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date: 23 July 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Ever since the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, scholars of Chinese literary history have deployed a distinction between elite literature and popular literature, claiming that the “dead” elite literature was only revitalized by its constant borrowings from the language, subjects, and forms of popular literature. This chapter questions this simplistic binary, which depends on the exclusive identification of “the popular” with the vernacular and oral transmission, problematic propositions in both cases. It argues that the oral literature of the first millennium bce and the first millennium is irretrievably lost. Before the emergence of a mature print culture, sharp distinctions between elite and popular culture are hard to draw, and in China, the vernacular was not a different language but at the most a different register within a shared literary culture.

Keywords: literary history, popular literature, yuefu, ci, oral-formulaic theory, mythology, epic, Hu Shi, Zheng Zhenduo

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