Old Miao songs about marriage. 1.
The Woman Bang and the Man Bang-li-byu.

Collected by Wang Ming-ji.


Like one of Shakespeare’s characters, the couple in this song "by contraries execute all things". Their son they send away "to be a bride", and their daughter they keep at home, employed in felling, transporting and erecting timber for a new house. However, when, after a long absence, the son returns with a child and, presumably, though she is not mentioned in the song, his wife, the roles are switched back to normal. The son completes the new house as a place for him to "hang his cross-bow", that is as his home, while the daughter is given a patch of ground on which "to grow hemp", that is hemp to be spun into yarn, and woven into cloth in order to make the bridal outfit and the bridegroom’s gown which she will require when she gets married.

At the head of the song Wang Ming-ji inserted a note which explains that "in the beginning it was the man who was the bride". This self-contradictory statement which appears again in lines 8 and 21 presumably means that there was a time when the marriage customs were different, and that the man, rather than the woman, left home to live with the parents-in-law. Such an interpretation is not impossible, but lacking any corroborative evidence, does not appear very likely. It is much simpler to regard the song as just a "once upon a time" story, sung to amuse rather than to instruct. In the translation the problematic statement that the "son went to be a bride" has been glossed over by saying that he went to be married.

The final eight lines of the song are scarcely complimentary to the bride. With heavy sarcasm scorn is poured upon the whole idea that she was a suitable person ever to get married, but does not explain why. This sort of statement, using the same similes, appears to be a convention in marriage songs. Elsewhere, however, despite such disparaging remarks, there was no difficulty in finding a bridegroom. Perhaps the present song has lost a final section describing the daughter’s eventual marriage.

Two other points call for some explanation.

  1. In line 9 and again in line 35 we are told that first, the daughter, and later, the son was kept at home "to learn the spirits". This expression originally concerned being initiated into the rituals of the clan worship of the ancestors and applied to boys only. A girl, on marriage, joined her husband’s clan which would have different rituals. However, the phrase passed into general use and came to mean simply "kept the person at home"
  2. Tree trunks, too heavy to be carried, would have to be dragged home using ropes, requiring the organisation of a team of perhaps twenty men. This, presumably, was the task undertaken by the young woman in the song. The exact significance of the three straight beams, which she could not manage, is not clear.

Literal Transcription

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Word97 Introduction
Word97 Translation
Word97 Transcription
Word97 Notes

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