In 1958 while conducting fieldwork in Yunnan, a professor came across a ricepaper booklet with strange script created from Chinese characters. This turned out to be a folksong booklet in Old Bai script. She safeguarded it carefully through the tumultuous Mao years until the 1990s, when the political environment had relaxed enough for her to conduct full-scale ethnographic research. Very few such texts remain, and what makes this booklet even more valuable is that it records songs that have already disappeared, including some with sexually explicit content.
In this unprecedented book on the oral traditions of the ethnic minority of China, representing decades of painstaking research, the Old Bai script has not only been transcribed and translated in both English and Chinese but each page from the original booklet has also been reproduced.
The introduction begins with a process of textualization, recounting the origin of the written song text. Details are supplied about the chain of collectors and researchers working on the project since the early 1950s. This is an excellent example of textual provenience. A brief but useful introduction to the Bai people and history, noting some issues with ethnic identity and contact with Han Chinese culture, is also included. There is a helpful, succinct discussion of the linguistic placement of Bai, followed by a more comprehensive introduction to the Yunlong dialect of Bai—the dominant dialect which the text reflects. Mention is also made of the Great Volumes Tradition, which was also sometimes written in a special register of Chinese characters. Emphasis is placed on “created characters” utilized in the Bai/Han Chinese script.
The next section is on Bai folklore and culture, with a discussion on traditional performance genres, in particular antiphonal singing, of which these songs are a part. The book delves into the possibilities of how the songs got into the written form in relation to behavior of Bai local elites. The authors also note the decline of the local song tradition in recent years.
The following section introduces the Bai song format in a clear and useful fashion, followed by a section covering the use of Chinese Character-based Bai writing, giving more than two hundred examples—this section will be of most use to linguists. The authors note the use of 150 “created characters” in the text out of approximately 500 “individual characters” in the text, and included are the opinions of Chinese linguists on the phenomenon along with a discussion of how this text of the 1930s utilizes some “simplified” characters, anticipating developments in script reform after 1949. The songs are presented in a multilinear format that includes the Bai text, an IPA version of the sound, a word-for-word Chinese line, a word-for-word English line, and vernacular (Standard) Chinese line and vernacular English translation. Although this is easy to follow by linguists, the book also includes a very helpful appendix with only the vernacular English for easier access to the songs for other groups of readers (e.g., teachers of folklore classes).
This book will be an important, if not essential, addition for scholars and students of Asian studies, ethnic studies, folklore, and linguistics.