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Book Review: Oral Poetics: Formulaic Diction of Arimpil

Chao Gejin朝戈金. Kochuan shishi xue: Ranpile "Jiangge"er"chengshi jufa yanjiu 口传史诗诗学:冉皮勒《江格尔》程序句法研究 [Oral Poetics: Formulaic Diction of Arimpil"s Jangar Singing]. Nanning 南宁: Guangxi renmin chubanshe 广西人民出版社, 2000. 19+328 pages Introduction by Zhong Jinwen (钟敬文),contents of all 6 chapters, glossary, diction illustrations, script rule, photographs, interviews, references. Hardcover RMB24.00; ISBN 7-219-04265-5. (In Chinese)


Chao Gejin ("Chogjin" in Mongolian) is an outstanding member of a group of younger scholars in the minority literatures section of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who combine contemporary Chinese and Western theories in their works. In Chao Gejin"s case, he follows in the methodological traditions of Chinese research on minority folklore, literature, and language studies in paths blazed by scholars such as Zhong Jingwen 钟敬文 (who in his ninth decade, has written a preface for the book) and the late Ma Xueliang 马学良combining them with western sources such as the Parry-Lord tradition, the works of Lauri Honko and John Miles Foley on epic narrative, and more general influences from performance folkloristics and related disciplines. Chao also presided over the recent translation of Foley"s The Oral Theory of Composition.

Chao"s study concerns the oral poetics of a Mongol epic singer named Arimpil and his versions of the Jangar epic cycle. The Jangar epics center around the exploits of the hero Jangar and his loyal warriors. Their many banquets are frequently interrupted by news that their domains have been invaded by the multiheaded mangus monsters that enjoy ravaging human communities. Jangar, or one of his heroes, resolves the crisis by subduing the giant anthropomorphs, who have a taste for human slaves and flesh.

The Chinese text of Chao"s book is supported by an abstract in English and clear and useful discussions of key terms drawn from western theory (which are given in English with a Chinese translation) such as "ethnopoetics," "register," "context," "formulaic density," and "composition in performance." The portions of the actual Jangar recitals are presented in romanized Mongolian, or in romanized Monglian accompanied by a literal Chinese translation. One appendix includes the text of an interview with the singer. Such an innovative compliment of source materials is welcome in the scholarship emanating from present-day China.

In the first half of the book Chao discusses theory and methodology, covering basic questions concerning orality and literacy, the nature of epic texts, text and context, texts and traditions of singing, and an assessment of various theoretical models, particularly the Parry-Lord oral formulaic tradition in regards to the texts examined in this study. It also reviews the question of formula in studies of Mongol epic poetics, noting Walther Heisseg"s assessment that questions of the use of formula by contemporary singers needed examination in comparison with texts from previous eras (p. 43). The second half of the work deals with the application of theory on aspects of a portion of the Jangar cycle called "Hundu Gartai Sabar in Bulug," concerning one of the heroes in Jangar"s group of merry men. As in the Parry-Lord tradition, the emphasis is on examining the formulas in the text, including epithets and diction (rhythm, meter, and parallelism), so-called "formulaic density," and the "systematic use of formula"(p.2.) Stress is given to important features of Mongol prosody, namely "beginning" (or "head") rhyme, and vowel harmony. Beyond the comprehensive study of formulaic diction, Chao includes a discussion of context and performance, stressing that caution should be used in making assumptions about Mongol epic based on written texts and acknowledging that an understanding of performance in context is necessary for a full understanding, using the examples of music and the live audience context as factors of oral performances not part of existing written versions.

In sum, Chao creates a synthetic theory by which to discern the nature and function of formula in the Mongol epic tradition, while at the same time providing a stimulating model of research for other Chinese scholars dealing with various aspects of the immense body of oral and oral-connected lore still largely under-studied within China and without.

Mark Bender
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio


ASIAN FOLKLORE STUDIES, NAGOYA, Japan.VOLUME LX-2, 2001, Pp360-62.


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