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An old proverb says, “Pride goeth before a
fall”; however, I never really knew what it
meant until my trip to the museum.
It wasonanovercast dayinNovember, afew
weeks after my arrival in China, and I wanted
tosee the Andy Warhol exhibit before it closed
at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. But even
after mycolleagues toldmeit was hardtofind,
I was stubbornly set on get-
ting there on my own — no
cabs or address written out
in Chinese characters for
me. No, I would travel like
the typical Beijinger I hoped
tobecome, usingonly public
I felt confident inmyabili-
ty to do so, despite my non-
existent language skills, since I’d had success
getting to the Forbidden City, Sanlitun and
eventhe 798Art Zone. Plus, the museumweb-
site offeredtransit instructions. So I boldly set
off without even a Mandarin phrasebook,
boarding a train at the Huixinxijie Nankou
station and emerging a few miles east at Tai-
yanggong. From there, however, things — lit-
erally —beganto go south.
According to CAFA’s website, I was to take
Bus No 132 north to Huajiadie Nanjie. Easier
said thandone! I had to scurry to eachside of
the intersection before finding the right bus
stop. Eventhen, I wasn’t sure what directionI
was facing. But as the bus doors flippedopen,
I tried to stay positive: Soon I’d be viewing
Warhol’s famous soup cans.
Instead, I was in the soup!
My happy glow turned to icy fear when I
begannoticing that not only didthe bus seem
to be circling an enormous park — funny, I
didn’t recall any giant parks on the museum
website’s map — but it was heading south
toward the Third Ring Road!
Jumping off at the next stop, I planned to
cross the street andsimply retrace my route to
Taiyanggong. Facing me, however, was no bus
stop: just a big brick wall around the park. An
into my head: “Youcan’t get there fromhere.”
And I couldn’t even say, “I’mlost.” My pan-
icked expression, however, must have spoken
volumes, because a flockof angels – disguised
as a trio of kindly bus riders —suddenly con-
verged onme. Thoughtheir Englishmatched
my Mandarin abilities, I tried to convey my
odyssey: “China Daily to Taiyanggong to art
museum…” then shrugging helplessly.
My message must have gotten across
because the GoodSamaritans —a young lady
inoffice attire and two older womencarrying
shopping bags — quickly turned to the
impenetrable (at least to me) route schedule
and began debating which bus I should take.
Finally, it was decided. Through gestures,
they advisedme toride the No130bus backto
Taiyangong and then pick up the 515. Though
the younger woman didn’t seem quite con-
vinced, when the No 130 pulled up, they all
helped me onto it, calling encouragement.
Sure enough, it delivered me to Taiyang-
gong. Once again, I dodged cabs and motor-
bikes across six lanes of traffic to get to the
515 bus stop. And for the second time that
day, I realized I was totally disoriented (the
sunwas maskedby clouds, andthere were no
familiar landmarks to guide me).
But my chariot arrived, and I hopped on,
keeping my fingers crossed. After all, how
many mistakes could I make in one day? In
short order, the answer appeared as an oddly
familiar sign floated by. I could have sworn it
said, “University of International Business
and Economics” — the name of the school
directly across fromthe China Daily building.
No. Couldn’t be. But it wasn’t until the bus
haltedinfront of SouthWest MinorityDishes,
the bright-orange restaurant just around the
corner from the newspaper, that I came to
terms with where I was: Right back where I’d
started from.
It was time to admit defeat. I stepped off
the bus, turned and raised my arm. “Taxi!”
A lifetime dedication to recording the Jia, the ancient oral tradition of the Miao ethnic group,
has won Wang Fenggang many accolades, but the severely disabled man’s greatest reward is
knowing the culture will be preserved for future generations. Li Jun reports.
he majority of the
Miao ethnic group
live in Guizhou
province, where
their ancient lore
called Jia (or Jaxlil
in the Miao language) has been
passed down through genera-
Jia is the story of the Miao peo-
ple — their myths about the
beginning of the world, their his-
tory, laws and customs. Like the
Bible for Christians, Jia contains
all the values and beliefs of Miao.
For generations, the Jia has
been passed down through oral
histories and storytelling, and
like most oral traditions around
theworld, Jiais ingravedanger of
dying away.
“In the 1950s, there were
around a dozen older villagers
who could hum the Jia in Dan-
zhai county, but nowthere is only
one man left, and moreover, he
has no successors,” says Wang
Fenggang, the 69-year-old who
has spent most of his life collect-
ing stories fromthe Jia.
Over the past 30 years, Wang
has recorded hundreds of hours
of Jia singing by elders from the
Miao ethnic group, and docu-
mented tens of thousands of lines
to preserve the endangered oral
Despite physical disability,
Wang persisted in protecting the
Jia and the culture of the Miao
ethnic group.
After years of collecting raw
material, Wang began to compile
the book of Jia in 2004, and four
years later he finishedthe work—
Miao Zu Jia Li (The Jia of Miao
Ethnic Group). The book was
published in 2009.
Thanks to Wang’s efforts, the
protection of the Jia of Miao eth-
nic group was incorporated into
the national intangible cultural
heritage of China in 2008, and
Wangwas namedChinese Cultur-
al Figure of the year 2013 by Chi-
nese Culture Promotion Society
and Phoenix TV.
Born in a small village in Dan-
zhai county, Guizhou province, in
1945, Wang was deeply influ-
enced by Miao culture as he often
heard the Miao people singing
their folk songs.
“I began to know Miao’s Jia
whenI wasstill achildbut I didnot
understand what it meant at that
time,” says Wang, who is of the Sui
ethnic group. The Sui and Miao
people live close toeachother.
The Jia is like a poem with five
characters in one line and with
fivepitches withinoneline, but its
content and rhetoric is different
Wang’s first real exposure to
Miao culture was in 1971 when he
returnedto his village as a cultural
worker from Minzu University of
China(formerlyCentral University
of Nationalities) where he studied
the language andculture of Miao.
“But not many people knew
Miao’s Jia at that time. Most of
them thought it was the same as
ancient folk songs,” Wang says.
However, Miao’s Jia is different
from Miao’s folk songs because
they have distinct content, and
furthermore, the Jia has religious
functions for the Miao ethnic
group, and is also used as law to
settle quarrels and conflicts with-
in the Miao people.
“It is often called an encyclope-
dia of Miao and its content covers
Miao’s history, social structure,
literature, customs, religion and
even their ancient technology,”
Wang says.
After returning to his home-
town, Wang first worked in the
county’s department of publicity.
“My work allowed me to visit
different villages all year around,
so I could take the opportunity to
knowmore about Miao’s Jia from
older people and record them,”
says Wang. “But during the ‘cul-
tural revolution’ (1966-76), many
ethnic cultures were regarded as
outdated things, so I had to col-
lect themin private.”
It was the thirdPlenary Session
of the 11th CPC Central Commit-
tee in 1978 that revitalized the
national culture across the coun-
try and the protection of folk cul-
ture gained more attention. From
then on, Wang started to collect
and study Miao’s Jia.
His initial investigation found
that there were no more than 20
older people in Danzhai county
who could sing the Jia. Wang
visited them one by one, listened
to the Jia they sang, and wrote
everything down.
In order to get complete mate-
rial, Wang sometimes stayed with
the elders for several days. He
helped with the housework dur-
ing the day, consulted with the
elder inthebreaks, andsortedout
what he had collected at night.
There was one elder who was
very moved by Wang’s work, and
explained to him every single
verse of the Jia that he could
recall for three days. Wang wrote
downmorethan3,000lines of the
ancient Jia.
“I could not afford a recorder
until 1980, when I asked my
friends overseas to buy an old
recorder for me,” Wang recalls.
Wang recorded the elders sing-
ing in the Miao language, then
translated and edited the record-
ings at home. Wang considers
translation the most difficult part
of the process.
“Translation took most of my
timebecauseI must trymybest to
accurately explain the cultural
code of Jia fromMiao’s language.
I want the public to understand
the culture of Miao. This is my
original intention when writing
the book.”
All was going well until Wang
fell ill with amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis in 1982. He was only 37
years old and the disease would
eventually paralyze him. The ill-
ness posed a great challenge for
his work of collecting Jia.
“The doctor told me it was an
incurable disease,” Wang says. “It
was estimated that I could live, at
most, another 25 years.”
However, instead of scaring
him, the disease drove Wang to
seize every minute to complete
the collection of the Jia.
The disease forced Wang to
retire after three years, but he
insisted in collecting the Jia as
long as his body could still move.
“I did not regard myself as a
patient. I just want to keep doing
what I like”.
First the feet, then legs. Merci-
lessly, the disease took away
Wang’s mobility bit by bit, but
Wang kept working. After he
could not walk anymore, he invit-
ed the elders to his home.
When Chen Jincai, a respected
elder in nearby Zhanliang village,
heard of Wang’s devotion to col-
lecting Jia, he came to Wang’s
home, and stayed for two weeks.
He sang the Jia and explained it
to Wang. In order to record them
all, Wang used more than 50 cas-
“When I was told I could only
live 25 years at most, 2008
became the deadline for finishing
the book,” Wang recalls. “Because
of the disease, I could sit and
write only three or four hours
each day. But when I rested in
bed, I listened to the recordings. I
almost never watchedTVinthose
years and at the end of 2008, I
finally completed the first draft of
the book.”
With his perseverance and
determination, Wang not only
completed the collection, but also
managed to prolong his own life.
His love for Jia and the culture of
Miao ethnic group helped him
beat the disease. He outlived doc-
tors’ estimation.
“Although most of his body is
paralyzed, he used his hands and
fingers, the only moving parts, to
document morethan20,000lines
of Jiaand30,000Miaofolksongs.
He rescued the memories of our
ethnic group,” says Yu Qiuyang
from the Museum of Miao Cul-
ture in Danzhai county.
The 2013 award for Chinese
Cultural Figure is a great recogni-
tion of his contribution to Miao
culture, but Wang says: “Those
inheritors of Miao’s Jia were real
heroes for protecting and inherit-
ing folk culture. I owe a great deal
to all of them.”
Wang says while he feels hon-
ored by the award, he also feels a
great responsibility. Wang plans
to publish another book about
Danzhai county’s history and cul-
ture this year. “As long as I can
move, I will not giveupthis work,”
he says firmly. “It is meaningful
for us to use our limited lives and
do something for the eternal cul-
ture, and I think it’s worthdoing.”
Jia Tingting and Xing Yi
contributed to the story.
Contact the writer at
Local villagers learn to hum the Jia from an elderly villager in Taichen village in Danzhai county, Guizhou province.
Wang Fenggang collects stories from the Jia while listening to the reciting of an elderly Miao villager.
Ahop, skip
and a jump
to nowhere