Manchu Ulabun: A Hot Research Topic in China

Apparently known as ulabun in Manchu and Shuō bù (说部) in Chinese, this is a storytelling tradition—involving song and recital—among the Manchu of northeast China. These tales naturally center around folk heroes, indigenous religious beliefs and history of the Manchu, but some Chinese experts argue that it has long been influenced by the Han tradition of storytelling, or Shuōshū (说书). For a brief description of the tradition in English, see Biographic Singing and Talking at the web site of the Institute of Ethnic Literature.

I haven’t done any reading about this yet, but I have noted that research about it is receiving increased funding from various authorities in China. So for right now, I list some of those research projects below, and hope to write more about this tradition at a later date. I especially welcome those knowledgeable in this field to comment!

  Manchu “Shuobu” (说部):

Contemporary Research & Publications in Chinese

(Summarized from Oct 2013 article: 满族说部研究扎实推进)


Chinese Title

Research Theme(s)


《满族古老记忆的当代解读—满族传统说部论集》(第一辑) Shuobu :“Decoding” Manchu memories Published. Research by Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.
《清代东北满族文学研究》 Qing Dynasty northern Manchu literature Published. Research by Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.
《满族说部文本研究》丛书 Series of books on Shuobu academic research Plan to launch first 5-6 books in the series within 2014. Research by Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.
《满族说部口头传统研究》 Shuobu oral tradition Funded by Academy of Social Sciences Fund. Research completed. Authored by Zhou Huiquan (周惠泉) of Jilin Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Language and literature.
《满族说部研究:叙事类型的文化透视》 Understanding culture via modalities of Shuobu storytelling Funded by Academy of Social Sciences Fund. Research completed. Authored by Jiang Fan (江帆) of Liaoning U.
《口述与书写:满族说部传承研究》 Shuobu oral and written tradition Funded by Academy of Social Sciences Fund. Research underway. Authored by Gao Hehong (高荷红) of CASS Institute of Ethnic Literature.
《满族说部与东北历史文化》 Shuobu and culture and history of China’s northeast. Published. Authored by Yang Chunfeng (杨春风) of Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Language and Literature.
《满族说部中的神话与史诗研究》 Myths and epic tales in Shuobu Funded by Academy of Social Sciences Fund. Research underway. Authored by Yang Chunfeng (杨春风) of Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Language and Literature.



  1. Yes, this is quite fascinating, and deserves more research !
    Hope to read more on this !

  2. This post is by a frequent participant in discussions about Chinese cultural policies, “Bathrobe.” He had trouble posting, so I’m copying his e-mail to me:

    I’m as interested as the next guy in unsuspected cultural flows in the distant past. There is something romantic about mysterious ancient contacts that have left a mark on modern life. Chinese arguments that ulaban has long been influenced by the Chinese tradition of story telling should fall squarely into this fascinating area. Yet for some reason they don’t.

    I can’t comment here on the validity of claims about the ulaban; it’s not something I know about. But I am suspicious of the motivations behind this enthusiastic pursuit of cultural links in ancient China. Regrettably, when Han Chinese scholars claim influence or interchange between Han and minority ethnic peoples, it invariably relates to one or both of two points:

    1. The more ancient of the two is a belief in the superiority of Han culture (often referred to as Sinocentrism or Han Chauvinism). With their ancient civilisation and written records, the Chinese seem determined to prove that just about everything worthwhile ultimately derives from themselves. In a domestic context (as in the case of the ulaban), the objective is to demonstrate that the Han Chinese not only have a huge numerical majority in China; they are also historically and culturally the superior ethnic group that has the right to a preeminent position over all the others.

    2. The more modern concept is that of the Zhonghua Minzu, the idea that all the ethnicities in the PRC have always interacted historically as part of one great entity. This is a modern fiction partly created in order to buttress claims to sovereignty over both currently controlled and as yet unreclaimed territories. Therefore, even if a minority ethnic group actually managed to influence the Chinese (and not the other way around), this ‘proof’ of interconnectedness is merely a further building block in the narrative of deep historical interactions among the Zhonghua Minzu and the essential unity of all these groups (and their territory).

    Domestic ethnic groups are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Even if the Chinese fail to prove that everything started from the Han, they can still claim that any historical connection irretrievably ties other ethnic groups and their culture into a greater whole. The effect is to forcefully project the modern concept of ‘Chinese ethnic minorities’ far back into history, even where it makes no sense. This is particularly valuable in the case of the Qing dynasty, because the Manchus were foreign invaders who conquered China and from early on imposed a different paradigm from the current one. To prove that they were really just a ‘Chinese ethnic minority’ is a very useful exercise.

    Since the political and cultural benefits of proving a connection are so immense, it is no wonder that Han Chinese and those who have acculturated to Han culture (including, one should note, the Manchus themselves) are so enthusiastic about it. This enthusiasm shines through unmistakably at the Wikipedia article on ulaban. And rightly or wrongly, it gives rise to dark suspicions about how much substance there is to such ‘scholarship’. In other areas (e.g., claims to the South China Sea), Chinese scholars have shamelessly lent their efforts to backing up the State’s position with so-called ‘scholarship’. Is their enthusiasm about the ulaban any different?

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