01 November 2017

Beautiful echoes of a ruined empire

I am currently listening to the Seven Melodies of Minyak 《木雅七韵》 a folk album by Dogi Balmo 多吉巴姆, an album which has an amazing and beautiful backstory which I was reading on China Daily.

The story of how the album got made, linked above, is strange and beautiful enough: the fact that a student of music in Sichuan would find herself befriending a performer who is one of the few surviving speakers of the Qiangic Minyak 弭藥 (or Muya 木雅) language on earth. And the fact that the album they produced together would spur genuine attempts at linguistic conservation on the part of the government. But even more bizarre, twistedly beautiful and tragic is the history of the Minyak themselves - kissing cousins to the Tibetans who are in the PRC’s ethnic schema classified either as Tibetans 藏 or as Qiang 羌 people. Tradition has it that they are among the few living descendants of the Tanguts.

And who are the Tanguts, you ask?

Originally, the Tanguts, belonging to the historical Qiang people, were invited by the Tang court to act as a buffer state between China and the Tibetan Empire. But between the 800’s and the 1200’s, they became a major, major headache for the Tang Dynasty (after the Rebellion of An Shi) and the following Song Dynasty. Traditionally herders, they forged an empire - the Empire of Western Xia - in what are now Gansu Province and Ningxia Autonomous Region, along with the southwest parts of Inner Mongolia going up to the Ordos Loop.

Despite their situation on a rich overland trade route (the Hexi Corridor of the Silk Road), they held to their traditional customs. The western half of their Empire was nomadic and pastoralist, while the eastern half, consisting of Han Chinese as well as Tanguts and lying on the fertile loess plateau of the Yellow River, was agrarian. They had advanced techniques for smelting iron - a necessity when situated between two very hostile states (the Khitans and the Song Chinese). They developed their own writing system, which they used primarily to translate Buddhist sūttas and the Chinese Classics into their own language.

An independent kingdom which, like many of its type, performed a delicate diplomatic balancing act to stay afloat, they basically managed to thumb their collective noses at everybody in Central Asia until Genghis Khan arrived on the scene. Even then, they refused to cooperate with Genghis Khan’s conquests - and they paid dearly for their hard-fought resistance to conquest. Their capital at Xingqing (now Yinchuan in Ningxia) was razed to the ground in 1227 and all of its inhabitants slaughtered by the marauding Mongols.

The Tangut Empire’s post-apocalyptic survivors fled south into Henan, Hebei, Tibet and Sichuan, where most of them were absorbed either into the Han Chinese or the Tibetan populace, with a few lonely holdouts lasting until the middle of the Ming Dynasty. The Minyak, who are mostly located in Kangding County in Sichuan, are thought to be one of the last surviving pockets of these hardscrabble survivors, and they have long been in danger of being culturally assimilated - by the Tibetans. I know that might be a bit hard to believe given the prevailing Western political narrative around Tibet, but the Tibetan culture is actually remarkably healthy.

The living knowledge of the Tangut script has been lost to time, so asking the Minyak people to go back to using that would be not quite as bad as, but something akin to, asking the modern Greeks to go back to using Linear B. Yang Hua’s idea of compiling a Chinese-Minyak audio dictionary as a way of helping to preserve the unwritten language is an intriguing one, though.

Again, this is completely fascinating stuff to me. Here is one of the songs from the Seven Melodies: enjoy! And very many thanks to my friend Xu Minghuan for helping me track down this album so I could hear the whole thing.

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