Mason’s Folklore Program Visiting Scholars Curate Exhibit

“The Flow of Tradition”: Mason’s Folklore Program Visiting Scholars Curate Lunar New Year Exhibit

Mason’s Folklore Program Visiting Scholars Curate  Exhibit

“The Flow of Tradition”: Mason’s Folklore Program Visiting Scholars Curate Lunar New Year Exhibit

By Stephanie Aitken


The stage is set, or in this case, Fenwick Gallery is ready to host “The Flow of Tradition–Chinese Folk Art of the Lunar New”  

This exhibit will run in Fenwick Gallery in the lobby of the George Mason University Fenwick Library at the Fairfax campus from February 1st to February 18th. If you want to participate in Lunar New Year traditions, come join us on Thursday, February 8th from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm for a Lunar New Celebration in Fenwick Gallery and Room 1009. Please register for the event on Mason360, or just drop by. 

Among the people and partners that are putting on this exhibition, we would like to highlight the people without whom this event would not be possible: Dr.Lili Zhu and Dr. Tao Pang. 

Drs. Zhu and Pang are visiting scholars of the Folklore Program at George Mason University. They joined us in Spring 2023 and will be leaving us soon in February 2024. 

Dr. Zhu is originally from Heilongjiang Province in China and Dr. Pang is from Inner Mongolia also in China. Dr. Pang and Dr. Zhu, or P&Z as they thought would be fun to call themselves, had pretty similar academic journeys. They both pursued undergraduate and master’s degrees in Art and Design and later pursued doctorates in folklore. Dr. Zhu began her Ph.D. at Minzu University of China in 2012, a crucial time in China when intangible cultural heritage protection transitioned from theoretical research and promotion to concrete implementation. Meanwhile, Dr. Pang initiated his Ph.D. studies in folklore at Minzu University of China in 2014.  

Currently, they both work at universities in Beijing. Dr. Pang works at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North China Electric Power University. His research focus revolves around carpet craftsmanship in Northern China. He explores the folk traditions within carpet craftsmanship, the communities that create those carpets, the movement of carpet techniques along the Silk Road, and the global circulation of ancient Chinese carpets. His research encapsulates over 270 years of transformation in carpet craftsmanship from the Qing Dynasty to the present.

Dr. Zhu works at the School of Humanities and Law at North China University of Technology. She researches Mongolian women’s headdresses, which include embroidery and metal inlay techniques. In addition, she is currently researching Beijing’s Mongolian metal inlay craftsmanship.

I asked P&Z  a few questions about their time in the Mason Folklore Program as well as to tell us a little bit about their upcoming exhibition. They emailed their responses that they composed together. 

Tell Us About Your Research? 

Looking back, we recognize that our academic training during undergraduate and master's studies had a profound impact on us. During fieldwork, we consistently focus on folk crafts' forms, patterns, colors, and materials. However, this attention is also our strength. The intersection of art and design with folklore research methods has deepened our understanding of folk crafts.


Why did you want to come to George Mason?

George Mason University is a university that embraces diverse cultures and fosters an innovative spirit. The professors in the Folklore Program demonstrate outstanding academic achievements, with fruitful outcomes in various research fields.

Our collaborating mentor, Dr. Lijun Zhang, a faculty member of the Folklore Program, specializes in material culture and folk handicrafts, aligning closely with our interests. We have conducted in-depth field investigations in different regions of China at various times. While our fieldwork focuses on the ethnic minority regions in Northern China, Dr. Zhang's research area extends to the Southwest. Dr. Zhang has previously published some influential articles on American material folklore studies, providing valuable inspiration for our research. We were eager to collaborate with her on material culture, intangible cultural heritage, folk art, traditional handicrafts, and traditional cultural exhibitions. The Washington D.C. area also boasts numerous museums and vibrant festivals, making it rich in cultural vitality.


 Dr. Tao Pang presenting at the American Folklore Society (AFS) conference in November 2023 with Dr. Lijun Zhang (left) presiding. 



What have you been able to accomplish in your work since you have come to Mason?

By enrolling in courses taught by different professors, we gained a clearer understanding of the research history, theoretical methods, and paradigms of American folklore studies. This has been immensely valuable for guiding our future research.

Under the guidance of Dr. Zhang, we participated in the 2023 American Folklore Society (AFS) Annual Meeting. During the "From Tradition to Heritage: The Dynamic Practice of Handicrafts in China" panel, we presented our research reports. Dr. Zhu's research focused on "Adaptation, Engagement, and Innovation: The Practice of Mongolian Women's Headdress in Northern China," while Dr. Pang's report centered on "Handicraft & Field: Changes of Alashan Carpet Weaving Tradition in China." We engaged with participants in discussions on the experiences and methods of preserving and developing traditional handicrafts in China. In November 2023, we also shared this research at the Brown Bag Lunch hosted by the Folklore Program.

 In preparing for the "Flow of Tradition" exhibition, we received enthusiastic assistance from Dr. Zhang and Dr. Lisa Gilman (Folklore Program Professor and Director), as well as professional support from Stephanie Grimm and Chen Bi of Fenwick Gallery in Fenwick Library. Their guidance has provided us with valuable insights into the American working process, making the experience quite enriching. We hope this exhibition will contribute to the cultural diversity of the Mason community.

 Dr. Lili Zhu (upper right) answers a question while Dr. Lisa Gilman (far center) and Dr. Ben Gatling (upper left)  at the Brown Bag Lunch back in November 2023. 

What has been your experience being a part of the Mason folklore community? What impact has the community had on you or your work?

As part of the Mason Folklore community, we have felt warmth from everyone and learned a great deal. This includes the professors' dedication to teaching, rigorous and passionate academic approach, and support and assistance. This journey has been unforgettable, and we hope to maintain communication and connection in the future.

Dr. Zhu enrolled in Dr. Lisa Gilman's "Public Folklore" course in  Fall 2023, while Dr. Pang attended Dr. Zhang's courses on "Folk Art and Folk Artists'' and "Folklore and Folk Life," as well as Dr. Debra Lattanzi Shutika's "Global Folklore" course. The systematic learning from these courses has enhanced our understanding of American public folklore, folk art, and folk life. 

Being part of the Mason Folklore community and attending the AFS Annual Meeting under Dr. Zhang’s guidance was also a fantastic experience. Through interactions with folklorists, we gained insights into their research interests and approached our studies from different perspectives, inspiring future development.

These invaluable experiences propelled us to organize a Chinese Folk Art Exhibition at George Mason University.


Dr. Tao Pang (Far left) and Dr. Lili Zhu (Front left) join Dr. Gilman’s (Left next to Dr. Pang) Public Folklore Class on a field trip to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in October 2023. 

What is the exhibition about?

The theme of this exhibition is "Flow of Tradition - The Chinese Folk Art in Lunar New Year." We have curated 24 pieces/sets of Chinese folk art that encompass various forms, such as paper cutting, woodblock New Year prints, folk toys, sculptures, and embroidery. Some of these works continue the ancient Chinese styles, while others showcase the creative endeavors of contemporary craftspeople. Furthermore, a portion of the collection reflects the modern expressions of tradition by young designers and artists.

The Lunar New Year Festival, with a tradition spanning over 4000 years, has seen related items evolve continuously in the river of time, reflecting society's dynamics and culture's diversity. This process involves the evolution of traditional crafts and encompasses how the younger generation of craftsmen, artists, and consumers propel these changes, blending Chinese traditional history with global cultural influences. For the creators involved in this craft, engaging with Mason students through their works is a form of cultural exchange.


Photo of Crafts Displayed in the Exhibition 


What are you hoping to accomplish with this Lunar New Year event? What message do you want people to come away with?

Firstly, as a representation of multiculturalism, the Lunar New Year has transformed in the United States from an ethnic cultural event to a public cultural celebration. During our visits to the U.S., we have observed that many Chinese cultural symbols have become products of cultural fusion. Hence, we aim to introduce some authentic Chinese folk art that represents the expressions of ordinary Chinese people regarding time, nature, society, family, and life. 

Additionally, the selection of artworks embodies the flow of tradition, allowing viewers to witness the transmission of Chinese traditional culture across different generations. It reflects the movement between the dynamics of the times and cultural memory. These artworks have flowed here in several batches, not as part of commercial exchanges but as an activity surrounding the Spring Festival, closely related to folk customs. The outsider's perspective of the audience through the lens of the art exhibition is also a significant aspect, which we find pretty romantic. Furthermore, folklorists have a unique understanding when collecting and organizing works. Combining our professional backgrounds, we are trying to be a cool pair of public folklorists. 

As for what we hope people will take away, we are curious how Americans, particularly in a diverse and youthful community like Mason, interpret these items and symbols based on their imagination and understanding of China. Despite the changing international landscape and diverse media expressions in recent years, we believe culture can be felt and exchanged. We hope the exhibition inspires everyone and provides an outlook for the new year.

 Drs. Pang and Zhu posing outside the Smithsonian Design Museum 

What impact do you want your visit/experience being guests of the Folklore Program to have on the Mason folklore Community?


Our one year in the United States has passed swiftly, and we feel that our capacity to contribute is limited. However, we hope to have added a bit more understanding of traditional Chinese handicrafts to the Mason folklore community and shed light on the development of traditional Chinese folk crafts in modern society. We also hope to extend an invitation to the teachers and students of the Mason folklore community to visit China, contributing together to the development of cultural diversity. We would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to all the professors in the Mason Folklore Program. Learning folklore is truly a fascinating endeavor.

Thank you to P&Z for sharing their experiences and curating this fantastic exhibition! 

As a reminder, the exhibit will run in Fenwick Gallery from February 1st to February 18th. Additionally, Thursday, February 8th from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm will be the Lunar New Celebration and Exhibition Reception in Fenwick Library in the Fenwick Gallery and Room 1009.