Endangered Archives

EAP872: Bulang manuscripts preservation project

Mr Brian Kirbis, Museum of Anthropology, Yunnan University
2015 award - Pilot project
£3,525 for 3 months

Archival partner: Museum of Anthropology, Yunnan University

Project Overview

This project will digitise handwritten texts used by Bulang ethnicity ritual specialists, focusing on three villages located in Yunnan Province, China – the area of greatest concentration of Bulang people. These manuscripts constitute a highly fragmented tradition for which text hierarchies will be developed. This project will assist in preserving and elaborating Bulang history and cultural identity in a time of rapid modernisation.

The Bulang are a Mon-Khmer language-speaking group distributed throughout the uplands of southwest China, Eastern Burma, and Northern Thailand. Despite being counted among the earliest known occupants of the region and being pivotal in our understanding of regional cultural ecology, there has been surprisingly little research on the Bulang. One key to establishing a cohesive identity across their highly fragmented population is through their text tradition and, in particular, those texts utilised by lay ritual specialists and constituting a syncretic belief system with elements of animism and Theravada Buddhism.

The Bulang are considered the world’s earliest tea cultivators and many villages contain old-growth tea gardens planted nearly a millennium ago by their ancestors. Recent market demand for old-growth tea has led to rapid development, deeply impacting local ecological, socio-cultural, and cosmological landscapes. As a consequence, contemporary Bulang identity has been subject to external market constructs while simultaneously eroding from within. In Burma, where lack of market access has averted such rapid development, preindustrial subsistence livelihoods and social strategies are more intact, though these are threatened by local political instability.

Bulang manuscript culture consists of overlapping monastic and secular works. Monastic texts are primarily Buddhist canonical works while secular texts regulate village ritual life. Hand-copying texts is a form of literary training as well as a form of patronage whereby villagers receive merit and/or protection by commissioning texts to be copied then placed in the monastery. Consequently, there are multiple copies of certain texts located in the monastery. There are far fewer copies of non-canonical manuscripts such as ritual protocols, village histories, or esoteric works such as divination manuals that quite likely derive from pre-Buddhist animistic practices. These are preserved in more specific environments, generally with village ritualists and traditional knowledge brokers.

Secular texts that have become illegible or fallen into disuse are either stored in homes or placed in the monastery. The conditions of their storage demonstrate no observable conservation intent beyond the simple fact that they cannot be discarded. Disorganised stacks of both palm leaf and mulberry paper texts have been observed in local monasteries. There is often uncertainty as to the content of these abandoned volumes or whether there are versions extant and in usage in the community. Unlike Buddhist canonical works, no known text lineages or hierarchies are known to exist for these lay manuscripts.

In the Bulang Mountains of southwest Yunnan, there are over thirty Bulang villages. Significant Bulang populations are also found in Daluo, Bada, Lincang, Shaungjiang, Baoshan and Mojiang. Though ethnically similar, there is a high degree of cultural and linguistic variation based on little understood historical conditions of migration. At times, there are greater language affinities between Bulang and adjacent ethnic Wa – language-cousins to the Bulang – than between distant Bulang, who rely on Dai for a common tongue. There are also instances of ethnic re-identification whereby animistic Wa peoples adopt Buddhism and consequently consider themselves as Bulang, or Bulang take on affectations of and identify as Dai. The key to understanding Bulang identity across such vast complexity is through distilling from their literary tradition those pre-Buddhist elements – including myths, historical narratives and ritual practices – that provide insight into the early development of the Bulang people. To that effect, this pilot project will therefore focus on just such non-canonical texts. It has been observed that, depending on the size and age of each village, there may be anywhere from one dozen to several dozen texts per village available for digitisation.

There are various historical circumstances that have complicated any straightforward explication of these manuscripts. Most notable among these is the Chinese Cultural Revolution, during which time many texts were destroyed. There are elders still capable of oral recitations for some of these works due to their having been recited for several decades prior to their destruction. In some instances, texts were hidden or ritual specialists fled across the border. These circumstances have all made for broken and tangled text lineages and their associated ritual complexes.

The project will aim to digitise approximately 72 texts from the pilot villages and establish the framework for a future major research project. Training in field digitisation methods will be provided for Yunnan University’s Museum of Anthropology.

Project Outcome