Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural Identity

Article excerpt


Chinese folklore has played a key role in reconstructing or reinforcing stereotypes toward Chinese culture and people since the 1980s, which is particularly apparent through those films popular in the West. While there has been broad interest in studying Chinese films that reflect social and cultural changes, one can hardly find any publication on Chinese folklore in the films besides commentaries, even in Chinese (Huang 2004, Yi 2000). In China, the fictional films with folklore content are generally called nongcui or xiangtu (rural or village and folksy) films as a genre, while those documentary-style films about folklore, rarely by folkloric filmmakers, are classified as documentary (jilupian). Scholarly works have begun to show interest in this area (Huang 2004, Deng 2002), but the foci are largely on the emergence of folklore events in films and the cinematic presentation of folklore, using such general terms as yingshi renleixue (visual anthropology) or yingshi minsu (or minsu yingshi, folklore in photographic, film, and video products). A differentiation of the (fictional and non-fictional) film with folklore elements and the film by folkloric filmmakers (with folkloristic approaches) is yet to be made.

Outside of China, however, fictional films with distinctive folklore elements by the "fifth generation" (those trained in the late 1970s and early 1980s) and Diaspora (overseas) directors2 are winning various awards, entering classrooms, stimulating interest in Chinese culture (tourism, business, and politics), and even providing evidence for scholarly arguments (college students' research papers) on China. The popularity of these films in and outside of China has created a phenomenon that should prompt folklorists to ask: 1) How should folklorists understand the filmic representation of Chinese folklore in these widely viewed (and commercially successful) films? 2) In addition to maintaining tradition, what roles are these films playing in constructing and reconstructing the cultural identity of the Chinese and the Chinese Diaspora? 3) What impact are these films bringing to China and its people whose folklore is mimed and reinvented through films?

To answer these questions, this article looks at the filmic representation of Chinese folklore, which I call "filmic folklore." In relation to the folkloric films, filmic folklore is an emerging body of folklore and deserves attention from both folkloristic studies and film studies. It requires interdisciplinary approaches to define this genre or form and to build theoretical issues to pursue it further. To define filmic folklore, I will first look at the theoretical development of the studies of folklore and film, folkloric or folkloristic film.


Folkloric film, as a genre in film studies and folklore studies, established its seminal definition and methodology recently with the publication of Documenting Ourselves by Sharon Sherman (1998), who first used the term (1977). Along with a great number of folkloric films themselves, the book earmarked the disciplinary field, and the concept is increasingly recognized, replacing the vague expression of "folklore film."

The term "folklore film" can be traced back to 1934, when the British Film Institute first used it in a call for contributions to Folklore (1934:290), with a loose definition of "non-commercial films dealing with folklore." In the U.S., the earliest documentation of folklore as text can be traced to 1935 (Sherman 1998:63). But the first call for film reviews in the Journal of American Folklore did not appear until 1974, and the film reviews in the journal showed the "growing interest in film among folklorists during the 1970s" (Sherman 1998:288). Keith Cunningham noted, "All [folklore films] are shaped consciously and unconsciously by a producer or editor or collector who has an artistic vision to embody, or an idea of his informants to present, or a theoretical position to defend" (1977:123) and later treated the folklore film as an emerging "subgenre of documentary cinematography" (1983:123). …