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·Liu Kuili


Liu Kuili, male, Han nationality, born in September, is a native of Hebei Province and a member of the Communist Party of China. In 1961, he graduated from the Moscow State University and became a Licentiate. He is a researcher and PhD student advisor to the Institute of Ethnic Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, President of the China Folklore Society and AFNS, Vice-director of the expert committee at the Ministry of culture, and intangible cultural heritage protection, specially recruited professor for the Chinese Art Research Institute, Guest professor at the Beijing Normal University, Consultant at the China Society for the Study of Folk Literature and Art.



I Chose Folklore


Shi: I’m a little curious about your time studying in the Soviet Union. It is certain that other friends in the field of folk culture research also feel curious. Could you tell us something about that time?

Liu: I studied in Harbin Foreign Language Vocational School in 1953 and I was selected to study in the Soviet Union in 1955. When I was assigned to study in the Soviet Union, I was supposed to study language teaching methods. However, considering my age, 21 years old and lacking basic knowledge, I voluntarily applied to be a graduate and received the authorization from our country. As soon as I entered Moscow University I became fond of 2 courses, they were, ancient Greek and Roman literature as well as Russian folk literature. My academic paper was on Russian folk tales when I was a sophomore. Two years later, I was permitted to study as a postgraduate because I had already learnt many courses on my own. At that time, I chose folklore as my research direction.

    When I started studying in Moscow University, I made use of vacations to carry out many field research of folk literature along with folklore expedition teams in the Soviet Union villages and remote areas. Foreign students hadn’t taken part in their expedition teams before, so there were many problems to overcome. I have been to many places in the Soviet Union, such as, Voronezh, Ivanovo, Vladimir, the border part --- Karelia, Finland autonomous republic, etc. I have learnt a lot about my major, understood more about the society and received excellent language training.

    Shi: Was it interesting?

    Liu: Of course, we were young. After each expedition, we should not only hand over the official research report but also hold a party for both teachers and students at a student’s house so as to perform some of the funnier moments that occured during the expedition, including some tricks.

    Certainly, we also met some danger during the expeditions. There was a time when we went to the countryside to investigate during a winter vacation. It snowed for days and was waist-deep. The bus became trapped, so village women and I had to take a lorry, with a canvas top and metal chains on the tires to get to the countryside. Deep snow lay on both sides of the lanes and while moving on the slopes, the wheels spun and we skidded. Later, Basilov, the directors assistant from the Folklore Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and I got off the lorry and pushed it. Suddenly, the lorry moved forward and both of us fell down. Then, we tried to scramble to the snows on the side of road, we were wearing cotton coats which made us heavy. He let go of my hand because it was so slippery while dragging me, so I fell again. At this moment, the lorry started to move backwards and it was too late for me to stand up, so I tried my best to get out of the way of the wheels. A women on the lorry began to scream, but luckily the lorry stopped and I escaped injury.

    Shi: Now, do you focus on the new tendencies of the Russian academy?

    Liu: Yes, a lot. Now, I go to Russia every 3 years. I will spend several days in the Lenin Library reading and also go to some bookstores to buy some new books. Generally speaking, if there are good books, my friends in the Gorky World Literature Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences will send them to me. I was the collaborating professor at the Slav Research Center in Japan from 1999 to 2000, dealing with Russian folk culture. I have learnt a lot about it, but I hardly published any articles. Otherwise, I am not satisfied withmyself, holding that I have to think more and deeper. However, I am sorry that it’s difficult for me to classify these thoughts. Some say I am modest, but they don’t understand me. I’m timid rather than modest, so I can’t forgive myself.

    Shi: You are quite demanding, which is well-known in the field of folk culture research. If you don’t have mature and unique suggestions, you will talk with others rather than publish your own work and inspire others with your thinking rather than write write it down. I appreciate your scholarly researches a lot. There are lots of scholars in the field of folklore who always publish their works, but seldom stand the test of time. Most of them have gone like passing clouds. Articles are valued for their quality rather than quantity. I believe that a responsible scholar should pay more attention to the quality of the article rather than quantity or think more rather than publish more. I have read lots of your articles, holding that your materials and elaborations are very clear, which is quite rare among the papers of Chinese scholars. The headline in Liu Kui Li Folklore Analects also introduced your ‘strict style of study and long speculation’. Is this related to your studies at Moscow University?

    Liu: Probably, it does not concern scientific training, but different academic traditions. The academic field in China longs for reasons whereas it longs for speculation in Europe. Scholars in China strive to learn to meet practical needs whereas Russian scholars aren’t concern by it. Absolutely speaking, they believe academic research is a logical and creative activity on the basis of some theories. They hold that thinking derived from materials could be called scholarship, but we also regard induction, narration, common sense, etc. as scholarship. They focus on reasonable thinking; in contrast, we sometimes regard encyclopedic knowledge as the symbol of scholarship. Nowadays, there is a great deal of materials and information which increases quickly. In the meantime, due to the coming of the E-era, searching for information becomes more and more convenient and it is quite easy to obtain materials and information, so reasonable thinking and ‘deep processing’ of materials and information become more valuable.

    Shi: Did Russian scholars often discuss and exchange views together?

    Liu: I don’t know much about other fields. For folk culture, there were 3 important research centers in 1950s, namely, the Gorky World Literature Research Institute, Moscow University and the Soviet Union Folk Writers Association. These three organizations almost held an academic activity in turn every month and they didn’t focus on politics, so they thought actively. As a postgraduate, I took part in all the activities and hardly missed one. Fortunately, I had heard lots of academic reports by many representative scholars at that time. I believe that my academic training was consolidated during that period. I learned a lot while listening to the speeches and discussions. Gradually, I learnt to sum up the main content and thinking from the scattered words of others and also to associate widely and arouse my inspiration.

    Shi: I am aware that you have contributed a lot to the field of narratives and stories. Personally, I praise highly your work – Life Tree of Folk Narratives. This passage adopts synchronic research methods successfully and probes the internal structure and structural relations of specific story types from the respective of morphology, because of which a series of structural concepts and theory propositions appear. Could you introduce your purpose and process in writing the passage?

    Liu: Referring to my purpose, it was very absurd. I was to attend an international academy seminar and was asked to write this passage according to the instructions of the seminar. It was certain that I was also one of the decision-makers while deciding the theme of this seminar. Three countries – China, Japan and Korea were willing to choose a mutually owned story -The Story of Gou Geng Tian. Only when we started a meeting, did we share and exchange common views. Although the seminar specified the textual materials, it didn’t confine our research thinking and direction. I thought that the most important thing in research was to find the answer to the question and the question should be more definite and concrete.

    What Aarne, Thompson and similar scholars in China and other countries do is to sort out, sum up and classify tremendous folk tales according to certain kind of symbols. Although people still hold objections to this question, it seems that they have got to adopt AT classification or Eberhard classification. They share the same basic principles in the convenience of index and research, that is, to arrange all the stories according to type. But I focus on all types of different relationships in a specific type. I didn’t look around during the entire analysis and only searched for the regular answer to a question, namely, the core element shared by different texts in a specific type and logics which presents a colorful form.

    Type in a specific story text is only a fabricated common divisor in a specific narration. As for such studies, we should not set out variant readings simply. To find out the related rules among many story texts of the same type is scientific research and academic study. According to this task, I must simplify and enclose the starting point and work maxims and then choose a specific standard. What materials compose of a simple story? What factors organize the materials? Which is the primary and which is secondary factor among these materials? The chosen case which is relatively easy to operate shall not only satisfy the requirements of simple plot but also the requirements of abundant text. Due to the traditions of Chinese academia, we had better catch all the materials because the more, the better. However, we could not cover all the stories during our researche. To avoid the limitless pursuit of texts, I define the scope of objects strictly. As per material source, I define research objects as: only investigate the morphological structure of all the texts of such type in a specific province (like, Zhe Jiang). Such limitations not only achieve the purpose of sampling, but also effectively define various text backgrounds in folk culture of relatively similar quality, which makes the research achievements more logical and reasonable.

    Shi: I remember that some scholars have criticized your paper. They held that you didn’t attach a specific history and culture to your story for discussion so that your paper lacked historical significance.

    Liu: Such criticisms were proposed from the perspective of diachronic or culture study. Simply holding the perspective of diachronic study, it is quite hard to understand the method and significance of synchronic study. To investigate the internal relation of story forms and induce the key factors deciding the type of story, I should investigate all the factors which constitute the connection synchronically. So, I should prevent the diachronic thinking from disturbing the research. It is certain that the research of story culture history is very important, but it is not related to the texts, so I avoid these questions intentionally. During the research of texts, I continuously warned myself not to probe into the generation and development of a story, deduce the generation of story type and discuss & analyze the significance and value of the story. Other scholars might pursue these views. I always hold such caution intentionally while writing.

    Shi: I agree with you. It has been a common view in educational circles since Saussure. Story morphology of Propp is the big achievement of synchronic research. Two kinds of research methods - synchronic and diachronic studies, are not compatible. If we insist on synchronic study, we mush reject diachronic study temporarily. However, it is difficult to stick to it in China in which textual research is the theme of academic tradition. Of course, a successful scholar like you could handle yourself, but if tiny people like me can’t handle themselves, I’m afraid that nobody will read my articles or I wouldn’t be able to publish any articles.

    Liu: Academic tradition is a process of accumulation. If we just go with the trend and don’t try to explore, it’s really difficult to develop out of academic tradition. There is no difference in superior or inferior between diachronic and synchronic studies and they both refer to the regular cognition and interpretation of objective things.

    Shi: Let’s change the topic and go back to your work. You were appointed as the director of the National Literature Research Institution, what was the most important work?

    Liu: In fact, I’m not fit to be a leader and I am not good at administration whereas I prefer to think over academic questions. When I held the post of director at first, I bought lots of books concerning management and leadership to adapt to the new post, but they were too theoretical. Once it comes to the real work, it is hard to deal with the miscellaneous work. When I took charge of the Institution, it was newly established and the research of national literature was a rising subject. Some of the scholars were lovers of minority literature who haven’t received related professional training and they, who were passionate, were willing to contribute to the national literature study; however, they weren’t aware of how to carry out the study and what the academic regulations were. To make these scholars adapt to professional studies quickly, we had made some specific tasks, such as, cultivate academic atmosphere, improve research methods, etc.

    In addition, I thought the most important work was to launch a key project of national social sciences – Minority Literature History Collection. At that time, we planned to compile the literature histories of 40 nations to be finished in 5 years. We further planned to divide it into 3 stages, namely, history of nation differences, history of comparative literature and unified Chinese history literature of many nations based on the Han nationality. I didn’t finish these works when I was on duty. I believe it is a big project which needs centuries to finish.

    Shi: Having been the president of the China Folklore Institution since 1999 how do you feel about your position? Do you feel lonely?

    Liu: Mr. Zhang Jingwen has been the president since the establishment of the China Folklore Institution. He, a leading person in the field of folklore, was one of the founders of our Institution and even the subject. The pressure was imaginable when I succeeded him. I wanted to evade the position many times. Mr. Zhang Jingwen also knew my fears and difficulties and then asked my colleagues and previous leaders to persuade me. At last, Mr Zhong said something serious, so I had better accept it, which made me frightened. Many colleagues in the Institution have done well and made a lot of achievements, but I was asked to be the president. So, I feel much pressure. Such as what you have mentioned, I was lonely. Certainly, I’m glad to witness many young scholars develop fast, so I’m not that nervous.

    Shi: I know that you have been working on the protection and development of intangible cultural heritage. Could you introduce your works in these years briefly?

    Liu: I saw your criticism on the folklore experts’ protecting intangible cultural heritage.

    Shi: I don’t quite agree that too much attention is paid on intangible cultural heritage protection at present. Intangible cultural heritage protection is purely routine without many scientific principles. Human resources are so short that scholars engaging in real academic studies decreased greatly when everyone engages in social works. Once a scholar focuses on public topics rather than specific researche in his own field, he will not possess advantages which are superior to those of ordinary intellectuals any longer. Therefore, I hold that folklore experts should not pay too much attention to intangible cultural heritage protection.

    Liu: Intangible cultural heritage protection doesn’t contain many scientific principles as you have mentioned. Theoretically speaking, intangible cultural heritage protection does not only set up a solid base for modern culture of ethnic characteristics but also enriches and contributes to human culture of each nation. However, we haven’t carried out serious study of these two propositions together with deep investigation and deduction practically. At present, we just indistinctly deduce the prospect of ethnic culture development and diversity of human culture development. Hence, opinions differ and people differ, too. As a matter of fact, when scholars inherit and protect intangible cultural heritage, they are engaged in working rather than thinking, and especially lack macroscopic thinking. They focus on making decisions and operations rather than digging into and interpreting scientific theories and speculation. For example, what is the position of our intangible cultural heritage protection indeed? How do we protect it and to what degree? At present, we are used to destroying folk culture for protection. What are the consequences to the entire structure of folk culture? No attention has been aroused and no common sense has been achieved on similar problems among many staff. Most intangible cultural heritage is the product of an agricultural society, so there are paradoxes on their protection at present. For example, the relation between the development tendency nowadays and intangible cultural heritage protection like the relation between protection and development, ecological environment protection of intangible cultural heritage, attitude to successors, relation between the market economy system and intangible cultural heritage protection, relation between urbanization and standardization, etc. implies lots of dilemmas. It is easy to be biased if we just expect the culture administration department to deal with the problems, so folklore experts could offer some suggestions to the department if they participate.

    Shi: I just want to say that you are equipped with favorable academic literacy and academic accumulation so that you could undertake works that others are not capable of. However, if you spend too much time on works like intangible cultural heritage protection, you are wasting your time and energy greatly. If you don’t undertake these works, others could also do well. You are essential for some works whereas some are not. If I were you, I would prefer to choose works that could express my specialties and professions.

    Liu: I don’t think doing these works is wasting my time. You can’t imagine how excited I become whenever I see the colorful folk culture forms of each place or each nation. I had visited those folk artists on site in Zhejiang, Fujian, Shanxi, Shanxi, etc., which touched me and made me burst into tears. I got in touch with those cultural heritages as if I have opened some treasures collecting countless rare and valuable objects. I feel that those farmers have collected cultural heritage generation after generation, so it is our historical responsibility to sort out and study them so as to inherit and develop outstanding traditions. Intangible cultural heritage protection is one of my most important works at present. It is certain that I continue to study folk narrations. Sometimes, I also go to some universities to teach. Since I am a member of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection, they often come to me for help and I have no reason to put them off.

    Shi: Don’t you think you are wasting your talents? I am thinking that a conscientious reporter or an ordinary intellectual is capable of sorting out and broadcasting general culture.

    Liu: I haven’t distinguished myself from others. In my opinion, I’m a member of China and I am responsible for protecting national culture. It is a kind of binding duty. As long as society needs me, I will do what I can. Sometimes, although nobody needs me, I am willing to do what is significant. Hence, I continue to study and think and in the meantime try my best to dig into problems and rules under the transactional works. I will try my best to do the best.

    Shi: Sure, I agree with you. As for the protection of national culture, it is necessary for folklore experts do something specific for the movement of intangible cultural heritage protection. As the president of the China Folklore Institution, it is necessary for you to give opinions on hot topics on behalf of the field of folklore. Your professional speeches and acknowledgements are helpful to clarify the ambiguities held by the society and government officials at all levels. It is the historical mission of folklore experts. In these years, you and folklore experts of the older generation have been devoted to protecting intangible cultural heritage, participated in theory building, published theoretical articles, trained culture cadres, given professional advice, etc., which are favorable to society. However, don’t you think you are working by relying on your position and influence rather than academic accomplishment?

    Liu: I don’t quite agree with you. Although intangible cultural heritage protection is not purely speculative, we should not dig into the deep connotation from the perspective of scientific principles in order to recognize the nature of intangible cultural heritage in a better way. Only if we continuously deepen our cognition, shall the policy and method of protection conform to the nature of intangible cultural heritage and we shall respond to the social reality effectively. Generally speaking, cultural heritage is a spiritual treasure left by history, as if it belongs to the past. Actually, we can find traces of them in real life and their vitality is even more vigorous, which decides so many dilemmas in our protection. Referring to the present intangible cultural heritage, I can’t recall any subject which contains so many paradoxes and questions requiring theoretical answers.

    Shi: Could you be more specific?

    Liu: We could talk about it as follows:

    First, protection means remain genuine, keep its true features and keep its pattern, connotation and functions today and yesterday. However, society must move forward, so do all the things, including traditions which develop and transform continuously. We don’t only place the protected objects in a museum, but also utilize them in reality. Therefore, the paradox between protection and development comes into being.

    Secondly, when we talk about protection, we will raise another related question, that is, to protect the ecological environment of the heritage. Hence, the ecological environment is changing rapidly, including the current situation of politics, economy and culture, thinking and value of human beings, desires of human beings, etc. Therefore, the so-called protection of the ecological environment of the heritage is a kind of fancy, which is very contradictory.

    Thirdly, when we refer to protection, we usually extract the objects from an integrated and huge system for convenient and effective protection and pay great attention to them. Actually, we adopt deconstruction to deal with cultural heritage. Nonetheless, one key feature of intangible cultural heritage is the mixture of generation and constitution, the intergrowth in reality together with the unitary of people’s lives. However, the deconstruction of objects and so-called protection imply the destruction of integrity, which is also very contradictory.

    Fourthly, when we come to protection, we first of all should protect outstanding successors who play an important part in succeeding in and promoting historical cultural traditions. Meanwhile, along with the rapid reformation of times, their thinking, their value and way of living have been developed and changed continuously. They have desires for a new life and are willing to improve their living conditions, so we should not make them sacrifice their real lives to protect certain kinds of heritage. We should not insist that they shall live their lives on the basis of thinking and the way of living in the past. 

    Fifthly, it is impossible to protect a traditional culture from being affected by the market economy. Intangible cultural heritage is a way of living. When a way of living is changed into a commodity, it is difficult to keep its functions. For example, tourism changed intangible cultural heritage fundamentally in its quality, functions, etc. In addition, as for intellectual property protection under a market economy, some children hide a series of folk artistries passed on by their sincere parents and are not willing to share with others. So, how does it influence the succession of intangible cultural heritage? However, if we just enlarge the influence and widen succession rather than protect intellectual property, then how do we prevent others aboard and at home from tort and plagiarism?

    Finally, standardization has already become a kind of social requirement and tendency whereas intangible cultural heritage protection stresses local color. For instance, folk operas, stories, ballads, etc. will be deprived of local color or even existence if we abandon dialects. I could list similar contradictions and dilemmas as well.

    Shi: As a result, you believe that there is no shirking the responsibilities of folklore experts and intellectuals are responsible for providing intellectual support to offer different answers from every aspect?

    Liu: Sure. In my opinion, if there is no thorough research, there will be no significant, scientific and historically regular protection. However, intellectuals are not capable of digging into the whole world. What they focus on is pursuing the truth and digging into the true essence of objects. Hence, each scholar could only observe the objects from his perspective and obtain related cognition according to the degree and profile of the objects contacted, so there must be limitations. In the meantime, pursuing the truth and its utilization are not communicative and unified under all circumstances. The culture administration department has to listen to the voices and information of others, including scientific thinking provided by intellectuals and surveying the requirements of society, reality and historical development. Considering the long-term benefit of the public, the department insists on the policy of sustainable development, striking a balance, examines comprehensively and chooses optimal decisions so as to utilize them.

    Shi: I know that you have done a lot to bring traditional festivals into national holidays? Can you share with us briefly?

    Liu: Almost all the countries in the world pay much attention to their traditional festivals. Some countries without a long history have even created some new ‘traditional festivals’ consciously to unite their people. Our traditional festivals possess long history and rich content, but in recent years we haven’t protected and succeeded them well due to all kinds of reasons. Recently, administrators of the Party and the government also care about the voice of the public at all levels as a result of the efforts of the Folklore Committee, and many deputies of the two sessions together with people of virtue.


    In 2004, entrusted by the Civilization Office of the Central Communist Party Committee, the China Folklore Institution organized a troop of folklore experts to demonstrate the discussion of ‘Promote traditional festivals and improve the holiday system’. In 2006, entrusted by the related authority, we organized some folklore experts to demonstrate the discussion of ‘Traditional Festivals and National Holidays’. They went into the origin and changes, connotation and functions, symbols, activities, etc. of traditional festivals, such as Spring Festival, Tomb-sweeping Day, Mid-autumn Festival, etc. and proposed specific plans for the reformation of the holiday system. In the past five years, we have commenced many national and international academic conferences on traditional festivals and the holiday system. I believe that our works are significant to our nation and our country.


    Translated by Feng Weijiang.


Editor: Wang Daohang

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