Chinese American Culture in the Making: Perspectives and Reflections on Diasporic Folklore and Identity

By Zhang, Juwen | Journal of American Folklore, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Chinese American Culture in the Making: Perspectives and Reflections on Diasporic Folklore and Identity


Zhang, Juwen, Journal of American Folklore


Harmonize [with others], but maintain [one's] distinctiveness.

-Confucius (Analects, 551-479 BCE)1

For, in our times, the historical emphasis on the differences between individuals, national and even religious identities must find a re-orientation that emphasizes and cultivates the essential unity of all human identities. By this, I mean the consciousness and ethical responsibility of being one species that must learn to orient its outlook and inventions toward the preservation and enrichment of all life, instead of a deadly extension of senseless, technical perfection and power.

-Erik H. Erikson 1983:403

this study accepts the following ideas as premises: (1) "Folk" is "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor" (Dundes 1965:2; emphasis in original); (2) "[f]olklore is artistic communication in small groups" (Ben-Amos 1972:12); (3) "[t]he concept of identity has always been central in folklore studies" (Oring 1994:226); and (4) "[d]efining identity through folklore" (Dundes 1983:236) is essential in studying identity. Consequently, it holds these propositions: (1) Folklore is all about identity and thus defines identity; (2) personal and group identity should be defined by folklore-in-practice,2 not by preconceptualizing ethnicity, race, or religion; and, thus, (3) the concept offolkloric identity helps better explain the diversity, creolization, temporality, and fluidity (or dynamics) of individual and group identity.

These folklore-based approaches to identity are intended to contribute to the "paradigm shift" (in Kuhn's sense, [1962] 1970) that moved away from the preconceptualized ethnicity-based approach to group identity (as reinforced in the categorization in the US census). This study hereby suggests perspectives and methods for scrutinizing the processes with which a folk group, like an Asian American group, is increasingly becoming integral to American culture and history, while it informs and maintains its diverse and fluid group identity through folklore-in-practice. it is in such processes-rites de passage-that various identity markers are created and reinforced in a group's migration and adaptation to the changing social context. These markers also reveal the vitality and validity of a tradition in its transmission and transformation. in differentiating these markers, on the bases offolkloric identity and diasporic mentality, it seems clear that a third culture is being created through folklore practices. (These perspectives will be further discussed in the following pages.)

it is in such dynamic processes that identity demonstrates its multiplicity, diversity, temporality, and creolity, and that new identity, new culture-a third culture-is created. This third culture is possible only in a group sense, particularly for diasporic groups. in the process, the character of "diversity within unity" is revealed at both inter-group and intra-group levels. For example, at the US nation-state level, Asian (or African or Latino or European) Americans as "ethnic" groups collectively contribute to American folklore and culture as it is. Even though there is great diversity among the Asian American groups, it is the unity that constructs their collective and distinctive group identity. Within each Asian American group, there is also great diversity in all areas, such as language, region, ethnicity, and religion, as will be seen among the Chinese American sub-groups in the following pages. Yet it is the unity that holds them together under a collective identity. This unity (not uniformity) is the shared folklore-in-practice, or folkloric identity, maintained by "small groups," "here-and-now."3

The process of identity reconstruction is further complicated by ever-changing contexts. For example, the influx of Chinese Americans since the 1980s from different parts of the world and from different ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds has problematized the concepts of ethnicity-based "ethnic identity" and culture-based "cultural identity. …

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