In Fading Tones: The Slow Demise of Yunnan’s Epic Songs, Matthew Walsh does a fine job of introducing meige (梅葛), the creation tale of Yunnan’s Yi people (彝族), via on-the-ground research in Mayou village in Yao’an (姚安马游), interviews with master storytellers, and several short but moving audio clips of the saga as it is still sung:
YUNNAN, Southwest China — Guo Youzhen takes a deep breath and starts singing about the origins of the universe.
She sings of Gezi, the Creator, who forged the earth and the sky from nothing. She sings of Ah Fu, whose three sons clung fast to the edge of the sky and hauled it downward to meet the earth below. She sings of the pythons that encircled the earth and divided it into uplands and lowlands, the ants that nibbled at the ground’s frayed edges until they all lay straight, and the menagerie of wild animals that applied the finishing touches.
Three pairs of boars, three pairs of elephants,
dug the soil for 77 days and nights.
They made the mountains; they made the hills.
They made the flats, and the beds that water fills.
Guo reaches the end of the verse and pauses for breath. “It’s a very long song,” she smiles. “You could sing for three days and nights, and still not reach the end.”
Big sky, small world — this is right.
Heaven and earth are well-aligned.
There are only a handful of people left who can sing the creation myths of the Yi people, one of China’s 55 official ethnic minorities, from start to finish. The myths form the centerpiece of meige, a style of sung storytelling that has been passed down among Yunnan province’s Yi communities for centuries.