The Background to some Miao stories.

In April 1946 Yang Xiu-gong joined the staff of the Methodist Mission at Weining, Guizhou, in Southwest China. By profession he was a para-medic, and had charge of the Mission dispensary in the town, but by race he was a Miao, and his home quickly became the centre at which any Miao passing through the city stayed. In conversation with Mr. Yang as we travelled to outlying villages, I discovered that he had an extensive knowledge of Miao stories, and was able, eventually, to persuade him to write out some of them for me in the Miao script.

Mr. Yang’s initial hesitation in committing the stories to paper was understandable. A Miao, living in a Chinese city, was acutely aware of the contempt in which, at that time, the Miao were often held, by the Chinese. There is no doubt that the Chinese reaction to the suggestion of writing Miao stories would have been one of ridicule, and Mr Yang was always very reticent to speak about the stories in the presence of any Chinese.

The idea of writing the stories down appeared to be quite a novel one. The Miao script, used for printing the New Testament and for hymn books, might also be employed by literate Miao for writing letters, but the idea was very firmly fixed that, Chinese being the language of education, Miao stories were of no importance, and the writing of them was a waste of time. I was able to show him, however, in a notebook written by Wang Ming-ji, a Miao teacher from Shi-men-kan, four Miao stories written out, and this helped to convince him that it was indeed a worth while exercise. Having once accepted the suggestion, Mr. Yang took it up with enthusiasm, and his own repertoire of stories was extended further using material which he gathered from Miao visitors staying in his home.

Mr. Yang did not wish to part with his manuscript, which was written in pencil in an exercise book that I had provided, so as each story was completed, we went through it together and I copied it, making a preliminary translation, and checking any queries at our next session. To Mr. Yang’s collection I added the four stories recorded by Wang Ming-ji, and the whole manuscript is referred to as "Document H.

It soon became obvious that the material fell into two categories, and when I enquired, it was explained that this was because some of the stories were just narratives, told and retold to entertain children and adults, while the remainder had been derived from songs. In his book, Mr Yang did not distinguish one group from the other, nor did he make any attempt to arrange his material. In translation the songs have been separated from the stories, and the latter classified according to content.

In 1985 I was given photo-copies of fourteen pages of Miao text written by Samuel Pollard in his diary in the summer of 1911 when he was on an extended tour of villages north of Shi-men-kan. This I have designated "Document J". These pages contain some Miao songs, together with three Miao stories. Pollard was evidently writing at the dictation of a Miao informant, and in the course of so doing he inserted occasional English words and sentences to explain the meaning. The name of his informant is not recorded, but it is most likely to have been his travelling companion and helper, Yang Ya-go, who had an extensive knowledge of old Miao traditions. The stories in the diaries are, in fact, the same as three of those recorded twenty-five years later by Wang Ming-ji. There are, however, marked differences in the telling, so both versions have been included as an illustration of the variations which can occur in an oral tradition.