Documenting Living Oral Traditions: China's Institute of Ethnic Literature as Case Study

By Bamo, Qubumo; Chao, Gejin | Journal of American Folklore, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Documenting Living Oral Traditions: China's Institute of Ethnic Literature as Case Study


Bamo, Qubumo, Chao, Gejin, Journal of American Folklore


The Institute of Ethnic Literature (iel), an affiliate of the chinese Academy of Social Sciences (cASS),1 is the national research center for the study of traditional ethnic literature in china. A community of close to 80 members (including current scholars and staff and more than 25 emeritus faculty), the iel is dedicated to understanding the processes of ethnic literature across a wide range of indigenous languages and cultures in china. The institute has been at the forefront of promoting the theories, methodologies, and practices of oral literary studies in the country, particularly as regards oral epic studies and the wealth of ethnic minorities' diverse traditions.

The institute is also a higher education institution operating under the Department of ethnic minority literature of the graduate school of cASS. That department consists of two disciplines-"ethnic minority literature" and "Folklore"-with more than 15 tracks leading to the degree of mA or PhD.

The IEL and Its Mission

For over 35 years since its inception in 1980, the iel has made significant contributions to ethnic literary studies in china, especially in the domain of oral literature. The spectrum of its programs encompasses the following areas of research:

* The literature, both oral and written, of ancient and contemporary ethnic groups

* Theoretical concerns relating to issues of literary evolution

* Literary relations among various ethnic groups, with an emphasis on comparative approaches

* Expressive cultures in combination with oral tradition and verbal art

* Literary theory and contemporary criticism

* Collecting, recording, transcribing, translating, digitizing, and publishing oral texts and written works

So as to fulfill its mission, the iel has brought together scholars and administrative coordinators from a number of different ethnic backgrounds (fig. 1). Fifteen ethnic groups fall within the native competence of members of the institute: the mongol, the Zang (tibetan), the uygur, the kirgiz,2 the man (manchu), the chosen (korean), the Daur, the ewenki, the yi, the miao (hmong), the bai, the Zhuang, the Dai, the naxi (nakhi), and the han. These ethnicities are representative of a much larger number of actual ethnic groups in china.3 eighty percent of the scholars affiliated with the institute have a native-level command of one or more ethnic minority languages. Thanks to the development of research capacities and strategies over 30 years, the institute's team can also claim expertise in multiple foreign languages, including english, russian, German, French, one or more turkic languages, Greek, latin, Japanese, and korean.

Moreover, more than 220 books written by scholars affiliated with the institute have appeared in print (fig. 2). These include field studies, textual analyses, oral texts transcribed with annotations, life histories, theoretical research, explorations into methodology, and translations from both ethnic minority languages and foreign languages.

In keeping with its mandate to promote oral literary studies and the traditions of ethnic minorities, the institute has sponsored a number of specific research projects over the years. The titles of certain of these initiatives (some of which have been completed, while others are still in progress) are worth citing here so as to give a sense of the kinds of research that have been found central to the iel mission. one cluster of projects has dealt with the epic genre, especially as cultivated by contemporary singers: "Studies of ethnic epics in china," "The Selected collection of the King Gesar epic," "collection, collation, and translation of the King Gesar epic," "research on basic Theories of epic types in china," "Disciplining epic Studies in china," and "The transcribed collections of tibetan epic master-Singer bsam-Grub's oral Performances." (For a photo of bsam-Grub, see fig. 3) other projects have focused on other aspects of ethnic literatures: these have included "ethnic literary relations," "Frontier research on chinese Folkloristics," "Field Study bases for the oral traditions of chinese ethnic minorities," and "A Database for Studies in chinese ethnic literature. …

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