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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 80-86

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Hunting Nets and Butterflies: Ethnic Minority Songs from Southwest China

Mark Bender

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

The broken uplands of southwest China range from the dry, pine- and rhododendron-covered hills of northern Yunnan Province to the fantastic limestone karst peaks nestled along the green river valleys of Guangxi and Guizhou. In these uplands live millions of members of some of China's fifty-five ethnic minority nationalities. Arriving in China in 1980, I was hardly aware of these culturally and linguistically diverse peoples, who make up about nine percent of China's population and live mostly in the country's extensive border areas. My perceptions changed when a student, who happened to be a Zhuang from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region near Viet Nam, wrote a short paper on folk songs from her area. This led to a search of the local People's bookstore, where I found a number of Chinese-language versions of songs and narrative poems that had been collected from minority groups in the 1950s and were being republished in the early 1980s. I wanted to discover more about how these texts had been collected and produced, so I made it my goal to visit the areas where some of them had originated, find the original collectors, and, if possible, collaborate on translations into English.

Eventually, as my knowledge of China (and my personal connections) increased, I was able to relocate to Guangxi. In between my teaching duties at Guangxi University, I began to work with a number of the compilers, who turned out to be a colorful group of folklorists, singers, and poets who had for decades shown an intense dedication to collecting, translating, and editing the local folk traditions for presentation to the larger Chinese audience. This task was greatly complicated by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and other periods of political chaos, when compilers were often forced to "revise" their texts for ideological reasons. Many of them had participated in the nationwide folklore surveys in the 1950s, which had produced a large body of ethnic-minority folklore texts that became a new genre of Chinese literature: ethnic-minority oral performance in translation.

My guides and teachers included Li Zixian of Yunnan University; Li Shizhong (Ruohai'asu) and Meng Zhiren of the Yi Nationality Culture Institute in Chuxiong, Yunnan; Yi singer Yang Shen of Chuxiong Prefecture; Guo Sijiu of the Nationalities Publishing House in Kunming, Yunnan; Nienu Baxi of the Honghe region in Yunnan; Jin Dan of the Nationalities Publishing House in Guiyang, Guizhou; and Chen Ju at Guangxi University. They carefully went over texts with me--sometimes pointing out passages that had been left out or modified for various political or editorial reasons--spent a great deal of time answering correspondence, and accompanied [End Page 80] me and my fiancée, Fu Wei, on many field excursions, helping me to gain access to folk festivals, song meetings and singers, and "unopened" villages in their locales. I was allowed to live in some of these villages for short periods, which gave me a greater understanding of and feel for the many local customs, articles of material culture, and flora and fauna that regularly appear in the songs.

Everyone I worked with readily understood this concept of "going down to the country" to get a feel for the local area and lifestyle when making a translation. The notion of cai feng, or collecting folk songs to gauge the people's feelings, goes back to the age of Confucius. During the 1950s, it was standard procedure for groups of young researchers, many of them university students, to live among the people from whom they were collecting songs. Although quite different from a lengthy anthropological survey, this method proved very useful to me in the translation process.

I eventually focused on translating selections from what I felt to be the most accurate and least-edited collections, which for the most part were in Chinese or the local language, accompanied by Chinese cribs. These texts included ethnographic introductions, the names of...


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