skip navigation  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
AFC Logo The American Folklife Center
A - Z Index
home >> Events and Announcements >> Botkin Lecture Series >> Botkin Lecture Series Archives >> 2005 Botkin Lectures >> Song and Silence Flyer

Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers

Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders

Illustrated lecture by Sara Davis, a New York-based writer and former researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

Book cover for Song and SilenceTuesday, August 31, 2004
Noon-1 p.m.
Dining Room A
Sixth floor of the James Madison Building, The Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C.

The temple courtyard on the border between China and Burma is paved with cool stone, full of a darkness rustling with breath, robes, and whispers. The moonlight filtering through palm trees shows hundreds of villagers – sitting and lying on the ground, leaning on the crooks of tree trunks, wrapped up against evening dew, listening raptly. On the temple porch a yong woman, the storyteller, sits cross-legged on the floor beside a ma blowing a bamboo reed.

She bows her head over an open fan. The accompnist shakes the spit out of his reed and blows a rippling melody as the woman begins to sing an epic poem on the life of the Buddha.

In the sunny, subtropical Sipsongpanna region of southwest China’s borders with Southeast Asia, ethnic Tau Lües - a group with close ties to Thailand – perform flirtatious, exoticized dances for a rapidly-growing tourist trade. Endorsed by Chinese officials, who view the Tai Lües as a “model minority,” these staged performances are part of a carefully sanctioned ethnic policy. However, behind the scenes and away from the eyes and ears of tourists and the Chinese government, a different kind of cultural resurgence is taking place.

Sara L. M. Davis’s recent book, Song & Silence, describes a variety of cultural practices within this resurgence. For example, while carefully avoiding government repression, Tai Lües have rebuilt Buddhist temples and made them into vital centers for the ethnic community to gather, discuss their future, and express discontent. Davis also describes the resurgence of the Tai language evident in a renewed interest in ethnic storytelling and traditional songs as well as the popularity of Tai pop music and computer publishing projects. The book charts how Tai Lüe Buddhist monks have organized pop concerts for thousands of youth, who gather to “sing in Tai” and celebrate their ethnic identity.

Some youth have also begun to show interest in learning to perform epic oral poetry, in which trained singers perform narratives about the life of the Buddha and improvise poems of praise. These songs, once banned by the Chinese state, are gradually being recovered and reinvented again. Singers trek to Burma and Thailand to find old song texts, or retrieve them from villages where they have been buried underground to keep them safe. While Chinese cities ring with the echoes of karaoke, these remote ethnic villages are recovering nearly-forgotten oral traditions.

The book documents some of these oral poems and the varying – sometimes sharply disagreeing – interpretations Tais have of what they mean. Throughout her work, Davis weaves together the voices of monks, singers, and activists to examine issues of cultural authenticity, the status of ethnic minorities in China, and the growing cross-border contacts among Tai Lües in China, Thailand, Burma, and Laos.

In this illustrated lecture, Davis will present material from the extensive fieldwork that led to Song & Silence.

Sara L. M. Davis earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught and conducted research at Yale University and UCLA, and is a former Human Rights Watch researcher on China. Davis has written for several publications including The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and Modern China. She currently lives in New York.

  Back to Top


 home >> Events and Announcements >> Botkin Lecture Series >> Botkin Lecture Series Archives >> 2005 Botkin Lectures>> Song and Silence Flyer

A - Z Index
  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
   November 9, 2010
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:
Ask a Librarian