Furthering this special section’s focus on the diversity of Nuosu Yi poetry and poetics is an essay by Denis Mair, a translator and regular contributor to CLT who traveled to the hometown of another well-known Yi-Nuosu poet, Jidi Majia 吉狄马加, to observe the scenes of daily life and the textures that permeate nearly every word of Majia’s work. Mair’s observations of life in Majia’s home helps situate the particular cosmopolitan weave of Yi-Nuosu culture together with the poetic influences of figures like Pablo Neruda and the poets associated with the negritude movement and the Harlem Renaissance movement that makes Majia’s own Yi-Nuosu poetics unique.
As I prepared to translate the poetry of Jidi Majia 吉狄马加, I had the good fortune to accompany him on a trip to his native district in Liangshan Yi Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, located in mountainous southern Sichuan. In the secluded Nuosu villages of Butuo and Zhaojue counties, I was struck by how resolute the Nuosu hill people were in following their time-honored ways. Where old cob houses—made of clay and straw—had been replaced, I could see that new ones had been built according to the traditional space-conserving pattern, with clusters of small buildings interspersed among gardens and pastures. Some Nuosu women sat in small groups in front of their houses, weaving strips of cloth on waist looms. I saw men wearing black capes of hand-woven wool similar to the ponchos of Bolivian Indians.
The Yi people, of which the Nuosu make up the most populous branch, are one of the major ethnic minority groups in southwest China. There are at least seven million Yi, and several million of them still speak their own language, which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family. They live in pockets throughout the southwest in the provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan.
The Nuosu are a proud people whose antecedents lie on the margins of Sinitic culture. As they have long been embedded within the overall culture of China yet never fully absorbed by it, they represent a unique position on the continuum of Chineseness. With respect to influences across the Han-Nuosu cultural interface, they have contributed as much as they have received in music, folk art, and myth.
The Nuosu have their own unique mythology and folklore. Their epics are written works such as the Book of Origins and Zhyge Alu and are recited orally. The Nuosu also have their own scriptures for sending off souls to the land of the dead. The bimo (“ritual priest”) wields ritual implements that include a tube-like demon-fighting tool, a sacred fan, and bells. Sacred grasses, green branches, and water sprinkled on hot rocks for purification are all part of the ritual scene. The bimo does not sit in a temple to read his scriptures; he sits on a mat out in the open or within the living space of a home. The scriptures are written in an ancient script (composed of a large syllabary with elements that can likely be traced to pictographic origins) that is different in appearance from the Chinese writing system.
Anyone who spends significant time in a Nuosu village will eventually see one of the bimos, easily identifiable by their customary bamboo hats covered with dark felt. When a bimo is not driving away harmful ghosts, he may spend his time in reflection in a quiet spot at the edge of a village. You can never predict where you will happen upon a bimo reading his scripture, often with an acolyte beside him tending a small fire. The scriptures are copied out on papyrus-like material or thin sheepskin. In addition to the bimo, there is another priest-figure, the sunyi, a kind of shaman who sometimes wears matted hair down past his waist. He drums on a hoop-drum (which to me looks very North Asian), dancing and singing for hours in a trance.
The Nuosu people have never accepted a religion from outside. Their own belief system is inherently complex: It is a tapestry of seasonal rituals, epic stories about divine ancestors, and tales of nature spirits. Perhaps because the Yi nationality is an aggregate of branches, their beliefs have never fused into a dogmatic system. Their collection of beliefs provides a sense of belonging to the natural environment and contains a rich variety of perspectives on the human condition. For these reasons it offers intriguing parallels to Native American worldviews.
The poet Jidi Majia is the child of an aristocratic Nuosu family. After 1949 his father held a leading position in the judiciary of Butuo County in the Nuosu heartland. Jidi Majia came upon his calling as a poet in his early teens after reading a Chinese version of Alexander Pushkin’s works. Soon after, he resolved upon his path in life: He would articulate the identity and spiritual outlook of the Nuosu in poetry.
At the age of seventeen Jidi Majia was admitted to Southwest Nationalities College in Chengdu. During his college years, his hungry mind absorbed Nuosu epics and folklore. He also read great works of Chinese literature, everything from the mythically rich ancient poetry of Qu Yuan 屈原 to vernacular prose masters of the twentieth century. He also read works of world literature, such as the novels of Mikhail Sholokhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
After graduation he returned to his home district; his poems soon won province-wide attention when they were printed in the Sichuan journal Xingxing 星星诗刊 (Stars Poetry Magazine). Before long he was hired by the Writer’s Association of Sichuan, and he rose steadily to a position as secretary of that organization. He broke onto the national stage in 1986 by winning the National Poetry Award from the National Writers’ Association, and became a protégé of the respected elder poet Ai Qing 艾青.
Jidi Majia focused on developing his skills as a poet; though he did not seek the rewards extrinsic to his vocation, such awards came his way when he was awarded a position in the office of the National Writers’ Association. This gave him opportunities to participate in conferences for writers and poets around the world. He was even invited to observe the workings of the U.S. government for nearly a month as a guest of the U.S. Congress’s Global Young Leaders Conference. To fully appreciate the breadth of Jidi Majia’s activities as a cultural figure in recent years, one must consider that he has served as the creative director and librettist of musical stage productions, such as Qinghai’s Secret Realm, a work based on myths of the Kunlun Mountains, and he has also organized major cultural festivals, including the Qinghai International Poetry Festival.
Jidi Majia has remained true to his original goal: He is a great soul who emerged from among an indigenous group in southwestern China and undertook building a bridge between his people’s ethos and the realities of the outside world. For Jidi Majia, the projects of articulating his identities as a Nuosu, as a Chinese, and as a world citizen are in no way mutually exclusive.
The context in which Jidi Majia works—as a Nuosu poet writing in Chinese—reminds me of Irish writers who emerged on England’s literary scene in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Irish writers and poets brought a tremendous vitality to the English language. Though the Queen’s English was a borrowed language for them, they were able to rejuvenate it, perhaps because Ireland’s strong oral tradition cultivated in them a native eloquence. Several examples spring to mind: W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Yet this is but a fraction of the abundant energy and vitality brought to English literature from writers of a myriad ethnic backgrounds.
It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Jidi Majia has a strong affinity for figures of America’s Harlem Renaissance. Only a poet with a tremendous soul could have succeeded in the project that Langston Hughes attempted: the revival of people’s identity, from the roots up, in a modern setting of cultural dislocation and anomie.
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From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2