Excerpt of the Week: Kurdish Dengbêjî and the ‘Nostalgia Industry’

Building the dengbêj ‘tradition’ . . . must also be considered in a wider context. Interest in memory is rapidly spreading in contemporary Turkey and is helping people explore personal and collective histories. These memories are also — within certain limits — fostered by official narratives that ‘rediscover,’ for instance, an Ottoman and multicultural past. With the opening up of [Turkey’s] ‘Pandora’s Box of History’ since the 1990s, ‘a nostalgia industry’  has emerged, ostensibly offering up tidbits from a ‘lost past’ (Neyzi 2002: 142).

The interest of the state as well as associative or private sectors in such memorial narratives, policies and products, is observable today in Turkey as in many other parts of the world. EU-funded projects that openly aim at developing a ‘cultural dialogue’ promote an image of Turkey as a peaceful ‘cultural mosaic.’ But these cultures and this diversity, in the way they are exhibited and displayed, may also be frozen and innocent representations of a lost but also imagined past (De Certeau 1993). The way memories are remembered, traditions reinvented (as in the dengbêj’s case) often confirms this.

(Excerpted from The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project by Clémence Scalbert-Yücel)

Mongolian Shaman Songs of Praise Rendered in Chinese

Two poets have collaborated to publish a book containing 29 renditions of songs of praise traditionally chanted by shaman. The original odes in Mongolian were first translated into Mandarin by Mongolian scholar Ni Ma (尼玛), and then polished by Xi Murong (席慕蓉), who also knows Mongolian but was educated in Taiwan. The book is published by the Ethnic Publishing House (北京民族出版社), according to a report in Chinawriter (萨满神歌).

Entitled 萨满神歌 (lit., sacred songs of the shaman), they offer praise mainly to mothers, and the spirits of mountains and rivers. Such songs are passed on orally and rarely written down.

Shaman and their lyrics do occasionally appear in 21st-century Chinese fiction, however. For example, here are three novels with key roles for shaman, the first below being Evenki (and a woman), while the latter two are Mongolian:

  • Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著)
  • Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事, 冉平著)
  • Mongolia by Guo Xuebo (蒙古里亚, 郭雪波著). This is a powerful new semi-autobiographical work by an author who is the descendent of a line of shaman. I’m working now on an excerpt and hope to post in September.

New Directions at Ethnic ChinaLit

A Note to New & Frequent Visitors

Oral Storytelling —  Griots, Mystic Bards & Textualizing

I am gradually re-orienting this site to focus on:

  • Oral storytelling traditions
  • Profiles of master storytellers, particularly on the fringes of the Chinese empire, and in Central Asia and West Africa
  • How the storytelling roles of the shaman, aşık and griot have evolved over the centuries
  • Live performance of epics, hikâye and the like, and how storytellers interact with their audience
  • What happens when oral literature is written down, i.e., the process of textualization
  • State policies aimed at appropriating storytelling traditions and exploiting storytellers for political ends.

I will continue to occasionally pen posts about ethnic writers in the PRC, including English-language reviews of their published works in Chinese, and short translations of their fiction.

If you have suggestions on topics I should address, contact me here.

Bruce Humes

Penang, Malaysia

August 10, 2015