Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Driving Change, Sparking Debate: Chi Bulag and the Morin Huur in Inner Mongolia, China

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Driving Change, Sparking Debate: Chi Bulag and the Morin Huur in Inner Mongolia, China

Article excerpt

On a typically humid afternoon in Beijing, Cliina, my young Mongol friend brought me to his basement studio where his ensemble, Ih Tsetsn, was preparing to rehearse for an upcoming show.1 The group of young urban Mongols included six players of the morin huur (horse-head fiddle, matouqin in Mandarin), an upright bassist, and a drum kit player. The group played a collection of upbeat compositions and ended its rehearsal session with the rousing morin huur classic, "Ten Thousand Horses Galloping," by the Inner Mongol composer-performer, CM Bulag (b. 1944; see figure 4).2 Playing from memory, the fiddle players grinned at one another, drew their bows energetically across their nylon-stringed instruments, and rocked their heads vigorously to the beat of the drummer.

"Ten Thousand Horses," popular for its driving pace and intricate fingerwork, appears ubiquitously in stage performances by Mongols in Cliina, and I heard it on more than a dozen occasions during my two summers of fieldwork in Inner Mongolia in 2009 and 2010. What surprised me was not hearing tliis piece over and over-many minority groups in Cliina, such as the Mongols, choose to include iconic pieces of crowd-pleasing repertoire in their performances-but that I heard tliis piece performed in aMmated, inventive ways by musicians who embrace tliis decades-old composition by CM Bulag, and yet distance themselves from other aspects of the composer's creative output, including the morin huur model he developed in the 1980s.

In tliis article, I address the varied interpretations of Bulag's work by members of the music community in the city of Hohhot, the capital and cultural epicentre of Inner Mongolia (see figures 1 and 3 below). I first discuss the validity of using biography as a way to understand the morin huur in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Cliina. I then investigate the composition "Ten Thousand Horses Galloping" and explore interpretations of tliis piece in the context of its compositional style and invocations of Mongol masculinity. Finally, I juxtapose the acceptance and even celebration of Bulag's composition with the relative rejection of his work to adapt the morin huur in the 1970s and '80s. In tliis section I investigate how his modernized instrument model, though widely popular in previous decades, receives harsh criticism today as "too Cliinese" in comparison with morin huur instruments from the independent nation of Mongolia to the north.

In the discussion that follows, I explore how Inner Mongols' assessments of Bulag's morin huur continue to stmcture debates about music and the future of Mongol culture in Cliina. I consider how many Mongols in Cliina have shifted from a mentality of stage-oriented musical progress to an ardour for pan-Mongol ethnic heritage. I furthermore explore the willingness of some individuals like Chi Bulag to integrate into Cliinese state institutions and to accoimnodate audience expectations, while other Inner Mongols have done everything tiling possible to resist integration and cultural assimilation with the Cliinese. Tliis study demonstrates how, in the context of interactions with the Cliinese state and the nation of Mongolia, Chi Bulag and others have used the morin huur to creatively negotiate and manipulate representations of themselves as members of a minority ethnic group in Cliina and a transnational Mongol community at home and abroad.3

Ethnomusicology of the individual

According to many of my contacts, Chi Bulag rose to prominence due to a combination of fortune, artistic talent, vibrant charisma, and perhaps even spiritual forces (Bukh, interview, 27 July 2010; Li, interview, 22 July 2010). Bulag, who claims to be a direct descendent of Cliinggis Khan, was designated as a living Buddha of his local village temple in 1947 at the age of three. By the age of eight, he liad already learned to play four or five instruments, and by the age of thirteen, he had been recmited to play as a morin huur soloist in the Hohhot-based Inner Mongolia Song and Dance Theatre. …

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