-by Ernie Diaz
It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around being relocated by act of government. In China, however, no end of 50-70 somethings have a forced relocation at the center of their life stories. It has been known here as long as anywhere else that empires grow by war, but last by demographics.
The Miao just melted away from the Yellow River Valley after losing a battle to Huaxia, soon to become the Han. South and West the Miao wandered, themselves to build an empire of sorts, defeating aboriginals and thriving as a cluster of tribes. A Great King led them, Yalu. Yalu, whose story is the sacred rite of the Miao, finally put down on paper by a madman.
Yalu and the Miao hold little sway over Anshun, in Western Guizhou. The Han don’t melt, they pour in. For a firmer grip on Guizhou, the first Ming Emperor turned Anshun into a cluster of fortified villages, the hills around them bulwarked. A hundred thousand soldiers and more he sent from Nanjing. That held off the Mongols. The Miao, on the other hand, like Afghanis, have the hill-dweller tenacity to suffer no bottom-dweller’s yoke.
Thus began the true forced relocation, thousands in waves packing up their lives by imperial decree and moving on out to the Anshun garrisons. The mission, to establish a full Han presence in Guizhou, with farmers, millers, dough-rollers and finally noodle-cookers to maintain true Chinese civilization. With no one marrying outside their ancestral lineage, let alone Han race (cue banjo).
But if you visited Anshun today and were told this was an ancient Miao stronghold, you’d see no reason not to believe it. The people of Anshun still have their eastern Chinese accents, but aside from that, they’ve become hill dwellers, and gone Miao as much as Miao have gone Han.
Libertarians and other malcontents should gladly take up a government mandate to relocate to some remote outpost. It means time served, and being largely left to one’s own devices. The Han of Anshun remained far from imperial shenanigans and the chaos it caused in the lowlands. They kept their own stories, but it turned into chuan opera, and ritual dance.
Stone houses and alleys, heavy wooden gates frame the Anshun’s eight ancient villages of Yunfeng Tunpu, but the center is Dixi, ‘earth opera’. Masks and scarves on a stage, according to the prescribed Han recipe, but tales of the battles for Guizhou, of victories over the Chu, the Chiyou, realer names for the peoples who make up the Miao, who are Miao the same way the First Nations are Indian.
So it’s rather contradictory for the Miao to share a an epic tale, for them equal parts Gilgamesh and Old Testament, based on one king, Yalu. Nonetheless, west of Anshun, the unbowed Miao have his story to hold them together. Twenty-six thousand lines trace the Miao’s origins, constant relocation, and heroic highs. Unlike other folk histories, however, this one connects Yalu to the present over the course of 200 heirs.
And in that time, the Miao stopped melting away and made took the hills as life itself, the only thing to cling to. Some who went far enough south are now known as the Hmong, and even they in forty years of open genocide have not been entirely extirpated from their ‘ancestral’ homes.
The Chinese put down non-stop Miao rebellion ruthlessly, the more ruthlessly the more non-stop. There was mass-castrations of subjugated youth, put it that way, to dwindle the odds of future strife. It took the Manchu, themselves attuned to the emotional needs of a minority on the fringes of the Han empire, to effect true Miao assimilation by offering a gate to full participation. The Qing not only encouraged intermarriage of their soldiers to Miao women, but also positions in a precursor of autonomous regional government, the kaitong system, still in effect when the French began plaguing Indochina in the 20th century. Before we get all subjective, remember that the Qing started playing nice only after three disastrous and costly wars with the Miao.
And a few short centuries on, who’s really won the ground, and who has lost identity? The futility of the violent striving which spins the world can wreak havoc on emotionally delicate types. It’s hard not to go nutty when you alone can see the bestial soul behind national pride, justified wars, family politics, and everyone else is playing along.
That kind of pain yields jewels, though, sometimes. A friend’s village marriage ceremony, and his subsequent promise to write an epic about the event, sent sensitive 14-year old Yang Zhengjiang into a fugue state diagnosed as possession by his relatives. They locked him in the mill, and sent for the dong lan. If one shaman is portentous, a chanting clique of them is that much more so. Yang watched them through a crack in the wall.
They danced slowly and chanted lines from the Yalu Epic. The sounds would haunt Yang well into adulthood. He studied the writing of Miao, a language that has ever been based on the aural tradition. Then he set about hiking through every village in Western Guizhou’s Mashan county, interviewing over 3,000 dong lan. His early pain led him on to clamber the length and breadth of Western Guizhou, collecting stories, recording funeral dances of the dong lan in their bamboo hats, girded with sword and bow.
Truly, his work was monumental, learning the Mashan dialect and its twelve tones, all rules off when sung, researching then finding the vanished battle grounds and resting places the Yalu tales describe. Then, the long work of translation into Mandarin. Throw in relatives haranguing him for wasting his life and you have an epic intellectual struggle to mirror Yalu’s sojourning.
In the end, we have the Epic written in Mandarin, and Yang’s work has its place on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The Miao have a history that will not evaporate when the few dong lan left are no longer around to sing it. The Han of Yunfeng Tunpu have their stone villages and Dixi. The politics change, but the needs they fail to serve remain the same. And Yang? “Sometimes I feel like I’m dying; sometimes I feel like I’m already dead.”