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Hezhe Ethnic Group
    2008-07-10 12:58:19     CRIENGLISH.com

The Hezhe ethnic group is one of the smallest minorities in China. These nomadic people live mainly by the Wusuli River in China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province. The Hezhes do not have a writing system of their own so they use Chinese characters for written communication. But they do have a way of recording their history and culture. It is through an art form known as Yimakan that sounds something like modern day rap music is presently only used by Hezhe people over 60. The art of Yimakan was in 2006 listed as one of China's intangible cultural heritages.

Our reporter Li Peichun will take you on a trip to a place where many Hezhes live, Jinkou township, to sample the art of Yimakan.

What you are hearing is a recording of Wu Liangui, a Hezhe artist, performing in the People's Grand Hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Many people can remember Wu Liangui, clad in brocade and exotic ornaments as he rapped in Yimakan from the stage. The unique combination of melody and words alternates between mild and lithesome and powerful and lyrical pitches and left the audience stunned.

Yimakan, is regarded as a living textbook of the Hezhe ethnic minority's history, which touches on legend, folklores, customs and religion. Narrative and singing parts appear at regular intervals. The vocalist makes full use of the Hezhe vernacular through dialogue and animal cries. A performer can create a true-to-life environment for involving the listeners through his power of imagination and oral expression. The Yimakan art form started as a way for working people to vent their frustrations and relax after a long day of hard work.

However the art form is disappearing among the Hezhe people. Wu Liangui was among the precious few left and he passed his skills on to his grandson Wu Baochen. Wu Baochen says,

"A small ancient city named Jiejinkou is located by the Heilongjiang River. We stand on the highest mountain in the east of the city, face the rising sun and chant Yimakan in chorus."

Wu Baochen was born in Jiejinkou, where the three rivers of Wusuli, Heilongjiang and Songhua converge. Blessed with high mountains, dense forests, rolling grasslands and rich water resources, Jiejinkou is a perfect fit for the Hezhe nationality who living mainly on fishing and hunting.

The traditional lifestyle of the Hezhe people is summed up in an old saying that Hezhes make their clothes from fish skin, brew wine as a tribute to the gods and travel by dog sled. Speaking of fishing, the Hezhes process the skins of large fish to make them nearly as soft as cotton. Then, the skins are sewed together according to grain and pattern with thread made from more fish skins. Completed with buttons made from fish bones, a suit of fish skin clothes is finished. Fish skin clothes are known for their lightness and durability and they are also resistant to coldness and rains. In the winter, the Hezhes hunt from dog-sleds, horse-sleds, snow boards and boats made of birch bark on the icebound plains and rivers.

Nowadays, the fish skin overcoats have become museum pieces and the winter hunting scenes are distant memories. But the art of Yimakan, has preserved the history. Wu Chenbao says that he still remembers the days of his youth when adults gathered together and sang Yimakan after a day's hard work.

"As far back as my memory can reach, after the fishing boats were harbored, the grown-ups would huddle their kids around the boats or the trees and spin yarns with many actions and gestures. On holidays, the Hezhe people would dance, tell stories and play oral-string music. "

Not long ago, China's Ministry of Culture conferred on Wu Baochen the title of state-level inheritor of the Yimakan art form. In Wu Baochen's opinion, Yimakan, epitomizes the Hezhe nationality in terms of history, culture, customs and rituals and should be preserved well for the next generations.

"With its current status, Yimakan is seen as the most precious contribution by my people. The priority for us now is to find ways to promote it. The more inheritors we can cultivate, the better. "

Wu used to be the director of the cultural institute for Jiejinkou township and did all he could to preserve and promote Yimakan. On the basis of a compilation of works by his grandfather, Wu Liangui, he created his own interpretation of Yimakan. The following is a selection from the Shaman Ditty, which is Wu Baochen's masterpiece.

The great hope and enthusiasm for conserving this art form must often confront hard reality. Old performers are fading away, modern lifestyles continue to erode and Yimakan has plunged into an all-time crisis. The scores of Yimakan singers left in the 1950s were reduced to 5 in the 1980s. Worse, inheritors are nowhere to be found. Because of diminishing fishing sources, the Hezhes have had to give up fishing for farming. So, the soil from which Yimakan sprung has been lost. The absence of a written language has also limited the dispersion of this ancient art. Yimakan, the gem of the Hezhe culture, is in real danger of extinction. Wu Baochen says,

"I am 50 years old. I have no mood to study the Hezhe culture any longer, let alone the younger generations. How can we count on them to relate to tradition in the future?"

The government now attaches great importance to this problem. After being listed as a national intangible cultural heritage, concrete measures and procedures have been laid out. Tongjiang city, the administrator of Jiejinkou township, has established a museum and a theme park dedicated to the Hezhe culture. Models of old-time housing have been built and materials about dance and other art forms have been collected. Since 2001, a special annual event for tourism has been held each fall and a society for researching the Hezhe culture has been set up.

From the perspective of You Lijun, the vice mayor of Tongjiang city, it is far from enough to merely move tangible items from an intangible culture into museums and institutes. The best way to preserve a culture is to enrich the soil where the culture is rooted.

"The most important thing is to revive the culture in the grassroots. The culture was created by common folks and can only be developed and inherited by them."

To this end, the local government has begun many projects through regional cultural centers. The elderly are invited to give lessons to the young in traditional music, dances, customs and language. Schools are required to offer courses on the Hezhe people's history and culture. Designated inheritors of various ancient skills and abilities will be subsidized to pass them on.

To the people's delight, some young men, have acquired an interest in these traditions and have begun to shoulder the responsibility of developing and promoting them. A twenty something Hezhe youth named Wuqi is quite talented at Hezhe songs and dances. Under the influence of his parents, he practices attentively and began performing at Hezhe holiday events at age 7. Wu Qi claims he will keep on playing the oral strings and dancing the Fish and Eagle dance, both taught by his deceased father.

"Few people can do the Fish and Eagle dance. I am set on perfecting it. The Hezhe culture, including the language, songs and dances, is fairly hard to learn, but I will conquer the difficulty and grasp it little by little. "

For the Spotlight, I am Li Peichun.

 
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