Friday, October 7, 2022

Mergens are cool, dedus are cooler (Folktales of Chinese Minorities 22. - Hezhe/Nanai)

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 Yimakan Epics of the Hezhe Ethnic Minority of China

Liaoning People's Publishing House, 2013.
Wang Weibo

This book contains epics told/sung by the Hezhe people, in English translation. These epics that contain a lot of cultural knowledge are called Yimakan, a term embedded in shamanistic tradition - among the heroes of the stories, many are powerful shamans themselves. The protagonists are all mergens (heroes, brave men). The Hezhe are one of the smallest ethnic minorities in China: there are barely twenty thousand of them left, and many don't speak their native language anymore. (They are also called Nanai, but that's an exonym.)
The book's introduction talks about the epic tradition, the cultural context of the epics, and the process of translation. The volume contains four epics. Translation began in 2010; the texts were translated from Chinese, but in close collaboration with the Hezhe community. Each epic comes with the name of the storyteller as well as the translator. The Hezhe Yimakan tradition has been on the UNESCO cultural world heritage list since 2011, as a tradition in urgent need of safeguarding.
(My favorite part about the translation process was that the Chinese team read English "epics" - mostly Robin Hood - to familiarize themselves with their language, and give an epic feel to the stories in translation. As a result, the texts sometimes have eyebrow-raising lines such as "gee whiz", "kingdom come", or "for your revenge she's an OK assistant").

Since the book only contains four epics, I'll write about all of them:

Xiangsou Mergen

Xiangsou Mergen goes from lazy boy to powerful warrior. He hunts down the beasts that his brother's bride asks for as a wedding gift, and then sets out to avenge the death of his parents who were murdered a long time before. On the journey he is joined by other mergens as well as dedus, powerful female shamans (such as his sister-in-law, bride, and the wives of his sworn brothers). At one point he fights a hostile mergen and his wife, and defeated he is hung on a tree by his jaw. A team of dedus rescues him. By the time Xiangsou finds the killers of his parents he is accompanied by an entire superhero lineup of powerful women, who fight an aerial battle while the mergen duels his enemies. Xiangsou loses the duel, but a deity makes an appearance and saves him. In the end, he returns home with a total of six dedu wives, and two villages' worth of people.

Mandu Mergen

The parents of Mandu and his sister Manchin are kidnapped by an enemy, and the two children are left alone. The girl is raised by a deity, but Mandu survives alone and turns feral. After 15 years his sister, now a dedu, returns and tames him, and they set out to take revenge for the death of their parents.
Mandu fights a lot of heroes along the way; he kills some and befriends others, and marries all their dedu sisters. They meet an old woman who warns them that two powerful warriors live nearby with four powerful dedu wives - they are the ones who kidnapped the hero's parents. Mandu and Manchin are not scared. The old woman gives them clothes to protect them in the fight. Mando kills one of the mergens and is about to kill the other when a dedu jumps in and convinces him to show mercy. Mandu and the mergen reconcile, and the siblings meet their long lost mother again in a touching scene (their father had died in captivity). Mandu ends up with three dedu wives and Manchin marries one of his sworn brothers. The epic concludes with a long and detailed shamanistic ritual and celebration.

Mangemu Mergen

Our hero is raised by a single father. When he turns five their village is attacked by bandits. Before the attack the father takes the boy to a distant valley and entrusts him to his good friend Kuomukulu Mafa. By the time he returns, the village is burned, and he himself is killed by the dedu wife of the bandit chief. Mangemu is raised by Kuomukulu Mafa, an old warrior and powerful shaman. When he grows up, his foster father gives him his power, a shaman coat, a magic horse, and three magic arrows. Mangemu sets out to take revenge for his father and his village.
On the way he encounters various mergens and dedus. He even has an archery contest with one: Haohang Dedu, whose hand he wins through taking on various challenges (and completing them with the girl's help). He is also joined by a young archer, Yiwae Mergen, and acquires a magic knife after killing a monster. Arriving to the bandits' village Mangemu kills the chief, but the chief's wife manages to trap the heroes in a building. Haohang Dedu comes to the rescue, blasting the walls open. Another battle follows, and even Kuomukulu Mafa makes an appearance, until finally the heroes are victorious and the dedus defeat the enemy dedus in an aerial battle. Returning home they rebuild their village, and sacrifice the bandits to appease the dead.

Muduli Mergen

Out of the four epics, this one was definitely my favorite.
Muhasen Mergen and Chandu Dedu, a young shaman couple live in a small village in the mountains. One day Muhasen is called by his deity to travel south and find a more plentiful land. The entire village sets out, led by the two shamans, and they eventually find a new home in an abandoned village by a river. They are later joined by many other families, until, twenty years later, they become a large tribe, led by Muhasen Mergen. He has two children: Muduli and Mukeqin, a boy and a girl. 
However, one day three warriors come to the village, hoping to conquer it. Muhasen Mergen is killed in the fight, Chandu and the rest of the villagers are captured and taken into slavery with all their belongings. Chandu Dedu hides her son inside her protective shaman mirror, and Mukeqin hides in the kitchen. The girl, left alone, takes care of herself until she turns seventeen. One day a bandit comes to kidnap her, but in that moment 15-year-old Muduli Mergen jumps out of the mirror, kills the bandit, and saves his sister. He invites the slaves rowing the bandit's boat to join his village. A few days later he sets out with his sister and ten warriors to find his mother and avenge his father.
As per usual, Muduli meets several mergens whom he either kills or accepts as sword brothers - and also meets several dedus that he marries. He is helped in every fight by the shaman mirror that hangs on his chest. At one point, he is shot in the neck in an ambush, and dies. As his soul travels towards the afterlife, he runs into a powerful shaman woman, Zhenggen Dedu (who is conducting another soul to the underworld, as is her job). Zhenggen Dedu takes Muduli's soul back into his body and revives him. After that, obviously, they get married.
After many adventures the heroes reach the village of the three bandits, and defeat them (and their wives) in an epic battle. Celebrating the victory, Muduli and Mukeqin are reunited with their mother. Muduli goes hunting, and meets a brave, dark skinned mergen, whom he invites home - he ends up becoming Mukeqin's husband. After one year of adventures, Muduli returns home with all his people, rebuilds the village, buries his father's remains, organizes a big celebration, and lives happily ever after.

All in all, the four epics were alike in many ways: orphaned hero sets out to take revenge for dead/kidnapped parents, he makes friends and enemies, and encounters a series of dedus who either become his wives or his helpers. To me, the dedus were the most fascinating part of this mythical world. Each of them had her own personality, powers, and adventures. Each epic embellished the basic plot in colorful ways, and had many memorable scenes. I am glad I got to read them.

Who's up next?
The Lahu people