Disciplining Epic Studies in China
Author: Chao, Gejin
Affiliation: Institute of Ethnic Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

  The history of epic studies in China, compared with the scholarship of other folk verbal genres, is rather modest. As a contrary, living oral epic traditions are extremely rich among ethnic minorities’ communities. So far thousands of epic stories have been accumulated and archived in different institutions and individuals.

  Large scale epic surveys launched in China from 1950s and henceforth have gone through ups and downs, but it is presenting a general picture of epic traditions with diverse texts and dynamic diffusion in multi ethnic China. A somewhat comprehensive epic studies began to take shape in 1980s and consequently brought about a batch of books and papers concentrating mostly on the Northern epic traditions, namely, epics from the Altaic Language Family. Among which The Series of Studies on China’s Epics can be regarded as a main index to the overall level of achievement in this period. A few strong points will be cited here: 

(1) extending the concept and definition of epic. Three types of epic have been confirmed: Creation epic, Origination epic and Heroic epic.

(2) paying close attention to the oral transmission of living epics, instead of being shackled of literary interpretation.

(3) reclaiming for the dual dimensions to both textual research and field study; local tradition and intergenerational continuity; collective transmission and individual creativity; traditional bearers and the face to face audiences in oral textual communities; the etic and the emic; and “text-reading oriented” and “voice-listening oriented.”

(4) creating analytical models by which to discern epic dictions, while providing a "re-testing procedure” for dealing with various aspects of the given texts in a similar socio-cultural milieu.

(5) making reflection on the shortage of producing “formatted text.”

(6) clarifying “five basic factors in co-presence” related to fieldwork, textualization and interpretation.

(7) employing notion of orality to deal with archaic texts derived from oral roots.