Ashima (poem)

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Ashima is a long narrative poem belonging to the Sani people,[1] who are centred in southwest China, in the area of the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province. During the 1950s, as the Chinese government undertook a classification process for its non-Han minority nationalities, the Sani applied for independent status, but they were turned down and are now classified as part of the Yi people.[2]

Originally part of a long-standing Sani oral tradition, transmitted from generation to generation by recitation or song, Ashima was transcribed in 1813 from a Sani elder by ethnographer Wang Wei and published with other folk tales in a scroll entitled "Tales from the Mountains."[3]

It tells the romantic story of a Sani girl named Ashima, whose name literally means “more precious than gold.” Ashima, a paragon of beauty and virtue, represents all Sani women, embodying all their ideals, especially of beauty, love of freedom, and brave resistance to wickedness. The poem itself is known among the Sani as "the song of our ethic,s" said to reflect the Sani national character in demonstrating that light will finally overcome darkness, and kindness and beauty will eventually triumph over infamy.[4]

The poem uses a romantic poetic technique with rich figures of speech. It can be recited or sung, and it affords opportunities for various types of traditional singing, such as Xidiao ("happy tune"), Laoren Diao ("sad tune"), Kudiao ("crying tune"), and Madiao ("scolding tune"). There are no fixed occasions to sing. It can be performed on various occasions, such as at weddings, memorial ceremonies, sacrificial rites, or at work.[5]

The story of Ashima has been translated into more than 20 languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Korean. In Japan, it has been adapted as a radio play, an opera, and a children's drama. In China, it has been produced as a film entitled "Ashima," the first color film of the People's Republic of China in 1964, a Peking opera, a Yunnan opera, a dance drama, and a Sani opera and performed all over the country.[6]

The story goes like this:[7] Ashima, a clever, kind, beautiful and diligent country girl falls in love with a brave and good-natured shepherd named Ahei. However, Azhi, the son of a powerful landowner, also admires Ashima and wants to marry her. She does not like him and turns him down firmly. After Azhi tries sending someone to compel Ashima into marrying him and is refused again, he has her kidnapped when Ahei is away from home. When Ahei hears the news, he rushes to save her. Confronting Azhi at his fortress, he proposes holding a riddle-singing contest to determine the fate of Ashima. After three days of singing, Ahei wins the contest. However, as Ashima and Ahei ride away, Azhi raises a floodgate, diverting a river into the valley. Ahei survives, but Ashima is drowned. At the end of the story Ahei sadly calls the name of Ashima. She has been turned into a large stone statue.

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