This introduction provides an overview of the historical and cultural context in which the quγur-un üliger “tales of the fiddle”, or musical tales, originated and flourished. The “tales of the fiddle” came into being as a result of the cultural influence the Han Chinese exerted upon the Mongols of eastern Inner Mongolia, synthesising a variety of Mongolian and Chinese literary and oral traditions. The tales are performed orally to the accompaniment of the quγur ( huur, four-stringed fiddle) played with a bow, and the performer of these types of tales is called quγurči ( huurchi, the fiddle player), who acts out solo the different roles in the story, and during the performance moves from sung poetry to rhythmic recitative, also using spoken poetry and spoken prose. The “tales of the fiddle” are characterised by varying musical and vocal theme-melodies, which convey in sung rhymed verses different events in the narrative such as the emperor holding court melody, the general wearing armour melody, the army setting out melody, and many others. Not only is sung poetry used to reflect on the events narrated in prose, it also carries the narrative forward. The tales draw upon plots and characters occurring in old Chinese popular historical novels and stories and are populated with a vast array of characters, mainly brave warriors engaged in endless duels, warrior maidens skilled in arms, challenges to battle, bandits in the mountains, magic weapons, etc. Tales of warriors who display their valour on the battlefield like these are the ones most frequently performed by the bards ( quγurči) and had a particular resonance for the Mongol audience, who were already familiar with the hero’s battles against the mangγus (mangas, a man-eating and many-headed monster), as narrated in the epic poems of the eastern Mongols. The “tales of the fiddle”, which are based on Chinese narratives, presented new heroes to a Mongolian audience and, as we might expect, these heroes are Chinese. Mongolian characters, however, do appear in the tales Altan morin-u namtar “The Story of the Golden Horse” and Ögedei mergen qaγan-u üliger “The Story of the Wise Emperor Ögedei” , forming part of the collection of oral tales published in this work.
The first known Mongolian translation of a Chinese novel is the famous Xiyouji (西 游 记) “Journey to the West”. It was translated in 1721 by Arana, a Mongol general and man of letters. It is from the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century that Chinese novels and stories were translated into Mongolian in large numbers and circulated widely in manuscript form throughout the eastern regions of Inner Mongolia, enriching the repertoire of the bards. The tales are unique to the Mongols of eastern Inner Mongolia, who before the emergence of the “tales of the fiddle” possessed a strong tradition of heroic epic singing. It was the epic singers who possessed the artistic abilities needed to create a new narrative genre in Mongolian oral literature, viz. the “the tales of the fiddle”. This explains why the “tales of the fiddle” flourished among the eastern Mongols, but not among the Mongols of other parts of Inner Mongolia, who were equally exposed to the cultural influence of the Han Chinese. In eastern Inner Mongolia, the heroic epics are known as mangγus-un daruγsan üliger “tales of how the monster was subdued”, or simply mangγus-un üliger “tales of the monster”. They are entirely in verse and sung at the slow speed with a deep voice to the accompaniment of the čuγur ( chuur, two-stringed fiddle played with a bow), or without any musical instrument. The singer or these tales is known as čuγurči ( chuurchi) or mangγusči ( mangaschi).
It was in the second part of the 19th century that the Qing dynasty under the pressure of foreign invasion and economic decline in China officially promoted Chinese migration into Mongol territory. The Mongols of eastern Inner Mongolia became exposed to mass migration of Chinese farmers, gradually abandoning their nomadic herding lifestyle and settling down to farming, or they adopted a mixture of pastoralism and an agricultural economy. The Chinese outnumbered the Mongols. Although the Mongols were surrounded by Chinese farmers and apparently lived like them they settled in Mongol villages distinct from the Chinese and were able to preserve their language and identity. A situation like this can still be seen today in some Mongol villages in the countryside.
Chinese colonisation of eastern Inner Mongolia developed in stages. Nor was it a uniform process. Agriculture among the Qaračin (Harchin) Mongols of J̌osotu League located near the Chinese border existed long before the Manchu’s conquest of China. From the beginning of the dynasty in 1644 to the 18th century the Mongol ruling princes themselves promoted agriculture and hired seasonal Chinese farmers to cultivate the land for their economic benefit. During this period the Mongol princes were responsible for controlling Chinese colonisation. The Manchu Qing dynasty did not encourage agriculture in eastern Inner Mongolia and prohibited Chinese peasants from entering into the pastoral areas of eastern Inner Mongolia during a time when it was consolidating its hold on China and the Mongols. The Manchu’s policy of discouraging contacts between the Chinese and the Mongols did not succeed. In addition to Chinese farmers there were also itinerant Chinese merchants who adjusted their journey to the seasonal movements of the Mongolian nomads and sold good to them. They adapted themselves to nomadic life, lived in tents and intermarried with the Mongols.
Just when the power of the Manchu was rising in the first part of the 17th century, Tibetan Buddhism entered eastern Inner Mongolia, enabling the Mongols to come into contact with the spiritual culture of the Tibetans and to enrich their own native culture with teachings, writings and art of Buddhism. From about 1629 to 1653 the Buddhist missionary Neyiči Toyin travelled through regions of eastern Inner Mongolia with the aim of converting the Mongols to Buddhism and suppressing shamanism among the Ongniγud and the Qorčin Mongols. Shamans were also influenced by cult practices of Buddhism, but they have been active among the Qorčin Mongols to this day, preserving their own distinctive cultural identity. Neyiči Toyin’s missionary methods and his supernatural abilities, as emphasised in his biography Čindamani erike “A Rosary of Jewels”, persuaded the Mongolian nobility to accept Buddhism. Buddhism spread widely among the Mongolian people and penetrated every aspect of their lives. After the introduction of Buddhism to eastern Inner Mongolia, monasteries and temples began to dot the Mongol landscape. Monasteries used to own land which was cultivated by people under their jurisdiction. This is one of the reasons the Mongols became farmers, settling down in villages around monasteries. Chinese merchants also set up shops around monasteries. Daoist temples were likewise built in eastern Inner Mongolia, the first of which is the Jade Emperor Temple in Baγarin (Baarin), dating back to 1705.
In 1629, the Manchu Qong Taiji granted land to the Tibetan Asing Lama, a native of Amdo, in what is now Küriye Banner, and Siregetü Küriye came into being, becoming the only banner of Inner Mongolia ruled by a Lama. When, in 1646, the first monastery Eki-yügen Badaraγuluγči “(The monastery) that makes its origin shine” was constructed, Chinese craftsmen came to this place to help with the construction of the monastery. Siregetü Küriye became an important horse market, and Chinese merchants came there in large numbers. They bought land and settled there. Not only was Siregetü Küriye a stronghold of the Buddhists and a thriving centre of learning, it also was also a centre of trade, contributing to the economy of the region in which it was located. Religious festivals which took place in the monastery used to attract Mongol worshippers from throughout Inner Mongolia and also Chinese merchants. Religious festivals were also an occasion for entertainment. The Mongolian three games (horse racing, archery and wrestling) took place, Chinese theatre plays were staged, and famous Mongolian bards were also invited to perform tales.
Cultural exchanges between the Mongols and the Chinese occurred in a variety of ways, with the Buddhist monasteries contributing to these. A place which is especially important in the history of the dissemination of the “tales of the fiddle” is Gegen Monastery located in East Tümed Mongγolǰin, in what is now Fuxin in Liaoning Province. When the construction of the monastery began in 1669, Chinese craftsmen, painters and masons from Shandong and Hebei took part in the construction of the monastery, and among the Chinese there were also storytellers. When the construction of the monastery was over, the Chinese who had helped to build the monastery settled in villages in the vicinity of the monastery and were assimilated into the Mongγolǰin community. The Gegen Monastery used to invite bards to tell the “tales of the fiddle” in connection with the lunar New Year’s religious festivals, and epic singers are said to have performed in the monastery until the 1920s. The Mongγolǰin who live around the Gegen Monastery had turned to agriculture at an early period, preserving some pastoral economy until the middle of the last century. They also preserved their native language and among them the standard of literacy was high. Families used to invite teachers to teach children how to write in Mongolian, requiring them to write down Mongolian translations of Chinese narratives as part of the students’ training, resulting in a large number of manuscripts of Mongolian translations of Chinese narratives being amassed, which were read at community gatherings, and disseminated orally by bards. During the heyday of the “tale of the fiddle” there were three hundred bards in Mongγolǰin villages.
One resident of Gegen Monastery was the monk Danzan-nima (1810 or 1836-1889), who was also a singer of epics. He is likewise credited with the oral dissemination of a cycle of stories known as Tabun ǰuwan “Five Stories”, which were composed in Mongolian and set the events of the stories during the time of fictional emperors of the Tang dynasty. They are attributed to Engketegüs, a monk of Gegen Monastery. At about the middle of the 19th century, Danzan-nima left the monastery and set out on his journey towards the north-west until he came toJ̌arud Banner where there was a tradition of epic singing. It is impossible to know whether Danzan-nima told the “Five Stories” in the regions he traversed before reaching J̌arud. He probably did, since the purpose of Danzan-nima’s journey was to disseminate orally these stories among the Mongols. What we do know is that Danzan-nima disseminated orally the “Five Stories” throughout J̌arud. The “Five Stories” became a study aid for the bards during the process of learning to recite the “tales of the fiddle”, and Kuxi zhuan “Story of Pain and Joy”, which is part of the story-cycle, was one of the tales most frequently recited tales by the eastern Mongol bards. Judging from the plots, characters, themes and motifs in the “Five Stories”, it appears that the author of this work drew on a variety of Chinese sources such as the popular historical novels Sui Tang yanyi (随 唐 演 义) “Romance of the Sui and Tang ”, and Shuo Tang yanyi (说 唐 演 义) “Romance of the Tang”, which contain a large number of oral legends. The author also borrowed themes fromthe Shuihu zhuan (水 浒 傳) “Water Margin”, the famous novel about the outlaws of Mount Liangshan. In addition, the novel Feng shen yanyi (葑 神 演 义) “The Investiture of the Gods” which narrates how the Shang dynasty was overthrown by King Wu of the Zhou dynasty. The story of criminal investigations Shi gong’an (施 公 案) “Court Cases of Judge Shi” also served as sources of the “Five Stories”.
It is difficult to point out the exact time of the emergence of the “tales of the fiddle” ( quγur-un üliger) among the Mongols of eastern Inner Mongolia. They must have originated in different ways. What seems to be clear is that a vast range of Chinese narratives were available to the author of the “Five Stories” in Mongγolǰin Gegen Monastery, and that oral tales based on Chinese narratives had already developed at about the middle of the 19th century, which is regarded as the beginning of the golden age of the “tales of the fiddle”. The fact that these types of tales had already emerged in the middle of the 19th century, leads us to conclude that the epic singers who created them brought the art to perfection through a long process of experimentation with new narrative modes, poetic forms, and musical techniques.
A good example of what the “tales of the fiddle” must have been like in the early stage of their formation is the tale which was recorded from the recitation of the bard Čenggeltei in 1964. Čenggeltei was of eastern Inner Mongolian origin and was active in Dornod Ajmag in northern Mongolia, and consequently he was much less exposed to Chinese cultural influence than the Mongols of the south. The bard Čenggeltei told the tale Tang ulus-un üliger-ün nigedüger bölög “The First Chapter of a Tang Story”, but the Tang story on which the bard actually based his narrative has not been identified. What is noteworthy about the tale is that it describes the miraculous birth of the hero of the story in the opening verses, saying that the hero was born holding a skull in one hand and a human heart in the other, and wearing iron boots. Strikingly similar verses appear at the beginning of the epic Siling (or Kiling) γalǰaγu baγatur “Enraged Mad Hero” when describing the miraculous birth of the hero. A description like that in Čenggeltei’s tale does not occur in the opening verses in the “tales of the fiddle” told by bards of eastern Inner Mongolia. Some bards follow the Chinese tradition, starting their narration with the beginning of history, giving an account of the Chinese dynasties in chronological order. Others begin by placing the events of the story in their historical context, introducing the emperor of the reigning dynasty. Some others open the tale by setting the events of the story in a land inhabited by Mongols, where the domestic animals fill the plain and people live happily under a just ruler. Moreover, should the bard perform at a house for the first time, he introduces himself in song by mentioning his name, his place of birth and the school to which he belongs. After this, the bard begins his narration by placing the events of the story in their historical context.
The “tales of the fiddle” emerged from the epic poems and bards who perform these types of tales have retained beliefs associated with the performance of the epic, which was invested with ritual efficacy. Bards believe that the narratives and the melodious sound of the fiddle ( quγur) bring joy to the locality and the protective master spirits inhabiting it. The fiddle is an object of veneration, especially among elderly bards who would not play the fiddle before noon. Should they do this, a bad omen would befall them. Bards ( quγurči) also employ motifs and formulaic verses of the epic poems at appropriate points in the narrative.
The motif of the young hero who fights against a many-headed-monster recurs frequently in the Mongolian epic, but it is not characteristic of the “tales of the fiddle”. A rare example of the occurrence of this motif can be found in the tale “How Wu Xiangbao Searched for His Father” ( U Siyang Boo ečige-ben erigsen) recited by bard Nimaodzer of West Baγarin, in the collection of oral tales published in this work. The story narrates how the seven-year-old hero Wu Xiangbao fought against a thirteen-headed monster, who had abducted the daughter of Emperor Ren Zong of the Song dynasty.
In the “tales of the fiddle”, the horse is held in high esteem, though it may not have the same central role as it has in the epic. The epic describes the horse as having the ability to speak human language, give the hero advices, guide the hero across dangerous country, warn the hero against an impending danger, or save the hero’s life. All of these abilities of the horse are not mentioned in the “tales of the fiddle”, in which, however, we do find situations where the horse brings to safety the warrior when he is wounded in battle, or neighs to warn the hero of the story about of an impending danger. The “tales of the fiddle” devote long sung poems to the qualities and valour of the warrior’s horse, using expressions which are similar to those in the epic and the Mongolian oral tradition in general , also introducing verses which are distinctive of these types of tales. A typical scene in the “tale of the fiddle” is that of the army commander, who before going to war, calls for his horse, and a stable boy brings the horse. The epic, by contrast, narrates how the hero, who is about to set out to fight against the monster, ascends the mountain and ritually invites his horse to come from the pasture by burning incense and waving an arrow.
Fighting is the central plot of the “tales of the fiddle”, and it is in the description of the battle scenes that bards exhibit their poetic gifts and verbal skills in long sung verses. Battle scenes contain fixed hyperbolic expressions evoking a cosmic catastrophe like mountains collapsing and rivers flooding. Similes also occur, involving forces of nature such as wildfire and thunderstorm. A Chinese flavour can be noticed in the description of the warrior dressing for battle, which is conveyed in sung verses. The warrior, for instance, puts on many-layered pieces of armours, called dragon armour, or mad tiger armour, and wears boots showing the image of a tiger’s head. The narrative of duels also follows a Chinese model. This is especially evident when, after a long fight, one warrior loses heart and flees the battlefield, with the other racing after him in pursuit. These types of tales also devote lengthy sung verses to the army commander arranging his troops in battle formation. In doing so, they follow the Chinese practice of arranging the troops according to the five elements, with their corresponding colours and directions. The description of the army setting out on a campaign, which is also conveyed in sung verses, contains fixed phrases borrowed from the Chinese oral tradition, specifically, the tales told in prose and verse accompanied by a drum.
When asked how they deal with the written text on which they base their oral performance, Mongolian bards maintain that they use the written text as raw material, preserving the general storyline, the main characters, and the warriors’ weapons and horses, rejecting parts of the story which they regard as unsuitable for a Mongolian audience, and expanding on the principal episodes and leading characters. In brief, bards assert that the written text is open to elaboration, and that they create their own story out of it. Although, sung poems of the Mongol bards do include formulaic phrases borrowed from the Chinese oral art, bards have adapted these to the characteristic particularities of the Mongolian poetry. Handed down orally, they have continued to be modified by generations of bards to the extent that their Chinese origin has become barely recognisable. Mongolian bards have contributed to the evolution of the plot in the written text by adding significant details, episodes and characters and songs from Mongolian oral tradition. They also have contributed their music and reworked the prose in the written text into verse. It seems clear that the eastern Mongol bards had all the artistic abilities to respond to and resist to the impact of the Chinese cultural influence, by incorporating foreign material into a strong oral tradition, and adapting it creatively for their own purposes. They created a narrative genre suitable for the life of the Mongols during a period when the Mongols changed their economy, settled down and became farmers. As a matter of fact, the “tales of the fiddle”, based on Chinese stories did not enjoy much popularity in pastoral areas where the Mongolian herdsmen would feel unfamiliar with the plots of the tales and would not understand the Chinese words they contain. Bards who performed in pastoral areas would pay great attention to the language and would be cautious about using Chinese words in their tales.
The “tales of the fiddle” acquired their own distinctive Mongolian character in the hands of gifted bards and became the dominant form of oral performance in eastern Inner Mongolia. Bards thrived with the community supporting and encouraging the spread of the performance of the tales. The majority of bards have a family tradition and they had the advantage of listening to the tales from a young age. Furthermore, the social environment was also a source of inspiration for anyone who desired to become a bard. The tales narrated by bards became part of the life of the community, capturing the imagination of the Mongol listeners to the point that they came to regard Luo Cheng as a historical Mongolian figure, never suspecting that Luo Cheng was a Chinese warrior during the early Tang dynasty, whose heroic deeds are glorified in the Sui Tang yanyi “Romance of the Sui and Tang” and in many other stories told by bards. In fact, there is no historical proof of Luo Cheng’s existence. Other popular Chinese characters of the tales became surrounded by legends. Legends circulate about Xue Rengui, who is a real historical figure. Xue Rengui (614-683) was a famous commander during the early Tang dynasty, and his military exploits are celebrated in the Chinese novel Xue Rengui zheng dong (薛 仁 贵 证 东) “Xue Rengui Attacks the East”. It is known to the Mongols as Xue Rengui ǰegün-i tübsidkegsen “Xue Rengui Pacified the East”, or simply as Dong Liao “East Liao” referring to the land east of the Liao River, where Xue Rengui fought a fierce battle against the Korean general Ge Suwen. According to legend, there is in Qorčin East Wing Middle Banner a huge rock showing the footprints of Xue Rengui’s horse. Chinese heroes who became popular among the Mongolian people via the dissemination of the “tales of the fiddle” also appear in Mongolian folk songs. The legacy of the “tale of the fiddle” can also be observed in the modern Mongolian literature. The fluent and imaginative language of the bards and their meticulous descriptions of the events and characters in the tales they performed have inspired the writings of Mongolian authors in recent times.
After the advent of the Communist Party of China, and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the tales were branded as “feudal” and their performance was forbidden. In 1956, the situation relaxed, to some extent, and bards were allowed to tell excerpts from the traditional tales, side by side with new tales and songs with a revolutionary content. The narrative skills of bards were used as a tool for political propaganda. Paǰai (1902-1962), the most gifted bard of Inner Mongolia, composed and disseminated songs and tales in praise of Mao Zedong and the achievements of the Communist Party. The content of Paǰai’s narratives changed, but his art remained alive. In 1956, the first story house ( üliger-ün ger) was built in Küriye Banner. In the years which followed other story houses were set up in cities and towns, and renowned bards were called from rural areas to tell tales in these venues. During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) the “tales of the fiddle” ceased to be performed. It was only when it ended that bards began to perform again, continuing to enrich their repertoire with new narratives derived from their own history and cultural traditions. The bard Čoyiǰigawa (1933-1995), for example, composed a tale which tells the story of Muquli, or Muqali, one of the generals of Činggis Khan’s time, while the bard Čoγǰu (born in 1969) created tales inspired by shamanic legends circulating orally among the Qorčin and Γorlos Mongols.
From the middle of the 1980s the tales began to decline. In the meantime, China had adopted a market economy, and China’s economic growth gave rise to economic and social changes among the Mongols in rural areas. Different entertainment opportunities became available to people, and bards began to lose their audience, on which their existence depended. As was mentioned before, three hundred bards were once active among the Mongγolǰin. Only two remain today. The number of active bards has decreased throughout eastern Inner Mongolia and bards no longer attract crowds to hear their tales, as in the past. The performance of the tales, however, continues to be regarded as auspicious, and Mongolian families still invite bards on festive occasions such as the New Year’s celebrations, or when they celebrate important events in their lives like the setting up of a new home, a wedding, the birth of a child, or the birthday of a parent. In contrast to the past, when bards would perform in family homes for an entire month on festive occasions, or provided them entertainment during the long winter nights, families nowadays are no longer interested in hearing long tales which would last many nights. Today bards have no other choice but to abridge the narration of the tales, in accordance to the changing tastes of their audience. The tales have not died out completely. They are alive in the hands of innovative bards like, for instance, Čoγǰu and Odqundbayar (born in 1971), who are exploring new ways of keeping the tales alive, paying attention to the changing realities of the society and creating new stories based on the facts of everyday life which they have found in newspapers, or on the Internet in order to appeal to a modern audience, whilst at the same time not losing sight of their tradition.