2010 Student-Faculty Fellows: College Of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Team 1
The Storytelling Tradition of Geng Village
Mentor: Zhihui Sophia Geng
Students: Shazreh Ahmed, Abbie Helminen, Katlynn Nelson, Taylor Peterson, Philip Whitcomb
From May 30 to June 30, 2010, our group of five students travelled with our mentor to cities throughout north China, including Beijing, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Gaocheng and Qingdao. We interviewed scholars, artists, folklorists, storytellers, and also activists and officials committed to protecting and preserving China’s “intangible cultural heritage”. Leaders in the field of cultural heritage protection discussed with us the challenges and their hopes for preserving China’s folk culture and oral traditions. It is clear that China’s cultural heritage is rich and diverse, but it also faces grave challenges. We stayed for a day in a storyteller’s house in Geng Village, the most revered storytelling village in China. During the day, we interviewed storytellers. That evening, we sat on the villager’s roof, telling stories and singing songs under the stars. We were the first group of foreigners to ever stay in the village. In Qingdao, we went deep into the mountains of Lao Shan to hear stories told by the locals and eat dumplings with them made with Laoshan’s wild vegetables. Our group project will focus primarily on preparing a collection of at least fifteen stories, translated into English, which the villagers of China shared with us. We plan to give a presentation at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University’s Friday Forum focused upon issues related to preserving “intangible cultural heritage” and storytelling in order to bring these pressing matters to the attention of the CSB/SJU community. We also plan to provide access to these stories to elementary and middle school students throughout Minnesota. Finally, we plan to complete a final group paper that clearly states what we have discovered.
Even though I spent the entire year 2008 studying Chinese in Chongqing, China, under a grant provided by the Chinese government, the one month spent in North China entering people’s homes and listening to people’s stories was a much different and more enriching experience. The experience was a rich one because it was one of immersion which allowed me to use my Chinese and helped me to connect more with the common people of village China. Before entering rural China, we met with numerous important scholars and government officials to discover the efforts being made to preserve oral storytelling. The time spent in Geng village confirmed how important these villagers regarded the diminishing art, and made us even more committed to help with its preservation. I learned the importance of being multilingual and of adapting to different cultures, social systems and ways of life. The experience made me a more tolerant person. I also learned valuable research methodologies and the importance of sustaining group dynamics.
This month long research experience convinced me that complete immersion is by far the best way to learn from another culture. When we left the cities of China and made our way to Gengcun (Geng Village) we were surprised to be greeted by many villagers with a celebration of dancing and music. This welcome made us feel relaxed and yet excited to get to work and delve into the oral stories preserved in Geng Village. The next week and a half was action packed and busy. We averaged 2-3 interviews with storytellers a day. During our entire stay there was never a moment that we felt unwelcome or unappreciated for the task we set forth to accomplish. The villagers welcomed us into their homes and we were able to sense the cadence in their everyday lives, from washing clothes in a bucket outside to meeting in the bazaar that the village holds on days one and six of the lunar calendar. The experience also made me acutely aware of the importance of working together to preserve the disappearing traditions of China and other areas of the world.
While in China, the CSB/SJU group of researchers worked together to conduct interviews with a broad cross section of individuals in China, but most especially with those who could convey traditional Chinese stories presented to others through an oral tradition of storytelling. We also sought to obtain a clear understanding of what is being done to preserve the intangible culture in China, and more specifically Geng Village. My opinion of the people of Geng Village started out extremely high and in the time we lived there it constantly improved. These are a people full of life and pride of who they are and where they come from. Nothing exemplified this more to me than when I was sitting in interviews, listening for the inflection of the storyteller’s voice and watching him become animated as the story progressed. Often an elderly person becoming full of life would catch a child running away and the bright eyed child would then curl up in his/her lap to listen to the story.
During my stay in Geng Village I fell in love with it and its people. The streets were dirty, but the walls were covered with paintings of their stories, and just outside the village there were huge open fields of glimmering gold wheat. The villagers were filled with a peaceful energy and were happy in their community. As they passionately told their stories to us, I came to realize that story telling runs thick within the veins of Geng villagers and is a vital part of their identity. There are people throughout China who are working to preserve traditions that are in danger of being lost, such as paper cutting, wood block New Year’s guardian paintings, various types of dances, and storytelling. We hope to bring the stories of Geng Village to life in English and share them with the people of the world.
While in China, leaders in the field of cultural heritage protection discussed with us the challenges faced in collecting folk culture and oral traditions. We also discovered how committed they are to preserving them, but came to realize that this task is daunting. Interest in oral storytelling has diminished as modern media and entertainment reach rural China. Funding for artists and storytellers will help preserve these traditions, but it is also important that trained civil servants dedicated to preserving these stories be increased and supported. We had the opportunity to spend ten days in Geng Village, a pivotal center for this oral storytelling tradition, and also to go deep into the mountains of Lao Shan in Shandong Province to study storytelling in this remote region. In Geng village, we sat on the villager’s roof, telling stories and singing songs under the stars. In Shandong, we listened to stories told by the locals and ate dumplings made with Lao Shan’s wild vegetables.