Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Song Zuying and Hmong/Miao Transnationalism

"Hmong Singer Receives Grammy Nomination" was the tantalizing headline at Hmong Today online. The article is actually more of a press release about the Chinese singer, Song Zuying, who has indeed been nominated for a Grammy in the category of "Best Classical Crossover Album." Song has been a major figure in Chinese music since the early 1990s and has been developing an international following of late. Still, I've never heard to referred to as Hmong, or as the article in Hmong Today describes her: "Hmong Chinese." She is a member of the Miao ethnic group - one of the 56 recognized ethnic "nationalities" in China - and is recognized for her interpretations of "folksongs" (more on that next time). But as discussed in my previous entries about Ayouduo, being Miao and Hmong isn't necessarily the same thing, although there is a growing trend for using the terms interchangeably. As is noted by authors such as Nicholas Tapp, Louisa Schein, and Jacques Lemoine, it is both Hmong in the West, as well as Miao in China, who are adopting this language. The reasons are too numerous to give in detail here, but often Hmong Americans, uncomfortable with the word Miao (and its negative connotations in Southeas Asia) use Hmong when referring the entirety of the Miao group, which includes not only Hmong, but also Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao people. Offended by the imposition of a non-native, Chinese term over a group of seemingly related people, Hmong in the West end up imposing their own terminology over the same group. At the same time, there is evidence that some Miao people in China have willingly adopted the nomenclature - perhaps in part due to the more fluid nature of ethnic identity in region. In other instances, becoming "Hmong" can have positive economic advantages when trying to engage in international business deals.

There is more to say, but what I'm most interested in here is the use of "Hmong Chinese" in the context of this article, which more closely resembles an advertisement (or at least a press release). Is it an example of a crafty businessperson trying to capitalize on the growing interest in Chinese music among Hmong Americans? Or is it someone who feels a close affiliation with their coethnics in China? Someone who is proud of the accomplishment achieved by one of their own? I don't know who wrote the article (or why), but a little digging on the internet shows that "Hmong" was probably tacked on to pre-existing material about Song Zuying.

The opening paragraph is copied from the Grammy press release, while the end of the article appears to be drawn from the article about her on All Music Guide (written by David Lewis). The key second paragraph that cites her ethnicity seems to be taken from an online article that is now only accessible through the Google cache of the page. The article, "Folk Singer Song Zuying: From Miao Village to the World Stage" is dated Dec. 21, 2006 and appeared on the website (it appears to be offline at the moment). According to notes at the bottom of article, it is the English translation of material drawn from two Chinese news sources: and The original paragraph reads:
Among this year's nominees was the celebrated Chinese folk singer, Song Zuying. Her CD "The Diva Goes to the Movies: A Centennial Celebration of Chinese Film Song" received a Grammy nomination for "Best Classical Crossover Album."
This is identical to the article in Hmong Today, except that in transition the "celebrated Chinese folk singer" has become the "celebrated Hmong Chinese folk singer."

So to review - Song Zuying is described variously as Chinese, Miao, and Hmong. Such multiple identifications are not unusual for people from places like southern China - where ethnic identity is not so fixed as in West. But is she Hmong in the sense of "Hmong and Miao are all the same people" or Hmong in the sense of "a person of the Miao nationality who self-identifies in her home as Hmong." I'm not sure, but I would suggest that it is the former. As the womenofchina article states, she was born in Hunan in a stockade village. While several ethnic groups build communities in this style, I had never heard of Hmong people doing this. Also, looking at the costumes of people from similar villages - they appear to be more similar to Hmu outfits than Hmong. But, I could be totally wrong and in the end, it isn't that important. There are no definite answers to questions of identity and it certainly has no bearing on the quality of her work (which is outstanding [see recently sold out the Kennedy Center]). It is interesting to follow the lines of influence in redefining identity, however, and to ask why these changes take place.

Her music is certainly worth talking about and makes for an interesting comparison with Ayoudou. I'll try to get around to that next time. Until then, you can find her videos on YouTube or check out her fan website (in Chinese - works best in IE - no media files that I can find.)