Song of the surroundings of the Sao-no family.

Sung by Li Xing-zhen.


There can be no doubt that behind the stories which make up the Byu-no and Sao-no saga, there are substantial historical facts. However, in this song the scene moves into the realm of fantasy. It is, moreover, interesting to observe how an Yi landlord has here become something of a folk-hero.

The song is long and repetitive, and it is possible that the episode about the building of the bridge over the river Li-zhu is an independent fragment, which has been added to the story. There is scarcely anything in this section which connects with the rest of the narrative, while the drums and the activities of the spirit-possessed which are the chief themes of the main story, do not appear at all. The removal of the passage, lines 65 to 83, far from upsetting the continuity of the narrative, would in fact enhance it. These considerations explain why, in the English translation, this section is printed in italics.

The Miao text does not say how many drums were made. It could be taken to mean one large drum and one small drum only, but if this were the case it would hardly have required "several yoke of oxen" to make them. Moreover, if there were only two drums, the constantly repeated statement that the large drum sounded over seven days' journey away to the east, and the small drum sounded over seven months' journey to the west, would have to mean that it was by some magic that the sound was made to carry over these vast distances. It seems more likely that, in fact, many drums were made, both large and small. The former were distributed toward the east, whence the main Chinese threat was expected, and the latter, being easier to transport over the much greater distances, were sent out to the west. Thus, when an emergency arose, the drums at Lord Sao-no's headquarters would begin beating out a three pulse rhythm which was immediately taken up by the drums in the adjacent villages, so that in a relatively short time the message had passed from village to village over a wide area, and the whole countryside was throbbing to the drum beat. This immediate, widespread response, at least initially, made the Chinese have second thoughts about the wisdom of invading.

The Miao words "dlang" and "si" both mean "spirit", and the expression "du dlang du si" is used of any person who is thought to possess, or to be possessed by, a spirit and so to have magical or supernatural powers. "Magician", "wizard", "sorcerer", "enchanter", are all possible translations depending on the actual context. In this song the name is given to two infants who, from the moment of their birth, are able to crawl and to talk. For such, the usual translations scarcely seem appropriate, and so the literal, albeit somewhat clumsy, expression, "spirit-possessed" has been chosen.

That Lord Sao-no was the father of the two spirit-possessed is stated over and again. Presumably their mothers were those two women who were left behind when Lord Sao-no went to war. How their offspring should have become spirit-possessed we are not told. The spirit-possessed themselves, do not seem to have known their mothers' identity, for three times over they complain,

"But still we do not know the taste of our mothers' milk!"

The reason for this ignorance may be that, immediately it was realized that there was something unusual about the babies they were rejected and thrown out by their mothers, and it was curiosity, rather than affection, that brought them home again.

To begin with the spirit-possessed were unable to walk, and crawled from place to place. When, somewhat later, they found their father, he called them "you two soldiers", so presumably by that time they were grown up. After their long sleep they were strong enough to pull up a pine tree by the roots and to wield it as a club to wipe out the Chinese army.

The spirit-possessed seem to have been fascinated by drums. On two occasions, once before setting out to find their father, and again before they began the journey back to their cavern, they beat out the warning signal on both the large and the small drums, but why, we are not told. Seeing their interest in the drums, Lord Sao-no offered to give them the small one to carry home. They accepted, but took the large one instead, because it made a bigger noise! The point of all this is unexplained. In any case they already had a very special drum of their own made of copper and iron and set up at the entrance of the cave. When people approached, this drum sounded automatically, either to warn intruders to keep out, or to inform the inmates that they had visitors. However, the spirit-possessed had obviously no intention of receiving guests.

There are a number of points of detail, which need some further elucidation.

  1. The Miao word rendered "roasted corn" in line 29 is "hmao". This was pop-corn ground to a powder, and used as rations on a journey or during a short stay away from home. A basinful mixed with a little water made a sustaining, if extremely uninteresting porridge.
  2. Twice, at line 139 and at line 224, the spirit-possessed were required to produce their credentials. The proof that was demanded was their ability to eat "food of divination", translated "magic food". This food was identified as "root of copper" and "root of iron" that is copper and iron ore, but was in fact molten copper and molten iron.
  3. The saddles described in the section beginning at line 172 were made of wood, not of leather. They rested on felt blankets laid over the horses' backs, and the riders' comfort was provided by some padded quilting laid over the top. Saddles were often highly decorated with paint or lacquer. Those selected by the spirit-possessed, having been damaged were simply hung on the wall where, over a period of time, they became encrusted with soot from the open wood fire in a room without a chimney.
  4. Over and again throughout this song the expression, "for practically fourteen years", occurs. There is nothing in the text to explain it, but where it is found in other songs there are footnotes which say that this is a convention which really means, "for practically a year", but nowhere is it actually explained why the convention is used. On several occasions toward the end of the song, a similar expression is used. In translation it reads, "half a period of twelve or thirteen years". For counting time, the Miao used the twelve year cycle as used by the Chinese . A complete cycle they called one "zhu". The expression "half a zhu or thirteen years" is probably also a convention which actually means, "six months".
  5. At line 250 the spirit-possessed gave instructions that, before the gong was struck to awaken them from their heavy sleep, their heads, and particularly their noses, were to be supported. The reason, presumably was to prevent them from damaging themselves against the wooden bed, as they suddenly started up, having been so deeply asleep. In the event, (line 269) this was not done, and the shock of awakening did in fact result in them striking their heads, and causing profuse nose bleeding.

Translation in verse
Literal Transcription

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Word97 Introduction
Word97 Translation
Word97 Transcription
Word97 Notes

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