Ancient traditions of the Miao Old folk.

Supplied by Yang Yung-xin.


To his second book of songs issued in 1950 (Document F), Yang Yung-xin appended,

1, a miscellaneous collection of incantations connected to old Miao customs, 2, an outline of old Miao spirit worship, and 3, a list of about seventy old Miao words and expressions, found in the songs but no longer in common use. He called the collection of incantations, which comprised ten items, "Ancient traditions of the Miao old folk".

1. Form of words for the separation of married girls and youths.

A copy of Wang Ming-jiís description of ancient divorce procedures (M338) appears to have come into the hands of Yang Yung-xin, for he included the material, though in a considerably modified form, in his collection of incantations. There are three significant differences between the two accounts. Firstly, whereas Wang Ming-ji said that the middlemen were sent by only one party to the dispute, Yang Yung-xin states that two middlemen from each side carried out the negotiations. Secondly, the customs described had not been in use for many years, and memories were fading. It is therefore not surprising that the code words used in place of animalsí names do not tally. Wang Ming-ji said that wheat meant sheep, barley meant goat and oats meant cow, whereas, for Yang Yung-xin, oats meant sheep or goat and barley meant cow. Thirdly, Yang Yung-xin replaced Wang Ming-jiís statement, "Whoever transgresses the agreement let him enter the nail hole of the ploughshare!" by "Let no clamour of argument enter the hole of the ploughshare".

2. Words used by the old folk in making an agreement.

According to Yang Yung-xin, there was a form of words, by recitation of which, an agreement already reached, might be ratified. It comprised a catalogue of six similes illustrating human relationships. Ideally people should be inseparable as the mythical Yi-xiu and Fu-xiu, or at one like the pipe which produced a musical sound whether it was sucked or blown. However, circumstances could change, fine weather from the south could give way to cloudy weather from the north. But, though fists could no longer rest side by side, there was no need for them to be in contention. As wild clematis differed from a forest tree, so people have contrasting temperaments, but each has his individual troubles as surely as each had his own cooking pot. Therefore let the parties exchange capes, sheep skin for goat skin, and all can be settled.

This form of ratification was appropriate for any agreement that might have been reached, and could be modified to suit the special circumstances. This is precisely what Wang Ming-ji did when he applied it as a conclusion to a divorce agreement. (M338)

3. Tying the long-life cord.

This, the first of three short incantations associated with charms to give long life, is concerned with the ritual of tying a string around a childís neck. The belief was that, provided it was not removed, it would preserve the child from danger. To be effective it had to be tied by the shaman-healer, who also recited the incantation.

Behind the reference to copper wire was the belief that a living personís spirit could wander away, or be frightened away from his body, and there were rituals by which such wandering spirits had to be recalled. There was also a constant danger that such wandering spirits could be caught and enslaved by the ill-disposed in the spirit world, who set snares of copper wire to trap them.

4. Words used when shaving the head.

The shaving of the head was also thought to be efficacious in giving long life, but this too had to be performed by the appropriate person. He is simply referred to as "the man from the cold country", in the incantation, but it is not clear whether he too was a shaman-healer.

5. Wearing a copper bangle.

The wording of this incantation is very similar to that of number 3, so that presumably, the "iron wire" here has the same significance as the "copper wire" in the earlier piece. Here, however, the long-life charm is not a cord tied round the neck, but a copper bangle worn on the arm. The final line, "without sickness like the copper wire", may refer to the fact that, unlike iron, copper does not become "sick", that is, rust away.

6. Introduction when going to have a discussion with people (1).

This incantation concerns the function of Miao middlemen in their conduct of negotiations. In addition to requiring skill in bargaining and persuasion, middlemen also needed wisdom because they were entrusted with executive authority. They could not only negotiate, but could make decisions which were binding upon the party which sent them. Now if a middleman was not too forthcoming, he might be reminded of his authority to act, by the allegories of the good horse and the good ox. In his account of the negotiations in a case of divorce, (M338), Wang Ming-ji did in fact use part of this incantation.

7. Introduction when going to have a discussion with people (2).

Although Yang Yung-xin used the same title for this and for the previous piece, the present incantation is not an admonition addressed to a middleman reminding him of his responsibilities, but a form of apololgia that he himself might use at the commencement of his mission.

8. Words for divorcing wives and husbands.

Yang Yung-xinís title for this short piece is quite wrong. It has nothing whatsoever to do with divorce, but describes the change in circumstances of the ancestors brought about by "the great sacrifice", the offering of an ox, "the great horned one". Before, they had been so poor that, ashamed, grandmother had crept under the bed to hide, and grandfather squeezed through a crack in the partition to conceal himself in the cattle pen. Now, however, they were the proud possessors of fine cattle fit to plough earth and sky.


9. Introductory words for making an offering during Miao spirit-worship.

Short pieces of bamboo split in half were used as divination sticks. The two halves

were tossed into the air and allowed to fall to the ground. The manner in which they fell, face up or face down, provided an answer to the question asked, which was, in the present case, "Has the crop failure been caused by a disgruntled ancestor demanding an offering?"

10. Words which the zu-mu intoned.

In old Miao society the worship of the ancestors was not conducted by a shaman-healer, but by a member in the main branch of the family who had been properly instructed in the rituals and incantations to be used. This person was called a zu-mu. When the sacrifice had been duly offered, the zu-mu presented petitions for the well being and prosperity of the family, at the same time assuring the ancestors that the offering was all prepared and ready.

11. Song which is sung to escort the spirits when the worship is completed.

This is a rather abbreviated form of the incantation used for dismissing the ancestors and escorting them back to their "pine wood homes", that is to their graves, when the sacrifice is completed.

Literal Transcription

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