Just as it is difficult to imagine capturing all the genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres of music being listened to today, so, too, is it impossible to capture all the diversity among contemporary poetry. Yet the heterogeneity within Chinese poetry emanates not only from recent fragmentation of literary tastes (as exemplified by the split between the schools of upper- and lower-body writing), and the regional and dialectal differences among Han poets, but also the new voices of contemporary writers arising from within the ancient literary (oral and written) traditions of China’s officially recognized ethnic minorities. In his essay “Cry of the Silver Pheasant,” Mark Bender, a sinologist specializing in traditional Han (Chinese) and ethnic minority performance-oriented literature, explores the incredibly diverse and lively poetry world(s) thriving in the ethnic minority communities of southwest China and beyond. Bender points out that Yunnan Province alone has approximately twenty-five official ethnic groups, including the Yi, Wa, Hani, Dai, Jingpo, and Zhuang, among others, and he reveals the diverse poetry being written within these groups today by highlighting the work of poets from different ethnic groups. He offers an extended exploration of the poetry and poetics of one group in particular—the Liangshan School of Nuosu Yi poets based in Sichuan.
Two poets, a writer, and a translator squeeze around a pinewood table on the veranda of the Mother Tongue Bar in Chengdu. The alley below is filled with late-nighters going to and from restaurants, spas, flower shops, little hotels, and other businesses. The night stretches long as the discussion among the literati rolls from language loss among urban ethnic minority youth to the writer’s latest project on how the Naxi, an ancient people of nearby northeast Yunnan Province, train their hunting eagles. Suddenly a rush of bongos and electric guitars erupts from inside. The sound of bottle caps popped off by teeth mingles with the beat and bump of the few bodies that stand to move with the music in a dim yellow haze. Talk on the veranda turns to the latest publications by Qiang poets who survived the 2008 earthquake and their struggle for recognition among other ethnic poets of the region.
The Mother Tongue Bar is located a short walk from Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu. On this particular evening the crowd had assembled to hear poetry read by several of Sichuan’s successful ethnic minority poets. The audience included American foreign exchange students and local peers, ethnic historians and writers, and fans of the various poets. Mother Tongue encompasses several open coves decked with sofas, a bar, a kitchen, banquet rooms, and a platform where rock groups and poets perform. Earlier, Iwu, the cool, spunky manager in lemon-slice shades and a silver earring (left ear), had taken the floor and introduced the readers one by one. This was a special gig, organized by Professor Luo Qingchun 罗庆春 from the university. Luo, better known in poetry circles by his ethnic name Aku Wuwu 阿库乌雾, is a social octopus with connections reaching wide throughout the urban and rural literary niches of southwest China. A member of the Nuosu people—a subgroup of the seven-million-strong Yi nationality and one of China’s largest ethnic minority groups—he has the distinction of inventing modern Nuosu poetry in the standardized Nuosu script. Among the half-dozen poets he had gathered to give cameo performances for the exchange students were Miao poet He Xiaozhu 和小竹; Nuosu Yi poet and prodigy Lu Juan 鲁娟; and Jimu Langge 吉木狼格, also a Nuosu and associated with the Sichuan Not-Not school (Fei-fei pai 非非派) of the early 1980s. Each poet deftly recited a short, representative poem. Then came Aku’s orgasmic explosion of a portion of his signature work, “Calling Back the Soul of Zhyge Alu” (“Ax lu yyr kut”).2 Written in the heady year of 1987 while he was studying in Beijing, the poem is a cry for cultural revival among the younger Nuosu:
Searching in every direction: east, west, north, south.
Calling back the soul.
O la, come back!
O la, come back!
Whether in the Yi areas,
Whether in the Han areas,
Awaiting you like awaiting a father,
Awaiting like awaiting a mother.
If you become a guardian spirit,
You will be our guardian spirit.
If you become a demon,
You will be our demon.
O la, come back!
O la, come back!
Reeling and heaving, Aku roared the lyrics. The audience, sprawled on couches surrounding low tables covered with bottles of local Blue Sword beer and trays of snacks, was suddenly transfixed and erect. Voices attempted to chime in as he shrieked out the refrain, “O la, come back! O la, come back!”—a key phrase of the chants recited by Nuosu shamans (sunyi) as they call back the wandering souls of ill children.
Aku’s performance of sheer energy girded by cultural import was followed by a variety show of songs and dances by the coterie of college students. Eventually the students lined up for an impromptu buffet of Chinese rice and noodle dishes and Nuosu-style chunks of broiled beef, steamed buckwheat cakes, and boiled potatoes. The poets and professors retreated to an inner banquet room to spend the next few hours feasting and toasting amidst cigarette smoke. Their celebration was occasionally punctuated by song, including Chinese opera arias, folksongs, and a poor rendition of “Oh, What Beautiful Mornin'” from the 1960s musical Oklahoma that prompted one wry-tongued critic to note that the lyrics were in celebration of a prairie free of Native American warriors. Well after midnight once a number of guests had come and gone, segments of the remaining inner circle moved on to other venues or took up seats in the cool night air of the veranda to chat away what was left of the night.
Such was an evening at the Mother Tongue Bar, a dedicated meeting spot for concerned ethnic minority poets and literati; homesick students from rural Nuosu towns; wanna-be ethnic rock stars; powerful Nuosu entrepreneurs whose molls and posses arrive and depart in white whale-like vans; ethnic artists, photographers, and local historians and collectors intent on documenting and preserving vanishing cultures; ethnic minority culture geeks from abroad; and Yi poetry groupies. Nestled in its alley, Mother Tongue is a major venue for the performance of ethnic minority poetry in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province and city of 14 million.
Ethnic Minorities and Poetry in Southwest China
The post-1976 Chengdu poetry scene has long been regarded by Chinese critics and foreign scholars as a powerhouse of innovation.3 Avant-garde poets emerged in the years following the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and politically girded poems were quickly replaced by poetry of self and social exploration, a trend that has continued down to the present. Most major poets of this era were ethnically Han Chinese, China’s largest ethnic group. Around 150 million Han live in Sichuan Province, which is also home to millions of ethnic minority citizens. The major ethnic groups, most of which are comprised of diverse subgroups, are the Yi (many of whose poets are from the large Nuosu subgroup), Tibetan (whose several subgroups speak diverse dialects), Qiang, Miao, and Hui (a group demarcated by their beliefs in Islam). Neighboring Yunnan and Guizhou provinces also have complex ethnic profiles that include several of the aforementioned groups as well as the Bai and Naxi. Yunnan alone has approximately twenty-five official groups, including Yi, Wa, Hani, Dai, Jingpo, and Zhuang. All of these groups have rich traditions of oral lore, material culture, and folk ways, which often become a resource for contemporary poets from those groups. While much of China’s ethnic minority population lives in rural areas, many minority people live in urban areas and are employed in a number of trades and professions beyond traditional farming and livestock rearing. As in other rural communities, large numbers of ethnic minority youth have migrated to coastal cities to work in factories and at other jobs.
By the mid 1980s, southwestern ethnic minority poets were writing within the new wave of self-expression. Jidi Majia 吉狄马加, raised in towns in the Greater Cool Mountains (Da Liangshan 大凉山) of southern Sichuan, produced several ground-breaking collections of poems that were inspired to some extent by Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Written in Chinese, the poems attracted national attention for their lyrical quality and the exploration of exotic minority themes such as ritual behavior, hunting, and local material culture.4 Jidi went on to become an interim head of the Chinese Writer’s Association in the 1990s and has hosted massive poetry gatherings in Qinghai Province in his recent role as a high official there.
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From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2