Monday, September 6, 2021

Shamans and spirits (Folktales of Chinese minorities 17. - Daur)

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.

China's Dagur Minority
Society, Shamanism, and Folklore 
Kevin Stuart, Li Xuewei & Shelear
Sino-Platonic Papers 1994.

The Daur live on the Chinese side of the border with Mongolia, they are related to Mongolians, and number about 130 thousand people.This detailed book is divided into three parts: The first introduces Daur culture, the second discusses Daur shamanism, and the third contains all the stories - 82 tales and 6 myths total. From the first chapter I learned a lot about Daur life, language, traditions, history, festivals, poetry, music, and crafts. The shamanism essay was very Chinese in the way it labeled all beliefs antiquated superstitions ("all religions are absurd"), but at least it admitted that recording them can be useful from an ethnographic point of view. The folktales in the third chapter have been recorded by a Daur native collector named Sayintana in the 1980s; 50 of them were told by an old storyteller named Qiker. The stories came with their own introduction about translation and cultural elements.


The best story in the book was the legend of Nisang Yadgan, a long and epic underworld journey undertaken by a famous female shaman to bring a young man back from the dead. They met (and bargained with) gods, demons, spirits, Nisang's ex-husband, and other obstacles; they witnessed afterlife punishments that would put Dante to shame. Nisang appears in other neighboring cultural traditions as well. She must have bee a remarkable lady.
 I also loved the story of the man who (unwittingly) married a Ginseng Spirit. The feud between ginseng girls and spider demons became a complex multi-generational tragedy, but luckily it ended on a good note. Among the less happy love stories my favorite was the Yearning Swans, in which a boy and the girl fell in love while they studied together. Outside of romance, I loved the tale about the friendship between a kind boy and a tiger.
There was a memorable tale about a hunter and his nephew. The hunter's sister was half-eaten by a monster, so the hunter tried to get rid of her; her son, when he grew up, managed to return the other half of his mother's body, and even befriended the monster. When the hunter attacked them, he tied ten thousand bags of chili powder to birds' feet, and chili-bombed the enemy soldiers...
An interesting legend explained why the Daur don't have writing. It was about the monk Tang Seng who brought the holy scriptures of Buddhism (see Journey to the West). On the way, he lied to a giant turtle, and it ate him in revenge. The scriptures were scattered in the ocean, and the peoples who managed to fish some out are the ones with written literature.
Among the origin myths, the one about Holier Barken was the most fascinating. It was about a magical antelope that brought havoc to all the land; the Chinese tried to kill it multiple times but failed. In the end the antelope and an Oroqen man (see later) were struck by lightning at the same time, and their spirits combined into one deity. Combined spirits like this were actually common in Daur mythology.
Among the shaman legends the stories of Gahucha yadgan were memorable: he could make a river freeze over in the summer, but it cost him 10 years of his life. I also loved the short legend that claimed that trees have their own shamans that heal other trees. 

Image from here


Once again there was a myth about raising the sky; it said that it used to rain oil and snow flour, but when people started wasting food, the sky grew angry and rose up high out of reach. There was also a flood myth, combined with the tale type where animals rescued from the water are grateful, but humans aren't.
This book contained the best "princess in the shroud" variant I have ever read. In the tale of The boy and the demon, a young man married a dead girl unwittingly, and then they went through all kinds of adventures until an old drunk was brave enough to break her curse and bring her back to life. There was a great variant for "why old people are respected" as well: here the rescued father helped his son climb up to the sky, and find tools to defeat a giant rat demon.
There were other familiar tale types, such as three kidnapped princesses (Bear's Son), handless maiden, magic flight (here with a snake wife), sister turned into a monster (here a vulture spirit), and dragon slayer (here a pearl diver who blew up a sea serpent with gunpowder). The story of Aqinbu was also a kidnapped princesses tale, very similar to an Oroqen story I know.
As for tricksters: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King appeared in a legend - he was responsible for creating caves in the mountains. Tricksters got their own chapter in the book, and were mostly nameless poor boys or orphans. Many stories were familiar: fake fortune-teller, master thief, exchanged punishment, and other classic (and often bloody) tricks. I especially liked the tale where the Chinese tried to build a military camp by a Daur village - so the people moved the camp across the river at night, and pretended it had been blown over by the wind.

Image from here

Who's next?
The Hani people

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