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Chinese folklore includes songs, poetry, dances, puppetry, and tales. It often tells stories of human nature, historical or legendary events, love, and the supernatural, or stories explaining natural phenomena and distinctive landmarks.
The main influences on Chinese folk tales have been Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Some folktales may have arrived from India or West Asia along with Buddhism; others have no known western counterparts, but are widespread throughout East Asia. 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.
Chinese folklore has provided inspiration for Chinese writers and poets for centuries. Folk songs which were originally partnered with 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.
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.
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.
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.
Around the 1910s, Chinese folklore began to gain popularity as an area of study with the beginnings of 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 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.
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."
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.
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 emphasise 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 emphasise particular social morals.