Hmong Oral Epics: Transnational Collaboration and an Epic Master-text
Author: Bender, Mark
Affiliation: The Ohio State University

This paper will discuss the process of transnational collaboration in the creation of a “tradition-oriented” master-text of an oral epic of the Miao ethnic group (Miaozu) in southeast Guizhou province, China.  The project begins in the 1950s with several participants including prof. Ma Xueliang of the Central University for Nationalities, Beijing and several local ethnic scholars in Guizhou, including Jin Dan (now an octogenarian).  In the first phase of the project, local scholars collected portions of an epic tradition known in Han language as “gu ge” or “ancient songs” or by the term “Miaozu shishi’ (Miao epics) once the song shad been categorized as “epics.”  The songs go by various local names in the Miao areas of southeast Guizhou.

Due to the historical situation of the late 1950s through late 1970s, the project was disrupted several times.  Finally, a Chinese language volume of the songs was published by Ma and Jin in the early 1980s.  In the mid-1980s, an American folklorist began collaborating with Jin Dan on an English translation, resulting in the publishing of an English version of the Ma and Jin text in 2006.  In 2009, Jin Dan resurrected the idea he and Ma Xueliang had conceived of creating a tri-lingual multi-liner text which would include Miao Romanization, Han, and English.  By this time Jin Dan’s children were involved in researching the epics and Miao culture.  In 2012 the tri-lingual version will be published as a national project by the Guizhou Nationalities Press (Guizhou minzu chubanshe). 

The nature of the collaboration for much of the English translation was done with short site visits by the American collaborator to meet with Jin Dan and his two children, Yi Wen and Wu Yifang, both of which are deeply involved in preserving the Miao epics and aspects of Miao folk culture.   A large portion of the translation project was carried out on-line, triangulating between the Romanized Miao, Han translation, and English.  This process, which will be described in the paper included solving many linguistic and cultural problems. A major issue was correctly translating customs and techniques and identifying environmental aspects such as particular, animals, plants, landforms, tools, architectural styles, and other objects of material culture.  Innovative strategies for problem solving included using a process of question and confirmation, the use of digital images and videotapes, the long-range consultation with tradition-bearers and experts, and patterns of long-distance manuscript checking in preparation for one-on-one work during site visits.  The thrust of the talk will be that long-distance projects are possible if innovation and cooperation are the guiding principles. Among the topics discussed will be the motivations – both scholarly and locally – for creating idealized “master-texts” as records of endangered oral epic traditions and their value in contrast to versions based wholly on live, video-taped performances as is now the norm in many places.