"United Around High Human Values"

Thomas A. Green |

Analysis – 2015 |

Playing Conflict in Folk Performance | 

As anthropologist Clifford Geertz has argued, most famously in “Deep Play: Notes on the Meaning of the Balinese Cockfight,” a culture may be characterized as a corpus of texts that in order to be understood must be read “over the shoulders” of the bearers of that culture (Geertz 1972). Read in such a fashion, cultural performances reveal elements of the cultural infrastructure that are of particular significance to understanding social conflict: intragroup hierarchies, opposing factions, and areas of chronic tension. Expressive culture (for example, dance, drama, festival, ritual) is particularly rich in such data. These phenomena are microcosms manifesting the group’s perception of reality (physical and social) as revealed through the lens of art. Pre-dating Geertz‘ discussions of the serious social tensions represented through play, folklorist Américo Paredes writes concerning the use of jokes to articulate intercultural strife, “jests are not after all intrusions into a session of stories expressing intercultural conflict; they also are expressions of the same kind of conflict” (1968: 113).

I have conducted research on social conflict since 1972. This research has been based in field research among diverse cultures: Native American, African-American, Euro-American and Chinese, and has based conclusions through the analysis of various genres of traditional expressive culture: folk narratives, games, drama, festival and ritual; vernacular martial arts and dance.

In my own qualitative research on cultural conflict, like Paredes, I adopt the perspective provided by folkloristics. This perspective entails an initial set of premises: folk groups share at least one factor upon which they base a self-conscious identity, and the folk construct vernacular art in order to articulate this identity both within the group and to the outsiders with whom the folk group must manage relationships—whether cooperative or antagonistic. Moreover, in my research I contend that phenomena that are often trivialized as mere pastimes or entertainment can reveal both intragroup and intergroup tensions that have the potential to erupt into conflict.

War, Ritual and Play

Not only is the notion that games, play and sport train for war a popular cliché, it has been substantiated via research in the social sciences that these expressive forms may serve as framed environments to symbolically exorcise social conflicts without recourse to warfare. In his detailed history of lacrosse and the Native American stick ball games that were its ancestors, Donald Fisher writes, “The constant running, rough play, and stick skills needed to play the game conditioned men for combat” (2002, 13). In addition, games served as a surrogate for warfare, and like warfare, maintained ties to indigenous religion via recourse to the supernatural for protection and for strengthening both the players and the implements of the game (Vennum 1994: 36ff.). Maintaining many of the attributes of war, among the tribes who had developed inter-tribal Confederacies the game permitted opposing political entities to “reinforce political fellowships while solving territorial disputes” by agreements to allow the outcome of a stick ball game to decide political victory. It is not surprising that those groups who maintained the strongest confederacies, the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeastern region and the Iroquois League of the Northeast had the most vital stickball traditions (1994: 14-15).

A Melanesian example of sport as symbolic warfare is depicted in the documentary “Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism” (Leach and Kildea 1973). In an effort to ‘civilize’ the indigenous population of the Kiriwina Islands (formerly the Trobriands), British missionaries sought to replace warfare with the highly codified sport of cricket. The Melanesians soon modified the British game by donning traditional battle dress, singing war chants during games, and incorporating rituals designed to magically empower the bat. In fact, Trobrianders expunged all elements associated with competitive sport from their adapted style of play. The winner (always the host team) is predetermined, and victors hold a feast afterward in the losing team’s honor. The victory feast provides the opportunity to flaunt the local chief’s supernatural power, wealth and generosity. In sum, Trobriand Cricket utilizes a sporting frame in order to maintain symbolic features of indigenous ritualized warfare while mitigating the violence of the traditional Melanesian archetype (Ascencio, 2011).

I encountered a comparable re-framing of game as symbolic warfare in my research on cultural revival among Native American activists in the 1970s (Green 1979). In this context, the Native American Hand Game was refocused from gambling to a ritual playing out intercultural tensions. Historically, this game, in a variety of local variants, was widely dispersed throughout Native North America. Basically, the players are divided into two teams. Teams alternate in requiring a member to hide a marker whose location must then be guessed by members of the opposing team. Traditional forms of the game continue to be played at tribal and inter-tribal gatherings, and these games often involve high stake wagers.

In the late 19th century, Wovoka, a Paiute messiah, established a religious movement which came to be known as the Ghost Dance of 1890. Wovoka prophesied a renewal of the earth, a return of dead ancestors, and relief from White domination if his followers adhered to the tenets of the Ghost Dance and practiced the prescribed rituals. In order to hasten the return of the ancestors and the aboriginal way of life, the messiah encouraged his followers to perpetuate or revive as many elements of traditional culture as possible. Anthropologist Alexander Lesser convincingly argues that in response to the messiah’s appeal, many Native American groups, including the Pawnee, reframed Hand Game as a ritual test of supernatural power. Lesser writes that winning signified “a promise that the gods were on your side” (1933: 156).

With the formation and rise of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s-1970s, came similar efforts to revitalize traditional practices—especially religious and expressive forms. My informants explained their reasons for this by claiming that contrary to the outsiders’ image of AIM as a militant political organization, it was best characterized as a cultural and spiritual movement. In this milieu, the game was explained in the following fashion by C.H. of Fort Hall Reservation, AIM member and articulate advocate of this position:

“We sit in a circle [when playing Hand Game] because the universe and all things in it are round: the sun, the moon , the circle of the 4 directions. By sitting this way, we call up these powers.

In this world there are always opposites, night and day, life and death, but they are all part of the circle. In our fight, the opposites are us, the Indians who believe in the power of the old ways, and the whites. Our 2twoteams stand for the fighting opposites and the fight we are in every day.

Those of us who win show our faith, the strength of the old ways, and our right to lead. Those who lose too much show that their power has been sapped by white men’s things like: Christianity, or whiskey or looking for the easy way. But in our game, we cooperate with our side like we must cooperate and be together with each other and the Power of the universe that our religion gives so one day we will beat the whites. We try to gain that thing of value in the center like we fight to gain our rights and our land from the white people.”

Despite my informant’s claim, however, his interpretation of Hand Game reveals a high level of sublimated hostility toward what he labels as a dominant, yet inferior, antagonistic group.

Play and Conflict in Festival

While conflict can be played out within the framed environments provided by various genres of folklore, I have found the study of festival particularly useful for understanding expressive conflict (Green 1976, 1981, 2003, 2012, Tu, Green, Zheng and Qiang 2013, Zhang and Green n.d.) . Festivals are complex cultural performances composed of inter-related activities (rituals, dramas, dances, and competitions). Festivals mark a “moment” of special significance to the group. The significant points marked by festivals recur at predictable intervals that may be points of transition in the natural cycle (harvest, mid-winter) or individual life cycle (the annual birthday). Festivals may commemorate a god or hero or a historical turning point in the life of the group. In all cases these cultural performances serve as occasions for celebrating collective identity and group membership. Moreover, participation in these events reifies social boundaries while simultaneously creating solidarity among group members. While festivals create cohesion, they often transmit dissonant messages about the celebrating community. When intergroup discord exists, these enactments may allow opposing groups to dramatize conflict in various ways.

As I argue in my research on African-American vernacular martial culture (Green 2003), within limits imposed by dominant European-descended authority, festivals such as pre-Lenten Carnival in the Americas allowed an enslaved population to create a social and psychological “free space.” Within this festive framework, behaviors and roles that are unavailable in the mundane world could be given a wider range of expression (see also, Abrahams 1983). Therefore, “festival is subversive because it questions established authority, rules of polite behavior, and even gender and species distinction. At another level, however, it may support authority by “serving as an alternate channel for confrontations” (Green 2003: 140). Throughout the Americas, festival facilitated the public display of African identity and social aspirations (Green 2003 and Liverpool 2001). For example, Thomas J. Desch-Obi 2008 contends that African warrior societies were perpetuated in the bands of fighters (for example, the maltas of Brazil) who accompanied the musical bands of Carnival. African identity was so distinct, and compelling, that in the French Caribbean, when searching for alternate identities to reflect the topsy-turvy ambience of festival, members of the gentry donned the guise of Negres de Jardin (field laborers) and even joined the slave community in kalenda, an African descended form of stick-fighting (Liverpool 2001: 128, 151-152).

These performances had the potential to provide a window for the dominant society to view those issues that most vexed the dominated community and to pinpoint those members of the group who were most angry and outspoken. Unfortunately, when action was forthcoming from the dominant group, suppression was the order of the day. In the late 17th through early 18th centuries legislation throughout the Caribbean banned the use of the drums that were central to religion, festival and other African expressive culture by the slave population (Rath 2002: 107). Repressive measures were generally unsuccessful, as Rath illustrates regarding the ban on drums. He reports that in the Carolinas enslaved Africans met the ban on drums by re-imagining the fiddle (an instrument not only permitted, but encouraged by planters) as a percussion instrument that perpetuated an African aesthetic on festive occasions (2000: 115).

Occasionally, festival brought conflict to its conclusion in the mundane world by providing opportunities for developing those qualities required for carrying hostility through to a physical conclusion. In his analyses of the social dynamics of festival in the Caribbean, Roger D. Abrahams identifies the “man of action” who, in ensemble performances focused on the physical skills of acrobatics, dancing, or fighting games, “brings focus to the proceedings by his leadership and performance abilities” (1983: xvi). Given the opportunity, such men use their prestige as the means to “real world” action. For example in 1736, a rebellion was launched in Antigua, South Carolina by “a ‘Coramantee’ (Western Kwa) slave leader [who]‘announced his intention to stage an uprising in open Daylight by a Military Dance and Show of which the Whites and even the Slaves (who were not Coromantees nor let into the Secret) might be Spectators, and yet ignorant of the Meaning’” (Rath 2000: 108).

Dramatizing Historical Conflict

Festivals devoted to commemorating turning points in the collective history of a celebrating community or significant episodes in the life of a community’s human or supernatural heroes often represent these events through tableaux or plays. For example, in Christian tradition the Nativity scene is a tableau that captures the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, an iconic moment in the narrative of Christ’s birth, while “Los Pastores,” is a folk play from the Hispanic tradition of the southwestern United States that dramatizes the same story, but emphasizes Lucifer’s attempts to disrupt the quest of shepherds traveling to venerate the Christ Child. In these plays it is common for representatives of the performing group to defeat historical “Others,” Crusader versus the Turkish Knight in the English mummers plays performed during the Christmas season and Spaniards vs. Moors in the colonial Philippines during Saint’s Day festivals serve as examples In some cases, enmity has survived to the present. The following example from my current research in China illustrates this motif.

In northeastern Chinese villages on Lantern Festival, the fifteenth day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the day that concludes the annual celebrations, practitioners of Meihuaquan (“Plum Blossom Boxing”) gather to hold Liangquan (a term literally meaning “show boxing”). Meihuaquan is a vernacular martial art reputed to date to the Ming Dynasty (ca.1644). Vernacular martial arts denote fighting systems that meet the needs of the local groups in which they are practiced and preserved rather than being products of an external sanctioning body. Rather than existing in isolation from the ebb and flow of daily life, vernacular martial arts are localized traditions comparable to regional dialects and folk art. Vernacular arts are found in the village boxing spot, the streets, and in the midst of the family. These arts are wedded to other local traditions such as festival, dance, folk religion, and legend.

The origin of Liangquan according to the folk history preserved by Mei Boxers should be traced to Zou Hongyi, a third generation master of Meihuaquan, who was born at the end of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, at the end of the Ming Dynasty or the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (ca. mid to late 17th century) a famous 4th generation boxing master named Cai Guangrui sent his three apprentices Li Jin-de, Zheng Yu-de, and Xu Jin-de to Xushou City in Jiangsu Province to invite his master Zou Hongyi back to Hebei Province to teach Mei Boxing. Zou was said to be the first master to openly spread Meihuaquan.

Master Zou and the three De took back a wheelbarrow, and this wheelbarrow was constructed from many kinds of ancient, rare weapons. With it they returned to Hou Ma Village. On the first Lantern Festival following Zou’s arrival, his disciples gathered at his house to pay him tribute by showing their boxing skills. This event has been re-enacted every year since that time by holding Liangquan.

Not everyone welcomed the arrival of Mei Boxing in Hou Ma and other villages in northeastern China. Legends contend that Mei Boxing competed for disciples at the local level with other martial arts. A particularly fierce rivalry existed between Hong Quan (“Red Boxing”) and Mei Boxing. Despite local rivalries, open hostility has been rare. In fact, during the “Boxer” resistance to foreign incursions, oral tradition contends that Mei Boxers joined with Hong Boxers, among others, in the Righteous Harmonious Society and that the main force was made up primarily of Plum Blossom Boxers. Nevertheless, the festival folk play performed in conjunction with Liangquan, “I Am the Greatest Boxer,” suggests that this competition persists into the present.

The dialog of the play consists of boasts and challenges delivered by a pair of boxers, one in the role of a Mei Boxer and the other portraying a Hong Boxer. During the prologue, conflict is reflected in dialogue such as:

甲:今天打拳不比往日。 First [Boxer]: Your techniques have not improved.

乙:何以见得?Second [Boxer]: How come? (i.e., How can you make that false claim?)

学艺不精。: Your skills are not good!

乙:投师不明。: Your master is not skilled!

甲:长拳打得好势法。 : Hong Boxing has graceful techniques.

乙:梅花拳打得好低盘。: Mei Boxing has solid stances.

甲:赵匡胤打得好红拳;:Kuangyin [the founder of Hong Boxing]was skilled at Hong Boxing.

乙:梅花老祖占了先: The founder of Mei Boxing was better.

The folk play culminates in a comic battle between the two replete with exaggerated poses, aerial kicks that miss the opponent, spanking the shoe of an adversary, and similar slapstick by-play. Such comic parody seems at odds with the serious martial pursuit of Mei Boxing, a deadly art with religious overtones and the commemoration of a pivotal event in the life of a Mei Boxing patriarch. I contend, however, that the drama symbolically mirrors the history of Mei Boxing which competed at the local level with other martial arts schools for followers and the continuing rivalry that exists between these arts. Because of such dialogue, this drama cannot be performed in front of practitioners of other styles of Chinese martial arts; however, it like my other examples serves the bonding and boundary marking functions (the establishment of us vs. “them).


Dancing Conflict

As noted in the cases cited above, Dragon Dancing as performed at Tu Village in Nanchang County, Jiangxi Province in southeastern China traditionally acted as a festival symbol of group cohesion and social obligations. In addition, the dance–at least until the reforms of the mid-20th century and subsequent attempts to modernize China–served as a vehicle for expressing territorial disputes between neighboring villages. In some ways, this performance event functioned as surrogate warfare. In its general features, the Tu Village Dragon Dance is typical of the dance as performed throughout South China in conjunction with the Lunar New Year Festival (Tu, Green, Zheng and Feng 2013).

Like Liangquan, the Dragon Dance in Tu Village was associated with the Lantern Festival. The Dragon Dance is the highlight of the events held during these celebrations. The Dragon Dance per se was a component of a procession incorporating both the dragon “lantern” proper and images of local deities carried by men of the village. The dragon for which the dance is named was composed of nine separate lanterns assembled into the shape of a Chinese dragon. The procession followed a route dictated by convention and the relative status of the Tu, Bao, and Li families that comprised the village population. Villagers continue to follow this ritual route during major festivals. The work needed to prepare for and stage the performance was managed by the “host” of each year’s Dragon Dance.

In Tu Village, a rotating system of festival management developed based on the prestige of lineages and on each individual’s seniority in the clan. The role of host was a once in a lifetime chance to attain the social prestige that accrued to sponsoring the Dragon Dance. Each host fervently hoped to offer better hospitality than his predecessors and better entertainment for visiting spectators than at dances held on other years. Therefore, the festival held considerable potential for establishing social hierarchy and providing a means to assume a dominant role in the village. Festival mobilization symbolically dramatized the traditional social structure: a patriarchal society in which men were the decision-makers and held positions of power and prestige, family lineages maintained differing ranks, and each lineage maintained an internal hierarchy based on age.

In fact, the ways in which the Dragon Dance bonded individuals into a collective extended beyond Tu Village. On the evening of the fourteenth day of the Lunar Festival, the Dragon Dancers traveled to neighboring Zhao Village to perform. The village cannon was fired three times in front of the host’s house. Then, the procession set out for Zhao Village which lay to the south of Tu village. At prescribed spots the procession stopped to set off firecrackers and fire their cannon. On reaching Zhao Village, they were given gifts by the village elders. The performance held at Zhao Village incorporated the latter as participants. As a result, a social bond was sustained between the residents of the two villages. Moreover, Tu village families invited their in-laws to join in the festivities. In this way, in-laws and neighbors were mobilized into a network to create a successful festival and potentially to join in other cooperative endeavors outside the performed world.

The next day, the Dragon Dance was performed only in Tu Village. By staging the final performances of the dance in their home village, the performers assert the importance of their village relative to their neighbors. When the circuit of village performances was completed, the procession left the village and proceeded to the location of two lakes the ownership of which had been the source of longstanding conflict between Tu Village and neighboring Deng Village. When the Tu Village Dragon Dancers arrived at the lakeside, they fired their cannon three times to open their performance. At the conclusion of the dance the cannon was again fired three times. In this case, the performance was not performed for Deng Village so much as “hurled” at it to assert symbolically Tu Village’s traditional claim and a demonstration of the physical prowess needed to defend that claim.

Dragon Dance provided a way for men to display their strength and, consequently, the strength of their village. Before the land reforms of 1949, Tu Village and Deng Village constantly fought for the ownership of the two lakes at their juncture. The competition originally grew from the fact that the subsistence of the region was based on rice cultivation, an enterprise that is water-intensive. Therefore, it was not hard to understand why the two villages were always in a tense and antagonistic relation over this limited resource. The performance of the Dragon Dance by the men of Tu village demonstrated the prosperity of the village and their village solidarity to Deng Village. As a result, the Tu Dragon Dance not only fostered and reproduced the friendly relations in Tu Village and among relevant outsiders such as the villagers’ in-laws and the Zhao villagers, it also reiterated competitive and antagonistic relations between Tu and Deng.

Roger Abrahams, whose theories regarding the articulation of conflict in folk performance have informed my research, points out that festival (among other genres) is commonly performed not only to generate social cohesion for the in-group, but in order to intensify the feelings of separateness and articulate and maintain tension and antagonisms between competing communities (1981). In spite of the occasional cases in which the performance frame ruptures and violence erupts into the mundane world, more common is the situation in which expressive culture merely threatens a tenuous peace and plays out conflict by channeling violence into symbolic expression.

Vernacular arts combine for the folk group the forces of bounding and bonding vs. confrontation and conflict. These factors argue for the importance of studying expressive culture in order to understand conflict. These phenomena are focused events well-marked internally and insulated from the flow of social life outside such framed environments. Each with its own rationale and internal logic, they symbolically reiterate a segment of the macrocosm in which conflict occurs.



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Last modified: July 11, 2023