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Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers
Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders
Illustrated lecture by Sara Davis, a New York-based
writer and former researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Dining Room A
Sixth floor of the James Madison Building, The Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C.
The temple courtyard on the border between China and Burma is paved with
cool stone, full of a darkness rustling with breath, robes, and whispers.
The moonlight filtering through palm trees shows hundreds of villagers – sitting
and lying on the ground, leaning on the crooks of tree trunks, wrapped
up against evening dew, listening raptly. On the temple porch a yong woman,
the storyteller, sits cross-legged on the floor beside a ma blowing a bamboo
She bows her head over an open fan. The accompnist shakes the spit out
of his reed and blows a rippling melody as the woman begins to sing an
epic poem on the life of the Buddha.
In the sunny, subtropical Sipsongpanna region of southwest China’s
borders with Southeast Asia, ethnic Tau Lües - a group with close ties
to Thailand – perform flirtatious, exoticized dances for a rapidly-growing
tourist trade. Endorsed by Chinese officials, who view the Tai Lües as
a “model minority,” these staged performances are part of a
carefully sanctioned ethnic policy. However, behind the scenes and away
from the eyes and ears of tourists and the Chinese government, a different
kind of cultural resurgence is taking place.
Sara L. M. Davis’s recent book, Song & Silence, describes a
variety of cultural practices within this resurgence. For example, while
carefully avoiding government repression, Tai Lües have rebuilt Buddhist
temples and made them into vital centers for the ethnic community to gather,
discuss their future, and express discontent. Davis also describes the
resurgence of the Tai language evident in a renewed interest in ethnic
storytelling and traditional songs as well as the popularity of Tai pop
music and computer publishing projects. The book charts how Tai Lüe Buddhist
monks have organized pop concerts for thousands of youth, who gather to “sing
in Tai” and celebrate their ethnic identity.
Some youth have also begun to show interest in learning to perform epic
oral poetry, in which trained singers perform narratives about the life
of the Buddha and improvise poems of praise. These songs, once banned by
the Chinese state, are gradually being recovered and reinvented again.
Singers trek to Burma and Thailand to find old song texts, or retrieve
them from villages where they have been buried underground to keep them
safe. While Chinese cities ring with the echoes of karaoke, these remote
ethnic villages are recovering nearly-forgotten oral traditions.
The book documents some of these oral poems and the varying – sometimes
sharply disagreeing – interpretations Tais have of what they mean.
Throughout her work, Davis weaves together the voices of monks, singers,
and activists to examine issues of cultural authenticity, the status of
ethnic minorities in China, and the growing cross-border contacts among
Tai Lües in China, Thailand, Burma, and Laos.
In this illustrated lecture, Davis will present material from the extensive
fieldwork that led to Song & Silence.
Sara L. M. Davis earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. She
has taught and conducted research at Yale University and UCLA, and is a
former Human Rights Watch researcher on China. Davis has written for several
publications including The Wall Street Journal, International
Herald Tribune, and Modern China. She currently lives in New York.