Jusup Mamay, Manaschi: A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic

A while back I stumbled upon a short Chinese news item about a newly discovered handwritten manuscript of the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas (玛纳斯史诗). This centuries-old trilogy in verse recounts the exploits of the legendary hero Manas, and his son and grandson in their struggle to resist external enemies and unite the Kyrgyz people. Along with heroic tales such as Dede Korkut and the Epic of Köroğlu, Manas is considered one of the great Turkic epic poems. To get a feeling for how it sounds, listen here to a brief recitation by Manas scholar Elmira Köçümkulkızı.

Mural of Manas in OshAccording to the report (手抄本被发现), a retired cadre named 吾米尔·毛力多 in Xinjiang’s Wuqia County recently donated a 570,000-line, Kyrgyz-language Manas libretto to the local branch of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

Based on the notes of a famous Manas storyteller or manaschi named 艾什玛特·玛木别朱素普, the text was painstakingly hand-copied by the cadre in the 1950s. At some point during the Cultural Revolution he learned the original had been seized and burnt, so he wrapped his own copy in several layers of cowhide and buried it in his courtyard for safekeeping.

“Now,” the news report quotes him, “I figure it is time to let this hand-copied manuscript see the light of day.”

Intrigued by the gap in time between the manuscript’s burial and its “re-discovery”— after all, the Cultural Revolution ended almost 40 years ago — I wondered why the text of an ancient Turkic epic like Manas is so politically sensitive. [Read more…]

Beijing Oct 19-20 Event: First Int’l Symposium on Uyghur Folk Dastan (داستان) in China

Event: First Int’l Symposium on Uyghur Folk Dastan in China (首届中国维吾尔族民间达斯坦国际学术研讨会)

Venue: 北京市海淀区三里河路7号 新疆维吾尔自治区政府驻京办事处1号楼

Sponsors: CASS Institute of Ethnic Literature (中国社会科学院民族文学研究所), Xinjiang Federation of Literary and Art Circles (新疆维吾尔自治区文学艺术界联)

Organizer: Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Folklore Association (新疆维吾尔自治区民间文艺家协会)

Attendees: 50 dastan ( داستان , 达斯坦, destanı) scholars from China, Japan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey

 

Background reading:

Kurdish Storytellers Congregate in Southeastern Turkey’s Diyarbakır

In Few Dengbejs Remain to Sing Kurdish Stories, Mat Nashed reports from Turkey’s Diyarbakır on the “House of Dengbej,” established to provide a venue for performances by traditional Kurdish storytellers:

“We sing stories of love and war,” [Mehmet] Ince told Al-Monitor while lighting a cigarette in the house of the dengbej. “We express our history through our tongue.”

Kurds in Turkey have long been denied a history of their own. In 1980, their language was criminalized following a bloody military coup that saw the country fall under martial law, empowering the army to raid, imprison and kill thousands of leftists and Kurdish activists.

Faced with charges of separatism by the state for speaking their mother tongue, dengbejs traveled discreetly between villages to perform for their people. Whenever one would arrive, the town would elect two people to stand the lookout for Turkish soldiers, while the rest of the community would cram into an empty guesthouse to hear him sing.

The Kurdish dengbêj is a ‘reciter of romances and epics’, according to Michael Chyet, an expert in Middle Eastern languages and compiler of a Kurdish-English dictionary. But the traditional dengbêj “must also be defined by his social position: he used to work for and praise a master who took care of him in exchange.” (Dengbêj Project)

According to Kurdish music producer Hilmi Akyol as cited in Daily Sabah, Dengbej House opened its doors under the commission of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality in 2007 with a group of 28 folk musicians, including one female dengbej. It hosts 70,000 visitors annually.

Read Kurdish Music Tradition Revived with Dengbej Culture or The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project for more information. The latter is highly detailed and goes into depth on topics such as the stigmatization of this form of folk art and the pioneering role of Kurdish writers, and touches on once-popular dengbêj such as Şakiro, Hûseynê Farê, Ayşe Şan, Meryem Xan and Îsa Perwarî.

See also the Wikipedia entry on Karapetê Xaço, an Armenian  who witnessed the annihilation of his village during the Armenian Holocaust, and later went on to become a renowned singer of dengbêj.

Or, have a brief listen here to the more traditional form that is sung without accompaniment by musical instruments.

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.

China’s New Intangible Cultural Heritage Encyclopedia: Celebration of Multi-ethnicity, or Aggressive Cultural Appropriation?

Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural HeritageChina unveiled its premier Encyclopedia of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (中国非物质文化遗产, 史诗卷) on June 12, reports China Daily (Released). This is the first of three volumes, and is dedicated to three great oral epics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Kyrgyz, respectively: King Gesar, Jangar and Manas.

The cover is in Chinese and English, but I do not know if the content itself is bilingual. For a fuller press release in Chinese, see 首发式.

Compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the volumes will document China’s vast treasure house of ancient culture in the fields of folklore, traditional music, dance, opera and even herbal medicine. I have not seen the book, and it is not clear from the article whether the 1,219 items to be cited will be ones that have been registered with UNESCO, or simply ones that China has unilaterally categorized as its “intangible cultural heritage.”

China has been very pro-active in winning international recognition of its intangible cultural heritage, particularly traditions of its non-Han ethnic minorities, and some of its neighbors are less than pleased about it. For instance, China initially registered the Epic of Manas as an Intangible Cultural Heritage with UNESCO back in 2009. This has since been vigorously contested by Kyrgyzstan officials — who maintain they were not informed about China’s application for recognition — since they consider it “an artifact of Kyrgyz nationhood.” See UN Recognition. 

The larger issue here, of course, is whether this flurry of registrations and publications represents China’s desire to embrace and celebrate its multi-ethnic society, or whether it intends to possess and monopolize — “appropriate,” if you like — the outstanding cultural achievements of peoples such as the Mongols, Tibetans or Kyrgyz, some of whom do not perceive of themselves as “Chinese” no matter which side of the border they live on, and who fear, rightly or wrongly, colonization or a less obvious form of cultural genocide. [Read more…]

Yi Creation Epic Published in Korean, Based on “Reconstructed” Mandarin Version

The creation epic of the Yi people, Meige (梅葛), was translated and published in Korean in 2014 by Seoul-based 民俗苑, according to a news item from the bimonthly Forum on Folk Culture (彝族创世史诗《梅葛》在韩国出版). There are some 8 million Yi (彝族) living in China, Vietnam and Thailand, of which over 4.5 million reside in Yunnan Province.

As is so often the case in news relating to literature in the non-Han languages of China, the item neglects to mention salient details of the “original” text. It appears — I cannot confirm — that the Meige source text used for translation was in fact one published in Chinese in 1959 by Yunnan People’s Publishing House.

Given that there are two Yi scripts, one classical and one 20th century using the Latin alphabet, this begs the question: Why use a monolingual Chinese text to tell a primordial Yi tale?

The synopsis of a piece of scholarly research by National Chengchi University Dept. of Ethnology lecturer Huang Chi-ping (黃季平), Memories from Meige, the Epic Poem of Creation: Traditional Songs of Chuxiong Yi and Their Re-presentations, appears to explain the choice of Chinese, and points to its usefulness in promoting tourism: [Read more…]

China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

The Redundant Hakawati: Syrian Chaos and WhatsApp Marginalize Traditional Storytellers

AP’s Diaa Hadid reports on a bit of collateral damage generated by the Syrian civil war (Life Upended by War):

For more than 20 years, the Storyteller of Damascus entertained crowds in a centuries-old cafe in the Syrian capital with long, poetic tales of Arab warriors and lovers, acting out scenes with his fists thumping and a sword that he’d swing and slam on a table.

Rashid Hallak was the most famous of the few remaining “hakawatis” in Syria — traditional reciter-performers of old Arab legends.

Now he’s a 70-year-old broken man, his life upturned by Syria’s war.

If you’re interested in these Arab raconteurs, I suggest checking out Rabih Alameddine’s novel, The Hakawati

“King Yalu”: Miao Oral Epic Published in Chinese

For the first time ever, the Miao historical epic King Yalu (亚鲁王), has been rendered in a written form: Chinese.  The first part, consisting of 1,089 lines, has been published by Zhonghua Book Company (中华书局).

Traditionally sung over several days at a funeral, King Yalu is the epic story of war, defeat and migration of the western Miao tribes to the dry highlands of Mashan (麻山) in Guizhou that are much more difficult to cultivate than their former territories in places such as Anshun (安顺).  According to legend, King Yalu was the 18th in a line of Miao rulers.

According to Baidu Encyclopedia (百度百科), in 2009 a full version of the oral epic—some 26,000 lines of verse—was discovered among traditional singing story-tellers in Guizhou’s Ziyun County (紫云县).  There are reportedly still some 3,000 Gēshī (歌师), a handful in most villages, capable of performing it at funerals in Mashan County.

Some experts believe that King Yalu may first have been chanted around the time of China’s ancient Book of Songs (诗经), placing it several hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

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. [Read more…]