Friday, March 09, 2007

The qeej in America - a new article about tradition in practice

Thao, Yer J. (2006). “Culture and Knowledge of the Sacred Instrument Qeej in the Mong-American Community.” Asian Folklore Studies 65(2): 249-267.

This study aims to describe the importance of the oral tradition of the sacred instrument Qeej to Mong culture. It is an attempt to help preserve Mong oral traditions and facilitate the continuing practice of traditional funeral rites, in which the Qeej plays a central role by guiding the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestors. The Mong who live the United States are faced with a pressing dilemma--how to maintain oral traditions and culture in a society that privileges literacy-based learning. The Qeej provides an important case study as it is crucial to the Mong culture and its traditions cannot be translated into print. Recently, younger Mong have started playing the Qeej for amusement in secular contexts, a practice that threatens traditional customs. The Mong Cultural Program in Long Beach, California, makes a noteworthy effort at preserving the oral traditions of the Qeej.

In 2000, when I interviewed Joe Bee Xiong (a Hmong community leader in Eau Claire, WI), he felt that within a couple of decades qeej playing would pass out of practice in the Hmong-American community. Just 7 years later, that prediction has been derailed by the efforts of Hmong cultural associations across the country. It is interesting that most of these qeej education programs are still based on oral instruction - a continuation of traditional educational methods. Now a qeej master teaches a classroom full of young students rather than a single apprentice, but notation has yet to be widely accepted. That isn't to say that many forms of qeej notation have not been developed. In fact, a qeej class I attended at UW-Madison made extensive use of a novel notation system using numbers and diacritics. The teacher was younger than the typical master and it could be that this style of teaching will become more prominent as the next generation of educators takes over.

Thao's ethnographic study offers an insider's look at one of these programs where traditional knowledge is communicated in traditional channels despite the new context. It is also a hopeful work that documents an emerging group of young musicians who will one day become experts in a demanding art form. Thao details the process of demonstration and imitation that takes place in the classroom - which includes not only patterns of fingerings and sounds, but also movements of the entire body. While the information and vocabulary Thao presents is not necessarily new, it is good to see it applied in the context of performance and learning rather than a general description of qeej. Thao also draws together several of the divergent origin myths of the qeej in one section of the article including a new one that he collected. His assertion that comparing these stories can lead to an accurate theory of qeej origin isn't borne out by his methods, however.

Throughout the paper, Thao insists that historically the qeej was used only in funeral rituals and that the performance of the qeej in non-ritual settings is a recent development. He goes on to suggest that this is because "young Mong are acculturating to the dominant culture and slowly abandoning their own culture." This critical stance against the use of qeej for "entertainment" is at odds with existing literature on the qeej, much of which Thao cites. These other authors give examples of the qeej being performed at New Year celebrations, births, and other festivals. There is also a longstanding tradition among many qeej players that the instrument used to be played at weddings, but that this body of ritual music has been lost. It is clear that Thao takes his cue from the experts he interviewed, who seem to associate the performance of qeej in non-funeral rituals as being tied to Chinese and Lao practices of performing cultural practices for the entertainment of government officials - something that denigrates the seriousness of qeej performance in the funeral ritual. Yet, the use of the qeej in multiple contexts has gone on for as long as people can remember and the sanctity of the funeral ritual remains intact. Perhaps such sentiments are a reaction against the popularization of qeej performances that feature choreographed dance moves rather than musical skill, as often seen at New Year celebrations.

The paper is notable as one of the first scholarly articles on Hmong music published by a Hmong author - or more appropriately, Mong author. Thao uses only the Mong ethnonym throughout the article - reflecting both the Blue Mong (Moob Leeg) community he studied and a point of view that the entire ethnic group should be referred to as Mong. Thao does not problematize this tricky issue of nomenclature, but rather states it as a fact. It will be interesting to see how such ideas influence the work of other scholars.

Thao mentions in passing that only males can learning to play the qeej, an issue that deserves more scrutiny. I have spoken with other qeej players who suggest that women aren't forbidden to learn, but that it isn't that common. I have even met young women who hope to one day learn to play the instrument themselves. The issue of gender in the performance of Hmong/Mong music remains sorely overlooked. I also have to take issue with Thao's reliance on Keith Quincy's History of People in the section of the paper devoted to Hmong history. While it makes for an exciting read, History is anything but a reliable source of information, as has been well documented in a variety of sources. It is sad to see this book cited so frequently in discussions of Hmong history and even in scholarly writing.
(For a recent debunking of Quincy, see: Entenmann, Robert. The Myth of Sonom, the Hmong King. Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005). 2 October, 2006 .)

Still, the article is an important contribution to the study of Hmong/Mong-American music and refreshing look at tradition from the standpoint of practice rather than theory.

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