“Butterfly Mother” and “Dragon-Eagles”: Processing Folklore in Southwest China

In the latest edition of Oral Tradition (Processing Epics), Mark Bender explores—via highly readable notes on his field-work—how the Miao myth-epic Mai Bang (Butterfly Mother) and the Nuosu’s creation-epic Dragon-Eagles have gradually been rendered in written form:

My title also contains the word “processing”—and by that I mean the process through which traditional texts are performed and received by local audiences. It also refers to the process by which some versions of stories are recorded, transcribed, translated, edited, and released in print or electronic format—a process the late Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko called the “folklore process.”

The term “processing” also carries, at least for me, a sense of the sorts of compromises and distortions inherent in the manner in which the recorded texts are preserved and communicated to new audiences. Just as natural foods or textiles are processed and marketed into products for consumption by target audiences, so too are items of oral literature. We now have genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and hemp. A box of “heart healthy” oat cereal may contain a whole list of additives, supplements, and fillers—sometimes mimicking original, truly wholesome products and directed at consumers open to healthy, natural, and eco-friendly foods.

But we increasingly know it is necessary to read the fine print—just as Lauri Honko reminded us that it is necessary to understand the process of the “processing” of oral texts that occurs behind the book or website banner.

He notes the tendency for compilers in China to strive for what they term a “complete” (完整), official version that involves “negotiations” and even deletion of “taboo” content:

Although the appreciation of multiple versions gathered in specific performance contexts has a growing place in folklore circles in China, there is still a strong tradition of creating “complete” versions of a given song cycle or story tradition that will serve as part of an ethnic group’s official tradition of oral literature. These versions usually combine several versions collected from a number of singers.

In some cases the participating singers and eldersmay be involved with editors in the negotiations concerning the makeup of the final master version. In theory, such master texts—which might be best described as “collective versions”— are intended to reflect and preserve the richness and completeness of the tradition in a format that can be read and appreciated to its fullest by present or future generations without access to multiple live versions. In the past, much more so than is usual now, this stage of editing also allowed for selection or omission of content deemed crude, backward, divisive, or otherwise taboo.

Hani Author Cun Wenxue: Questioning Value of Made-in-China Modernity

In An Author Who Confronts our Demons, Liu Jun (刘浚) highlights the writing of a contemporary Hani (哈尼族) author:

Yunnan writer Cun Wenxue [存文学] grabs readers by the throat and thrusts them into the mountain-locked life of the Lisu people [傈僳族] on page one of his novel Biluo Snow Mountain [碧洛雪山]. No wonder a film based on it won four awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2010.

In recent years, more writers with an ethnic background have emerged on the country’s literary scene. Though many of them write in Chinese as opposed to their ethnic language, their narration nonetheless offers a different angle to look at some of the grave issues plaguing contemporary society.

For a backgrounder on Cun Wenxue en français, click here.






刚来昆明时,听范先生介绍滇越铁路感觉在听天方夜谭。读完小说后才知道一直记忆深刻的剪子形状的那座桥叫“戈登桥”,是滇越铁路的一部分。我曾多次感叹:为什么在昆明、大理到处可以见到法国人?云南的咖啡文化如此盛行,昆明、丽江、大理、西双版纳走到哪都能喝到 cappuccino、espresso、cafe latte , 还有正宗的西式点心。法国人真把这当家了,喝杯咖啡、学学中文、泡个吧、交交女朋友,不亦乐乎。


我不知道碧色寨曾经怎样辉煌过,到今天还会不会还有燃烧过的残渣。搜到了一片叫《碧色寨之恋》的小说。简介是这样的:小说讲述了一个十七岁法国少女丽莎和一个三十多岁的中国男人周亦然之间的爱情故事。我倒是对所谓“中国男人第一次获得了全部的主动权”不感兴趣。让我好奇的是:在白人作为上等人的时期,一个法人少女是怎么喜欢上一个中国男性。而这个设定和比杜拉斯的《情人》何其相似。 [Read more…]

“Bisezhai Village” (碧色寨): Chronicling the Collision of Cultures behind the Building of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad

Kunming-based Fan Wen (范稳), author of  a trilogy set on the border of Yunnan and Tibet, has launched a new novel exploring the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam railway that linked Haiphong with Kunming in 1910. Bisezhai Village (碧色寨) portrays the clash of cultures between the French, then colonial masters of Indochina just south of Yunnan and the driving force behind the new railway, and the indigenous Yi people (彝族).The completion of the railway through the mountainous terrain was an incredible engineering feat at the time, and its famous gravity-defying Wishbone Bridge (人字桥) is still firmly intact with nary a repair to date.  Estimates are that the project cost more than ten thousand Chinese laborers their lives.

Annie Zhao, a recent emigrant to Kunming, has written a brief book review of Bisezhai Village. Click here for the review in Chinese (中文书评), and for the English version, see below. [Read more…]

“Canticle to the Land:” Named One of Top Ten Books of the Year by “China Reading Weekly”

The last novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan trilogy, Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), has been designated as one of the top ten Chinese books published in 2010 by China Reading Weekly (中华读书报), an influential B2B publication serving China’s publishing industry.

To learn more about this novel, visit:

China Census Time: As 2010 Count Begins, a Look back at how Ethnicity was Recorded in 1953-54

We all know that there are exactly 56 ethnic groups in China, yet in the 1953-54 census Yunnan alone reported more than 200. Over at China Beat, an excerpt from Tom Mullaney’s Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China offers a bit of insight into these mathematics:

In the first census of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), carried out in late 1953 and early 1954, officials tabulated over four hundred different responses to the question of minzu identity. This deluge came in response to the Communist Party’s promise of ethnonational equality, which entailed a commitment to recognizing the existence of ethnonational diversity to a greater extent than their predecessors had ever been willing to do. Over the course of the subsequent three decades, however, only fifty-five of these were officially recognized, which entailed a remarkable level of categorical compression: from four hundred potential categories of minzu identity to under sixty. The most dramatic case, again, was that of Yunnan Province. Out of the four-hundred-plus names recorded in the 1953–54 census, more than half came from Yunnan alone. Over the following years, however, only twenty-five of these were ultimately recognized by the state.

Fan Wen: New Novel to Explore Culture Clash behind Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

Fan Wen (范稳), the Chinese Catholic author who recently completed his fictional trilogy spotlighting cultural and religious collisions in the “multicultural wonderland” of the Yunnan-Tibet border, now has another historical novel in mind.

The first book in the published series, Harmonious Land (水乳大地), recounts the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon (gateway to Tibet), beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

Ethnic ChinaLit spoke with Fan Wen about his new work-in-progress:

Q: Word has it that you’re working on a new novel about the rail line linking China’s Kunming and Vietnam’s Haiphong that was constructed during French colonial rule of Indochina. How are you preparing for this project?

A: Yes, it’s about this railroad that’s soon to be completely abandoned. I rather enjoy the ‘history of decline’. It gives one a certain sense of desolation. After the Yunnan-Vietnam railway was completed [1910], it actually brought with it the collision and fusion of two distinct civilizations. The railway passed through the lands of several of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities, whose cultures were more backward than that of the Tibetans, and even more vulnerable. I intend to use several French nationals who were working on the railroad as the main characters. I’ll write about their lives in a foreign land, and their experiences against the backdrop of that alien culture, including the dangers they faced, their loves and their fates.

I’ve already read a lot of background material, conducted interviews along the line, and even stayed in the old train stations. I’m conceptualizing the story right now. [end]

Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan Trilogy: A Catholic Chinese Author’s Imagination Takes Flight

The China Daily features a piece on the third and final novel in a trilogy exploring the border on either side of Yunnan and Tibet:

At last author Fan Wen (范稳) has his reward for a decade of immersion in the multicultural wonderland along the Yunnan-Tibet border: Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), the closing novel in his longish trilogy, has just been published in Chinese.

Why locate the tale there? “It’s my own ‘creative paradise’, an inspiration of sorts,” explains Fan, a devout Catholic from Sichuan province. “You can interpret this as a summons from God, or as a writer who has been vanquished by a certain spirituality, the cultures and beliefs of the people of this realm.”

That day in 1999 when he came across the “lonely” grave of a martyred Swiss missionary in Lancangjiang Canyon, Father Maurice Tornay, he realized he had found his “sacred vocation”. Indeed, the area straddling the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and Tibet autonomous region is an anthropologist’s dream. One finds Tibetans, Han, Naxi, Yi, Lisu and other ethnic groups living together.

“I find describing the interaction – and collisions – between different cultures a challenging and engaging affair,” Fan says. “Conflicts have taken place due to differences in culture and faith, like wars between Naxi and Tibetans, and Tibetans and Han. Irreconcilable contradictions occurred between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism when the latter was introduced.”