Folk literature and art fuels rural vitalization

Author:MAO QIAOHUI Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-11-01

Folk literature and art is a discipline which is a poetic expression of people’s everyday life in China. The content is rich and diverse, composed of myths, legends, folk tales, epics, ballads, riddles, and proverbs, as well as various ritual texts, folk arts, and folk crafts. Folk literature and art is naturally connected with the countryside, which often makes it a symbol of rural society.

From the beginning of the rural construction movement in the 1920s and 1930s, folk literature and art attracted attention. Over the course of nearly 100 years of development, we can see that folk literature and art has not been absent from rural construction, rural transformation, rural tourism, and art township construction, but it doesn’t seem to be “present” either. In a large number of academic discussions, the spotlight is on depictions of writers, literary works, artists, and artistic works on the countryside, while folk literature and art seems to be akin to decor, for the most part.

Since the 19th CPC National Congress, rural vitalization has been highlighted, and so has folk literature and art. Unfortunately, most current studies fail to place it in the historical development context of rural construction, nor do they comprehensively observe the self-adaptation and internal tension of folk literature and art within rural development. We could probably agree that folk literature and art has natural advantages in rural vitalization, so more focus should be given to the practical and theoretical development of the subject.

Historical development

In modern China’s transition period, the countryside has always been a land of concern for intellectuals with their eyes on the world, and the close relationship between folk literature, art, and the countryside has thus been valued. In the 1920s, Chinese philosopher Liang Shuming and others initiated the rural construction movement. He put forward that the real significance of rural construction lies in the creation of new culture, and this new culture needs to be based on traditional Chinese culture.

In this period, intellectuals were the main forerunners who promoted the experiment of rural education. In writings from intellectuals, it is repeatedly mentioned that people were keen to go to the theater and participate in ceremonial rituals. Therefore, rural construction stressed the innovative use of folk literature and art. At the same time, scholars also realized folk artists’ influence in villages. Chinese sociologist Li Jinghan became very interested in yangko, a traditional work song and dance celebrating the harvest. Li once interviewed yangko artist Liu Luobian and wrote extensively on the popular traditional rural folk dance. At that time, experiments in rural education or folk performance had yet to gain traction among rural residents.

In the hundred-year history of rural construction, the CPC’s practice in Yan’an left a unique mark. Within the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border area, the CPC helped build an interactive network between political elites, intellectuals, and the people, encouraging cooperation between folk artists and intellectuals and giving birth to new yangko, a new form of storytelling, performance, and painting.

During rural construction, folk literature and art played an important role in rural governance. In particular, the yangko dance “Brother and Sister Pioneers” (Xiongmei Kaihuang) and pingju opera “Liu Qiao Reunion” (Liuqiao Tuanyuan) had a great impact on the history of literature and art, which played a central role in people’s daily lives at that time, leading to the awakening of female consciousness and even the promotion of new marriage laws after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

After 1949, the government emphasized that the first task of rural construction was to develop good rural literature and art. The main body of rural literature and art is folk literature and art, and properly handling the relationship between folk literature, art, and socialist values is of great significance. Therefore, the government organized the collection, collation, and publication of folk literature and art works to preserve this legacy. The government also actively promoted “literature and art going to the countryside” and highlighted the construction of socialist culture, which brought about significant changes in villagers’ cultural lives. The creation of new folk songs, the telling of new stories, the creation of farmers’ paintings, and other new folk art also had a significant impact on cities outside the countryside.

After the 1980s, with the development of rural tourism, folk literature and art has become more important. In the new century, with the rise of intangible cultural heritage protection, small towns with distinctive features, and the Beautiful Countryside Program, folk literature and art became a much-discussed topic in rural governance and rural vitalization.


Folk literature and art did not remain static over the long span of history, nor did it gradually disappear as writing was popularized and with the rapid development of the internet. On the contrary, oral transmission and writing go hand in hand. In fact, folk literature and art spreads rapidly through new media. In the context of integrated media, the spread of folk literature and art goes beyond traditional regional or social group restrictions. For example, the Buffalo herders’ songs from Teng County, Guangxi Province, went viral on video platforms such as Douyin, Kuaosou and Qvod this year, which allows more people to see the local customs and contemporary interpretations of the love story between the cowherd, a human being, and the weaving girl, a fairy.

In addition to forms of folk literature and art adapting themselves, content has also kept pace with the times. Since the beginning of the 20th century, political elites and intellectuals began to spread modern revolutionary ideas through folk literature and art. For example, the event of Ahn Jung-geun assassinating Ito Hirobumi was made into a shadow puppet show by great Marxist and revolutionary Li Dazhao and the folk artist Sun Zaoxiang, marking a beginning of “red puppetry.”

In folk ballads, revolutionary ballads have emerged as an independent category, which, in addition to encouraging many related studies, has also become an important resource for “red tourism” in many regions. In fact, of the 2,235 folk tales collected for this study in Beijing, we can see that folk literature has adapted to the times.

Therefore, in promoting the transformation of folk literature and art resources, we should take note of folk art’s change and evolution, instead of solely emphasizing originality. That said, while reflecting on the self-adaptative nature of folk literature and art, we should follow its innate drive for innovation and help foster its role in rural construction.


While folk literature and art has the ability to adapt itself to the changes of the times, it also has its own rules of development. As early as the 1920s, Li Dazhao advanced the theory that the countryside has autonomy when absorbing foreign culture, rather than being a passive recipient. From the rural construction movement, the transformation of rural literature and art in Yan’an, to the development of folk literature and art in the 1980s and 1990s, and to the protection of intangible cultural heritage and the construction of a beautiful countryside in the new era, we can see the rural education experiment, new yangko, new folk songs, new storytelling, farmers painting, and folk tourism all evolve under the joint influence of external forces and internal inheritance.

Due to different regions and genres, how folk literature and art can be transformed into resources in rural construction varies. For example, the role that folk literature and art play in villages around the metropolis, and villages in remote areas, is different. Folk performances were very popular in ethnic minority areas through the early years, while villages around Beijing and Shanghai chose to build cultural blocks.

When folk tourism emerged in the 1980s, academics sought to integrate folklore and tourism. At that time, some scholars proposed different themes for the development of tourist villages in pastoral areas, agricultural areas, fishing and hunting areas, forest areas, and other genres. However, until now, folk literature and art resource transformations trend towards homogenization. This not only fails to activate folk literature and art, limiting its unique value in rural construction, but does harm to the field of folk literature and art, as it can be misinterpreted as a backward subject that is not beneficial to economic development.

Inevitably, folk literature and art has different levels of adaptability to rural construction and social development. As in oral narratives, folk tales are full of life, telling stories of people’s daily lives, such as familial love, family ethics, and of outstanding individuals in the village. As time passes, the protagonists of these folk tales change into revolutionary figures and role models for the new era.

Folk tales have a strong historical nature. If we do not respect this feature in the development and utilization of folk tales, the result will backfire. For example, there are many legends about famous writer Cao Xueqin, who wrote Dream of the Red Chamber, in Zhangjiawan, Tongzhou District, Beijing. The local government also hopes to make full use of this cultural resource to promote the development of cultural construction in the capital sub-center. Since the 1990s, they have been relying on the legend of Cao Xueqin and Dream of the Red Chamber to build cultural centers which study the book—such as the Zhangjiawan Museum. However, if we gloss over the fact that the legend is more of a “cultural truth” than a history, and only blindly strive to prove the authenticity of the tombstone, or fail to include textual research of his life path, the practice will not be good for the construction of featured small towns in Zhangjiwan.

In recent years, when folk literature and art was incorporated in constructing and revitalizing beautiful villages, some cultural and artistic creations were divorced from village folk traditions. These efforts have proven to be short-lived. With the departure of artists and writers, literary and artistic works also disappeared, leaving no trace behind in people’s lives. This historical lesson was well learned in experiments with rural drama in the 1930s. At present, we should learn from past mistakes and promote rural vitalization under the premise of respecting folk literature and art.

In summary, in the hundred years of rural construction and development, the reference, utilization, and transformation of folk literature and art in different periods have provided us with rich experiences and profound lessons for rural vitalization at present. While respecting its own course of development, we should strive to maintain its characteristics, to allow this field to contribute further to rural vitalization.


Mao Qiaohui is a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


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