Chinese Influence on Oral tradition in Mongolia: bensen üliger

Project description

The aim of the project is to examine the modern Mongolian literary genre bensen üliger (booklet story), part of a Mongolian oral folklore tradition as reproduction of the Chinese knight stories. The term bensen is derived from the Chinese ben zi 本子, meaning booklet in English or “Heft” in German; the second term üliger means story here. This genre bensen üliger first appeared in the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. The “booklet stories” were reproduced by storytellers and singers from eastern and southeastern Mongolia where the influence of the Han Chinese was strongest. The use of Chinese motifs in these stories spread from these regions to the eastern parts of the Khalka provinces and to western and southern Mongolia.

Living in permanent contact with the Chinese, Mongols living in the southern border region who understood Chinese, adopted Chinese motifs after hearing Chinese originals or listening to Chinese theatre groups. These storytellers then combined topics from Chinese literature with motifs of local epics and tales and, in a syncretistic process of poetry production, generated a new form of rhapsodic poetry with its own cultural characteristics. The present understanding of the connections between Chinese knight- and adventure narratives and bensen üliger is that the Mongolian storyteller does not ultimately reproduce a Chinese subject but narrates a subject using Mongolian poetic means with the help of certain elements of the Chinese tradition. The language of the bensen üliger differs from other Mongolian oral traditions: Chinese words are used, and the language is understood only by the Mongols of Inner Mongolia, Mongols from outer Mongolia cannot understand the words.

Inner Mongolia is one of the five autonomous regions in China. The minority nationalities in China constitute 8 percent of the population and occupy 60 percent of the national territory. The Chinese nation building process, the invention and classification of minorities as well as the establishment of autonomous regions like Inner Mongolia also define the status and use of languages in these regions. The language of the Han Chinese, the largest of the 56 minzu, and believed to be superior to the other groups, stands at the top of a linguistic hierarchy (Dwyer 1998, Safran 1998). Bilingual education in Inner Mongolia introduces Chinese and achieves the transition from the speakers` native language to Chinese. Chinese words in the bensen üliger indicate that the sinification process brought its linguistic influence into the oral tradition of the Mongols. Even though Chinese and Mongolian are two different language families with different typological systems, Diglossia and bilingual education lead to code-switching and linguistic transfer phenomena also in the vernacular language of the Mongols in Inner Mongolia. Transfer phenomena can be found in the phonology, morphology and on the lexical level. New mixed Mongolian-Chinese word creations seem to defy the rules of the particular language family. People of Outer Mongolia do not understand this language, which indicates that regional Chinese influence in Inner Mongolia and language education plays a role. The literary genre bensen üliger is part of the oral tradition in Inner Mongolia and its language reflect the mixed Mongolian-Chinese word creations and language use that I also observed in Huhhot.

The bensen üliger tradition differs in several other respects from previous Mongol heroic epics. Aside from the use of prosimetrum (a shifting between narrative and rhyme poetry), the fantastic or supernatural moment found in heroic epics and fairy tales has vanished. Dangers to freedom really do exist, and monsters have been replaced by thieves, rebels and princes. Bensen üliger content is expanded and embellished as much as the storyteller desires and is filled with motifs of Mongolian storytelling or with prose of Tibetan or Indian origins. Compared with the heroic epics, the content of the bensen üliger has not just one, but several different plots with numerous motifs and role models. The new content developed by syncretism processes is narrated with a Chinese complexion. In comparison to the heroic epic, the bensen üliger are preformed with different types of melodies played on a horse fiddle (morin huur), that vary according to the respective motifs. A storyteller must be a good singer, performer and actor.

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