The Textualization of "Imakan" Narratives of the Hezhen Ethnic Group
Author: Yu, Xiaofei
Affiliation: Nihon University

The Hezhen are presently one of the smallest of China’s 55 official ethnic minority groups.

Their historic home is along the lower reaches of the Amur (Heilongjiang), Ussuri, and Songhua rivers in present-day Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China. As the Hezhen historically had no writing system, their culture was oral-based. Imakan (yimakan in Chinese pinyin Romanization) was the most sophisticated style of narrative among the group. These popular narratives were passed down orally generation by generation by male singers. The basic tale was told in a mix of speaking and singing. The stories were often told an hour or two at a time, sometimes taking several night-time sessions to complete. The telling took place outdoors, at fireside in hunting and fishing camps. Imakan often feature a hunter-hero known as a mergen, a term often appearing in the folk literature of neighboring peoples such as the Mongols, Daurs, and Oroqens.

Shamanism is a major aspect of the content of imakan and many narrative motifs are similar to those found in folk stories and epic poems in northern Asia. Typically, the hero is an orphan boy whose parents were either captured or killed in inter-tribal warfare. Some stories may feature two brothers or even an elder sister and younger brother. Eventually the poor orphan becomes a shaman after meeting a spirit in the wilds or as the result of an illness. He then sets out to rescue his parents and others kidnapped from his tribe, often with the help of his protector spirits. On the way he may meet other powerful mergens with whom he engages in combat.  He may kill an opposing mergen, or the loser may become one of his followers after losing to him.  In some stories he may also marry a number of women (the sisters of other mergens) whom become his spirit helpers. They use their abilities as shamans to shape-shift into raptors (kori) and help him to complete his revenge.  Along the way he re-captures many tribesmen and ultimately finds and saves his parents.  He leads everyone back home and becomes the leader of the replenished tribal group. By examining the refrains sung in imakan performances, we have concluded that it is likely the songs originated in shaman rituals. Moreover, content of the imakan narratives suggest that historically Hezhen culture absorbed many features of Han culture.

Since 1930, thirty-four imakan narratives have been collected by Chinese researchers. However, since the Hezhen had no written script all of the stories, which were performed in Hezhen language, were translated into Chinese and written down in Chinese characters. As it is very important to preserve the imakan in their original linguistic context, my local co-researchers and I developed a system based on the Roman alphabet for transcribing the Hezhen language and making written texts of imakan performances. I recorded two imakan, "Site Mergen" and "Kanta Mergen" which were told by You Jinliang in 1999 and 2000. I then transcribed them in writing with the help of You Jinliang and others. This talk will suggest several ways to preserve the imakan narrative tradition.