Borderland Legend, Carnival Fetes and Cinematic Opera

CARNIVAL AS PAN-CUTURAL RITE in CHINESE FILM

By which tortuous route we come finally (back) to the presentation-in-film of Carnival itself, problematic as is the concept to translate (kuanghuan jie – the current terminology – is unrooted, a recent acronym contrived to prompt tourism.).

The anchoring framework of all is passage through numenal time/space as part of the birth-death renewing cycle, a passage possible only with the astrological crisis of jie (interruption). Certainly among the Minority peoples of the South, that most crucial passage of all – mating, marrying, reproducing – is carnival-enabled, sanctified: if not we know that we are in the presence of very evil or anti-social miscreants. This in some contrast to the hunger-obsessed North where the smooth completion of the agricultural cycle is the raison d’etre, the imperiling of which is believed to be maximal as the sun transits from feminine (harvest) yin back to masculine (insemnation) yang.

In either case, the full “commune” (ambit inhabitants tout entiere) must participate, even if by proxying adolescents or children, for the outcome affects all, can only be rectified by all.

Which is why the celebration tends to be bimodal: supplicative/processional (sober) on the one and, vs shamanically wild on the other (dancing/leaping, vocalizing, fighting (human and animal) pounding out of incessant rhythms etc.) – the way the shamans move when they are in converse with numenal forces. (Blood sacrifice straddles both).

What lies at its center is usually a sense of the opening of ethereal cross-communion, which, however momentary, spurs a sense of exuberance, accelerated and almost impossibly demonic/hysterical dance-movement (in the South ethnic areas lines of boys and girls do a counter-dance to help choose a mate – so carnival, as in Orfeo Negro, is a mating rite; furious drumming (accelerando), though also (at other, non-Bacchanal end of the spectrum) a seeming resurrection of the dead depicted in/by nighttime torch-bearing procession in dignified slow,-marching columns. (Obviously newly risen spirits are not themselves likely to spin or kick in the vortical manner of the young celebrants); and perhaps in the middle (as punctuation) one or another form of physical contest or demonstration in competition of hunting-country skills: bareback riding and archery, conducted between adolescent males or their zoological cousins, the fighting bulls (douniu) of the southern hill country. Contest often however is between villages or multiplexes fighting for prestige (as ninn the Sienna palio); and for the more energetic women, duige or riddle-posing/answering contests, the arena of Liu Sanjie’s costly triumph caused by her humiliation of three “learned” scholars. And ending in many places by a nighttime danced rite to complete the mating.

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