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Chinese folklore encompasses the folklore of China, and includes songs, poetry, dances, puppetry, and tales. It often tells stories of human nature, historical or legendary events, love, and the supernatural. The stories often explain natural phenomena and distinctive landmarks.[1] Along with Chinese mythology, it forms an important element in Chinese folk religion.


The reunion of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. Artwork in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

The main influences on Chinese folk tales have been Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Some folktales may have arrived from Germany when Grimm brothers had contributed some materials for the folktales regard to the country life of the German dwellers since the 1840s;[2] others have no known western counterparts, but are widespread throughout East Asia.[3] Chinese folktales include a vast variety of forms such as myths, legends, fables, etc. A number of collections of such tales, such as Pu Songling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, now remain popular.

Each Chinese folktale includes the representation of various objects and animals and uses symbolic messages through its characters and usually strives to convey a message that instills the reader with some sort of virtuous insight. These messages are vital to Chinese culture and through these folktales, they will be passed down to future generations to also learn from.[4]


The Great Race is a folk story that describes the creation of the Chinese zodiac calendar that includes twelves animals each representing a specific year in a twelve-year cycle.

Chinese folklore contains many symbolic folk meanings for the objects and animals within the folktales. One example of this is the symbolic meaning behind frogs and toads. Toads are named Ch'an Chu in Chinese, a folklore about Ch'an Chu illustrates the toad imports the implication of eternal life and perpetual. Chinese folklore unfolds the story of a Ch'an Chu (toad) is saved by Liu Hai, who is a courtier in ancient Chinese period. For recompense the gratitude to Liu Hai, Ch' an Chu divulge the secret of eternal life and being immortal to Liu Hai. And this is the origin of Ch' an Chu as a symbol of eternal in traditional Chinese folklore culture.[5]

In the "Chinese myth of the Moon Goddess, Chang'e", frogs and toads are a symbol of wealth and prosperity as well as symbolize fertility, regeneration, yin, and immortality. It is said that there were ten suns exposing the earth in the ancient times. Hou Yi who was an archer as well as the husband of Chang'e, he shot down nine suns from the sky with his bow and arrow. For expressing gratitude god rewarded him with pill which is an immortal elixir. In some versions of this tale, Chang'e took the pill for in avarice and she transformed into a three-legged Ch'an Chu and eventually flew to the moon. Hou Yi loved his wife so much that God allowed him to reunite annually with Chang'e at moment of the full moon on the 15th of August in Chinese lunar calendar, which is the celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival. From then on, the moon and Chang'e relate to the toad comprise the significance eternal and reunion.[6]

Study of Chinese folkloreEdit

Around the 1910s, Chinese folklore began to gain popularity as an area of study with the movement to formally adopt Vernacular Chinese as the language of education and literature. Because Vernacular Chinese was the dialect in which most folklore was created, this movement brought to scholars' attention to the influences that Vernacular Chinese folklore had upon classical literature. Hu Shih of the Peking University, who had published several articles in support of the adoption of Vernacular Chinese, concluded that when Chinese writers drew their inspiration from folk traditions such as traditional tales and songs, Chinese literature experienced a renaissance. When writers neglected these sources, they lost touch with the people of the nation. A new emphasis on the study of folklore, Hu concluded, could therefore usher in a new renaissance of Chinese literature.[3]

The Folksong Studies Movement became a key contributor to establishing Chinese folklore as a modern academic discipline. This movement was founded by students and professors at Peking University in 1918. They were successful in creating a field of study that focused on literature pertaining to Chinese folklore and attempted to bring to light the early traditions and culture of Chinese folklore in order to reestablish China's national spirit.;[7] The May Fourth Movement is a historical event in 1919 relating to the collecting and recording of historical folklore literary in both rural and urban areas in China. This movement was composed of researchers from the folklore realm and also included a large proportion of students. Folklores collections in the May Fourth Movement had a broad coverage of a wide territory level in China, that including not only the ethnic Han which forms the majority of Chinese but also the minority areas of China.[8] Folksongs collections were held by the Peking University one year before the May Fourth Movement, started in 1918.[9] It is claimed that folksongs as one of the significant part in the integration of folklore culture, contains the traditional ideology of in the early twentieth century of China, as well as a functional tool to convey the sprit of socialism and communism after the Liberation period.[10]

A rising sense of national identity was also partially responsible for spurring the new interest in traditional folklore. The first issue of the Folk-Song Weekly, a publication issued by the Folk-Song Research Society, stated that "Based on the folk songs, on the real feeling of the nation, a kind of new national poetry may be produced."[3]

Some folklore enthusiasts also hoped to further social reforms by their work. To help improve the condition of the Chinese people, it was believed, it was necessary to understand their ideas, beliefs, and customs.[3] After China emerged from the Maoist period in the late 1970s, the state had an increasingly more accepting position toward academic research on China’s cultural traditions and folklore. Forbidden traditions and practices in early Chinese history were, at this point in time, becoming more relevant and accepted within the Chinese culture.[7]

Pre-Communist and Communist thinkers were especially energetic in this belief. In the time leading up to the founding of the Communist Party of China, many folk songs and stories were collected by Communist thinkers and scholars. Often, they were reinvented and reinterpreted to emphasize such themes as the virtue of the working commoner and the evil of aristocracy, while stories that expressed praise for the emperor were frequently left out of Communist collections. Some folk tales and folk plays that exist today may, in fact, have been deliberately written by Communist authors to emphasize particular social morals.[3]

Poetry and SongsEdit

The Classic of Poetry, the earliest known Chinese collection of poetry, contains 160 folk songs in addition to courtly songs and hymns. One tradition holds that Confucius himself collected these songs, while another says that an emperor compiled them as a means to gauge the mood of the people and the effectiveness of his rule.[11]

It is believed that Confucius did encourage his followers to study the songs contained in the Classic of Poetry, helping to secure the Classic of Poetry's place among the Five Classics. After Confucian ideas became further entrenched in Chinese culture (after about 100 BCE), Confucius's endorsement led many scholars to study the lyrics of the Classic of Poetry and interpret them as political allegories and commentaries.[12]

Folksongs are divided into three major parts which are shan' ge (mountain songs), xiaodiao (little tunes), and chang'ge (long songs). Regarding shan'ge the mountain songs are having a deviation to represent the specific regional level, concentrating on rural rather than urban region. Xiaodiao can be considered as the mainstream folksongs among the genres, which are introduced to the general public with familiarity. Always accompanied by performs and professional stage shows presenting to the public. In terms of the chang'ge, long songs, which is a certain kind of narrative songs utilized mostly by the national minorities in some special events as a narrative form in singing.[13]

Stories of Chinese FolkloreEdit

  • 'The Mother’s Brother and His Sister’s Son':[14] This Chinese folklore pertains to a special wild ginseng plant growing in the mountain areas with precious medicinal value. The story is about an uncle and his nephew who went to gather ginseng from the mountains in the cold winter. After a long and arduous journey, they finally saw ginseng in a hollow cave. So the uncle used a bamboo basket to send his nephew to the bottom of the cave. He requested him to pick the ginseng and place it in the basket. He pulled up the rope tied to the basket with the ginseng in. After the rapacious and selfish uncle got the ginseng, he left his nephew in the cave and ran away with his ginseng. The Nephew cried loudly in the cave and alarmed a python, who is the guardian of the ginseng. The Python told him that he could help him leave the cave when spring arrived. He ate the 'lingzhi' -a kind of mushrooms - to stay alive during the winter. At last, spring came, the nephew was saved from the cave with the assistance of the Python. Thereafter, the Python punished the Uncle severely.
  • 'Goddes Gemu':[15] A long time ago, there was a goddess named Gemu, who was born in Yunnan Province. After a week of birth, she has a beautiful voice and is able to sing and dance perfectly. She acquired all the knowledge in all realms after three months of birth. Her beauty and wisdom are spread all over, people around the world came from long distance visited her and adored her gracefulness. When she was an adult, countless admirers came to propose, but she never promised to any marriage. Until one day, when she was working in the field helping her mother for farm works, the spirit from heaven was attracted by her appearance and her diligent. The heaven spirit turned into a gust of wind and took Gemu away, she yelled out loudly, her thunderous voice frightened the heaven spirit, Gemu fell down from his hand and dropped to the top the Lion Mountain where she trapped on the Lion Mountain forever. From then on, she guarded the safety of the villagers inseparable as her routine obligation. So in the 25th of July in the lunar calendar, folks celebrate the Mountain Worshipping Festival for commemorating her contributions. In the festival, folks dancing and singing around the Lion Mountain, praising her dedication and guard.
  • ‘Tears that Crumbled the Great Wall':[16] This is a story happened a long time ago when the Emperor Qin Shihuang was the Great Wall for protecting the territory and a huge amount of workers are demanded. The government arrested folks everywhere as migrant workers. There is a scholar in Suzhou called Fan Xiliang, who has to hide around in order to escape the pursuit of the government. One day, he fled to the Mengjiang Garden and accidentally met Meng Jiang. And they fall in love with each, and soon got married. Unfortunately, Fan Xiliang was caught by the force of the government to repair the Great Wall. Mengjiang started to seek for her husband in the Great Wall. Along the way, Meng Jiang did not know how much hardship would have experienced and how much she would suffer before she came to the foot of the Great Wall. But migrant workers in the Great Wall told her that Fan Xiliang was dead and the bones were filled into the wall. Hearing this heartbreaking news, she burst into tears, crying so badly, the sun and the moon were dull. The Great Wall collapsed for dozens of miles, revealing countless bones, Meng Jiang biting her finger and dropping blood on a bone. Secretly praying if it is the bone of her husband, the blood will seep into the bones. If not, the blood will flow to the Quartet. Finally, Meng Jiang found the bones of Fan Xiliang in this way. She was holding this pile of bones and weeping sadly.

Influence of folklore on other mediaEdit

The Journey to eternal life of Lady Dai (Xin Chui). Mawangdui, Hunan Province, about 168 before the Common Era.


Chinese folklore has provided inspiration for visual imagery by Chinese weavers, painters, water colorists, and florists. One of the most striking examples is a silk funerary banner (circa 168 BC) that contains a number of stories from early China.[17]


Modern iterations of traditional Chinese stories can be found internationally as well as in native Chinese literature. Laurence Yep's The Magic Paintbrush, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, and Walt Disney Pictures' Mulan all borrow from Chinese folklore traditions.


Chinese folklore has provided inspiration for Chinese writers and poets for centuries. Folk songs, which were originally accompanied by dance and other styles of performing arts, provided inspiration for courtly poetry. Classical fiction began in the Han dynasty and was modeled after oral traditions, while Yuan and Ming era dramatic plays were influenced by folk plays.[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Giskin, Howard. Chinese Folktales. (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, 1997). ISBN 0-8442-5927-6.
  2. ^ Mair, Victor; Bender, Mark (2011-05-03). The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Columbia University Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780231526739.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Eberhard, Wolfram, Folktales of China.(1965). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965. University of Congress Catalog Card Number: 65-25440
  4. ^ Shanshan, Y. (2016). Frogs and Toads in Chinese Myths, Legends, and Folklore. Chinese America: History & Perspectives, 77.
  5. ^ Crump, Martha L (2015). Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder's Fork and Lizard's Leg : The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 86–87. ISBN 9780226116143.
  6. ^ Crump, Martha L (2015). Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder's Fork and Lizard's Leg : The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 87–88. ISBN 9780226116143.
  7. ^ a b AN, D., & YANG, L. (2015). Chinese Folklore Since the Late 1970s. Asian Ethnology, 74(2), 273-290.
  8. ^ Mair, Victor; Bender, Mark (2011-05-03). The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Columbia University Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 9780231526739.
  9. ^ Knecht, Peter (1979). "Asian Folklore Studies". Asian Ethnology. Nanzan University. 26 (2): 5–6. ISSN 0385-2342. JSTOR 1177728.
  10. ^ Mackerras, Colin (April 1984). "Folksongs and Dances of China's Minority Nationalities: Policy, Tradition, and Professionalization". Modern China. 10 (2): 194–195. JSTOR 189024.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1998-01-15. Retrieved 2009-02-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1998-01-15. Retrieved 2009-02-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) /
  13. ^ Mackerras, Colin (April 1984). "Folksongs and Dances of China's Minority Nationalities: Policy, Tradition, and Professionalization". Modern China. 10 (2): 195–196. JSTOR 189024.
  14. ^ Mair, Victor; Bender, Mark (2011-05-03). The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Columbia University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9780231526739.
  15. ^ Mair, Victor; Bender, Mark (2011-05-03). The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. Columbia University Press. pp. 54–55. ISBN 9780231526739.
  16. ^ Herrera, Julie Moss (2012-08-01). Old China Through the Eyes of a Storyteller. Parkhurst Brothers, Inc. pp. 69–78. ISBN 9781935166863.
  17. ^ Chinese Myths, by Anne Birrell. University of Texas Press, Sep 15, 2000 - Literary Criticism - 80 pages

Further readingEdit

  • Lou Tsu-k'uang (ed.), Asian Folklore and Social Life - 2 vols. (Orient Cultural Service, Taiwan, 1975).
  • Women of China (firm), Women in Chinese Folklore. (Chinese Publications Centre, Beijing, 1983)

External linksEdit