The Legend of Ashima and its Cinematic Translation

Whether or not Orfeo springs from, originates, or just disappears as a film genre (I shall argue that it “carries” on), what draws my interest in this post is the striking similarity in structure to an equally “since-unequalled” film produced in 1964-5 in the People’s Republic of China, called by the name of one of its two star-crossed lovers, “Ashima”, who is supposed to be a distant-era protectress of the Yi Sani people. A tiny community of perhaps only 40,000 “lost” amid 彝族撒尼人和阿细人 scattered around …. in a misted-memory paradise of Azhuodi.

Pastness was clearly am everfluctuant assemblage of short heroic tales filled with chthonically ensconced genies (the “exploits” and magical travel-transpositions are most often at their command or equally often as executed in their defiance). But there was more structure to the transmission than one might think, given the seeming disconnection of one from the other. (Here one sees perhaps a pre-Homeric world with no “long trek” or mythical journey to draw the pieces together.

The commonality was in authorship and property. Since the tales, of which the Ashima “long epic” (changshi) is best known, were “owned” by a non-ordained ritualist (and probably divination expert) status group variously romanized as bimo, pimo, … etc.) whose skills, rites, and knowledge of “ancient” narratives were passed from father to (probably eldest) son, distaff kin vigorously excluded. A pattern common through most of Yi hill country society along the W Yunnan – SW Sichuan mountain highlands. But caste privilege apart, W. Yunnan highlands society seems to have been very much open to foster-parenting, mainly of promising males: and this especially so when bloodlines heirs were deemed weaklings. (a VERY major ligament in the Ashima legend as recorded in the 1950s). Magicians were thus probably more often “made” than “born”: and (to judge from the Ashima “ring”) the self-making was very often the focus of all (and especially magical) exploits. This was not a schoolroom society.

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