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  • Butterfly Mother: Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China
  • Cathryn Fairlee, Independent Scholar and Storyteller
Butterfly Mother: Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China. Translated by Mark Bender. Based on a version by Jin Dan and Ma Xueliang. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006. Pp. viii + 188, pronunciation key, map, notes, bibliography.)

The Miao or Hmong people of southeast Guizhou are one of the fifty-six minorities that live in China, preserving their ethnic identities in varying degrees, separate from the dominant Han Chinese who form 90 percent of the population of the People's Republic of China. In the south and southwest of China, long narrative myths of plant and animal creation, ancestral heroes, and legendary migrations are still a part of the oral repertoire. One of the Miao traditions includes the antiphonal singing of long poems or songs for courtship, marriage, festivals, house raising, village cleansing, sacrifice rituals, funerals, and pure pleasure.

The poetic title and embroidery motif of Butterfly Mother is fitting for a book of creation poems from the Miao people, for it is from the legendary eggs of the Butterfly Mother that the Miao are descended. These epic poems were first collected in the early 1950s when folk traditions were promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. Jin Dan, editor at Nationalities Publishing House in Guiyang, collected and published some of these songs in Minjian Wenxue (Folklore) in 1955-56. He was raised in the Miao country of southeast Guizhou, a "sea of song and dance," where his father was a well-known singer of these songs. Professor Ma Xueliang of Xongyang Minzu Daxue (Central Nationalities University) in Beijing saved the collection from being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution's persecution of the "Four Olds." In the late 1970s Jin was able to continue his collecting, and together, Jin and Ma published Hxak Hmub (Miao Epic Poems) in 1983. Until 1956 the Miao did not have a standardized writing system allowing scholars to record the dwindling oral repertoire. The spoken language of the Miao is of the complex Sino-Tibetan group and has eight tones. Butterfly Mother includes a tonal chart and pronunciation guide for Miao romanization in the preface. Jin Dan collected the epics from over fifty singers, recorded them in the newly romanized Miao script, and translated them into standard Mandarin Chinese. Mark Bender, an Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Ohio State University, traveled through this area with Jin Dan in 1985 and again in 1992, and has translated these songs into English. Bender has been researching, teaching, and writing about performance traditions in China for many years.

An entire epic may take ten days to sing, and the episodes are not necessarily sung in sequence nor all known to all singers. The poems are usually performed by four singers in two opposing teams (A&B) who challenge each other's knowledge of the narrative. After a section of the song is agreed upon, the beginning duo sings a portion and ends with a question, while the response also ends with a question to keep the story moving.

A. Looking back on Fu Fang, he had no elder sisters,he had no younger sisters.Who was it thenwho came to congratulate him for buildinghis new house?

B. The clever, kindhearted Water Dragon came,carrying a quivering bamboo pole.On this end was a basket of glutinous rice,on that end a jug of wine.Two silver coins were tucked away in his belt;"ka-boom-crack-crack," firecrackers exploded, [End Page 328] shaking the earth till the mountains trembledand clouds of smoke filled the Sky.Thus he sent his congratulationsfor the new house that Fu Fang had made.

(p. 77)

In southeast Guizhou the poems do not rhyme: the format is five syllables per line, with both call and response using the same tonal pattern and pentatonic tune. Two lines are sung, followed by a pause. One of each pair of singers is considered the leader, but both members of a pair sing in unison. The language is colloquial, though archaic references abound, and can use three voices: omniscient, the singer, or a character. There are few...


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