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Butterflies and Dragon-Eagles: Processing Epics from Southwest China

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 27, Number 1, March 2012

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Since the 1950s large-scale government-sponsored folk literature collection projects have been carried out in China. These include the massive Chinese Folksong Compendium (Zhongguo geyao jicheng), a nationwide project underway since the late 1980s to collect folksongs and oral art (Feng 1999:18-19). By the year 2002, this and related projects had resulted in the collection and publication of approximately three million folk songs, nearly two million folk stories, and a whopping seven million proverbs, as well as hundreds of local dramas, prosimetric narratives, and epics (WIPO 2002:2). For the last several years, projects large and small have been underway to document so-called "intangible culture"—a whole array of oral and performing arts traditions—perceived to be threatened by modernization and globalization. Participants in this colossal effort include individuals and groups at major think tanks such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing University, Beijing Normal University, Beijing Central Nationalities University, and the Institute of Intangible Culture at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Many others are associated with provincial, prefectural, or county-level research or cultural institutes, publishing houses, and community organizations. And there are also unknown numbers of non-professional researchers and local tradition-bearers in local communities who carry out significant—though often unrecognized—documentation, research, and preservation of local folk culture.

Many such documentation efforts are being carried out in southwest China, an ecologically diverse area in the foothills of the Himalayas that is intersected by several of Asia's largest rivers. It is also the most ethnically diverse area of China. China has 56 official ethnic groups, the largest of which consists of the Han people who make up over 90% of the population. Of the 55 ethnic minority groups, over 30 live in south and southwest China—many in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces. Most of these groups have many subgroups that go by various local names and in some cases have populations that spread across international borders.

In this essay, I wish to explore how local individuals of two of these ethnic minority groups in southwest China are involved in what I call "processing" epic narratives of their respective ethnic groups. These individuals may wear more than one hat and include tradition-bearers who know the local lore, as well as poets, scholars, and government researchers in various local and regional organizations. The "butterflies" and "dragon-eagles" in my title indicate some of the varied content of the epic traditions. Southeast Guizhou province is home to many people of the Miao ethnic group (Miaozu), also known as Hmong and by many local names. One of their myth-epics is about a butterfly known as Mai Bang, or "Butterfly Mother," who plays a major role in the creation of certain major and minor beings in Miao epic and ritual lore. After she forms in the heartwood of a sweet gum tree, she is released by moth grubs and a woodpecker, then grows into a beautiful butterfly. One day while flying down a river, foam from the tips of the waves splash her body. She soon discovers she is pregnant and later lays twelve precious eggs in a nest girded by mountains. The eggs eventually hatch out into various beings, including a dragon, a tiger, the Thunder God, and Jang Vang, the first ancestor of humans in our age—who after a great flood marries the only available woman, his sister. But this is the kind of thing that happens in myth-worlds.

The "dragon-eagles," on the other hand, are part of a creation epic from the Nuosu people, a subgroup of the large and varied Yi ethnic group (Yizu). One day a woman named Pumo Hniyyr is weaving under the eaves of her house. She suddenly spies several eagles and dragon-eagles spiraling high above. When she goes out to play with them, she is splattered by three drops of blood that fall from the sky. She soon finds out she is pregnant. Not long afterward, she gives birth to an unusual child who refuses to drink his mother's milk, sleep next to her in bed, or wear the clothes she made for him. Because of...

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