Accepted Paper:

Hopes and offerings in Chinese folk art  
Robert Layton (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Meaning and agency in Chinese art

Paper long abstract:

Since 2005 I have been studying traditional ('folk') arts in rural Shandong Province, China with colleagues at Shandong University of Art and Design, to assess the context of traditional arts in contemporary China and their future potential. Two broad categories have become clear: the distinction between, on one hand, expressing hopes (xī wang, 希望) for a good life that carry one forward optimistically, seen in paper cuts, dough models and resist-dyed cotton and, on the other hand, making offerings (jì sì pin 祭祀品) to folk gods in order to achieve a wished-for outcome. This distinction relates to the question of agency in art. The expression of hopes does not entail that paper cuts decorating the house or dough models displayed at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations should have agency, but they must convey their meaning. However, the woodblock prints of protective door gods posted on courtyard doors, the print of the stove god in the kitchen, and the fortune gods displayed indoors, must embody the agency of the god in order to be effective. Such agency can only be acquired by 'inviting' the god to enter his poster through offerings and prayers. This does not, however, render meaning irrelevant. It is vital to address one's offerings and prayers to the right god, and this demands recognizing the iconography distinctive of each deity. I will outline how the two categories of art were adapted to express government policy after 1950, and how they survived the government's attempts to destroy folk religion.

Panel P022
Doing, making, collaborating: art as anthropology