Oral and Written Literature (2)
The study of contemporary oral traditions is perhaps the most important basis for understanding the oral literature of former times and other places. In our own time we are able to listen to and see oral artists during live performances. We can experience the art with all our senses and enjoy every aspect of the bodily language that inevitably accompanies any such performance. The artist, depending on the genre in which he or she excels, may or may not use song and musical accompaniment, but will in any case play on the instrument of their whole body.
Before the invention of the phonograph and tape-recorder, oral literature was highly evanescent. The spoken words would physically disappear the very moment they had been uttered. Tape and video-recordings enable us to ‘freeze’ the oral performance, so that we may repeat the sound or film recording without change. It enables us to study many details of oral performance that could only be surmised earlier. It is possible to compare various performances in detail and thus go deeper into the study of oral transmission and individual variety. But we should not be blind to the fact that the very ‘accurate similarity’ of every repetition of a recorded performance, the ‘textualizing’ that the recording implies, is deeply contradictory to the continuous reformulation and ever changing variety that constitutes perhaps the life nerve of oral literature.
Next: Chinese written literature in literary and vernacular style