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Juwen ZhangJuwen Zhang

Juwen Zhang

Examining folklore in the context of Chinese culture.

So what exactly is fengshui? And what is its function in American popular culture? Chinese folklorist and Willamette Chinese Professor Juwen Zhang recently published a translation of the earliest Chinese Book of Burial, which he says "textualizes and ritualizes" fengshui practice, the Chinese system that studies people's relationships to the environment in which they live. But how could a book about burial rituals, written in the fourth century, influence how Americans arrange furniture in their homes? And why has an indigenous Chinese tradition flourished in the American mainstream?

"Fengshui becomes an agent for Chinese culture to be accepted by other cultures," says Zhang, who spent his childhood in Ning Xia, an autonomous Muslim region of Northwest China. "It's interesting to explore the roots of fengshui in ancient Chinese burial ritual."

According to Zhang, fengshui has lasted several millennia because of its roots in fundamental Chinese beliefs. Zhang offers foot binding, a practice that disappeared after only 1,000 years, as a contrast to the fengshui phenomenon. "It (foot-binding) was mostly socio-economically driven," he says, "so when policies changed, the tradition died."

As the endowed chair of the Luce Junior Professorship of Chinese Language and Culture, Zhang is working to bridge Chinese folklore research with the broader body of Chinese studies - something that has never been done before. "Current studies on Chinese ethnicity pay little attention to folklore," he says. "I hope to make it clear that ritual studies combine both Chinese ethnic studies and linguistic studies, as well as religious studies."

Zhang has always been intensely interested in mythology and folklore. He attended Liaoning University in Northeast China and, because there was no folklore major, he concentrated on English and studied folk traditions independently. For 10 years following graduation, he taught English at Liaoning, and during this time he published his translations of an article, "The Concept of a Motif in Folklore," and a book, Man and His Symbols, by Carl Jung. With increasing interest in people's everyday life, he then decided to pursue folklore studies in graduate school. In the absence of folklore programs in China, he had to travel overseas.

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Zhang began a liberal arts master's degree program. But before earning his degree, he transferred to a doctoral program in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught Chinese language courses, and upon delivering his doctoral dissertation on Chinese-American funeral rituals in Philadelphia, he merged his rapidly developing interests in language and Chinese-American culture.

"Few folklorists were looking at Chinese-Americans," Zhang recalls. "So I chose to start building this field - Chinese abroad folklore - and just recently my initiative to establish a section of Eastern Asia Folklore at the American Folklore Society was officially approved."

Zhang credits ritual life for the unity and diversity within Chinese culture. And, he says, what is particularly interesting is how Chinese people in the United States continue to practice Chinese rituals in their own way. "It's invented tradition," Zhang says of the changes in Chinese traditions abroad.

A dedicated scholar, Zhang is producing a monograph, Rites of Passage in Chinese Societies: From Text to Practice and Interpretation, and an accompanying reader, Rites of Passage in Chinese Societies: A Reader. He hopes his work will contribute to an understanding of Chinese folklore and culture from their roots and improve communication with the Chinese people.

The time seems to be ripe for Zhang's scholarship. "Chinese students at Willamette want to know how different they are from 'real' Chinese," he says thoughtfully. "They want to better understand their roots."

Zhang's students, with or without Chinese background, ask questions about Chinese traditions, such as "authentic" cuisine. Folklore studies provide an academic space to explore these kinds of questions.

"In the folkloristic approach," Zhang says, "the emphasis is on how common people, the majority, practice rituals. And the beliefs and practices of the common people in everyday life have fundamentally shaped the concept and meaning of being Chinese."

So what exactly is the lifeline of Chinese-American rites of passage?

"Chinese food, kung fu, line-dancing clubs, births, weddings and funerals," Zhang offers as a start. Then, invoking a class he teaches on Chinese culture, he adds that studying rites of passage "can greatly contribute to the understanding of not only one culture, but the commonality and communication of all human beings. This is something I want to do for the field, for the students and for my own sense of accomplishment."