Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dömbra Nation - 11 (Black Stallion)

Mountain Magic
We rent a car for the day and head into the mountains to Japarbek Jianglihan’s house. We enter the mountains flushed with an exuberant sun and spring’s first green. The mountain roads we take wind up through a deep colorful valley. We are alone in the expanse and slip through the scenery. It is a clear day to breathe the great wide open. And too soon, I find that we have entered Zhuan Dai Village just below the Zhuan Dai Mountain Pass

more pictures:

We arrive to the magic mountain home, just at the entrance of the village, hugging the mountain dotted with grey, black and white sheep. Japarbek is glowing with happiness and excitement. He is suddenly a kid, eager, proud, and excited to play the Dömbra for his impromptu guests. He has instantly dropped all of his work for the day - tending to his newborn sheep, watching the others graze - to spend the day with us, blessing the afternoon with an endless concert. Even when we are tired, from listening and concentrating, he wants to continue to play, eager to express all his happiness and play for us all the songs that he once knew.

He wants to slaughter a sheep, and heaps presents on us. Endless gifts of generosity. Tea and Beshparmak of course. Milk and tangy homemade blueberry jam.

Japarbek puts on his best clothes. Finding his white head cover to be a little bit dirty, he goes to the store that he and his family keep to make extra money and pulls out a new bright white head cover. He slips on his velvet jacket and his grandson too puts on the decorations of the day.

A Father’s Dream
Japarbek was born in 1946, and started to play when he was only four. Encouraged by his father, he would play when visitors entered the house, and take his Dömbra to the neighbor’s whenever possible. His dad, determined to have a master Dömbra player in the house, would take the young Japarbek with him to every ceremony, feast or party where his son could listen to Dömbra. His father believed that music starts with the ears and wanted to place the seed of the Dömbra in his son. And so the young Japarbek attended every wedding and Akyn competition in the neighboring villages, discovering his local geography and building his ear.

Japarbek was able to study five years in elementary school, but the family did not have enough resources for him to continue. He would tend to the family and its sheep, walking in the great expanse of the pastures and grassland. Perhaps the second ingredient for a master Dömbra player

In 1957 a Kazakh movie was played in the outdoor movie theatre in Qinghe town. Japarbek attended and was mesmerized. But, he was mesmerized not by the movie or the beautiful actors – but by its soundtrack. The movie featured a Dömbra player who gently stroked the song “Hei Ze Ma” or black stallion, a song written by the famous Dömbra composer, Baisembai. This song was to mark Japarbek, leaving a strong impression on his soul and a restlessness in his fingers.

Hearing the song “Hei Ze Ma” Japarbek said that he realized that the Dömbra could tell life. The instrument could translate feelings and the rhythms of his life on the plane. “Hei Ze Ma”, clearly brought to life the galloping of the stallions in the summer pastures, and he awoke to the fact that the Dömbra could tell the story of his people.

Coming home late from the movie, he played the song by heart for his father. His father was moved to tears, seeing that his son had learned the secret of the Dömbra. Japarbek says that he too was happy to have fulfilled his father’s dream, and from that time on the Dömbra would be an essential partner in his life. He turned to his Dömbra with new diligence, and a bequeathed sense of responsibility.

We sit in Japarbek’s three-room house, sitting on the raised surface of the bed/living room, surrounded by the piles of dowry shyrdaks and covers that his wife brought with her years ago for their marriage. We sit and listen to Japarbek play, some songs that he remembers well, others from which he only plays a few verses. He plays over 40 songs for us, and the morning slips into the afternoon and then into the early evening. He says that he could play until morning, and I wish that we could stay. I would just lie down on the colorful felt shyrdaks and dream away, thinking of nations and music and people and the freedoms of a nomadic life surrounded by family.

But our driver wants to go back to town, and we reluctantly get back into the car and slip away from Japarbek’s colorful home, returning to the dusty cement county center. Leaving some part of beauty.

Dömbra Nation - 8 (Instrument Makers)

Along the way, Song Yu Zhi and I meet five Dömbra-makers. All men, all masters of sound: Sultan Kaze, Mahediti, Dr. Kabidula and the Paizola Father and Son.

With the instrument makers we learn about economics, tradition, rigor and compromise.

Dömbra making is developing fast, bolstered by the high demand for the instruments that began with China’s reform in the late 70’s. Dömbra-making has become a lucrative business and logically Dömbra makers are increasing. This tradition is far from being lost, and rather traditions are being maintained and expanded upon.

Dömbra as Medicine
Dr. Kabidula, a retired doctor from the Altai Kazakh Hospital has anchored his Dömbra playing and making in his vision for healthy living. He talks about mental and physical health, and sees the Dömbra as giving the Kazakh community both. He believes that Dömbra playing is anchored in the need for people to translate their emotions of happiness and sadness and get in touch with their spirit – and psychology.

Dr. Kabidula also believes that the sharing of stories are important emotional expressions for the community, and that this sharing is medicinal. It is an essential part of the Kazakh culture he says – to share the emotional through the Dömbra.

When he retired from his position at the hospital, Dr. Kabidula had nothing to do, and so decided to fill his free time by making instruments in his workshop, a small garage-like cabin below his apartment building, a stone’s throw from the hospital. He says that making the instruments is mental and physical exercise, keeping him healthy and alert. But beyond the health benefits, the Dömbra-making also enables his family to avoid economic hardship – he sells each Dömbra for RMB 200-300, thus comfortably complimenting his retirement.

Kabidula is from a family of carpenters, craftsmen with agile hands. As a child his family was completely autonomous he says. His grandfather made everything for the house – tables, bowls, etc, while the women made the rugs, cloth etc. He learned the carpentry trade from his forefathers. His uncle was also a very good Dömbra maker.

Dr. Kabidula has agile hands and a piercing intellect to guide them. In his workshop he crafts instruments and other medical gadgets. He is a talented inventor with 3 patents and another of the way – for all sorts of medical needs including broken bone reparation, crutches and massage therapy. (He has also co-written two books on Kazakh traditional medicine.)

Dr. Kabidula’s instruments have amazing sound. Deep and resonant. Song Yu Zhi plays a mandolin made by Kabidula and the whole case vibrates with the strings – the sound is clear and long-lasting.

The sounds are indeed medicinal, we escape to other places.

Sound and Beauty

The masters we meet are concerned about quality – sound quality and the beauty of the instruments. Dömbra making is about compromises, weighing beauty and sound. Finding the architecture that will enable both.

This is the work of Paizola father and son.

In Chem Chek Village, a 15 minute drive south of Altai city, we talk with Yerbolat Paizola, the son of the Paizola father/son team.

A confident maker of Dömbra, he is 25 and started to make Dömbra professionally with his father when he was 20. His is an inherited craft: profitability facilitating the inheritance.

We talk about the Dömbra’s recent evolution from the quadratic/square shaped Abai Dömbra to today’s round-bellied Jhambul Dömbra. The change from the Abai to the Jhambul has occurred over the past 30-40 years in China, and now the Paizola team exclusively makes the newer, rounder Jhambul Dömbra.

Yerbolat takes us into his workshop and shows us the process of making the Dömbra: the Paizola’s delicate mix of esthetics and sound. From the processing of the wood (soaking, molding, drying) to the assembly of the pieces, a simple Dömbra can take two days to make. The more precise and beautiful pieces can take up to one month – these are made to order.

The Paizola team sells most of their instruments from their home, but have also started to sell their instruments in local music shops in Altai city. Expensive or unique orders however are still made directly to them in their home-workshop.

In his workshop Yerbolat listens to slow beautiful Dömbra music. Light comes through his western-looking window, and we watch the sun set as Yerbolat shapes wood into sound. His apprentice watches. He has been chosen among many men who volunteered to learn the craft. He will one day take this knowledge and open his own workshop, further giving birth to sound and the histories it carries.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dömbra Nation - 6 (inventing new instruments)

This is the sixth article about the 20 days Song Yu Zhi and I spent chasing the Dömbra, the two-stringed long-necked lute of the Altai, the soul of the Kazakh people. This slender cedar wood instrument carries the sacred of the nomad: those long nights spent below the stars. It is the vessel of the Kazakh people’s oral history: the tool for recounting the tragedy and strength of ancestors and for performing the emotional and the poetic.

for more pictures:

Sultan Kaze – Sound Innovator and Instrument Maker
Two Mornings with Sultan Kaze in the Yili Kazak Autonomous Region
Born in 1965, Sultan Kaze is a craftsman dedicated to the revival and development of Kazakh music. He has crafted and revived many of Kazakh’s most traditional instruments, and used these instruments to develop and invent others. He is an experimenter of sound histories. His works are exposed in the Illi Museum for Kazakh Culture.

Sultan Kaze studied at the Illi Music and Dance Troupe and in 1992 was named its director. First learning how to play to Dömbra, he quickly started to be interested in more ancient Kazakh instruments. An assiduous researcher, he gathered all the available literature in Illi and across the border in Kazakhstan, but found few materials on ancient instruments. Only one foreign book (he did not state it origin- probably Kazakhstan) published in 1978 enabled him to learn about the various types of instruments and how they were made. The book provided only a structure – and Sultan Kaze was left to improvise and investigate in his basement workshop below his apartment. He was determined to revive the instruments he saw – and his investigations were instinctual, he says.

Sultan Kaze is a historian and an inventor, a storyteller with agile and constructive hands. He has dived into wood and strings, experimenting with revival and histories.

Pulling from old pictures, he is rebuilding the past and innovating on sound.

He is a deep well of history – he has lived for these instruments and culture since the days of China’s reform.

Sultan Kaze first crafted the Kazakh’s traditional Kybyze, a two-stringed violin – which is set on the musician’s lap and played vertically with a horse-tail bow. The hollow body of the classical Kybyze is covered with camel or cowhide and the strings are made of naturally processed sheep intestines. After finishing his Kybyze, he felt that the notes and musical range of the Kybyze were restricted, finding its low tone too monotone an unvaried.

(photo: Sultan Kaze with ancient Kybyze. Kybyze means instrument in Kazakh)

He investigated methods to make the Kybyze more alive, and more adapted to today’s new sounds – he wanted to be able to play both Kazakh and foreign music.

From his investigations, the modern Kybyze was born. Maintaining the same shape and structure, he added two more strings to increase the range of the instrument, and covered the hollow with wood (rather than camel-hide) to help make a more stable sound (not dependent on the caprices of the changing seasons – their humidity or dryness). The new four-stringed Kybyze now gave musicians access to a greater musical repertoire, while conserving the sounds and effects needed to play traditional Kazakh songs. Sultan Kaze proudly states that the new modern Kybyze is successfully performed and starting to develop among the community.

Zhitegen: Kings, Sons and Seven Strings
Sultan Kaze’s experimenting did not stop here. Building on the success of his modern Kybyze, Sultan Kaze revived and transformed the Kazakh Zhitegen – or “seven strings”. He knew of the Zhitegen only in books. The instrument had died away and had not been used for the length of memory. Noone recalled the sound, until the 1938 excavation of a burial ground in southern Kazakhstan were the remains of an old Zhetigen were found.

From pictures and descriptions, he revived the instrument – again in his compact basement workshop.

The Zhitegen, he tells us has a magic history:

The Zhitegen was born in myth and chaos, in the time when the wide open plains were continuing their path in life and death, peace and war. One year on the plain the cold came crashing to the land, bringing with it an epidemic that swept through the population.

One leader of the tribe, a rich man dotted with seven sons was to be hard hit by the snows and disease.

The epidemic entered the leader’s tent, striking his first son. Shattered and heartbroken by this death, the old man nailed a string across his Zhitehan board. Zhitehan, or “Seven Kings” was a traditional dice game played on a large wooden board with colored sheep knuckles (small curved bones). With this string of remembrance stretched across his game board, he could no longer play and be merry without remembering his son.

But the epidemic was not to leave so soon, and rapidly slayed a second of his sons. The old man, in remembrance lays another string across the wooden board. But the epidemic was well entertained in his house and rapidly spread through all his progeny, slaying all of his seven sons. For each of his sons, the old man nailed a string across his Zhitehan board, and soon the game board was flush with seven strings.

Out of desperation, wishing his sons back to people his tents and encampment, the old man caressed the strings longing for their return. As he touched the strings (probably made of mutton intestine or wool) he realizes that they make beautiful sound. The old man is enchanted - his sons are there – speaking with him through the strings. The strings have become their memory, and the old man starts plucking the strings into melodies of sadness and recollection. Thus the Zhitegen “Seven Strings” was born.

The Zhitegen strings are held up above the wooden board by mutton bone knuckles – probably the same ones used in the Zhitehan game.

(photo: both Sultan Gaze and his wife are masters of creation, reflecting eachother)

Kazakh and Chinese Fusion: the New Zhitegen
After reviving the Zhitegen, the innovative Sultan Kaze had to go further. He could not help but notice the similarities between the Zhitegen (a horizontal harp) and the traditional Chinese horizontal harp, the Guqin. He thus developed a new Zhitegen with 18 strings (some plastic, metallic, and some still made of sheep intestines) and again an extended range of sounds and possibilities.

(photo: Sultan Kaze with old (right) and new (left) Zhitegen)

It is the same board, with a variation on scales.

He is still working on the sounds possible with this instrument – whose strings are held above mutton bone knuckles like the traditional Zhitegen. Song Yu Zhi enthusiastic about this musical investigation suggested many other possibilities – such as using the same strings as used in traditional western harps – and Sultan Kaze’s investigations may further see interesting developments.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

An Instrument for a Nation


Again, many thanks to Song Yu Zhi and Patrizia for enabling this part of my trip, with so much discovery. Thanks must also go to Song Yu Zhi’s close friend, Mamour a Kazakh man whose life is centered on the Dömbra. He gave us invaluable contacts and support.

We are chasing the Dömbra, the two-stringed long-necked lute of the Altai, the soul of the Kazakh people. This slender cedar wood instrument carries the sacred of the nomad: those long nights spent below the stars. It is the vessel of the Kazakh people’s oral history: the tool for recounting the tragedy and strength of ancestors and for performing the emotional and the poetic.

The Dömbra Nation
We spend 20 days discovering the places where the Dömbra’s magic is alive and breathtaking – in villages, children playing, elderly men who have transmitted the gift to the next generation, and the masters writing and reviving older traditions. The Dömbra is omnipresent and a core part of any Kazakh home. In every village we travel through – Urumqi, county centers, mountain communities, small towns on the edge of summer pastures – the Dömbra is alive and strikingly articulate.

During our research, we also slip into those parlors of officialdom where China’s folklore is chiseled and constructed, where shows are constructed and the traditions of various peoples mixed and confused. We skip from authenticity to folklore, between magic and politics: a beautiful path of song and emotion.

Births and Myths
There are many stories recounting the birth of the Dömbra. All are beautiful tales set on the wide infinite summer pastures of the nomads. The Dömbra is an instrument born of geography, to lighten solitudes and build nations.

One story tells of a love. A beautiful young woman, brave and confident who dares her young lover to make a cedar tree create sound. Only then will she marry him. Eager, ambitious and in love, the young man works night and day, chiseling, molding and carving out the Dömbra from the tree. Finished, he beckons his love with sweet serenades. The cedar tree has come alive in his hands and the emotions and voices that emerge from the hollow wood woo his young love.

Another story tells of the gifts of the natural world, conspiring to help man. A young shepherd is tending to his sheep in the summer pastures. Hard, open, lonely work. The shepherd is restive and lonely, aching for company – when he hears a strange voice beckoning. He follows the sound across the green of the land and is surprised to find the dried carcass of a sheep. The sheep intestines, torn apart by hawks and other predators have been wrapped around the sheep’s ribs, where they have dried. Above the hollow of the leather carcass the dried strings of intestines are vibrating in the winds – producing sound. Intrigued, the shepherd starts to pluck the strings, and is stunned by the emotions he can translate with this natural echoing box. The young shepherd reproduces the instrument with wood – recreating the hollow of the sheep carcass above which he strings sheep intestines – making the first Dömbra. (Traditionally, the Dömbra strings are indeed naturally processed sheep intestine)

Perhaps the Dömbra is really the descendant of other lutes brought from the Ferghana or Persia or other lands – but in the memory of the Kazakhs it was born on the wild, lonely and generous plain – given by nature to quell man’s solitude, express love, and build nations.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A look at Central Asia from Beijing

Central Asia – seen from Beijing (raw notes, a little boring)

It’s often said that China is keenly aware of its periphery, and that saying might still be true. China is an empire, and Central Asia is on its western flank.

Although most people in far-off eastern Beijing are hardly aware of the five “stans” that lay to the west, China’s political, military, and economic interaction with its western neighbors is of growing importance. I set out to talk with some experts on the region – to get a feel for China’s policy framework towards Central Asia. Unfortunately, I only talked to foreigners – one Polish, the other Russian – but both were working in Beijing and involved in Central Asia.

A winter afternoon in Beijing, talking with the China head of UNDP’s Silk Road Initiative.

The UN’s Silk Road Initiative has been frozen recently by a lack of funds, and I am surprised by the ineffectiveness of the United Nation’s monolith: visions and great ideas without implementation – dwindling resources and perhaps a loss in international support and confidence. I’m just wondering what will happen if such global institutions falter? Here in this structure are deep knowledge and the presence of great minds – but how to keep them from rotting in offices, unpeopled and empty, wrought by boredom and ineffectiveness? (just a passing note)

Marketing the Silk Road
The UN’s Silk Road Initiative is hoping to bring people and leaders together – as in a recent Silk Road Summit held in Xian in June of 2006. The organization wants to build or “market” an image of the region – the Silk Road region – a vast basket willing to embrace all those countries who want to be part of this regional identity, from Turkey to Korea. Mr. Hubner says it is less a historical identity, than a business council with a positive and productive vision for present action and future development.

This marketing work has the goal of attracting and consolidating investments so essential for growth and stability in the region.

The Unexpected
Mr. Hubner knows the region well, and speaks first of its instability – he takes Kyrgyzstan as an example: a country who was “on the right track,” ready and willing to follow the direction of the international community, striving to build a nation, but failing miserably to attract any foreign investment or gain real economic traction. Kyrgyzstan, he says is frozen in its economic crisis, stumbling under the burden of corruption. Kazakhstan on the other hand, Mr. Hubner notes, is building itself on the wealth of oil and gas, with thankfully some of the profits trickling down to the people. The president of Kazakhstan however remains one of the richest men in the world.

This is a region he says that has inherited what it did not expect – left with a political and
economic vacuum, left in havoc by the fall of the USSR. The five Central Asian states were not yet ready to build nations, and had not been trained in independence.

Central Asian countries are still struggling with some basics Mr Hubner notes – such as the symbolic foundations of a nation: languages and the status of history. The five states, Mr. Hubner believes are still struggling with an almost colonial heritage, battling with gifts and chaos. Gifts: first a Lingua Franca – Russian, to communicate beyond boundaries. And then Chaos: economic dependency on the Soviet monolith, and the hardship of suddenly seeking new structures and partners.

China in Central Asia: stability and peace?
Asked about China and the Central Asian region, Mr. Hubner directly speaks about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Mr. Hubner highlights two interesting trends in the SCO. Firstly the organization’s recent expansion to Iran and Pakistan as observer-members and secondly the growing interaction that the organization is enabling for China, India, Russia, and the region.

Central Asia is a crossroads not only for China and the West, but also a gateway to the growing South-Asian market.

The SCO has 6 members: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As of 2005, it also has four observer members: India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia. Afghanistan has only come as an occasional guest and Turkmenistan is still not involved.

Mr. Hubner highlights the growing importance of the SCO countries as a world block, driven by a common vision and with demonstrated cooperation abilities. As is feared in the West the SCO could potentially be a real opposition to the NATO block. The SCO with its observer members includes 5 nuclear powers and almost half of the world’s population. Enough, I imagine to make the Pentagon cringe.

The obvious strongmen in the organization are China and Russia. Mr. Hubner interestingly notes that China’s interest in the region is mainly anchored in the need for stability and peace. He believes that China is looking to gain insight into this region that is still a “Terra Incognita”. He does not believe that China has any military goal, or targeted “enemies” or expansive goals. Indeed he says, China does not consider that region aggressively, but rather only see’s America as its real challenger on the global scene. Mr. Hubner believes that much of China’s policies (cultural, economic and military) are targeted to building a challenge to America’s hegemony. But Mr. Hubner believes that China’s involvement in the Central Asian region, is indeed only to ensure the peace and stability of the region. China’s main tools up to now have been investment and economic activity.

After September 11th however, the presence of American military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan used for Bush’s offensive in Afghanistan perhaps provide further incentive for China to be involved in the region. Does China see this as American encroachment into its sphere of influence? September 11th literally put Central Asia on the American map of the world. (Bush as a geography teacher). And although the Americans were kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005 after the US gov. criticized the Uzbek gov. for their brutal handling of the Andijan riots, the American Base in Kyrgyzstan is still up and running, although with a greatly increased rent (up from zero to 200 million dollars). America is also present in the region with oil deals, humanitarian aid, and the regular flow of businessmen and women. – perhaps giving China that itchy feeling.

Of course, Mr. Hubner also notes that Xinjiang is a primordial reason for China’s involvement in the region. Xinjiang looks quiet and controlled, he says, but despite the investments going into the region, there is “always something going on there”. Perhaps China’s knowledge of the Central Asian region can help it deal with the problems and obstacles in Xinjiang?

A New Block – New Principles of Unity
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is seated in Beijing, tucked in between the future construction site of the American Embassy and one of Beijing’s swanky bar streets. Pieces of China’s Central Asian policy framework are formulated within these quiet pastel walls.

Talking with Victor Trifonov, Senior Researcher at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), one thing becomes clear: the SCO was clearly born in opposition to NATO and recent USA international policy.

The SCO’s introductory materials spell it out (with some shoddy grammar - which should be excused as the official languages of the SCO are Russian and Chinese): “In the history of modern international relations, creation and development of “Shanghai Five” represents diplomatic practice of creative value. It initiated new global vision with regards to security, containing principles of mutual trust, disarmament, cooperation and security, enriched new type of interstate relations. (…) This new world vision has raised human society above cold war ideology and made an invaluable contribution to creation of a new model of international relations.”

The SCO introduction further takes a bite at America’s cowboy tactics on the international scene. “As regards foreign policy, the heads (of the SCO) emphasized that the modern world order must be based on the consolidation of mutual trust, good-neighbourhood relations, the abandonment of monopoly and single rule on international affaires; it must follow the prevalent status of principles and norms of the international law.” The SCO countries seem to be clearly aligned against America’s primacy in world affairs.

Mr. Trifonov stresses that unlike the intervention/interference habits of the USA, the SCO agreement very clearly states that the countries in the organization will not intervene in domestic politics or affairs of other member states. (China notoriously lauded the Uzbeks on their handling of the Andijan riots that put the civilian death toll in the hundreds - but internal policies shall not be criticized)

The SCO and the Fight against Terrorism
Mr. Trifonov highlights that the SCO was concerned with global terrorism long before September 11th and the US’s aggressive plunge into the anti-terror game.

The precursor of the SCO, the Shanghai Five was created to solve outstanding territorial disputes between China, Russia and three of the new Central Asian states. Indeed with the Shanghai Five, China’s borders with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan were all re-drawn and finalized. The initial Shanghai Five, however, was rapidly expanded to include other forms of cooperation and dialogue. The group invited Uzbekistan (which does not have a boundary with China) and created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for expanded regional cooperation.

Upon its creation on June 15, 2001 the SCO countries cited several new goals, including the fight against the “three evils – terrorism, separatism and extremism.” The SCO had thus declared a fight against terrorism three months prior to September 11th.

The “three evils” clause seems to highlight China’s paranoia that terrorist or separatist groups will enter China through its western frontier. This could indeed be very destructive to China’s gargantuan colonial efforts to keep control of the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang. Indeed (in a China-centric view) the “three evils” clause seems to directly target the Uyghur separatists that continue to fight for the independence of Xinjiang. China would obviously want to sever the links between the Uyghurs and their Turkic brothers in Central Asia, and must be eager to gain the support of Central Asian governments in these attempts. The SCO agreement has helped China pressure Central Asian countries to capture and extradite Uyghur separatists who flee Xinjiang. (I’m sure a similar story can be told for Russia and its Chechens, and Uzbekistan and the IMU).

China aside, Mr. Trifonov highlights that Central Asia does have huge geo-strategic salience in the fight on global terrorism. The fight against the fundamentalism, terrorism, and drug/arms-trafficking that seeps in from their southern neighbors – Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan – is important and pressing. Peace and stability are keys to building an economically strong region – and focusing on terrorism is part of the solution.

(I forgot to ask Mr. Trifonov about religion – and the role religion plays in the organization – Islam, Christianity, Atheism…I think this is perhaps an interesting factor in the SCO meetings)

Eurasian Superpowers: China and Russia
Talking with Mr. Trifonov, it is clear that Russia and China consider Central Asia within their orbits: China and Russia are showing themselves to be the two Eurasian super-powers, eager to both flex their muscle with the help of the SCO and keen to diminish Western influence in the region.

Russia and China each fund 24% of the SCO budget. Each country has 7 representatives in Beijing, while Kazakhstan has 6, Uzbekistan 5, Kyrgyzstan 3 and Tajikistan 2.

The SCO enables Russia and China to inject vital economic support into Central Asia, and the SCO projects are funded by the China Bank of Development and Russia’s New Ekanom Bank. China has pledged USD 500million to finance SCO projects, which range from a trans-Asian highway to hydro-electric power stations, to irrigation projects. Beyond the SCO however, China is also flooding the Central Asian market with consumer goods, construction materials and telecommunications (ZTE and co.). Russia floods Central Asia with its pop-stars, second-hand Ladas and decapitating vodka.

Russian and Chinese influence are converging in the region (the China part being new).

Over the past 20 years, Mr. Trifonov notes, Russia and China have been realigning, and over the past five years, their relationship has been rapidly enhanced. Mr. Trifonov notes that 2006 was the year of Russia in China – a fact that I had not noticed at all - but Trifonov insists it was a great success. 2007 will be the year of China in Russia. An obvious geo-political triangle – Russia, China and Central Asia will undoubtedly become increasingly intertwined. I wonder if Central Asian countries are eager to oblige.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Xinjiang - the setting

Thanks to Song Yu Zhi, the ambitious Confucian rocker (and also many thanks to one of my closest friends, Patrizia for letting her man take a month out to travel with me) I was able to go to Bei Jiang – the northern expanse of Xinjiang. We trekked on a beautiful journey north of the Tian Shan Mountains through the Dzungarian basin to the Altai in search of Dömbra masters – the long-necked two-stringed Lute of the Kazakh people.

(map sources: map from le Monde Diplomatic website. their sources: Atlas of the people’s Republic of China, Foreign languages Press, Pékin, 1989 ; Jacques Leclerc, Aménagement linguistique dans le monde, université de Laval, Québec, Canada ; Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Maps and publications, Washington DC ; Recensement chinois de novembre 2000 ; ChinaOnline, Chicago.)

Below – a short, very fragmented and cursory introduction to Xinjiang: the land and politic of our journey.

Barriers and Beauty
One sixth of China’s territory, Xinjiang is a contested and beautiful place. Wild and ravenous, it is a confluence of mountains, deserts and deep basins. Miles from any ocean, this is a land of dryness, of wind and rock carved by glaciers and the movement of tectonic plates. (the memory of earth). This is land dependent on glacial waters that rush down towards the grape and melon fields of its oases, and then disappear into its deserts. a land of desperate magic.

Proudly standing between 73˚3 and 96˚30 longitude and 34˚10 and 49˚31 latitude, Xinjiang is bordered on the east by the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Gansu, on the north by Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. To its west are Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, while to the south, Xinjiang borders Pakistan, India and Tibet.

Pamir, Tian Shan, Kunlun, Altai, Hindu Kush, Fan Mountains, Karakorum – it is a land of mythical names.

This is where the world converges.

But beyond its stunning landscapes, one of the most striking features of Xinjiang is that it is - and feels - contested. Today, by recent turns of geopolitical fortunes/misfortunes, Xinjiang is China’s most north-western province – one of China’s five autonomous regions.

Despite its belonging to the Chinese Mainland however, Xinjiang feels like another land, another country. It is host to 13 minorities, most of them of Turkic descent (Ouighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks etc.) and is a place of Turkic tongues and cultures. It is a place of golden teeth, scarves, fragrance (the men and women both wear loads of perfume – really nice) and lamb kebabs. It is also a land of faith and religion, and is home to 23,000 of China’s 30,000 mosques.

This is the start of Central Asia, the great colossus where Europe and Asia meet.

In Xinjiang this meeting of cultures is more of an explosion than a smooth and fruitful exchange. There is a tension to its streets and architecture, as if there was a constant murmur of discontent. In Xinjiang, and especially in Urumqi, a silent but constant battle is played out, opposing the influx of wealth and economic development brought by the Chinese and the claim by some Ouighurs that this is their country, part of a Pan-Turkic land which is not Chinese. Here is the setting for a complicated battle of identity – Han Chinese are also seen as Xinjiang Chinese, Ouighurs identify with their Turkic brothers, but many who have succeeded in Chinese schools and society, are now Ouighur-Chinese - still neither Chinese and branded by many as less Ouighur. The combinations are many to which are added the complications with other minorities - Kazakh, Hui, Uzbek etc - between whom relationships are also not so clear cut. Xinjiang is the real melting pot of cultures – and a pot that it bubbling.

These latent tensions often surface in violent demands for freedom and autonomy. Battles and strife in the early 20th century led to several proclamations of independence – first in Kashgar and then later in Guldja (today’s Yining) in 1944. More recently riots and uprisings in Kashgar in 1990 and violent riots in Guldja (Yining) in 1996 have once again unveiled the region’s volatility. Some Ouighurs still have independence on their mind – and this January a gun battle in Xinjiang’s Akto County near the border with Afghanistan, resulted in the death of one Chinese People’s Armed Police and at least 18 Ouighurs (branded by the government as terrorists). China blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (one small group of Ouighur separatists) for more than 200 terror attacks between 1990 and 2001, causing 160 deaths and 440 injuries. This same group was very controversially added to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations in 2002.

This is a contested land – a territory in which the Chinese are clearly colonizers.

We Shall Shift Geographies
“Communist China’s incorporation of Xinjiang was an attempt to override historical and geographical divisions there within a short time space, and to turn the region into an internal colony.” (Source: Rudelson, Justin Jon “Oasis Identities: Ouighur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road”. Columbia University Press, 1997). Before 1949, Xinjiang was oriented economically and culturally to the west, with the region’s most important towns Kashgar and Illi facing towards Central Asia’s Fergana Valley and Russia. Distance and harsh terrain made interaction with China scarce.

The communist muscle would brutally shift these cultural and geographic realities.

“The Communist Chinese government sought to fully incorporate Xinjiang into its core political economy (…) Its goals therefore included shifting Xinjiang’s economic and geographic focus away from the west to diminish its trade with the Soviet Union and toward Urumqi and the east. Urumqi was made the transportation hub toward which all roads of Xinjiang were oriented. This new highway network was of immense strategic value for the Chinese. However, it was the westward extension of the railroad in 1962, from China proper to Urumqi that had the greatest effect on Xinjiang. Once the center of Xinjiang shifted to Urumqi, the importance of the cities of Kashgar and Illi diminished.” (note: Rudelson)

This new transportation network would enable China to strengthen its control of the region, shipping in economic goods, settlers and its army. China was to colonize the region with pure numbers – shipping in millions of settlers to populate the region with Hans. (The settling of populations in Xinjiang also helped to relieve the burden of rapid demographic growth in eastern China, that was putting too great a pressure on land in the east.)

The first of the Han Chinese migrants were demobilized Communists troops – quickly followed by train-loads of women from China’s poorest provinces. Talking with Lao Zhang, a Han Chinese whose parents were part of the first truck-loads to arrive, he told me that women were literally shipped into Xinjiang to find husbands among the first Han settlers. On arrival in Urumqi, they were merely assigned a man: a union for the nation. Brutal matchmaking. These first Han Chinese migrants were then followed by unemployed men and women from the Chinese mainland, and later Hans with stigmatized family backgrounds and youths sent to the countryside. Some of the persons displaced by the Three Gorge Dam are also said to have been moved to Xinjiang.

There is a violence to every aspect on Xinjiang’s recent history: brutal matchmaking, migrations across thousands of kilometers, and lands claimed and divided.

Arrival in the mountain Han city. Urumqi could be a jewel in the landscape – slipped as it is between crystal mountains and an expansive plain to the north. But somehow the architects were too hurried by tensions, the urban planners too busied by fear, and the city seems to have forgotten it sits on a natural throne. It is a sprawling mess of cement madness and suspended highways. The city is closed in on itself, and never do the mountains provide rest here.

We exit the train under the cover of clouds, as if there was a conspiracy to hide the Han encroachment of Xinjiang. One train a day. We arrive and quickly disperse. The only reminders of our intrusion are the subtle hands of Ouighur pick-pockets: the obligatory tax of the land.

The Han colonization is a delicate and sad play on lives and hopes: on the whole it is a politic of conquering and economic development, on the personal, it is people searching for new lives and economic opportunities. It seems brutal and unfair that normal people always get sent to the frontlines and burnt in the cross-fires. Here, those people are hopeful Han Chinese sent by their government to people and claim China’s northern frontier. The hope dies quickly it seems, to give place to tense and nervous routine.

Here Han and Ouighur are interwoven, yet not close – an uncomfortable and unwanted proximity.

We stay at Lao Zhang’s apartment, hidden in the dusty and dank backyard of coughing smoke stacks and an electricity plant. His parents came to Xinjiang in 1959 from Henan, arriving after 3 days and nights of bumpy bus rides on dirt roads. They came with the hope and ambition of pioneers, ready to build a new nation, but were quickly welcomed by hardship, -30˚ weather, and the disdain of the local population. But 40 years later they are still here, working out a meager existence in a fourth floor apartment of their factory compound. They have lived a hard life, in a land of violence and scarcity. They have stayed in the brutal urban center – not profiting from the wild beautiful expanse beyond. A wet black soot of a charcoal life among the cold and cement. There is no green here – only the light of tight-knit families and their hospitality.

Lao Zhang left Xinjiang in his youth, wandering to Beijing in hopes of becoming a rock star. Guitar in hand he lived the gritty bohemian life of Beijing’s underground, idealizing Che Guevara and living among the poets and the vagabonds. But this sweet, free and radical existence did not change his stance on the Ouighurs of his homeland – to him – and he openly states it - they are still uncultured and dangerous. Walking through the bustling and colorful Ouighur part of town, centered around the bazaar, Lao Zhang is uncomfortable. He walks as if threatened, never calm, checking his pockets, avoiding contact with the crowd. In the jam-packed Ouighur restaurant where we have lunch, he hesitates to sit down next to a Ouighur man, looking for another place. He says “we” – the Chinese – have helped the local population rise from their uncultured and uncivilized existence. He believes the Chinese have a right to claim the land because they have brought economic wealth and development. (When he talks I can’t help but think of France in Algeria). He has no Ouighur friends, and speaks no words of the Ouighur tongue.

His everyday life is filled with this battle, rocked by this animosity. But a poster of Che still hangs in his hallway. Juxtaposed to his generosity and kind spirit, his stance on the Ouighurs is even more brutal.

This kind of reality shades Xinjiang’s intense beauty with devastating tensions. But some parts are even darker – like the paramilitary town of Shihezi through which we cross on our way to Illi. An all-Han town created by the Liberation Army, it was built on a small plot of wetlands surrounded by desert. The founders dreamed of making – as one of the residents tells me – a city as brilliant as Shanghai. Several people repeat to me that I shouldn’t be scared in this town, its safe they repeat, there are no Ouighurs. (There are many interesting research subjects for those urban-developers/planners/ethnographers – as history and politics are clearly played out in Shihezi’s urban design – especially the staggering volume of its budding industrial development zone).

Shihezi is the center of the Han Chinese paramilitary force – the headquarters of Xinjiang’s colonization. And the power of this paramilitary force called the Production and Construction Corps (PCC) should not be dismissed: “The PCC, with a population of over 2.2 million in 1992, has been a major political force in maintaining Chinese control of Xinjiang. By mid-1982, it had established over 170 state farms and had built 69 medium-large factories. By 1984, the PCC accounted for a quarter of the value of Xinjiang’s total production.” (note: Rudelson)

There is a cold, calculated colonization happening in this land.

Strategic Control
But despite the tensions, the explosions, the drunken fist-fights and ethnic slurs – it seems China will never give up this land - a buffer zone between China’s core and Central Asia.

“The stability of Xinjiang is important to China. It is seen as a test case of central control, relevant to Beijing’s grip over Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Xinjiang is also viewed as a traditional buffer against Turkic Moslem invasions from the North-West. The province also contains three major oil basins: the Turpan, Jungar and Tarim, with up to 150 billion barrels of reserves, according to some optimistic estimates. Last but not least, the People’s Liberation Army maintains numerous bases and nuclear weapons testing grounds in the region, which could be threatened if the Ouighurs gain control.” (Note: Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of the Dissidents. 7/27/01, Ariel Cohen, Ph.D,

……and yet
Within this violent crazy background, we set out into the beauty of the land, searching for the most traditional melodies and rhythms of Xinjiang’s Kazakh minority. We do not enter into the majority-Ouighur world of Xinjiang’s southern territory, and instead head north into the Kazakh Autonomous Region. We dive into color and magic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Across the Gobi Desert

Maps and departures: points like constellations, or paths to hidden treasures. Departures from the traffic city and lovers bundled in black. Headlights in the night, we are heading out west, the furthest that I have ever gone: to the land suspended between nations and identities, between faiths and histories. My hands are so dry they are cracked like turtle shells, exploded and useless. The train is racing.

A conversation with my top-bunk neighbor. He will travel the three days in his suit. The man beside me is a punk with really busted teeth, chanting his music in the night. Outside the landscape flashing.

La bêtise humaine a était greffe dans la terre ici. C’est la montagne et les fleuves qui en ont pris pleins la gueule.

Song Yu Zhi, my traveling partner thinks that this place (China) is volatile, that everything can explode violently, cave in onto itself: a collapse of the apparent calm. The capital cities are funambulists uneasily balanced above violence and poverty. He wonders, what is an education that pushes everyone to go to university and then go abroad? He says that education in China today pushes everyone not towards knowledge, critical thinking and society building, but towards the competition for financial success. A dangerous brew, when the sought-after exuberant wealth is inevitably scarce.

We are skipping across the country: Xian, Baoji, Tianshui, Lanzhou. A place seen from a distance is like any other, but how nice it would be to spend a day walking along Gansu’s frozen hillsides. This land has been worn down and wasted. It is old, lame soil, one that can not give life to the eager, growing masses. (And so we are picking up the excluded and the lonely and bringing them on our silver dragon to the new territories. In the vastness of a conquered land they shall be given jobs and land). The world is passing by, distant like a silent movie: the barriers of glass and movement. Before us a sad mountain of golden sand broken by shadows.

Song Yu Zhi says that this is a land of peasants, a country of farmers. He says there is no intellect here, no creativity. He is hard on his land, his home. I have been traveling among the success of economic growth, and had forgotten that nothing is magic. But he reminds me that there is both danger and beauty in traditions: old traditions, crafts and gestures anchored in the land, repeating the same stories, ideas and rules for centuries. Centuries lost in rules and regulations. Perhaps it is this routine, this acceptance and passivity that the communists wanted to break? Bang!

A table mountain ribbed by shadows and sun. The construction project at its feet looks like a play-mobile game below a natural stronghold. One day the mountain will reclaim its base with a threatening crush. The mountains are rising slowly, and our path is lengthened by the detours of valleys. Flat houses congregated in every inch and fold of the land. The sand mountains become deserts to the north.

Slipping on my sweater. We have awoken to snow mountains and colder lands powdered white: inviting. A twisted iron factory in the foreground, and further, endless folds as if the hills were hiding a treasure. The earth is conspiring to add texture and distance. But the hills are still low enough to divine the wide and I feel the plains and plateaus of the Himalaya to the south: tempting.

We are piercing through white. Small red bushes ferociously fighting frozen beds. It will be nice to eat the first bowl of Xinjiang noodles. “Jia Ge Mian”.

We race into a 20.5km tunnel through the mountain, saving us a 100km detour around the base. Ear pops and we are again out of the dark. I am remembering a summer party, when the young French man gave his fedora to a beautiful girl, and the next year returned unrecognizable.

This is a night crossing of the Gobi Desert

In the morning light, it is a moonscape where man has left traces, derisory for their smallness: a scratch on the surface of a deep continent. This landscape is vast, impenetrable, infinite. I can imagine the sound of caravan bells. This must have been an incredibly fertile plain when the water still flowed.

Here all the elements are left to surface: water, wind and fire play with the farce of human life. Last week this train was turned over by the wind. (Four deaths and other men still missing). The winds here pick up boulders and carve out mountains. Who are we to dare a crossing? I have come only to see the shadow of a mountain rising beyond the grey and golden expanse.

The men in my compartment are talking. Bears in the Altai Mountains have evolved to use tools, they say. They have learned to throw stones at buffalos and are known to hang camels on tree branches to eat them slowly. This is the wilderness we are approaching – one for which the Hans have legends and deep fears: a wild natural land without the cement comforts of home. We are on a train packed with Han. In Urumqi, we shall do the unloading. Numbers shifting with each train-load: a Chinese colonization.

We talk about the price of real-estate in each of China’s cities. Kunming 2,000-3,000 RMB/m2, Urumqi 4,000, Shanghai 24,000, Beijing 10,000. shuffling prices and lifestyles.

Outside, cement roads carved through sand and gravel, in a few decades they will be under a sea of sand. Oil wells and burning gas. Just outside Urumqi, a field of windmills. The Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) come closer. We have arrived.

Anhui – Chinese Exorcist Theatre - Nou Xi

Anhui – Chinese Exorcist Theatre

for more pics:

Nuo Xi
In Yin and Mao Dan Villages, they used to perform their local Nuo Xi, exorcist theatre from Chu 7 to Chu 15, starting on the 7th day of the New Year. But now, to accommodate the villagers who leave around the 7th or 8th to return to their jobs in the city, the ritual has started earlier.

Apart from the dates, nothing much else has changed in the exorcist ritual – during which the village bridges the divide between the earthly and the divine hoping to chase and stamp away evil spirits. Spectators stand before the ancient show as male actors call on sacred and dangerous forces that seem to climb out of the walls, out of the incense urns and the percussion band’s beats. The movements are recognizable yet obscure, filled to the brim with meanings unknown to outsiders. There are spirits descending from the mountains, swimming up-stream, emerging from the village’s alleys. It is an eerie and powerful show, which starts at dusk.

Boundaries Broken
We arrive on the morning of Chu 5 through haphazard bus encounters and truck rides hitched on mountain roads. We follow the pock-faced busted teeth Mr. Liu, who obviously has spent too many nights with the baijiu bottle. He and his family turn out to be wonderfully hospitable and give us a room in their freshly built and painted house hidden in the shadow of the mountain. We spend two nights with them, coming home in the early hours of the morning when the exorcist theatre ends, eating candied peanuts and sipping local green tea. Three to the hard wooden bed.

A comfortable home turns out to be a necessity after the madness of the grenzenganger – these actors walking between life and death, between earth and heaven, dancing to the insidious beating of the metallic gong. Together with the sulfuric bust and burst of flames and crackers, and the thick sultry almost nauseating vapors of incense – we are stepping on the limits of folly. Come armed with strength and disbelief. The ritual is overwhelming – imposing itself on all the senses. The painted wooden masks worn by the actors immobilize emotions, and it is as if spirits are walking before us, emotionless, lost in the delirium. We are stroking the demonical: beautiful color and bang among which frozen faces move and talk in foreign tongues.

The dance and movements of the actors are repetitive and intoxicating – and if the spectator is not sucked into boredom he or she is brought to rapture by the physical mantra unraveling slowly on stage. These are physical prayers cadenced by deafening percussion - footsteps slowly drawing patterns and symbols on the stage. Every movement has meaning. “The Nuo performance is based on the step known as the Yu step, which is a sequence of eight steps across the Luo diagrm. The actor stamps with one foot, and drags the next foot to join in the movement. The pattern of the feet on the earth in the Yu step, and other steps used in exorcism theatre and Daoist ritual have been recorded as early as the Song dynasty in a Daoist manual (…)”. (source: Jo Riley, Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). The actors are tracing diagrams on the ground, writing characters with their movements: physical poetry infused with ancient meaning.

“Stamping on the earth in the Chinese model carries the meaning of suppressing evil spirits, so the simplest interpretation of the Yu step is that the performer ritually cleanses the stations of the grid by stamping his foot in each. These movements place the foot and the earth into strong relation with each other. Not only does the stamping foot literally press down the demon, it also calls forth a terrific force and an equally terrific sound. The percussion orchestra in the nuo is a vital element of the performance.” (source: Jo Riley)

The ritual seems timeless – as if we were connected with other generations – a ritual unbroken by histories, passed for centuries from father to son. The song or lament of the village. How many people have seen these same exact movements, at the same exact time? How many women and men have sensed this collapsing time, bringing together ancestors of the same land? “Nuo performers adopt elements which refer to their ancestors – they perform with the presence of their exorcist/creative ancestors represented in their apparel. They literally embody their ancestors in their clothes. “chuan po, bu chuan cuo” – wear tattered, but not the wrong clothing (…) the performing body spans all time and all spaces. The events that are to happen (as they happened and as they will happen again and again ad infinitum) in the world of performance are contained in the performers’ appearance from the very moment of his entry on stage.” (source: Jo Riley)

I talk with the old women and kids to exit the trance, smoke cigarettes to know that I’m still real.

The first night at around 6h00, two young boys walk through the village beating a gong. The ritual is about to start, the offerings to Buddha are being made. We are still eating dinner, and Mr. Liu wants us to finish before we go. We shall arrive after the fall of dark to the furious explosions of thousands of crackers, entering the small wooden temple transformed into a theatre (or is the stage a wide altar?) alight with burning incense and song. Old women come in and out, very few of the villagers are attending – but the music and crackers are heard throughout the valley.

I am pulled out of the temple all of the sudden – Sarah and I must leave - two villagers say. The Village Head wants to talk with us. Angry, he asks us who we are, what we are doing here, why we are filming. (He’s obviously right to ask). Have we not thought about our security, he asks red with rage? Theo must be somewhere among the crackers – they haven’t pulled him out. Sarah and I look at each other – here we go – we pull out our best Chinese manners, our feminine smiles, our pardons and excuses, we tell them our story. Quickly enough, I’m surprised, we are finally released and told that we are now safe – they release us with only a word of warning for the crackers which could be dangerous. Indeed we enter back into the war of crackers raging in the courtyard before the temple and dodge balls of light as we zigzag to the temple door.

That night I watch the ritual bewildered and amazed. I walk back home through the dark before the end, seeking the calm of an empty house and a cup of green tea.

The Nuo Xi has been revived in four villages in this valley – hidden between the Huang Shan Mountains and the Yangtze River. There are variances in the Nou Xi rituals for each village, although Yin and Mao Dan village share the same rituals and the same set of 28 masks. Mao Dan is a 10 minute walk up-hill from Yin village.

The morning of Chu 6 we accompany the procession of the masks as they are transferred in their alter from Yin village to Mao Dan. It is a sacred procession colored by flags and escorted by fire-crackers lit in front of every door. Arriving at Mao Dan, the masks are cleaned one by one to the rhythm of a pounding gong. The effect is lessened by daylight, but the gong nonetheless brings a trance-like momentum. Theo is overwhelmed by the beat and has to step out into the mountain air. Only men touch the masks and can step onto the temple stage. This is a sacred and forbidden space – in which ancient rules and gestures have been revived. for pics of the procession:

The revival of the Nuo Xi ritual in Mao Dan is linked to one man, Yao Guang Bao. Now deceased, he once knew all the words and songs of the Nuo Xi. He carried the ritual through the prohibition of the Cultural Revolution and wrote it out again in 1980. Some of the theatre books were also buried during the revolution, and taken out for the revival. All but three masks however had been burned.

Talking to Yao Guang Bao’s nephew, the 55 year old Yao Sheng Li, he tells us that the villagers were able to find the old carpenter that had made the previous set of masks for the village. Living in a neighboring valley he was still alive in 1980. The old carpenter had made the first set for the village in the 1950’s after the masks and the temple had been destroyed by the Japanese who had fought around Maodan village for three nights and three days in the late 40’s. The old carpenter passed away, but Mr. Yao assures that he first taught the skill of the Nuo Xi masks to his son.

The village invested 10,000 RMB in 1980 to remake the mask collection – a veritable fortune.

The 28 masks are shared among the 10 actors, who know each role by heart. There are no rehearsals. Sometimes the younger actors forget their movements and are led by the older men – to the pleasure and bursting laughter of the audience. More people in Maodan watch the ritual, and the bigger theatre with an open-air courtyard makes the watching less suffocating. You can step out and see infinite stars.

There are so many life stories around this ritual

One of the village madmen – a deaf and dumb man – watches the whole show in Maodan, leaning against a wooden pillar. He is left-out and ignored by the villagers, almost like a nuisance. He looks crazy and reminds me of all the madmen that hang out in the village streets, talking to the passersby or being kicked and screamed at by the village kids – gentle kicks as if the kids were actually taking care of them – a bizarre tenderness in the brutality. These madmen, the idiots, are a constant in the villages we cross – the kings of village paths.

The gong announces the start of the meeting Buddha ceremony.

The village crowd gathers in the temple and each person lights an incense stick. They are led in a meditative prayer broken with the same repetitive chorus: joy, wealth and health for the village and its families. The alcohol is then poured into glasses on the altar, while children giggle at the seriousness of the ritual. The villagers kneel and kowtow in the direction of the altar. The gong starts again, pounding, guttural, and meditative. Everyone starts to leave and the fire-crackers are launched. The world splits to pieces and the ghosts run off to hide in mountain caves. Outside a war of fires – through the smoke of the crackers we cannot see across the village courtyard – just shadows moving among the noise. The gong continues, while the women take refuge in the temple. A lull in the crackers and the gong reappears, as if this deep sound was the foundation of the world – always present, always returning. We are coughing on the smell of sulfur and incense.

The food is taken from the altar – five pig’s heads, chickens, pheasants and rice cakes are taken home in baskets to be eaten. After dinner the ritual will begin again – with lighted reeds and a dance to the heavens with the colored umbrella of the universe twirling in the hands of a child.

Anhui – Chinese Ritual Opera - Mulian Xi

Anhui – Chinese Ritual Opera
a small detour way south of the silk road, too curious to see some of China's oldest Spring Festival traditions...

Mulian Xi
Following the intrepid Sarah O once again (merci sarah) - this time as she sets out to find the rich folkloric and religious customs and rituals around the Chinese New Year in Anhui. She has 15 days until the Yuan Xiao Jie – the major celebration of the New Year’s Festival - when she must be in Shaanxi. I have a little less time before heading out to Xinjiang. Lina, Xiao Bei and Theo have come too, and nights are filled with cool beers sipped on terraces and roof-tops.

We have arrived at Mashan Cun, hitching on the back of a truck, up the hill from Ruo Kang – speeding through the valleys of the sacred Huang Shan Mountains. We walk through sinuous streets, through the winding alleys bordered by beautifully tall two-storied plaster-white houses, past the outdoor pool table and up the narrow path to Ye Zhen Shu’s house. His house stands in the green shade of the century-old magic tree that guards the village with its tenacious roots and exuberant foliage. We are tucked into the village by the giant tree’s gentle architecture and the soft rolling hills around us.

This is the center of Han China – the sacred Huang Shan Mountains – where mist is suspended on green peaks and the Confucian man can seek emptiness, the void, le souffle mediant. This is where the Guqin (traditional Chinese horizontal harp) plucked rare notes to remind the sages of the symbiotic dance of matter and emptiness. Here we could dive into ancient poems trying to find the calm cool peaceful rhythm of the elite ancients - and perhaps this is what the swarms of Chinese tourists come to find in the valley bellow?

But among this Han place of pilgrimage we have come to find one of the region’s banging, noisy, boisterous, metallic rituals – rituals of folk life – born from the grit and grime of village superstition - born from the need for faith and calming of the spirits - and more simply perhaps born of the need for stories and traditions. Here in Mashan Village Sarah has brought us to watch the Mulian Theatre. Ye Zhen Shu is the master of the ritual.

An Opera for a Village
(I need to get some precision from Sarah for this part – and will update later, but here is a brief introduction to the Mulian Xi)
The Mulian Xi (Mulian Opera) is performed every year at the Spring Festival – we have arrived on Chu 3, the third day of the Lunar New Year and the ritual play is to start tonight. We had been told that it would last three days and three nights. In previous years it could last seven days and seven nights, or up to one month – depending on the needs and wealth of the village. The Mulian Opera is composed of 15 books of song/recitation which are divided into five parts, each with three books. This could easily accommodate one month of acting, or be cut down for the three or seven-day performances.

“The Chinese words xi and ju meaning theatre performance, describe a performance art which is made up of four basic performance skills: chang (singing), nian (recitation), da (military skills and acrobatics) and zuo (doing, ‘acting’).” (note: Jo Riley, Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) The Mulian Xi, with its 20 to 30 actors incorporates all four skills, and the actors stamp across stage in movements that have been done for generations. “Jingju (Beijing Opera) is only one of over three hundred different styles of theatre in China and each is defined as a particular style by the type of melodic and/or percussive structure. Each form reflects, to a certain extent, the geographical and cultural influences of a particular area of China.”

In Mashan Village, the Mulian Xi has been passed down by generations for hundreds of years (need to check on the starting date – and who wrote it with Sarah). The ritual play is clearly anchored in the village’s identity; shaping the villager’s conception of the New Year’s Celebrations, their place in history and their village’s place among the mountain. In other villages, people knew that Mashan Village was preparing the Mulian Xi – they identified Mashan with the play, and though they were surprised to see foreigners in this part of the mountain they were not surprised that foreigners were interested in attending Mashan’s performance. The operatic play is one of the key rituals in the village’s New Year Celebration, a ritual that is almost as old as the village. The play clearly presents Confucian values of family, order and political hierarchies and is also a key to propagating cultural and ethical values. In a place where education is less than up-to-standard, it is also a key to learning the stories that are at the base of cultural identity.

The play is one of the village’s anchors in time, a way to trace history and meaning. (The magic tree seems to play a similar role, and the villagers believe that if the tree is healthy and continues to grow, so too will the village. as a parallel, if the Mulian Xi tradition dies, so too will the village)

Even though the villagers had already seen the play’s rehearsal the night before we arrived, everyone in the village, young and old, came out to see the play again – and there was excitement and pride taken in the performance. Firecrackers and laughter: a community at play. (It would be interesting to do interviews with some villagers who are not involved in the production of the play, to see how they perceive the play as their own/their village’s identity – and to see how they present this heritage to other people, especially other migrant workers in Beijing/Shanghai for example).

Surrounded by green hills, tea plantations and pine forests, Mashan village - if not for the newly paved road and the water-gutters full of garbage - seems unchanged and untouched by the cement chaos blasting China. Yet the revival of the village’s Mulian Opera reveals just how intertwined this remote village is with the lunges and leaps of the middle kingdom.

(pic: Ye Zhen Shu and son)
After its ban during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Zhen Shu decided to revive the play in 1988. All the production materials – sets, props, costumes, and script-books had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, so that Ye Zhen Shu was faced with the task of reviving memory. The memory, although buried, was still alive. The play was still known throughout the village, carried secretly by the villagers and former actors, sung in the privacy of a mountain path, or hummed silently in a mind. In 1988 all the “characters” of the play were alive. Indeed here, one man/actor played only one character, and was the embodiment of the character in flesh, blood and spirit. The actors had played the same characters for decades and knew all the lines and movements by heart. If the man/actor was still alive, then so too was the character. There seems to have been only a thin line between where the man ended and the character began.

Ye Zhen Shu brought all these old-timers, all men, together and slowly revived the play. Together they wrote from memory the script and the movements: recreating the symbolic gestures and movements on the stage. Blowing life again onto the sacred stage.

This transcription work was not always easy – one of the characters refused to collaborate. He had been beaten and emotionally battered by the villagers during the revolution and felt that he did not want to help the village regain this sacred play. Why should he help the village that had shattered his life? But after drinking rice wine and hearing the pleas of Ye Zhan Shu and other village leaders, he finally acquiesced.

The villagers collected 3,000 RMB among themselves and started the work of sewing costumes, making props and cleaning one of the village’s old theatres.

Bending Rules for Survival
1988, and the villagers were already starting to scatter across the Chinese mainland in search of jobs and opportunities. Men in the village were few, and they would only come home for the week of the New Year’s Festival. Faced with this pressure, the sacred rules of the play had to be bent for it to survive. Women were thus invited to perform. Women, it was declared were now allowed to come on stage, say the sacred prayers and dress as both male and female characters. The play’s ancient taboos were broken, boundaries breached and some mysteries unveiled and lost. 30 students, men and women, participated in the 1988 revival.

But following China’s inexorable economic growth, people continued to slowly leave village life. Now both women and men were seeking out new opportunities in China’s largest cities. The characters of the Mulian Xi were now scattered across China and the New Year’s celebration depended on their return each year to the village. Today there are only 20 actors left to perform the ritual play: an unpaid hobby, the play holds on the delicate limbo of the actor’s yearly return to Mashan. The play’s two main actors and the director Ye Zhen Shu live in the village, but most of the supporting actors come home only for the celebration – leaving little or no time to practice. A three-day performance is thus almost impossible to put together, let alone a seven-day performance.

The play although revived, still depends on the whims of train-connections, factory vacations and the motivation of the handful of actors. It is still dependent on the small donations of the village spectators and the un-paid devotion of Ye Zhen Shu. (After petitioning for four years, Ye Zhen Shu was able to receive only 1,000 RMB from the local Wen Hua Guan, the Cultural Association, in support of the opera). This year, a three-day performance was planned, but was cancelled after Ye Zhen Shu was seriously hurt in a motorcycle accident and was unable to conduct rehearsals. The village thus waited for the return of the actors and put on the one-night performance they have been performing these past years.

Painted faces and stoic devotion, the play is amateur and almost child-like, with actors fumbling with unpracticed movements and words. It is like children putting on a show in a make-shift attic theatre, both clumsy and serious. The roar and laughter of the crowd brings a palpable energy to the large wooden theatre, and the painted faces of the actors bring an eerie magical feeling to the stage. But mostly the committed serious of the actors, the determination of Ye Zhen Shu and the play’s persistence against great odds, makes it a jewel among the sacred mountain. It is the hope and work of one man that have saved this village’s deepest and most sacred gestures. Perhaps even the magic tree is healthier for the noise and music of that New Year’s night.

After the play is over, life in the village returns normal. Relatives continue their New Year’s greetings and wish-giving, while some of the village men are getting ready for the mushroom season. Others continue to talk about this year’s tea harvest, while every family says its goodbyes to those returning to their hard city jobs. In 12 months the play will be on again, marking the cadence of a year.

There is interesting work to do here.