Oral Tradition Fieldwork Feature
Songs of the Bai People:
A Conversation with Zhu Gang
The songs of the Bai people, one of China’s ethnic minorities, are a rich source of study for Zhu Gang. Zhu, who is himself Bai, is from the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province (southwestern China). Indeed, of the 2 million Bai people, 80% live in or near the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Over the course of five years, Zhu has conducted interviews with more than one hundred informants who participate in one of the greatest showcases for these traditions: the annual Shibaoshan Gehui—Stone Treasure Mountain Song Fair.
The Shibaoshan Gehui festival is held during the last week of July, in the time before the rice harvest. People gather in the mountainous areas of Shibaoshan—Stone Treasure Mountain—to sing love songs to each other and to have fun. Activities include visiting the three important temples in that area to worship and to pray for rain, for a good harvest, for the conception of children, and for a good coming year. There is also the possibility of casual sexual relations, which ensures the reproduction of the population and is said to anger gods so that they wash the mountain clean with rain; rain that is needed for a productive rice harvest.
The origins of the festival are attributed to a battle waged by two siblings—a brother and sister—against an evil dragon. The brother and sister used songs to defeat the dragon, but lost their lives in the process. Local people gather each year to sing songs, commemorating the siblings’ victory and their sacrifice. During the festival, participants can sing love songs anywhere and everywhere—including in the temples in front of Buddha, Buddhasava, and other gods. “Because the performance usually happens between a man and a woman, and if they don’t want an audience—they want to sing the songs privately—they will go to a place without an audience. But some of them want to show off their skills in performance, and will sing in front of an audience.” Indeed, many singers hope for a bigger audience, finding that “the more audience [they have], the better they will sing,” Zhu remarks. The songs, though ostensibly love songs, offer the singers a chance to make jokes at each others’ expense, to be sarcastic, and to make the audience laugh. “Those good singers,” Zhu comments, “are eager to sing, and eager to be heard.”
Zhu chose this festival as his focus because he is himself Bai, and understands the local language. “For scholars engaged in folklore or oral traditional research, understanding the local language is very important,” Zhu notes. “So for me, it is to my advantage to [undertake] oral traditional research of my people.” To be fair, his hometown is one hundred miles away, so the dialect is slightly different. “[My informants] did pay attention to my accent sometimes—they would make fun of me, of my accent!” Zhu laughs. “But they really accepted me,” Zhu reflects, “otherwise, they would not have made fun of me.”
Language is more than a way in for Zhu as a scholar; it is key to the festival itself. It is necessary to understand the local language, Baipho, in order to really appreciate the singing at the festival, particularly the clever word play. The festival is widely attended by people who speak the language, including those from as far away as Tibet. More recently, the Song Fair has also become more of a tourist attraction due to the Chinese government’s promotion of the event.
Zhu is finishing his doctorate at the Minzu University of China; he is also affiliated with the Institute of Ethnic Literatures at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing. Zhu was the visiting Lord and Parry Fellow at the University of Missouri’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition in 2012-13.