Monday, July 12, 2021

The children of snow (Folktales of Chinese minorities 10. - Yi)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

The ​Nuosu Book of Origins
A Creation Epic from Southwest China 
University of Washington Press, 2019.

The Yi live in Southwest China and number about nine million. This minority group is divided into various subgroups, each with their own name and identity. Among them, the Nuosu are the largest (about 2.3 million) - the epic in this book belongs to their tradition. It was translated as a collaboration between Mark Bender (who also translated the Miao epics) and Aku Wuwu (a prominent Nuosu scholar and poet).

Bimo. Pic from here
This traditional epic is known as The Book of Origins, and it contains creation myths, origin stories, genealogies, and migration legends. It has been passed down through generations for hundreds of years in manuscripts written in Yi script (different from Chinese writing). The text translated in the book was hand-copied and translated by Jjivot Zopqu, a traditional Nuosu mediator, from an older text. It is divided into 29 sections, presenting a fairly complete epic from a single source (as opposed to the versions pieced together from multiple sources by Chinese folklorists). This epic is usually recited by ritual experts called bimo on important occasions, often for several hours. Sometimes at weddings or funerals traditional singers also performed parts of it. The book comes with footnotes, references, pronunciation guides, appendices, and many other resources. The long introduction talks about Yi/Nuosu culture, everyday life, rituals, and the epic tradition.


I loved it that the epic presents humans as one part of Nature's whole, our existence intertwined with that of plants and animals. The part where the Great Bimo, Awo Shubu, filled the world with plants and matching animals was especially beautiful. Later on, when almost everything was burned up by the six suns, red snow fell three times, and transformed into new creatures - the Twelve Sons of Snow. Ice turned to bone, snow turned to flesh, wind turned to breath. Six of the twelve became "beings without blood" (plants), while six became "beings with blood" (animals and humans). Their descendants and proliferation are detailed in the epic in a sort of folk taxonomy. It was especially intriguing that horses, which are not native to the area, were hatched from four snow-eggs by butterflies. On the advice of a frog spirit, humans and crows drank from the Water of Wisdom, and became the most intelligent among living beings.
The larger half of the epic details the genealogies and migrations of various tribes, with lots of names and repetition (kinda like the "begets" in the Bible). It was interesting to see why people decided not to settle in various unsuitable places, but other than that only a few short episodes disrupted the lists. One of the most exciting was the contest between two families, Hxuo and He, who competed in a series o shapeshifting challenges. Eventually, they were reconciled, and joined their children in marriage.

Nuosu manuscript with
Zhyge Alu, from here
There was an episode, not included in this version of the epic but mentioned in the notes, about the invention of the lightning rod. The hero Zhyge Alu found a village where people were afraid to light fires in the house, worried lightning would strike their roof. The hero climbed up to a roof wearing a copper helmet and a copper club, and managed to trap lightning in a copper net. Lightning as a living being was mentioned multiple times in the epic; it was noted that twelve kinds of lightning form a family that sleeps underground in the winter, and snores loudly in the spring.


This epic once again featured the motif of separating earth and sky (and propping the sky up with columns). Here the job was done by deities, spirits, and immortals, and the brand new sky and earth were swept clean by nine fairies with nine iron-copper brooms. There was also the motif of multiple suns and moons: Anyu Ddussy, the Spirit Monkey, summoned six suns and seven moons, along with all the constellations. The suns scorched the world almost to extinction, although a few animals (such as the water deer) managed to survive. The surplus heavenly bodies were shot down by the great hero Zhyge Alu. He was raised by dragons in a cave. He climbed various trees to get a vantage point for shooting, but only the fir could support him, which is why it is still respected among the trees. The last sun fled and hid, and had to be lured out by a rooster.
The fiery apocalypse was followed by another classic: a great flood. Here the only human survivor was the kind-hearted Jjumu Vuvu, who hid in a wooden box. He rescued various floating animals (a rat, a venomous snake, a bee, a frog, etc.), who in turn helped him get a bride from the sky. But since the elopement was not approved by the sky spirit, their children were born mute, and they needed the help of the mythical Apuyoqo bird to steal the secret of speech from the sky. Thus, various languages were born.
Another motif that appeared in the epic was that of the clever maiden who posed riddles to her suitor. The hero Shyly Wote failed to answer them, and he needed the help of his clever sister to win the bride anyway.

Nuosu women weaving together, image from here

Who's next?
The Nakhi people

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