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  • The Nuosu Book of Origins: A Creation Epic from Southwest China by Mark Bender and Aku Wuwu
  • Thomas Heberer (bio)
The Nuosu Book of Origins: A Creation Epic from Southwest China. Translated by Mark Bender and Aku Wuwu. From a transcription by Jjivot Zopqu. Studies on Ethnic Groups in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. xcv, 173 pp. Paperback $30.00, isbn 978-0-29574569-5.

We are currently witnessing a massive loss of cultures on a global scale. The world is facing a fast-paced change, particularly with regard to indigenous people. Diversity is shrinking, something we can regret but not impede. Globalization processes, Western perceptions of modern ways of living, greed for profit, resource depletion—there are many reasons why indigenous diversity is vanishing.

In this remarkable book, we read about the imagined origins of one of China's multitude of ethnic groups, the Nuosu people (a group officially belonging to the Yi nationality) living in the Liangshan Mountains in southern Sichuan Province and northern Yunnan Province. As the renowned social anthropologist Stevan Harrell writes in his Foreword, The Book of Origins is the story the Nuosu "tell themselves about how they got where they are and how they fit in – to the cosmos, the spirit world, the natural world, and the social world" (p. vii). The Book of Origins, which for many centuries existed solely in oral form or written in Nuosu script on specific scrolls, is still recited at important rituals and ceremonies such as funerals and weddings.

The Yi are the sixth-largest ethnic minority in China and their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group. There are about ten million Yi people living in China, primarily in the southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou, with a small number in Guangxi. Approximately 2.5 million Yi, the Liangshan Yi in southern Sichuan Province (Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture), and some Yi in northwestern Yunnan Province call themselves Nuosu in their own language.

The translators and editors of The Book of Origins are Mark Bender (professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Ohio State University) and Aku Wuwu (professor and associate dean of the College of Yi Studies at the Southwestern University of Nationalities in Chengdu/Sichuan and a renowned poet). The two scholars collaborated with Jjivot Zopqu, a Nuosu traditional mediator and an expert on traditional Yi texts. The three have taken on the weighty task of translating the Yi epic from the Nuosu language into Chinese and from the latter into English, which meant that they had to "deal with a lot of obscure terms, puzzling ellipses, unfamiliar names for people and places, and obtuse allusions" (p. vii), as they explain. They have done a splendid job in mastering this tremendous challenge. [End Page 171]

A Preface informs us about the background and how the book came to be published. The Introduction provides very detailed insights into (a) The Book of Origins, its history, ritual significance, and function; (b) the Yi people, the Nuosu, their settlement area, social structure, religious beliefs, their customs, and material culture; and (c) the contents of The Book of Origins and its meanings. The main part of this volume consists of the translation of the Book. The Book is too rich to review in detail here, for it encompasses the genesis of the world and the Nuosu clans, their migration, and their natural and social order, embedded in a world of spirits, humans, plants, animals, and landscapes. It presents a world apart from "Western" worldviews but at the same time inspires the readers to reflect on and understand other worldviews and to scrutinize our own. The translation does not only contribute to the history of ideas and our understanding of the society, literature, and religious beliefs of the Nuosu Yi, but also signifies that the Book is part and parcel of global understandings of the development and configuration of the world.

The question of how the world began has always been a human preoccupation. People across the world and across cultures have looked for explanations and conceptualized their interpretations in mythic images. The Book of Origins is a kind of creation myth: it depicts the...


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