China to digitize folk literature

15:03, August 01, 2011      

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On July 13, 79-year-old Yang Liangcai and several colleagues carefully selected several yellowed books and documents from huge piles of cardboard boxes in a document room of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

"These paper originals will be sorted, scanned and then made available online," Yang said.

He retired as Party secretary of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society and is now a member of the Expert Committee on China's Folk Cultural Heritage Rescue Project.

The books and documents selected are just a small part of the valuable folk literature works that Chinese scholars and researchers have collected in the more than 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China. The vast majority of the collection has never been published. Some were letterpress printed, some were mimeographed, and a few are handwritten.

The collection includes nearly 5,200 types of books and documents, with a total of over 840 million words, and covers all folk literary genres, such as the myth, legend, narrative, joke, fable, fairytale, ballad, proverb and epic. Thanks to the efforts of several generations of scholars and researchers, these folk literary works will soon be made available online and can be accessed publicly.

The China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the Ministry of Culture and the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society officially initiated the program of digitizing China's oral literature heritage.

Wang Jinqiang, deputy director of the Folk Literature and Art Research Institute, said that the first step of the digitization program will scan texts and pictures on folk literature materials that the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society has collected from provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions across the country over the past 60 years and then upload them online and establish a database.

The second step is to extend the time span to include the 1940s and eventually establish a database of China's oral literature materials covering the past 100 years. Furthermore, audio and video materials should also be collected and uploaded online. The literature materials written in minority languages will be not only put online but also translated into the Chinese Language.

As a long-standing and vast country with many ethnic groups, China's substantial and diversified oral literature is outstanding in the world. Yang said, "The Folk Literature and Art Research Institute alone has 800-million-word-long oral literature materials. If the oral literature materials preserved in local regions are included, the total number of words of materials is estimated to stand above 4 billion."

The Party and the government attach great importance to the protection of folk culture and successively launched three large-scale folk oral literature censuses after the founding of new China: the folk song survey in 1957; the census and compilation of China's folk literature, including stories, folk songs and proverbs, which started in 1984, and the China folk cultural heritage rescue project, which started in 2002. According to sources, the three censuses mobilized more than 100,000 people and launched more than 2 million field investigations involving more than 2,800 counties, and many oral folk stories, common sayings, proverbs, folk songs and epics were recorded for the first time. The "Life of King Gesar," the "Epic of Janggar" and the "Epic of Manas," which are regarded as the three major epics of China's ethnic groups, were discovered and filed during the censuses.

Yang participated in all the three censuses. Yang said that he only cares about two things now, which are publication and talent. Currently, folk literature works and research works are difficult to publish because of small sales. The "Collected Works of Chinese Folklore" compiled by Yang requires each county in China to compile one volume. However, only the Shanghai volume has been completed. The talent problem is even more serious.

"Few universities now have the folk literature department and the basis and knowledge of students are also not good enough," Yang said.

Wang said that intangible cultural heritages have captured extensive attention from society in recent years. However, related talented inheritors, researchers and managers are seriously insufficient.

"These three categories of talent are also urgently needed in folk literature protection and research," Wang said.

By Zhang He from People's Daily, translated by People's Daily Online

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