King of Yalu in Mashan, Guizhou: An “Epic” in Contemporary Contexts
- CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 33, Number 1, July 2014
- pp. 82-93
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KING OF YALU IN MASHAN, GUIZHOU: AN ‘‘EPIC’’ IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXTS MARK BENDER The Ohio State University In recent decades, the question of how to preserve ‘‘authentic’’ oral traditions has been important in folklore studies and has taken on increased urgency in situations where traditional lifeways and languages are being significantly altered by rapid rates of socio-cultural change. In China, the rapid development of regional and local economies, coupled with an increasing shift of populations from rural to urban settings, has created situations in which many oral traditions may be unsustainable even in their present forms. In the midst of these rapid changes there are also massive efforts at all levels of the Chinese governmental structure to document and ‘‘preserve’’ items of ‘‘intangible cultural heritage.’’ As the actual items of tradition are typically located at the local levels, in many instances it is locals who are identifying them and initiating efforts for preservation and promotion. In this field report I will discuss aspects of a recent site visit to the Ziyun Buyi and Miao Nationality Autonomous County (Ziyun Buyi Miaozu zizhixian 紫雲布依族 苗族自治縣), Guizhou province, where I met with local researchers and officials who are documenting and promoting the ‘‘newly discovered’’ King of Yalu (Yalu wang 亞魯王) oral tradition, a prominent narrative-ritual tradition in Miao communities in this region of Guizhou province.1 During the visit to Ziyun, I was introduced to aspects of the King of Yalu tradition in both simulated and ‘‘natural’’ performance contexts. I will focus on the participation of local and regional researchers, local officials, local ritual practitioners (donglang 東郎), and ordinary 1 Mashan 麻山 is the primary area where the King of Yalu epic circulates, though the story of the King of Yalu (and similar figures) has been documented in other Miao areas in western Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan (see Tang Na 唐娜, ‘‘Guizhou Mashan Miaozu yingxiong shishi ‘Yalu wang’ kaocha baogao’’ 貴州麻山苗族英雄史詩亞魯王考察報告 [Report on an investigation of the heroic epic ‘‘King of Yalu’’ of the Miao of Mashan, Guizhou], Minjian wenhua luntan 民間 文化論壇 [Folk culture forum] 2010.2: 89–90). Although many epic traditions have been documented from ethnic groups in south and southwest China since the 1950s (some even earlier), only in recent years has the King of Yalu epic received scholarly attention. This may be in part due to the formerly remote nature of the area, as well as the fact that the ’’epic’’ tradition is a part of funeral rites that differ markedly from contexts of heroic epic performance among wellknown groups such as the Tibetans and Mongols. The Miao in Mashan are among the dozens of local subgroups (which vary quite widely in dialect and custom) of the 8 million members of the ‘‘Miaozu’’ 苗族 ethnic group in China. Outside of China the term ‘‘Hmong’’ is often the preferred ethnonym. However, in the translation of another Miao epic recently published in China, the term ‘‘Hmong’’ was chosen by the editors as the English translation of the term ‘‘Miao’’ (see Wu Yiwen 吳一文 and Jin Dan 今旦, eds., Hxak Hlieb/Miaozu shishi 苗族史詩/Hmong Oral Epics, Mark Bender, Wu Yifang 吳一芳, and Levi Gibbs, trs. [Guiyang: Guizhou Nationalities Press, 2012], p. 27). CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature 33.1 (July 2014): 82–93 # The Permanent Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature, Inc. 2014 DOI: 10.1179/0193777414Z.00000000018 locals in a series of formally scripted and informally scripted events during two full days of observation. The major events were a series of rituals surrounding childbirth and family well-being on day one, and a funeral event in which epic recital was a major feature on day two. I will also discuss how utilizing the term ‘‘epic’’ to label the tradition validates its cultural value, secures the community standing of the performers, and promotes the potential of economic gain. How locals and researchers are purposely constructing performance contexts is of special interest, as the proliferation of non-typical/non-traditional performance contexts of oral traditions performed as rituals or in ritual settings is a widespread feature of cultural preservation and promotion efforts in China and elsewhere today. BACKGROUND While attending a conference entitled ‘‘The International Summit on Epic Studies: Toward Diversity, Creativity, and Sustainability’’ held in Beijing in November...