Chinese Folk Art Crafts

By Lijun Zhang. 2010. Beijing: China Agriculture Press. 194 pages. ISBN: 9787504852717 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Katie Dimmery, University of Michigan

[Review length: 1343 words • Review posted on January 16, 2013]


Zhang Lijun’s Chinese Folk Art Crafts is a charming book, with lush illustrations and a generous sprinkling of eclectic trivia. Who knew, for example, that China’s legendary founder of woodsmithing, a certain Lu Ban from more than two thousand years ago, is also venerated for inventing kites—objects he referred to as “bamboo magpies” (20; 101)? Likewise, I was fascinated to learn of the “bricklayer’s taboo” stating that women should not weep at construction sites, lest they (like the folktale heroine Meng Jiang, whose crying brought down the Great Wall) crumble the edifice with the power of their tears (17).

Presently available only in Chinese, Zhang’s book targets a general Chinese-language audience. Accordingly, the book’s various charms—its inviting photos, simple style, and amusing anecdotes—serve the important function of engaging a broad cross-section of readers. Indeed, the very accessibility of Zhang’s work may at times obscure the extensive research and theory that, in unobtrusive ways, lend it structure and depth. But readability is hardly a shortcoming; my point is that Zhang is successful in a number of ways, not simply in producing a work of “popular folklore,” but also in writing an informative, well-developed survey of many different Chinese folk craft traditions.

Given the challenges involved in surveying anything deemed “Chinese” and “traditional”—as of course Chinese folk crafts are—it is worth considering how exactly Zhang succeeds. The book’s title, Zhonghua gongyi, offers a useful place to start. Zhonghua translates as “Chinese”; however, a number of other Chinese language phrases (such as Zhongguo) translate similarly. The term Zhonghua is notable in that it emphasizes an idea of China that is primarily cultural rather than political and/or national; thus the book suggests an idea of Chinese-ness that exists within but also beyond the Chinese nation. The second term, gongyi, translates most directly as “crafts” but also carries an implication of “art” and “the folk”; therefore the English terms “folk art” or “folk crafts” are probably more appropriate translations. (Note that the book’s English title, Chinese Folk Art Crafts, expresses this combination of meanings.)

I should also point out that Zhang’s book is one of nine volumes in Beijing Normal University’s Chinese Folk Culture Photo Book Series. The remaining eight volumes have the following titles (each of which renders “Chinese” with the same Zhonghua term): Chinese homes (minju), Chinese holidays (jieqing), Chinese cuisine (yinshi), Chinese zodiac systems (shengxiao), Chinese clothing (fushi), Chinese ancient towns (guzhen), Chinese temples (simiao), and Chinese customs (xingsu). The folk culture categories indicated by these titles suggest interesting parallels and divergences between American and Chinese folkloristics; however, for the purposes of this review, I will just note that crafts, as the topic of one of the nine books, is thus identified as a component of the larger category of folk culture, and furthermore, through the repeated use of the term Zhonghua, folk culture is tied to an overarching idea of Chinese cultural unity.

In short, “Chinese folk crafts” is a vast and complex idea. Zhang brings a sense of order to it (and, by extension, to her book) by organizing a variety of craft-related information under the chapter headings of crockery, embroidery and dyeing, hand-weaving, paper crafts, carving, toys, New Year’s prints, and paper-cuts and shadow puppets. For American readers, some of these categories may be unfamiliar: the chapter on paper crafts, for example, covers a swath of topics ranging from kites and fans to paper lanterns. And “New Year’s prints” (nianhua) refers to a genre of visual art, usually depicting deities and/or animals, that is hung on doors and windows as part of New Year’s festivities (162).

In general, each chapter seeks to situate its particular folk craft tradition in Chinese history, and it also indicates the heterogeneity of that tradition by describing its expression in different locations and among different groups and ethnicities. But the mind-boggling complexity of these craft traditions makes any hard-and-fast structural arrangement impractical. As a result, the chapters range widely, often a bit idiosyncratically. A description of the contents of one chapter illustrates this point.

In “Crockery,” Zhang begins with a discussion of ancient ceramic traditions, which she traces back some 11,700 years and links to today’s “ceramics capital,” the town of Jingde (32-33). She then considers the connection between these ceramics and traditional practices of eating and drinking (34-35). Next, she turns her attention to other eating implements: the wooden spoons and dishes associated with the Yi ethnic group in southwest China, for example, as well as chopsticks, which she discusses in terms of their origin story, alternate names, types and materials, uses, and taboos (36-42). This section concludes with a description of chopstick “performances,” specifically a kind of “chopstick dance” (kuazi wu) performed at weddings in Inner Mongolia (42). Subsequent sections address different kinds of tea sets, the proper terms for their component parts, and the customs identified with different groups’ uses of them (42-51). In the final section, Zhang describes a kind of “purple clay” (zisha) ware that is often used to make tea sets (52-54).

The chapter, in short, consists of relevant but diversely selected items; it is by no means comprehensive. Balance likewise is an issue: given the variety of crockery traditions and the historically variable, frequently contested borders of China, decisions regarding what to select (and what not to) inevitably raise questions. One solution to these issues, at least for many humanities graduate students, would be to circumscribe the book within some airtight conceptual argument, an argument probably intended to wallop the categories that gently inform Zhang’s work. However, in cleaving to a broad, positivist treatment of information, Zhang achieves a very noteworthy thing: she teaches. That is, I leave the book with a concrete body of knowledge. Furthermore, as I hope my description of the crockery chapter indicates, Zhang’s artful and well-articulated collages of information certainly gesture to the immensity and richness of the materials at hand.

Indeed, given the breadth of Zhang’s subject matter, her book is shockingly coherent. The device that brings its varied components together is chapter 1, “A Summary of Chinese Folk Crafts.” Here Zhang provides an overview of the category of “folk crafts” while also historicizing the term within China’s tradition of artistic guilds. She also constructs her own motif index of sorts—an annotated list of the various character combinations, animals, plants, human figures, and other decorative forms most likely to appear adorning Chinese craft objects. Thus this initial chapter provides a discreetly reflexive summation of the construction of the folk craft idea while also identifying conceptual and visual commonalities among different folk craft genres.

Finally, the book offers an entry point from which to compare Chinese and American material culture studies. Zhang identifies “folk crafts” as those objects, usually hand-made from local materials, that people use to respond to “the [practical] needs of living and the demands of aesthetics” (12). She adds that “in a sense, folk crafts reflect human ways of living, customs and habits, social relations, aesthetics, feelings, and religious faith” (14-15). In other words, it seems that this idea of folk crafts, a longstanding Chinese concept, aligns pretty closely with American folkloristic approaches to material culture. Nevertheless, in China, the field of material culture studies as such (using the term wuzhi wenhua, the Chinese translation of “material culture”) is growing; Zhang’s recently published interview with Jason Jackson attests to material culture studies’ burgeoning popularity (2012). Thus, in addition to entertaining and teaching, Zhang’s book raises fascinating questions about the complex, developing relationship between American and Chinese folkloristic research.

I consign this book to the shelf now, but not for good—I will undoubtedly return to it in the future, for factual as well as conceptual guidance, and for pleasure.

Work Cited

Zhang, Lijun, Li Weiping, Yu Qian, and Cheng Anxia. 2012. “The Emergence and Current State of American Material Culture Research: An Interview with Indiana University’s Folklore and Ethnomusicology Professor Jason Baird Jackson” (Meiguo minsuxue lingyu wuzhi wenhua yanjiu de xingqi yu xianzhuang—Yindi’anna daxue minsu xue yu yinyue renleixue xi Jiesen Bai’erde Jiekesun fangtanlu). Folklore Studies (Minsu Yanjiu) 4:47-56.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.