On Typical and Atypical Features of Epic Traditions in South China: An Argument on Genre
Author: Wu, Xiaodong
Affiliation: Institute of Ethnic Literature, CASS

There are lots of epics in southern China, such as Yi’s Meige, Zhuang’s Buluotuo, Yao’s Miluotuo, Dai’s Lifeng, Naxi’s Congbantu, Lahu’s Mupamipa, Hani’s Haniapicopopo and Miao’s Yaluwang. Compare with the epics in Northern China, the epics in Southern China have many distinguishing features not only in content, and also in narrative style and structure, thus leading to a difficulty in judging whether or not they belong to epics.

Things will be classified during the process of recognition. The classification process is called categorization. It is also unavoidable to classify when we study folk literatures. Epic is the result of this classification. Every category has its typical members and atypical members. Let’s raise the classification of birds as an example. Sparrows and eagles are the typical members under the classification of “birds “ and chickens and penguin are the atypical members.

So does the epic. Because the conception of epic comes from the Western countries, so the typical members of epic are some heroic epics such as Homeric poetry. It has been a tradition to refer to heroic epics when judging whether narrative epics belong to “epic”.

Every category has a vague border, where the atypical members stay. Heroic epics fall into the category of typical members of epics because of historical reasons. The creation epic, origination epic and others obviously belong to the atypical members. Most epics in Southern China belong to creation epics, origination epics or compound epics.

Most epics in Southern China embrace a lot of mythic contents, such as world creation, sun shooting and mankind making, accompanied with many parts conerning history, war, and hero. Almost all of them are performed in rituals. Some local people still regard these mythic contents as real history. The audiences are not only people alive, but also the spirits. Then, the performances of these epics are usually restricted in rituals. The taboos must be avoided if an epic is performed not in a ritual.

Typical epics and atypical epics are comparative, and it is not a natural classification. That is to say, it was just because the heroic epics were known and studied earlier so that they were regarded as the typical members.