Other Collecting Areas

World History

Maggie Gallup Kopp, Curator
Kristi Young, Curator
Robert Maxwell, Adjunct Curator

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East Asian Folklore

Every nation has folklore. It pops up in stories, customs, festivals, and proverbs for everyday living. Folklore provides context for modern traditions and cultural practices that might seem alien and strange otherwise. Ancient folk traditions make up the back bone of modern life, and reveal the interactions between nations of the past. European folklore, while nowhere near uniform, still expresses common themes, fears, and beliefs. Through wars, immigration, and trade, cultural exchange has made connections between all nations and people to some extent.

The connections and ties in Europe are strong, because, geographically, they have been living on top of each other for thousands of years. Far Eastern Asia, however, has not had that contact. Through much of history, contact between the east and west has been minimal. Long distance travel and communication were made nearly impossible because of the lack of technology, and dramatic geography.

The lack of interaction makes eastern Asian folklore especially interesting to study because it developed without any influence from the west. Monsters and folk heroes exist to deal with completely different fears, and festivals celebrate the achievements of many whose contributions to society and wisdom would not be celebrated anywhere else in the world. Religious traditions teach different moral hierarchies that influence daily life and consideration of the afterlife.

The phenomenon of cultural exchange does exist in East Asian folklore though. Folklore from China, Japan, Taiwan, and many other neighboring countries have similar tales and practices, illustrating similar values.

China is a cultural monolith, occupied by over a billion people. Their folklore is equally vast, and well recorded. Naturally, it varies through each of the towns and cities throughout, the three million square miles, and over a thousand years of recorded history. Some stories only exist in a specific, tiny town, and are never heard anywhere else, while others are celebrated throughout the country, and honored with festivals, and special traditions.

The Wilson Folklore Archives highlight a very small portion of this vast culture, mostly through interviews with immigrants from china and what stories and traditions they could remember after years of living in America.

Though much of the richness was lost as China turned to communism, the values of determination and personal responsibility still shine through stories and practices that could not be stamped out. Great tasks, celebrated centuries later, were accomplished, not through brute strength or even cleverness, but through audacity and strength of will to deny the impossible.

Animals and humans who did the great deeds of the past are still respected for their contributions to society. In FA 01 63, the story of the white monkeys is told. These sacred monkeys were created to guard the book of heaven. They exist on the earth to seek out new knowledge and were released from their duty due to the curiosity of one white monkey who still guards the book alone today after his curiosity got the better of him and he decided to take a peek at the secrets of heaven. It is culturally appropriate to show respect for these beings as they continue on their quest to gather all the knowledge of earth.

Ghost stories and cultural fears reveal a deep respect for spirits and a commitment to order. An important everyday practice in modern China is Feng Shui. FA 01 1656 tells of the practice, where furniture, doors and windows are balanced to allow energy to flow through Chinese houses without stopping. Professionals still exist today to help arrange houses according to the principles of Feng Shui, even though much of the reasons behind the need for balanced energy deal with things that are no longer officially beliefs according to the Chinese government.

Festivals exist as a break from the regular routine, and as a unifying force within communities. The origins of beloved holidays do tend to get lost in the grand shuffles of life. Modern Festivals rarely even barely resemble the event they were originally created to celebrate. The hidden roots are intriguing to attempt to divine through the stories, costumes, and customs of a festival day.

One of China’s most interesting festivals is the festival of Gwei Jye. FA 01 63 tells of glorious feasts that are created for the many ghosts of China, which emerge from the underworld to walk with the living during the seventh lunar month on the lunisolar calendar. Families prepare garlic green bundles to ward off evil, and feasts are left outside so that the spirits will have no cause to come inside.


Like any neighboring countries, Japanese and Chinese folklore share similar origins, and borrow from each other quite a bit. Through wars and centuries of trade, stories and customs were traded along with blood and currency.

However, just because festivals and mythology share aesthetics does not mean that they share a belief system. Both Chinese and Japanese folklore emphasize honor and politeness but while Chinese folklore regards figures of great power, Japanese folklore focuses on the ordinary person’s interactions with gods and demons. Manners are used in Japanese folktales to thwart monsters that are too powerful to be directly fought.

These themes are especially prominent with kappa lore, explored in FA 01 1388. Kappas are supernaturally strong and hunger for cucumbers, liver, and human children. Clever and mischievous, kappas victimize all those who dare come near their watery territory. Kappas are defeated through excessive politeness. Kappas feel obligated to bow as deep as or deeper than any traveler who bows to them first, and through deep and speedy bowing, lose the water in the bowl of their head that gives them their supernatural strength. One should never try to physically challenge a kappa, and they have never been easily tricked, but they can be defeated.


Each nation in Eastern Asia has its own folklore, rich with traditions and practices explained by hundreds of years of stories. Unfortunately, there is not very much information on these cultures in the Wilson Folklore Archives. What does exist shows a similarity between cultural values. East Asian folklore puts value in hard work, determination and honor above all else.

Unlike Western culture, friendship is the most highly valued relationship in Eastern Asian folklore. A man must show honor in his dealings with all men, but it is most important to keep a promise to a friend. The project, FA 01 597, illustrates the efforts of one servant who saved his extravagant Lord through thriftiness. The servant carefully saved and dried the excess rice wasted during the family’s frequent, lavish feasts. During a time of famine, when all the money in the world could not buy food, the servant was able to provide for his family.

Instead of grasping at power when he was put in a position to do so, the servant lived cheerfully in his designated role.

Last Modified: November 20, 2013

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