to write Outline of Story Study, and the Central China University Press published it in 1988. It served as a first attempt to build a theoretical system of Chinese folktale study after his comprehensive study of domestic and foreign stories. One year later, Liu’s first book using comparative methods to study folk tales, Comparative Study of Folk Tales, was released. He learnt from the methods and achievements of Western anthropology, folklore and comparative literature, so that he could dissect the similarities and differences between the Chinese folktales and those of Japan, India, Arabia and other ethnic groups and regions. Comparative Study of Folk Tales is original in how it has broadened academic horizons and innovated on earlier methods.

In terms of comparative literature, Liu has explored the relationship between religion and folk culture for years. Such study belongs to interdisciplinary comparison in the field of comparative literature, an area in which he has made great efforts to dig up folk literature’s connections with Taoism and Buddhism. In order to probe the far-reaching influence of Buddhism on Chinese folk literature, Liu spent a few years reading through the Tripitaka, searching for relevant stories and comparing them with Chinese folktales. Thereafter, he completed The Sutra Stories and Evolution of Chinese Folk Tales. Published in 2012, the book won the Shanhua Award, one of the top awards in Chinese literature and art. 

Liu voluntarily led the national key project “Research on the History of Chinese Folktales,” which aimed to make the study of Chinese stories more systematic. After eight years of painstaking work, his 670,000-character academic masterpiece History of Chinese Folktales was published in 1999.

History of Chinese Folktales discusses the Chinese folktales created during the time span from the pre-Qin period to the 20th century, along with their Buddhist and Taoist elements. In a context of time and space lasting for thousands of years, Liu carefully examined reams of material and reviewed how oral narrative literature has evolved from a macro perspective. He tried to include the best versions of folktales and compared them with the surviving oral narratives, thus putting forward his views. 

The publication of History of Chinese Folktales marked the establishment of a theoretical folktale system with Chinese characteristics. As a part of the Chinese Academic Work Translation Program, the book’s English and Japanese versions will meet readers in foreign countries.

 

Huang Yonglin is a professor at Central China Normal University and the director of the university’s National Research Center of Cultural Industries. This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily.

 

(edited by MA YUHONG)

Editor: Yu Hui

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Scholar spends lifetime systematizing Chinese folktales

Liu Shouhua was born in August 1935 in Xiantao, Hubei Province. He graduated from the Department of Chinese Language ...

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