This article examines the recontextualization of traditional Mongolian verbal art khuuriin ülger (‘fiddle story’) by Mongolian folk singers in the context of the spread of COVID-19 in Inner Mongolia, China. Drawing on the concept of intertextuality, I analyze the verbal and visual signs in 94 videos of Mongolian fiddle stories. The article argues that the minority Mongols participate in the dominant global and national discourses while at the same time creating a sense of Mongolian-ness by marrying Mongolian verbal art with public health messages related to COVID-19. The article also finds that the multivocal COVID-19 Mongolian fiddle stories are a medium to articulate the very heteroglot sense of the world in which minority Mongols dwell and to construct and reaffirm their multi-layered identities. The study contributes to our understanding of how traditional genres and symbols evolve in response to the pandemic.
Genres of traditional verbal expressions evolve “as they are buffeted on the currents of time and bounced around from shore to shore, yet still retain, somehow, an essence that distinguishes them as unique and persisting expressive vessels” (McDowell 2012:250). Capturing such persisting and evolving aspect of genres Bakhtin (1986:87) argues genres “correspond to conventional speech communication, typical themes, and, consequently, also to particular contacts between the meanings of words and actual concrete reality under certain typical circumstances”. The conception of genres as conventional cultural expression and simultaneously the products of socio-historical and living circumstances (Bauman 2004; Hanks 1987:250) lies at the heart of this article, which explores how a traditional Mongolian art form, khuuriin ülger (‘fiddle story’) has become a vehicle of health communication and socio-political commentary in the ongoing global fight against COVID-19.
The traditional Mongolian khuurch (‘storytellers, bards’) who recite great cycles of stories with the acoustic accompaniment of a four-stringed fiddle fall in the category of peripatetic bards that once flourished in many parts of the world (Finnegan 1977), such as the reciters of great poetry and stories during the Arab Empire in the ninth and tenth century (Hourani 1991), today’s Kazakh aitys akhyndar (‘improvisational poets’) (Dubuisson 2010), or Tuscan Contrasto (‘verbal duel’) poets (Pagliai 2002). Like these, Mongolian khuurch not only entertain, but may also serve as comedians, satirists, religious proselytizers, or political propagandists (Hangin 1988:69–70). Thus, throughout their long trajectory, Mongolian fiddle stories, apart from transmitting great epic cycles, have been embedded in the social and ideological currents of their time and are capable of affording Mongols a forum for exploring the meaning of events that define their circumstances. In that sense, the Mongolian fiddle stories can be either epic poetry or social poetry based on Banti and Giannattasio’s (2003) categorization of poetically organized discourse. The latter, social poetry, has the “stated purpose […] to achieve a political or social effect” (Banti and Giannattasio 2003:314). This article takes up the social and political dimensions of Mongolian fiddle stories by zooming in on their bottom-up participation in China’s COVID-19 prevention and containment efforts.
As has been noted by a number of studies in this special issue, China has invested great efforts into mobilizing mass participation in health communication via delivering timely multilingual information which is “critical to the success of prevention and containment efforts” (Piller 2020:14). Similarly, China’s mass mobilization of bilingual Mongols during COVID-19 prevention in Inner Mongolia, where 75 locally transmitted cases and 140 overseas imported cases were reported between January 23 and May 20, was carried out in a variety of communication forms and linguistic modes. These included the simultaneous release of official news in both Chinese and Mongolian – the two official languages of Inner Mongolia – through traditional media platforms such as TV and radio, as well as on new digital media, particularly WeChat, which is used by almost all Mongols in China. The official information was then intensified further by local municipal and township governments and news agencies, both of which released bilingual news via their separate Mongolian and Chinese-medium WeChat public accounts and TV channels. Depending on language proficiency and personal preference some Mongols consume Mongolian news, others Chinese and others both. Most importantly, in response to such mobilization, Mongols do not simply act as passive information consumers but also as co-producers with the state (for the increasingly participatory nature of digital propaganda see Repnikova and Fang 2018). This latter aspect is epitomized in the voracious participation of local Mongolian artists including fiddlers, cartoonists, poets, singers, calligraphers, writers, and even embroiderers in the national fight against COVID-19 by posting and sharing their works, some of which have attracted intense interest and were glorified by state media. My investigation of Mongolian fiddle stories flourishing in this context thus focuses on the responses of local grass-root folk artists to this state mobilization and solicitation, and asks: How do Mongolian fiddle stories partake in, interact with and constitute China’s mass mobilization of local linguistic and cultural forms to fight against the pandemic? In other words, I explore the process of reshaping and reorienting Mongolian fiddle stories by minority Mongols while they act in tune with multiple sources of authority in the pandemic.
2 Transforming genre and intertextuality
Genre innovation is a key response for negotiating rapidly changing social and political relations (Hanks 1987; Turino 1984). Contemporary Kazak improvisational poetry, for instance, is an ideologically charged site where poets actively take part in the redefinition of Kazak culture and nation under the patronage of rival politicians (Dubuisson 2010). In this context, verbal art acts as a vehicle of socio-political critique as Kazak nationalism and political stratification loom large. That native genres effectively capture and reflexively engage with ongoing social dramas is also shown by Mexican ballads’ exploitation of traditional verbal genres to either glamorize the drug trade or alleviate the disaster it wreaks in people’s lives (McDowell 2012). Similarly, Mongolian fiddle stories are structured by and structure the perception of China’s fight against COVID-19.
This is particularly apparent in the multivocal and hybrid dimension of this traditional genre. I find the notion of intertextuality developed by Bakhtin (1981) useful in interrogating the heterogeneous fiddle stories occasioned by state mobilization to fight against COVID-19. Following Briggs and Bauman (1992), I view genre in intertextual terms, that is, I draw attention to the intertextual relationships between fiddle stories and prior texts and discourses circulating in official media including public health discourse and pro-Party discourse. I also interrogate the textual and ideological purposes served by the forms and meanings of these decontextualized and recontextualized texts. As Bauman and Briggs (1992:147) argue, “[t]he creation of intertextual relationships through genre simultaneously renders texts ordered, unified and bounded, on the one hand, and fragmented, heterogeneous, and open-ended, on the other”. Indeed, the generic restraints, including the fixed structure and acoustic icons, of Mongolian fiddle stories provide the means of structuring the COVID-19-themed fiddle stories in a bounded way, while diachronically the insertion of fiddle stories in the nation’s COVID-19 prevention campaign imbues them with historical association and socio-ideological currents prevalent in China and thus renders fiddle stories open-ended and oriented to multiple authorities. This intertextual nature of genre certainly brings in what Bakhtin dubbed (Bakhtin 1981:263) “social heteroglossia” in the reconfiguring of verbal art, as I show below.
3 The multivocal COVID-19-themed khuuriin ülger
The mediated Mongolian khuuriin ülger is a multi-layered artistic object, with interacting visual, verbal, and acoustic elements. Close inspection of 94 fiddle story video clips uploaded online since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China reveals a cornucopia of information deployed across these semiotic channels. I make brief reference to the visuals of folklores while I focus here specifically on the lyrics. All the fiddle stories were released between January 27, 2020 and March 15, 2020 on the WeChat public page khuuriin ülger. They are performed fully in Mongolian by men except in three cases where the performance is by women fiddlers.
In this online collection of 94 COVID-19-themed fiddle story video clips, I have paid attention to approximately 20 performances of the fiddle stories and selected a core sample of three fiddle stories for close analysis. The salient COVID-19-theme observed in the corpus can be further divided into three sub-themes. The first sub-theme, comprising more than half of the corpus, is about the prevention of the disease and aims mainly to raise public health awareness and to exhort people to follow the official regulations and instructions. The second sub-theme revolves around extolling and eulogizing the frontline health workers, policemen, politicians, journalists and community volunteers, comprising roughly 20% of the total corpus. Finally, 10 percent of the fiddle stories feature a variety of ad-hoc topics ranging from praising the 30,000 sheep donated by Mongolia to China, to commemorating local leaders who lost their lives while fighting against COVID-19, and to criticizing those who hunt and consume wildlife. Despite the difference in themes the fiddle stories consist of four main segments: opening formula; framing that provides the background of the performance; theme, that covers warning, advice, admonishment or praise in relation to the outbreak of COVID-19; and finally visualizing victory which usually is an expression of firm belief in the guidance of Party. Below I will first examine four stanzas excerpted from an eighteen-stanza fiddle story focusing on the theme of COVID-19 prevention. It was recorded on January 27 and is sung by Jin Gang, a municipal-level Intangible Cultural Heritage bearer of Mongolian fiddle stories, whose role is to safeguard, transmit and develop cultural heritage together with other practitioners, cultural official and experts. I present below my transcription of the Mongolian lyrics and their translation into English.
The first and second stanzas are the fixed opening formula of fiddle performance. The first stanza makes a reference to the fiddle itself by describing how the fiddle sounds, while the second stanza frames the story that is to give warning and advice to the public regarding the infectious disease spreading from Wuhan. Then in stanza 11 and 12, the fiddler offers his practical advice to the audience, such as washing hands, keeping the air fresh, and refraining from New Year’s visits. He continues to relay other official health information such as wearing masks, working from home, filtering out misinformation and fake news until the penultimate stanza, which is the 17th stanza.
Three layers of intertextual relations are noteworthy throughout the performance. First, the fiddle story aligns closely with the conventional generic structure and aesthetics of traditional Mongolian fiddle story telling practice as shown not only by its rhyming words (see the boldfaced morphosyntactic parallelism) and alliteration (such as: ü, g, s) but also by its sung form. Such recurring aesthetic constraints which have remained virtually unchanged throughout its history heighten the symbolic impact of fiddle stories and “traditionalize”, to use Bauman’s (2001:28) term, the performance.
Second, the content of the fiddle story draws on and fortifies the emerging COVID-19 public health discourses circulated by mass media such as washing hands and staying home. In other words, the content is dialogized with the dominant global and national health discourses and absorbs such discourses into the traditional fiddle story genre. This inclusion of novel voices is further shown by their juxtaposition and seamless fusion with Mongolian cultural practices, that is the celebration and mutual visits during the Mongolian chaagaan sar (‘Mongolian New Year’). The fiddler urges Mongols to halt visiting each other and encourages them to do so after the virus is defeated fully. He sings that by that time Mongolians will once again be able to greet each other with fine wine and khadag. A khadag is an oblong piece of silk used on various ceremonial occasions by Mongols and Tibetans. It is the indispensable accompaniment to any gift or offering (Hangin 1988) and it is always used for New Year’s greetings.
Finally, the fiddle story draws on the “heritagization” and “folklorization” of Mongolian culture and identity in China (Maags and Svensson 2018; Wu 2019) just as they partake of COVID-19 public health discourses. For instance, in Jin Gang’s performance the most salient visuals evoking Mongolian cultural identity include an image of Genghis Khan and a Mongolian costume donned by him. Such evocation of Mongolian heritage is further buttressed by conspicuous traditional hudum Mongolian calligraphies mongol khün (‘Mongols’) and khorchin tuul (‘Khorchin epic’) gracing the wall in front of which the fiddler performs (see Figure 1). Khorchin epic is a new name granted to the fiddle stories that are popular in the Khorchin region of Inner Mongolia when they were listed as a national Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006 as if the newly-gained official status needs to be conveyed by a new name.
Hence, the contemporary fiddle story is in and of itself heritagized. And it is this discourse of heritage the fiddlers in my corpus intertextually draw upon by foregrounding valorized orthodox Mongolian cultural symbols. Yet, the multifaceted and syncretic nature of Mongolian fiddle stories does not stop there.
Except when dialogically orienting to traditional genre continuity, dominant health discourse and heritage discourse around 70 fiddle stories in my corpus are capped with laudatory descriptions of Party leadership and political precepts. As outlined above, in the last few stanzas of fiddle stories fiddlers generously lavish praise upon the Party and eagerly circulate the image of the secure, unified and trustworthy Chinese state. For instance, lines such as eb hamt namiin joolodalagaar, echusiin yalaltiig olah yuum (‘under the guidance of the Party, we will win the battle’) are woven into almost all fiddle stories. Such an ideological function is epitomized by A Praise on the Premier, which spans 20 stanzas and centers on the visit to Wuhan by the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang.
The lyrics in line one and line three are a word for word Mongolian translation of the catch phrases of president Xi Jinping’s report at the 2017 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as 中华民族伟大复兴 (‘The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’) and 不忘初心 (‘Remaining true to the founding mission of the Party’), carrying the message intact from official media into the space of Mongolian fiddle stories. Such intertextual transfer of political discourses can be observed frequently in the corpus (see Baioud 2020 for further examples). Through the circulation and magnification of authoritative political discourse Mongolian fiddle stories derive their textual authority from state-authorized discourse. As cogently pointed out by Briggs and Bauman (1992), the direct and transparent transplantation of authoritative discourse into the folklore genre minimizes the distance between text and genres, thus rendering the discourse maximally interpretable through the association of generic precedents. More crucially the minimal gap between the precedent official text and its recasting in the verbal performance in question not only establishes the textual authority of the fiddle story but also fosters a shared consciousness of the Chinese nation.
If the faithful replication of authoritative discourse earns textual authority for fiddle stories, these literal translations of Chinese phrases expand the conceptual horizon of the Mongolian language and accentuate the inherent heteroglossia of fiddle stories. It means that by crudely glossing Chinese political catch phrases into Mongolian the very linguistic mode of the fiddle story is hybridized despite its apparent monolingualism. Similar internally hybridized language is noted by Hanks (2010) in his analysis of Maya neologisms that are thoroughly shot through with Spanish concepts and theological backings in the colonial context. It is when the conventional Mongolian cultural constructs interact with the socio-political context of the pandemic in China that the new Mongolian glosses which are neither completely Mongolian nor completely Chinese are produced. It is this semi-assimilated gloss that further adds to the heteroglossia of the fiddle story and exemplifies its orientation to multiple sources of authority.
In this article I have argued that Mongolian fiddle stories are rendered heterogenous and open-ended as they respond to the nation’s large-scale mobilization of its diverse population to fight against COVID-19. At the same time, I also pointed out that this recontextualization reproduces the ordered generic form of the traditional Mongolian fiddle story by keeping continuity with its traditional generic structure and aesthetic features. It is through such intentionally hybrid cultural art forms that minority artists advance broader participation and self-representation, as well as more integration into the mainstream national system. The multivocal COVID-19 Mongolian fiddle story is indeed a venue to articulate the very heteroglot sense of the world in which minority Mongols dwell and construct their multi-layered identities. From another perspective, the emergence of multivocal Mongolian fiddle stories that are closely entangled with the health discourse and public praise of political figures, shows China’s effective solicitation of multicultural resources to arrest the spread of COVID-19 and simultaneously project an ideal image of the state as symbolized by the Premier.
Finally, but no less importantly, this short analytical foray into the evolving and polyvocal ancient art form in the context of a pandemic raises the question: what are the creative possibilities for performing the minority language itself? How does the contact between new dominant discourses and a traditional cultural/conceptual framework transform minority languages and their speakers’ attitude towards their own languages? The process and consequences of the insertion of heteroglossic and half-assimilated voices into minority languages in changing societies have yet to be explored further (Schieffelin 2002; Wroblewski 2020). A particularly telling instance is that some Mongolian glosses of Chinese expressions that violate the usage of Mongolian are derogatively referred to as modon hel (‘wooden language’) – a language awkwardly and disturbingly garbed in Mongolian yet in nature nakedly Chinese. Such wooden language according to raucous debates on social media will leave its lasting imprints on the consciousness of Mongols and ultimately act as symbolic domination. The hybridization on all levels of linguistic and cultural structures and the emergence of explicit linguistic ideology certainly bears further study. The emergence of multilingual health information in China as explored in this special issue also forces us to see the question of appropriateness and commensurability in translation from dominant languages into subordinated languages and how such translations or innovations are received and evaluated by the locals whose relations with their languages are already uneasy. The same question applies to the reception of cacophonous and hybridized fiddle stories.
Many thanks to the special issue editors Prof. Ingrid Piller, Prof. Lijia and Prof. Zhangjie.
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