The resilience of tradition


If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it

Heritage” pundit Tian Qing has a good story for every occasion (such as this, and this). On the resilience of traditional culture under all kinds of assaults (notably in the hands of “obstinatezhizhuo 执着 peasants, as they’re often described) , he likes to cite Granny Liu’s epithet in chapter 6 of Cao Xueqin’s epic 18th-century novel The story of the stone (The dream of the red chamber):


—in Hawkes’s translation,

a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse.

It’s commonly used to show that families fallen on hard times will still manage better than the chronic poor. But in the wake of all the assaults from Maoism in the PRC—when “authentic” Chinese culture on the mainland was apparently a poor relative to the overseas communities where transmission was supposed to have been maintained untainted—it made an apt metaphor as field reports since the 1980s on local ritual began to reveal the sheer enormity of tradition. Of course, as with research on southeastern Daoist ritual on both sides of the strait, we should learn by collating all such material, as did Kristofer Schipper, Ken Dean, and John Lagerwey.

Among many further instances are the rich material on baojuan “precious scrolls”, and the ongoing project of Hannibal Taubes on temple murals in north China.

For representations of Tibetan culture within and outside the PRC, click here.

10 thoughts on “The resilience of tradition

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