Minority Pumi burst into song and dance to breathe life into culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am

They herd sheep and toil on farmland by day, often sporting comfortable, cheaply made western-style clothes. But at night, they don ethnic costumes and hustle around their villages, urging neighbours to join in with traditional song and dance.

This group of Pumi ethnic minority youngsters has put together a bustling night scene that has thrived over the past few years. They aspire to revive and pass on a traditional culture that has been much neglected in recent decades as they, and the rest of the mainland, rush headlong into economic development.

Scattered across various counties, mainly in the mountainous region of Yunnan , but also in Tibet and Sichuan province , the Pumis are one of the smallest of the mainland's 56 ethnic minority groups, with a population of just 30,000.

The musical initiative is the brainchild of Chen Zhe, a lyricist who made a name for himself in the 1980s writing pop songs including The Red in My Blood is the Colour of the Flag (Xue Ran De Feng Cai). He launched the programme in 2004, more than a decade after setting up the Folk Vogue Project in 1992 to preserve Chinese national and ethnic culture by recording ethnic music in far-flung regions.

'At first, I didn't do anything other than record their music because I thought we should let this community evolve its own course,' he said.

'But then I felt something was wrong as we, the outsiders, were mesmerised by their culture, but these people didn't really appreciate their own cultural wealth. They were puzzled at why I was so into their music. I thought I should do something.'

Apart from the unique folk songs and dance, this 17-strong group - the size varies as members drop out and newcomers join in - also holds night classes for fellow tribespeople to learn from their elders traditional culture such as music, herding, embroidery, worship and sacrificial rituals. Chen said that the idea was to allow the culture to be passed down by its own people.

The group also travels to almost all Yunnan counties and to cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to stage exhibitions and performances.

With funding from the Ford Foundation and Chen's savings, the group members, most of whom had not received more than junior secondary education, were recruited from a dozen villages across Yunnan, and each was in charge of the project in their own villages.

Geographically, the Pumis are merged with other, bigger minority groups such as the Bai and Naxi, and are forced to adopt the languages and cultures of other ethnic groups in order to integrate in school and at work.

'In some places, there are Pumi people who can't or won't speak their own traditional language because they don't want to be different from the rest of the society,' said 20-year-old Geti Songnongzhima from Lijiang , a member of the Folk Vogue Group.

But the Pumi language, which belongs to the Tibetan-Myanmese language group, is not the only cultural element under pressure. With many from the younger generation venturing to cities in search of education and better-paid jobs, the culture shock of mainstream society is also a real threat. For Ms Geti, like many of her age, wearing traditional ethnic clothes was not considered chic before she joined the Folk Vogue Project five years ago.

'Most young people in my village had given up wearing traditional costumes as we preferred mainstream culture,' she said. 'We know what's going on outside because we watch television. I thought the costumes were ... behind the times.

'Many people go to work in the cities; when they come back, they have their hair dyed yellow and wear fashionable clothes.'

Getting the ball rolling for the project was no easy task.

Chen said: 'Most of the participants didn't really understand the concept of culture - they didn't understand that song, dance and language are parts of a culture, not to mention the idea that you might need to preserve it.'

It took time for the villagers to appreciate their own culture's uniqueness and accept the group's work, some members said.

'My parents didn't want me to join the project because they thought it was not a nice thing for a girl to sing and dance all the time,' Ms Geti said.

'When we travelled to other cities and received an overwhelming positive response, they gradually changed their minds - they started to appreciate what we were doing.'

Recruiting enough members is a challenge because many parents, like Rongba Yarizu's, refuse to let their children work full-time without a salary. Most members now work as volunteers due to a limited budget.

'My parents didn't like [it] because I couldn't earn money this way,' Mr Rongba, 19, said.

After much trial and error, the group now runs classes at night so members can work for their families during the day.

Enrolment in the classes was not always steady as some villagers would lose interest or become too occupied with work, Mr Rongba said.

'But we are very upbeat and determined to carry on. It's our own culture and if we lose it, it's like losing our identity,' he said.