An epic journey

Updated: 2012-03-14 10:42

By Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)

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An epic journey

Yang Zhengjiang collects and documents the King Yalu epic in western Guizhou province. Provided to China Daily

An ethnically Miao mans childhood exorcism leads him on a lifelong journey to chronicle the King Yalu epic. Zhang Zixuan reports in Beijing.

An epic journey

Yang Zhengjiang could see the exorcists through chinks in the wall of the mill his family had locked him in. The 14-year-old ethnic Miao listened to their songs and peeked out at the mysterious rituals they were performing day and night to expel the evil that had confiscated his mind.

Yang's mental illness had started in 1997, when he watched a classmate, who was also 14, get married in their remote village in Guizhou province. He vowed to write the greatest novel ever about this child bridegroom. As his behavior became increasingly erratic, his family locked him in the mill.

"I'll never forget the darkness and dread of that mill," he says.

Yang recovered over a month.

"I can't explain why, but the songs brought me peace," he says.

Yang has since become fascinated with the "dong lang", traditional Miao exorcists whom many members of the ethnic group believe can evict dark forces from the possessed. The dong lang, who are the most esteemed villagers, do so by chanting epic songs about the exploits of King Yalu, whom the Miao traditionally believe is their common ancestor.

Legends of the dong lang have persisted for centuries in Guizhou province's long isolated and impoverished Mashan area. "I needed to know what they were singing about," Yang says. "This is very important to me."

In 2002, at age 19, Yang enrolled in Guizhou Minzu University as a Chinese ethnic literature major. There he learned how to write the Miao language - it has no native written form - using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

He was ready to head to the Mashan area he had feared as a child. Although he was raised in Mashan's Ziyun Miao and Bouyei autonomous county, he was scared by poverty he saw when he visited relatives.

"My relatives' hunger scared me," he says.

But to complete his mission of understanding the dong lang, Yang hiked through every village in Mashan's six counties and interviewed about 3,000 dong lang.

"I knew I had found something important," Yang says.

Their songs are fragments of the oral history surrounding the exploits of the Miao's legendary chieftain, King Yalu. The narrative arc focuses on how Yalu led his people to war and, after they were crushed, he brought them from the east to the Guizhou Plateau as refugees.

The songs also chronicle the life stories of King Yalu's seven wives and his more than 100 sons. These tales continue to record the experiences of King Yalu's grandsons and great-grandsons, and all generations until today. "It's our Miao heroic epic," Yang says.

The entire tale is only sung at funerals, he explains. Dong lang are invited to host the funerals and sing for days to tell the dead about their origins and what their families want to say to them.

They wear bamboo hats and carry swords and bows. Their chants and movements must match every step of the funerary ceremony. "Traditional Miao funerals still include the horse-chopping ceremony," 67-year-old dong lang Chen Xinghua says. "The tribe migrated here on horseback. So the souls of the deceased can return home faster if their family kills a horse for the soul to ride."

During major festivals, disasters and illnesses, dong lang will sing about King Yalu's birth but not the whole epic, Yang says.

This was the part sung to Yang during his teenage exorcism. Yang believed his new knowledge came with responsibility.

He worked for a local culture bureau after graduation and continued to collect and document the King Yalu epic. By 2009, he had walked through western Guizhou's 10 counties and recorded dong lang songs via visual, audio and written media.

But the 29-year-old says ensuring accuracy requires an unimaginable amount of work. The Miao language is divided into three major dialect families based on geography - eastern, central and western - each of which is subdivided into several even more localized dialects.

The Mashan dialect is one of four subdivisions of the western group and has 12 tones.

And the local dialects' sounds change when sung compared to when spoken. In addition, the songs reference hundreds of ancient places that have vanished and require years of research to know about and, sometimes, to prove they even existed.

"Doing this made me feel like I was going insane again, like when I was 14," Yang says, with a bitter smile. "Sometimes, the answers would come to me in my dreams, and I'd awake with a start."

Yang says interpreting the Miao language into Chinese is an "extreme" process and he locks himself in total isolation to work.

"You need to enter that specific context and devoutly listen to it," Yang explains. "That's the only way you can interpret the original meaning."

But many requests from the outside world often interrupt Yang's work. The local government has asked him for written materials to provide the travel industry. Yang's relatives criticize him for being "superstitious".

"Sometimes I feel like I'm dying," Yang says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm already dead."

He says he often cries when he's alone on the mountain and has considered giving up countless times.

"But these are the last dong lang," Yang says. "Their average age has reached 60, and their memories have started blurring. Tomorrow, no one will be able to host their funerals, and the Miao's history will be forgotten."

To Yang's delight, the King Yalu epic was included on the State-level Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Its first volume was published last month in Beijing, with assistance from the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society.

Yang wore the traditional Miao clothing his 64-year-old mother made him when he walked into the Great Hall of the People for the first time. Such a refined outfit is reserved for the dead in Yang's impoverished village.

Executive editor-in-chief of the volume, Yu Weiren, praises Yang's contributions.

"Yang is a dreamer from the generation born after 1980, but he doesn't live on dreams," Yu says. "His difficult and lonely journey to collect the epic has earned him a spot among great academics. I hope he can devote his life to preserving Miao culture."

Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society chairman Feng Jicai says: "It's vital to ethnic culture's preservation that researchers like Yang come from the ethnicities they research."

Three other researchers have teamed up with Yang. They plan to publish volume 2 about Yalu's sons, volume 3 about his later descendents and volume 4 about the king's conversations with nature in the next eight years.

Documentation will continue in central and eastern Guizhou after the work in the province's western swath is finished.

Yang remains mystified as to what cured his mental illness when he was young - whether it was the singing, and if so, if it was just the psychological comfort it provided.

But he's certain about one thing:"The epic is the Miao's religion. It has its own power."