Hezhen Yimakan storytelling–intangible heritage
Inscribed in 2011 on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding
Yimakan storytelling is essential to the worldview and historical memory of the Hezhen ethnic minority of north-east China. Narrated in the Hezhen language, and taking both verse and prose forms, Yimakan storytelling consists of many independent episodes depicting tribal alliances and battles, including the defeat of monsters and invaders by Hezhen heroes. This oral heritage highlights the defence of ethnic identity and territorial integrity, but also preserves traditional knowledge of shamanic rituals, fishing and hunting. Yimakan performers improvise stories without instrumental accompaniment, alternating between singing and speaking, and make use of different melodies to represent different characters and plots. They usually train in a master-apprentice relationship within their own clans and families, although today outsiders are increasingly accepted for apprenticeship. As the Hezhen have no writing system, Yimakan plays a key role in preserving their mother tongue, religion, beliefs, folklore and customs. However, with the acceleration of modernization and the standardization of school education, the Hezhen mother tongue is now endangered. At present, only the elders can speak their native language. This loss has become a major obstacle to the promotion and sustainability of the Yimakan tradition. Only five master storytellers are currently capable of performing the episodes – a situation aggravated by the deaths of a number of veteran storytellers, and the departure of younger generations to cities in search of employment.