On the China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project
How do folklorists do their work in China? In the United States? How does the work of folklorists in both countries intersect with governmental cultural heritage policies and with the concerns of local tradition bearers and communities?
Beginning informally in the early 2000s and formally since 2007, the American Folklore Society (AFS) and the China Folklore Society (CFS) have worked together in a sustained way to pursued an extensive series of joint projects aimed at fostering mutual understanding of folklore studies work in these two countries. Hundreds of Chinese and North American scholars and practitioners in folklore studies have benefitted from the varied projects pursued within this collaboration. A great many funders and institutions in both nations have contributed substantively to this work. For the AFS and for AFS members, as well as for the hosting of project events by US partners, the Henry Luce Foundation has been a particularly generous keystone funder, having provided three major grants (2011-2012, 2013-2016, and 2017-2019) that have made this larger endeavor possible.
The full list of convenings, publications, exhibitions, and exchanges arising from this work is too great to enumerate here, but some highlights can be shared in summary. During the project’s first phase (2011-2012), activities centered on four major intangible cultural heritage (ICH) forum events at which scholars and practitioners from both countries explored issues related to ICH activities within folklore studies in both countries. In this period, a second focus was a program of bidirectional professional exchanges. The convenings and the exchanges fostered both greater mutual understanding of the work of the field and durable professional and personal relationships that have led both to new joint work and to the further internationalization of the folklore studies and public folklore practice.
On the basis of early success during 2011 and 2012, a second phase of work was initiated in 2013. In this period one new sub-project focused on developing new best-practices publications related to folklore work in both countries. A second sub-project focused on aspects of museum-based ICH and folklore studies work in both countries. Linking three US and three Chinese museums of ethnography, the sub-project partners produced a major bilingual traveling exhibition and associated bilingual catalogue. In the US, this exhibition was titled Quilts of Southwest China and in its Chinese tour it was titled Quilting Art and Tradition—People, Handcrafts, and Community Life. The sub-project produced two additional museum exhibitions as well as varied publications and many public program events. Between 2013 and 2016, the museums-based sub-project also hosted two rounds of professional exchange and hosted two additional ICH forum events.
In the third formal project phase, the museums-related sub-project built upon its earlier exchange, conference, and exhibition work to pursue new ethnographic fieldwork. The Guangxi Museum of Nationalities led this research project with staff and students associated with the three US partner museums. New to the partnership were two local museums pursuing folklore programming and research on behalf of the ethnic minority communities of which they are part. Between 2017 and 2019, the sub-project held a large workshop on methods in museum-based folklore studies as well as a seventh binational ICH forum. At the heart of the sub-project in this phase was ethnographic fieldwork on ICH and material culture undertaken among the Yao (hosted by the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum), Dong (hosted by the Sanjiang Dong Ecomuseum) in Guangxi and among the Bai (hosted by Dali University) in Yunnan.
Concurrent with this museum-related work, the third project phase also included a new program of summer institutes bringing together senior, emerging, and student scholars from both nations for extend, informal discussions. After a pilot institute in 2016, three additional summer institutes were held during phase three (2017, 2018, 2019). In the summer-institues sub-project, the AFS and CFS were joined by the Folklore Society of Japan.
Separate from the specific work pursued during the first, second, and third phases, general contacts and exchanges between the AFS and CFS and between AFS and CFS members have been an ongoing feature of the relationship. Beginning in 2020 and continuing through the global pandemic, the joint work linking the AFS and CFS has focused on developing publications based on past work and on discussions about future partnership work.
While Chinese scholars with research involvements in the US and US-based scholars of Chinese cultural life have been involved in some parts of the larger collaboration, it is fundamental to the larger effort that the vast majority of participants in the China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project are not area specialists. In this, the larger effort has provided abundant opportunities for relationship building and for the fostering of new partnerships and scholarly perspectives. In this, the initial goals of the project have succeeded far beyond the expectations of those folklore studies leaders who initiated the work.
ollow these links to download the bilingual program books from the seven Forums on China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage (2011-2019):
Follow this link to download the program book for the 2017 Summer Institute. (Other Institute programs are forthcoming):