Oral and Written Literature (1)
Oral literature in China - like everywhere else - must have existed as long as people have sung songs and told each other stories and jokes. Some kinds of oral performance gain a certain status in the society, often in the context of religious ceremony. Some kinds may develop into semi-professional or professional metiers of verbal eloquence, something that people are willing to pay for. Like language itself, oral traditions grow and decline, imperceptibly change into new forms, die out or persist in unexpected new varieties.
Some traditions have a long and strong history, and the oral building blocks of the tradition seem durable, being handed down by way of mouth from generation to generation. Memory, repetition and reformulation mark the conditions of their continuous existence. The only way to preserve oral literature outside of the oral medium was by the transformation into written texts. But the very process of writing, including the different materials that served as writing materials in various societies through history, would invariably influence both form and content.
Our knowledge of oral tradition and oral art is tied up with the particular medium through which we observe it. For studies of former oral traditions the main sources are texts that seem to reflect oral performance in a particularly close relationship. Other sources are found in descriptions of oral genres and performance situations in written literature and in pictorial sources, historical places relevant to performance arenas, props and musical instruments handed down, and archaeological findings.
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