We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in
- Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),
a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.
Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.
Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.
Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.
In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.
Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,
the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.
In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.
At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,
it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.
On “restoration” he observes:
To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.
Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.
In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:
There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.
So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.
In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:
Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.
He notes ecological differences:
Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.
In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.
Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.
In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:
We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.
The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants
were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.
And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they
are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.
Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course
A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.
Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.
Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:
Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.
To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.
He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.
Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that
Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,
he stresses that
Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.
Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:
Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. 
But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:
Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.
Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.
Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.
Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.
Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.
Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.
The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).
Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:
Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.
More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.
Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.
Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.
in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:
By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.
But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.
The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.
He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.
One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,
In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.
This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:
The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.
Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.
Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.
The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.
I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.
Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.
He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:
Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.
Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.
Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.
Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:
Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.
In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.
And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.
Looking back over the whole period,
The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.
After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.
* * *
While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.