I have learned a lot from Stevan Harrell s book “Ways of being ethnic in southwest China“, the author is an american professor having very good knowledge of the Nuosu Yi in southern part of Sichuan.
In 2006 when we hit the road to Lugu lake through Ninglang, I had just purchased the book in a mandarin bookstore in Dali and was discovering simultaneously the reality on the spot and the written informations about an area,with people and cultures I had no idea of. During my first trip to China in 1992, crossing Yunnan from north to south like a tourist, I remember women wearing those square hats that reminded any french person of an Alsacian traditional hat and because we were in Lijiang, assuming that they were Naxi, 14 years later I had to find out that they were Yi, but then what s the connexion between them and the other Yi that I could see in other parts of Yunnan ? Why so many Yi in such different parts of Yunnan and Sichuan, having radically different outfits, language and music. Or a different question came up: why are all those folks called the same name, by the Hans and they identify themselves with a different name ? ...
Stevan Harrell is the man who could answer my questions, no chinese I would ask had an answer, I mean a real answer, I was not satisfied with the general answer that those various ethnic groups had common ancestors, how did they find out ?
The story says that the term Yi comes from Mao Zedong in the 50s, willing to designate a category of people with so many different names, the most common were Luoluo or Yi, which simply means barbarian, Mao changed the old pejorative term to a new one sounding the same and meaning a fine cooking pot.
Basically after 1949, the communist inheritated both the remnant cultural nationalism of the republic and the very different marxist leninist views , they had to create a unified country of diverse ethnic groups and recognize the various groups in order to establish equality among all those citizens of the new communist state. Sofar in the chinese history, the Hans could not ignore the Manchus, the Mongolians, the Tibetans and the Huis, but unless they had been living in areas in contact with non Hans, they usually ignored most of them, it was time in the 50s for political motivated reasons to find out who were those under developed groups in order to bring economical and political development to the remote areas. According to the marxist leninist theories on historical development, they were 5 stages, the primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist, in China in the 50, it was obvious that some members of certains ethnic groups were still at a primitive, slave or feudal stage, and in general the Hans with a few Hui muslims , Manchus and Koreans stood at the top, the communists asked the xiongdi minzu to follow the example of the advanced Hans and move quickly forward in history, confirming the Hans in their place of prominence, giving the opportunity or forcing them, depending on one s point of view, to develop in the direction of universal progress.
Classification and scaling (concerned with the distance of each group from the cultural ideal of the Han core), the 2 basic principles of the 50s ethnological project are thus already present in literature from the late centuries of the imperial era. In the 20s a flood of western ologies flowed into China and among them were ethnology minzuxue and anthropology, taught in universities in Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen.In the 30s and 40s chinese ethnologists had conducted considerable research among ethnic minorities, most of them still retained the classifying and ordering tendencies of their imperial forebears. Emerging from this rather bourgeois foreign influenced background, chinese ethnologists and linguists were asked between 1949 and 1958 to contribute to the party led projects of national unity and socialist development, labeled as rightist after 1957 or destroyed after 1966, ethnology in china had to wait till the 80 to have articles from the 50s published and restart, after 1979 national unity and more than ever development were on the agenda of the communists, reconstructing an economically developing multi ethnic polity out of the ruins of cultural revolution.but let s go back to the project of ethnic identification of the 50s, following sovietic criterias, they had to determine an ethnic group with 4 common characteristic language, territory, economy and psychological nature manifested in a common culture, the identification project began when local groups were invited to submit applications for the status of minzu, according to later accounts (Fei Hsiao Tung 1981) over 400 groups submitted such applications, which were then judged by a team of researchers, supposedly to determine whether they conformed to Stalinian 4 criterias ,.Researchers compiled the datas and stabilize them in 1962 at 54 shaoshu minzu plus the Hans, the Jinuos of Yunnan were added in 1979 Ever since we have heard of the 56 minzu of China ! Now that starts to answer my questions about the Yis, using 6 totally different tibeto burman languages, spread over different territories, having developed different cultures, not to mention the psychological nature ( what a criteria !), so none of the 4 stalinian rules have been followed, that was easy in inner mongolia, tibet, or xinjiang,where these people lived in compact territories, were reasonably uniformed culturally and all had historical experience of independent statehood, but in southwest china different minzu or different cultural and linguistic collectivities, live intermixed in that area and there have been ethnically based states there but none in recent history. In fact there was a debate in the 50s as to whether apply the term minzu to groups in earlier stage of history or whether to use distinctive terms such as buluo (tribe) or buzu. Jiang Yongxing (1985) writing about Guizhou, has commented that the identification teams relied too much on historical relatedness of groups and not enough on local s people own wish, with the result that many identities in Guizhou are still disputed and many groups yet to be identified (Cheung 95,96), The Ge did not want to be a Miao sub group. In Sichuan , Northern Yunnan various ethnic groups have been classified as Tibetans, against their will, Mosuo, Pumi, Baima Zang,did not particularly apreciate being named tibetans, it is reported that the 10th panchen lama who died in 1989 prevented the tibetans from being broken up in this way. As far as I know about the Mosuos or Pumis , they follow tibetan buddhism, large families give a son to the tibetan buddhist monasteries established as early as 300 years ago in this area, but have their own distinctive language and culture, it seems that it was just convenient to create a large group that had no unity. The earliest minzu policy of the communist was to grant a great deal of autonomy to local governments in minority areas that took side in the civil war against the Kuomintang forces, but once in power the nature of autonomy that actually emerged firmly subordinated governments of minorities to the central government in Beijing., during the 50s and again since the 80s, many of the cadres of the party and government have been members of minorities, there has been wide latitude to use minority language as primary or supplementary media of instruction in schools and official propaganda, in the radical period from 1957 to 1979 and especially during the cultural revolution deliberate attempts to suppress minority culture, religion, and customs were widespread, I have met members of various ethnic groups who reported to us about this dark period of chinese history, for example that a woman in the field harvesting could be imprisoned for singing while working or having members of their family being executed. According to Stevan Harrell it is reported unofficially that since 1991 there as been a de facto policy of not appointing minorities to party secretary positions at the prefectural level and above.
The economic development of minority regions has, however, been different from that in Han areas in 3 ways, first the situation reminiscent of colonalism or neo colonialism, China s peripheral regions have often been seen by central economic planners as sources of raw materials and markets for finished industrial goods. Since minorities occupy over 50 % of of China s surface, they sit on top of great proportions of its mineral and forest resources, minority elites complain privately that was is rightly their is being exported to the benefit of Hans in the big cities and in China generally. Second since minority areas are sparsely populated in comparison to China proper, central planners have seen these areas as convenient outlets for surplus population, starting in the 50s, a great influx of Han settlers, merchants, cadres, teachers, army and other government personnel has been organized, in cultural revolution time , most new settlers did not volunteer to end up in the middle of nowhere, like Tanding s parents in XInjiang for example.
Almost nowhere in China are minorities entirely in charge of their economic development, this considerable in migration is an important issue of ethnic conflicts that take place in China, even if nobody wants to talk about it, when I ask a Han who grew up in Tibet or Xinjiang if he is aware of this status of colon, but as Stevan Harrell pointed out to me Almost all Hans get very angry if you use the word colony or colonialism. Their personal and national identity are tied up with China having been a victim of colonialism, not a perpetrator So the Han settler won t understand my question, all this person can remember as a child, is having tibetan kids throw stones at them, but not asking himself why ? Third point , China having moved towards market economy, a large number of minority regions have marketed a commodity available only to them : their ethnicity itself. Ethnic tourism has developed in a big way in China since the 90s for Chinese and foreign tourists, and is often promoted as the way to create income in those areas for development. In addition to bringing in revenue, ethnic tourism has been a factor in the revival of ethnicity during the reform era, some areas such as the Dali plain, home of a majority of Bai people, who were quite acculturated to han ways, have seen a revival of ethnic things from clothing to religious ceremonies (which were forbidden till the end of the 70s), in order to provide an ethnic atmosphere for tourists. In Dali or Lijiang, the later being restructured completely into a tourist s mecca, along with the revival of ethnic elements has come private entrepreneurship on the part of minority individuals who manufacture and sell crafts to tourist while their community is paid by tour operators to display songs, dances, food and other ethnic elements for tourists to enjoy.let s go a little deeper into the tourism industry and try to see how it is organized
The americans have invented cartoon characters and developed a fiction world based on those characters, which is worldwide famous, it s called Disneyworld. In other countries like Cambodia and China, despite the fact they did not have MIckey Mouse and Donald Duck as part of their history, they wanted amusement parks (the chinese amusement park in Shenzhen called Splendid China a theme park extends to having replicas of the world wonders like a 100 meters high Eiffel tower, and several miniatures villages, a Miao or a Xinjiang Uyghur village replica; the Cambodian one in Siem Reap focus on their glorious past of Angkor), now how do you develop a conceptual amusement park in Cambodia and China ? Cultural and historical elements of those countries are used, real or made up historical versions that won t scare the average tourist, or simply avoid ennoying subjects, the key rule is having fun, not thinking. Those two amusement parks share the same trivial presentation of ethnic minorities, in Siem Reap (the town next to Angkor Wat) you can see young khmer arriving in the morning on their motorbikes, dress up as savages and performing, making noises that sound closer to animals than human beings, it s a job and those poor actors are behaving as they are being told and have absolutely no knowledge of the real Krungs they are portraying. In China, the amusement park in Shenzhen or any other touristic institution are hiring real ethnic minorities staff to amuse tourists, the non Han Chinese are more than 100 millions people in China.
Helen Rees an american ethnomusicology professor explains in the book “echoes of history” about Naxi music, the various cliches developed by Hans about the minorities, numerous written presentations of minorities in chinese publications have the following comment ‘good at singing and dancing’ neng’ge shanwu. Film and Tv as well as printed page tend to promote the image of colorful, exotic minorities ready to sing and dance at the drop of a hat and indeed have done so since the 50s, many films glamorize the exotic, a world of happy smiling natives. Watching on tv the chinese new year celebration on CCTV in 2007, I could get full blast of colorful people singing and dancing on stage, even though only 8 percent of the chinese population is supposed to be minority the tv show seems to gather as many minorities as possible, each ethnic group presenting his own cultural cliche to a huge crowd of Hans dressed in conservative dark western suits . Most chinese medias continue to stimulate the exoticized motif of music making minority. The government s promotion of festivals ( annual rituals with the religious content largely extracted ), costumes and the inevitable dancing in circle has certainly raised the profile of minorities in the consciousness of citizens throughout China. In minority areas, various shows are designed for crowds of Hans who are enjoying the social status of tourists, they are ignorant and this free time spent on holidays is an opportunity to witness the backwards elements of Chinese society, reinforcing the idea that the tourist is advanced and is in touch with the modern world, The Han is serious and the minority person is entertaining the serious guy. The whole process leads to distanciation and a distorted vision of reality . It is not about appreciation of other cultures, but rather a bastardization, a simplication of a much more complex socio cultural behavior . By the way, I must add that whatever cultural phenomena one discovers, it often takes time to understand and appreciate it, in that sense the staged shows of the tourist industry preserves the tourist from a real culture shock. In China, the touristic phenomena is widespread to virtually all ethnic minorities areas, already exploited or planning to. Tibet is the number one destination for rich tourists who fly or take brand new high speed trains and spend money that benefit essentially Han business. China is a pretty unique example, we cannot put all the blame to the cultural revolution for the destruction of chinese culture, it actually started in the beginning of the 20 th century when academics of the first republic started to renovate chinese music under the influence of western classical music and it continues up to nowadays in order to follow the westernization of modern chinese society.
Now my problem with this trivial presentation, is the gap between the fake and the real ethnic minorities cultures, between the simplified version where the crowd of Han tourists ends up dancing with local dressed up beauties,like we ve witnessed in Lake Lugu, singing together in mandarin language and the intimacy of the village with its own cultural codes. Actually when one realizes the amount of organized groups of tourists visiting some minority regions, it is probably better to have those organized events set up to please them rather than having crowds of tourists invading the original villages. According to my experience with Han people willing to buy my recordings, some are disappointed , because my recordings don t express this happy feeling associated with light ethnic music previously known to them, most Han tourist s expectations exclude anything too melancholic, sad or too weird for their mainstream taste, and wish to see the ethnic character as a cheerleader for happy holidays. Tanding had similar experience once with the boss of a Beijing magazine who denied that Uyghur music was rather melancholic, because he has already been brainwashed by happy Uyghur vcds, she should change her article according to his expectations or quit ! One positive example I ve witnessed, took place in Guizhou with the Dong, where the commercial product for tourists is not very far away from the original, the distinction I am making here between the commercial product designed to fill up a space with tourists and what I call the original has usually to be understood as two different juxtaposed cultural territories with very unclear boarders. The first one is based on the commercial idea of “give them what they want” for the money they are paying, give the tourists something they can relate to, songs in a language that can be understood, musical codifications already accepted by masses, involving commercial western music elements like a hip hop or techno beat already perceived as Chinese pop music, packaged with beautiful young girls dancing, with the addition of drinks and food. The second territory of what I call the original, nevertheless has been transforming itself under new influences in history, but is now, usually performed only by older members of the community, I believe that never before the cultural gap between generations has been that strong, to the extend that old music and songs are simply disappearing and be modern means often radical changes towards a more commercial version in the instrumentation, new versions tend to double or repeat notes to kill the melancholic effect and to enhance the march like effect, more dynamic more happy, the second most used transformation is concerning the vocal patterns, western based melody is at any price enhanced and make you feel like Celine Dion or any cheesy Chinese popstar had a workshop here to teach them how to become accepted by the entire world, exactly what I hate ! it is a matter of luck that the Dong aesthetic sense as much in architecture as in music is highly respected by the Hans, therefore did not undergo the usual transformations towards so called modernity.
These modern expectations are nowadays widespread everywhere, I remember being approached in Cambodia by a French tour operator, who thought of including a cd of ethnic stuff into the bag of presents given to his customers, once he listened to the original recordings, he was just embarrassed that it did not fit his expectations, he added he just could not give French tourist something so uncommercial. The last 20 years the world has produced tons of music that became mainstream including exotic elements but putting forwards programming techniques devoted to new western styles and the extensive use of samplers allowing to bring in this exotic touch,, these commercial products have had tremendous influence in the making and understanding of today s world music in the western world as much as in China. For example the terms tribal or trance nowadays identify new musical trends very different from what they used to mean in the past. I am aware of this tricky and subjective issue of what is real ethnic music, I once was in contact on internet with a Hmong cultural association in Minnesota in the USA and listening to their Hmong bands that nothing distinguished them from any other white rock bands, I asked them what s the Hmong specificity? A difficult cultural debate that can easily slip into my words being interpreted as arrogants, I am only trying to give my point of view and cannot claim to draw a straight line between what is or not pure ethnic music. Christian missionaries can be met everywhere and they pay a lot of attention in translating Christian messages into local languages, one American missionary based in Banlung in Ratanakiri Cambodia let me listen to the Tampoon songs he recorded, they were using Tampoon singing patterns but all the words had been changed for Christian messages, he truly believed that he was helping preserving some aspects of tampon culture, he omits to mention that the same Tampoon people who have converted to Christianity have also given up playing gongs since the gongs are specifically used for animist ceremonies not really tolerated by Christians. The Nus in Yunnan have a large part of their people who converted to Christianity several generations ago, so we can ask ourselves if they are still performing real Nu culture?
I have no answer ! So I just apply my own subjective criterias to whether or not this music is relevant to me, I cannot pretend anything else, I am in no ways an authority on the subject who decides what and what is not real minority culture. As far as my knowledge of minority music in Yunnan goes, I rely a lot on Zhang Xing Rong s work , a Kunming music teacher who has done so many recordings of ethnic minorities during the last 20 years, allowing me to go back into the past, I am able to see the changes or the simple disappearing of styles, asking Zhang Xing Rong about his fantastic recordings of Hani, especially the Baina Hani rice transplanting songs, he told me I won t find it anymore , this is now history ! Who knows what will happen in the future, may be one day a Hani scholar will restart this documented part of his culture, by setting up a music school willing to rediscover this forgotten vocal polyphony .
In Vietnam, I recently read an interesting article about a new development of tourism in the central plateau, an area where basically the various ethnic minorities share the same musical patrimony : using gong orkestras for animist ceremonies, weddings, funerals. The article described 2 different expectations, the one from Vietnamese tourists who expect the ethnic minority musicians to be playing something cheesy that would sound as close as possible to a Vietnamese pop song , so they can sing along and the second behavior : the ethnic group itself and the western tourist would rather listen to the original tunes and the later can feel lucky if he does manage to have the experience by himself, if he s successful in escaping the tourism industry frame, which is not easy in Vietnam, where you need a permit to have access to these villages.
Laos seems also concerned by controlling the flow of tourists, many ethnic minorities areas are forbidden zones to a foreigner without a permit , especially the Hmong territories in northern part of Laos, the Attapeu province leaders in the south make it as hard as they can to forbid the western foreigner access to ethnic minority villages as I have experienced it myself in 2006. At the very same time Attapeu was invaded by 200 Chinese men from China involved in the local gold rush, turning upside down the rocks of the Sekong river, watched by powerless local minority people.So not only do these governments promote a fake vision of ethnic minorities through organized events for tourists, but they also make sure you cannot see the real culture ! In China, because we avoid sensitive areas like Tibet, we feel pretty free to go around , to remote villages and we are not seen as a threat by the authorities, I could freely talk to any policeman in uniform, explaining that we are recording ethnic minority music, often the policeman is himself a member of a shaoshu minzu and he sees nothing wrong .
In very different environments, historical, political and cultural contexts, ethnic minorities have to face the same challenges, being manipulated with various intentions by political powers, main ethnic groups, logging or mining companies , christian missionaries, development agencies, the tourists industry, the latter having specific cultural implications towards a relative cultural standardization, especially in China, where the tourist industry is huge . But all those countries share, at different degrees, a similar situation of acculturation, China with his official 56 minzu or Vietnam with his 54 minorities have promoted more than others, the glorious vision of colorful people, all integrated and supervised by a centralized communist government . Helen Rees in her chapter “ethnic minorities and the chinese state” explained that collection and arrangements of minority music and dance started and rapidly in the 50s were created soviet style state run song and dance troupes, Xinjiang cultural troupe in 1950, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region song and dance troupe in 1954, tibetan autonomous region song and dance troupe in 1958, Dehong Dai and Jingpo autonomous prefecture song and dance troupe in Yunnan in 1956, not surprisingly, such troupes tend to have got rid of ritual or erotic elements, deemed unsuitable to the state s communist and Han dominated sensibilities. They were basically performing, displaying what was acceptable and entertaining with the addition of praising socialist values and the multi ethnic chinese nation. At the same time , there have been obvious attempts to standardize the fluid world of minority culture in accordance with the categories and norms articulated by the state. For festivals the organizers will usually select a representative art form from each recognized ethnic group, frequently such art form becomes institutionalized , the Dai for example are inseparable in many people s imagination from the peacock dance, tha Miao from their lusheng ( mouth organs), or the Naxi from their Dongba dance.At the local , amateur level, however such standarzition is much less marked and a greater variety of forms persists, there is a marked disparity between ethnic image within the wider dominant culture and the actual local practice within the minority cultures themselves, So sometimes the singers/musicians we wish to record would start with the most obvious known cliche of their music, we have to explain our intentions in getting something they don t use for the outsider but for themselves.
In China the so called culture palaces set up in ethnic minority areas have as main purpose to develop the touristic potential, through staged shows, where the lyrics can be in mandarin as much as in local languages. Those institutions also work with a local music teacher who often does not hesitate to rewrite the local music into a more fashionable version. Once a friendly employee of this kind of official cultural association recommended that we focus our attention on those new styles in order to have more marketing opportunities ! In those 2 countries, some members of their own minority communities have adapted towards a diverse but acceptable presentation of themselves to the outside world, changing from animism to folklore, at various degree. China is the leader in producing vcds or dvds (hardly no audio cds can be found ) that show dressed up girls in local costumes, singing in their own language or in mandarin along with cheap techno music, there are quite a few beautiful tibetan girls who made it into the chinese pop charts. Vietnam has a tv channel dedicated to showing all kind of ethnic shows, from rather authentic to cheesy commercial deviation. It can be done simultaneously with good intentions and bad taste, by official cultural institutions as much as by members of ethnic groups looking for some kind of recognition, willing to simplify their cultural practices for the outside world, or simply thinking in term of evolution . In both countries , you can find Han local pop stars in China or Kinh in Vietnam who dress up with specific ethnic minority outfit to give an exotic touch to their ordinary mainstream musical production, something that might remind tourists of their holiday in an ethnic minority area. I love the rawness and uncompromising emotion that most ethnic musicians express, regardless of the main ethnic groups taste, and western and local cultural decision makers , not to mention foreign tourists or expats who are usually just looking for western music to go along with their western meals ! I have also learned from Isabel k.f. Wong s article in the book” excursions in world music”a few things about music in China and what has influenced musical taste of chinese Han masses.
In recent years the popularity of pop music has eclipsed all forms of traditional music, especially in the cities, modern chinese popsongs first came into being in shanghai in the late 20s, these early pop songs were a mixture of jazz, hollywood film songs and popular chinese urban ballads called xiaodiao, nowadays chinese pop songs have invaded any sphere of chinese society, walking in any chinese cities, one cannot avoid the sound of pop songs being blasted out to the streets from stores or homes, not to mention karaoke where every looser singer can express himself through this codified culture. karaoke also highlights that the audio and visual are of equal importance, like in beijing opera actually !
but let s go back to the beginning of the 20 th century, at the outset of education reform, famous scholars and reformers kang youwei and liang qichao had advocated the use of a new type of school song, with simple melodies and didactic texts, somewhat similar to western or japanese schools, to inculcate a new ethic of discipline and nationalism, the reformers claimed that chinese music was languid and passive and therefore unsuitable for school use. fei shi argued that china needed to have her music reformed or to create music that would be accessible to the chinese people including children. schools started to adapt songs from missionary schools in china and chinese students in japan when coming back to china put it in practice, chinese songwriters many of them having received elementary music training in japan, began to write didactic school songs, short and simple, march like rhythm, syllabic, reflecting the influence of early japanese school songs, the song texts have simple and direct messages concerned with patriotism, self discipline, military readiness, and civic spirit, the modern genre of chinese song was born, in the following decades up to recently, the descendants of these didactic songs became the main music diet of the majority of chinese students. those songs may be regarded as the predecessors ot the latter political songs known as revolutionnary songs or songs for the masses, which were developped by the communists.like his contemporary fei shi, cai yuanpei of the may 4th movement believed that elements of western music should be borrowed to modernize chinese music, maintaining a chinese facade, illustrating the slogan of 1898 chinese culture as the essence, and western learning for practical use since ancient times, music has traditionaly been treated as one of the elements that need to be combined in a certain environment, music has not only served as a mean of expressing emotions such as joy or sadness or as a vehicule of spiritual and religious contemplation, but it has always been integrated into events such as rituals, banquets, weddings, funerals, festivals, harvest celebrations, in addition music has been conceived as an integral part of theatre or dance, in any case music is rather in the background and not intended to be listened to carefully. most traditional chinese music was anonymous folk or popular material transmitted orally or through written notation rather than printed books, and gradually changed through copy, adaptation. before 1949 the status of a musician was determined by his education and occupation, a professional musician had a rather low social status, particularly those performing entertainment music catering for unlettered class, unlike the professional musician, the amateur did not rely on music for a living, he was well educated aristocrat, regarded as the perfect gentleman, some of them became famous as musicians, there is far less account of professional musicians.in early 20 th century the creation of songs was yet another development of the vernacular language and leading to new kind of entertainments, shows being performed on stage with dance, and products for the starting records industry, in the 30s the french record company pathe in shanghai was monopolizing the chinese market, the ccp was founded in 1921 by a leader of the 4th may movement, arts and music are considered by the marxists as political tools for propaganda, the increase of japanese invasion in china stimulated many more protest songs and then resonated for decades through songs in war films, became very popular and constitutes as such a true mass medium, after 1949, the production of thousands of songs for the masses became an important function of the propaganda machine, viewing music as an important tool in the propagation of state ideology,
Mao Zedong like Confucius defined music as being of proper or improper kinds, the correct that contains correct ideological message or the poisonous either from the discredited feudal society of the past or from the decadent west. Western music has been part of chinese music in the cultural changes that shaken the 20 th century, but some remote areas remained relatively untouched , following a different path in their musical historical development until the cultural revolution in a broader sense ( using this term I am not only referring to the chinese period from 1966 to 1976 ) reached them.
other text about ethnicity