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  • The Spirit of Zhyge Alu:The Nuosu Poetry of Aku Wuwu
  • Mark Bender (bio)

The turbulent waters of the roaring Yalong River swept beneath the low-slung bridge suspended between the narrow pink and gray cliffs. Aku Wuwu pointed across the boards—held together with cable and wire—and toward a narrow valley that led into the sparsely vegetated mountains. "Up in there lies my village—another hour's walk up that trail. This is where I crossed to get to school. These grasses along the river—they are the same ones the original Yi clans clung to when migrating up these river valleys into Liangshan. The ancient myths tell of these grasses."

Aku Wuwu (Nuosu romanization: Apkup Vytvy) is a well-known poet of the Nuosu branch of the Yi of southwest China. Once known as the Lolo, the Yi are one of the largest ethnic-minority groups in China, numbering around seven million; dozens of branches live in mountainous areas in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Over two million Nuosu live in the Liangshan Yi Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in the Liangshan Mountains of southern Sichuan and in the smaller Ninglang Prefecture in northern Yunnan. Until the mid-1950s, the Nuosu in Liangshan were relatively independent: herding goats and sheep, raising chickens and pigs, cultivating potatoes, maize, and buckwheat, and supplementing their diet by hunting game and gathering wild plants. Their strict caste society—divided into four classes and described by Chinese researchers as a "slave society"—was conservative and isolated, having few contacts with the outside world. Clan relations and marriage ties are still of great importance in community and individual life, and the Nuosu worldview remains animistic. They have many beliefs about nature spirits and ghosts, which exist in various forms and are blamed for a whole range of misfortunes. The significant tradition bearers are the bimo (priests), who chant ancient Yi texts at important rites and funerals, and sunyi (shamans), who communicate with ghosts and spirits by drumming themselves into trances.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Yi and other minorities became more integrated into the larger Chinese society, and Yi writers, poets, and [End Page 113] [Begin Page 116] artists with modern styles began emerging. Among the Yi poets of this era were Wuqi Lada, whose style was strongly influenced by traditional Nuosu folksongs and epics, and Tipu Zhibu, who is from a Yi subgroup in Guangxi. During the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Yi culture was attacked. Subsequently, local leaders made efforts to promote and preserve the culture, and new initiatives were taken in language conservation. By the late 1970s, a revised Nuosu syllabary based on 819 traditional glyphs was introduced in Liangshan. Although Chinese is today the main written medium where the Nuosu live, the Nuosu script is still being taught and some people have gained proficiency in its use.

By the early 1980s, a kind of renaissance in Yi letters was underway, though most of the work was being written in Chinese. Among the first of this generation to gain recognition were Jidi Majia and Luowu Laqie. By the late 1980s, many new voices had emerged, including those of writer and poet Ma Deqing, the Yi epic scholar Bamo Qubumo, Asu Yue'er, Enimusuo Sijia, and Aku Wuwu. Generally speaking, these renaissance poets compose works on ethnic or personal themes and draw on native subjects, forms, imagery, and social and emotional concerns. All have been influenced by traditional and modern Chinese poetry and by translations of modern Western poetry.

Born in 1964, Aku Wuwu began writing as a student at the Southwest Nationalities University in Chengdu. Unlike most contemporary Yi poets, he writes in both Chinese and Nuosu, but thus far he has refused to allow his Nuosu poems to be translated into Chinese. Among his poetic works are the Nuosu-language collections Cux wa yyp mop (Winter river), published in 1994, and Lat jju (Tiger tracks), a 1998 collection of prose poems. A Chinese-language collection entitled Zou chu wu shi (Out of the land of sorcerors) appeared in 1995. His poems have been anthologized in both Yi- and Chinese-language...