Further Study on Mythical Realm: New Ideas of Living Myth, by Li Zixian, Kunming, Yunnan People’s Publishing House, 2016, 397+pp., RMB89.00, ISBN 9787222150287
Since 1962, Li Zixian has consistently conducted research and fieldwork on mythology. His new monograph on mythology, Further Study on Mythical Realm: New Ideas of Living Myth, has five chapters, covering primordialism, morphology, evolution, ecology, and comparison of myths. It discusses the definition, forms of existence, evolution and contexts of myths, and study cases about myths from Yi, Dulong, Hani, Wa, and other ethnic groups. The monograph is based on the author's fieldwork of myths in the past 50 years and includes more than 100 related field pictures taken by the author.
According to Li Zixian, the living myth refers to forms of existence of myths, which can be reasonably integrated with other elements of the cultural-ecological system, especially religious beliefs. Its existence depends on unbroken related folk beliefs, which are still the ‘holy’ basis of community life and whose inheritance environment still exists. This idea enables the book to shake off previous text interpretation-based mythological study by demonstrating the myths in their dependent cultural-ecological system. The correlation between living myth and cultural-ecological system, symmetrical or asymmetric, is a significant measure of the survival rate of myth. Changes occurring in the cultural-ecological system, especially in the belief and value systems will inevitably alter the living myth. The author's elaboration on this correlation provides an analytical framework of reference, particularly in the context of contemporary society where different contexts and the incidence of media are much higher. This analytical framework offers greater instructive value.
Due to the nature of living myth, the research in this book is based on the author’s fieldwork. As a result, important issues like adjustment of myth in the context of contemporary society, nationality of myth, and the relation between myth and ritual are displayed. The fieldwork provides some new data and problematique such as the finding that there is no ancestral temple or statues in the traditional culture of the Yi. In Laole, a Yi village in Kaiyuan of Yunnan Province, the author found the only preserved human ancestral temple of brother-sister marriage of ethnic groups in southwest China.
Besides the living myth, the book divides myths into written myths and oral myths. Written myth refers to the myth that exists in written works, which is an essential reference system of the research on living myth. Oral myth refers to the myth that survives through word of mouth, which erases its ritual function and strengthens the narrative function. Meanwhile, entertainment and esthetic functions derive from oral myth. This distinction breaks the limitation of sacredness as the only standard for myths, while granting legitimacy to other forms of existence and expanding the horizon of mythological study.
In previous studies of Chinese mythology myth, used to be treated as the lingering traces of primitive society or in decontextualized and text-centered study approaches, the carrier of the study objects tends to be textualized mythical narrative. In this manner, an abstract formal system was thought to be established through intensive comparison among texts handed down from the past and of different regions to obtain some generalized conclusions. By contrast, the academic meaning of this book is to take myths as a narrative tradition of people's daily life and focuses on its function and significance.
The book positions the myths of the Yi, Hani, Wa, and other ethnic groups in Yunnan province within the broad environment of East Asia, as well as drawing comparisons with the myths of Taiwanese aborigines, Jeju Island, and Okinawa. Such a framing allows the author to outline a U-shape culture zone linking Wa in Yunnan with the Taiwanese aborigines, across Indochina, Indonesia, and Philippines. Myth system in these areas is the string that links this culture zone. Such a positioning allows the author to hypothesize that the Wa's habitation area and its surrounding areas might be the origin of this culture zone. These studies are made in such a way that these myths are first classified, compared, summarized, and then investigated under circumstances of religious beliefs, folk life, social economy, ethnic history, and ethnic relations. Finally, it comes back to the topic of myths again.
Overall, this book has adequately demonstrated the integrity, comprehensiveness, and dynamics of the living myth. Although the author viewed living myth as a typical mythical form and somehow overlooked other myths of forms of existence, this book is worth reading for mythology researchers, particularly those interested in myths of ethnic group in Southwest China.
Notes on contributor
Gao Jian is post-doc at College of Chinese Language and Literature, Yunnan University, China. He devoted to doing the research of oral tradition of the Wa, especially the Si Mgang Līh. He theorizes the Si Mgang Līh as a speech event, gives attention to performer, formula, social relations, folklore process.
Author’s postal address: College of Chinese Language and Literature at Yunnan University, No.2, North Cuihu Ave, Kunming 650091, China
College of Chinese Language and Literature, Yunnan University, Kunming, China