Printing the Voice of the People: Folksong
and the Heterogeneity of Chinese Folk Culture

By Mark McConaghy

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.1  (Spring 2020), pp. 138-193

This essay examines the journal Folksong Weekly (歌謠週刊, 1922-1925), the publishing organ of the Folklore Research Society (歌謠研究會), an intellectual group active in the early 1920s at Beijing University that was dedicated to collecting, printing, and discussing folksongs from across China. Geyao Zhoukan generated contributions from some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Zhou Zuoren, Liu Bannong, Gu Jiegang, Hu Shi, and Lin Yutang. Such intellectuals were drawn to folklore study out of a sense of China’s belatedness in relation to the global system of national culture: nations such as Japan and Britain were understood to have extensive folklore movements in which the authentic “voice” of the people were found in songs, which could be textually reproduced for national and global consumption. Early contributors to the journal found it imperative that China’s popular oral traditions receive similar ethnographic attention, seeking to record the songs of those whom they referred to as the “textless masses” (不文的民眾)—formally illiterate subjects who were still deeply versed in popular oral forms.

Yet Chinese folklorists soon discovered that the songs sung across the continent-sized land mass of the old Qing imperium were profoundly multi-lingual, generating extensive debate among folklorists regarding dialect notation, taxonomic classification, and the role of the folklorist within the transcription process. Folksongs were also grounded in the temporal rhythms of the old lunar calendar, presenting a decidedly non-secular understanding of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. As such, the songs were too heterogeneous to fit into any concept of culture defined in secular and linguistically singular terms. What the folklorists discovered when they went looking for the “voice” of the people was a web of sonic, textual, and visual media that stretched across imperial time and not just regional but, indeed, global space, challenging the conceptual and linguistic tools they had to record it. However, in contrast to folklore work of the revolutionary 1930s and beyond, May Fourth folklorists were adamant that folk culture be treated not as raw material for political propaganda, but studied as a complex cultural system in its own right. This open attitude to folklore work thus enabled the journal to become a site for not simply vigorous methodological debate regarding folklore techniques, but probing inquiries into the nature of pre-revolutionary Chinese popular culture, and indeed what “literacy” meant within this Sino-cultural order.