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Interview: Dr Anton Lustig

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Dr Anton Lustig (far right) with Jingpo village elders
Dr Anton Lustig (far right) with Jingpo village elders

Few in the world know as much about the Jingpo people (景颇族) as Dr Anton Lustig. The Dutchman has been alternately visiting, working and living with the Jingpo in Yunnan for more than 20 years. He is perhaps the world's leading authority on their language and culture.

GoKunming contributor Richard Arridge recently caught up with his old colleague from Beijing Foreign Studies University, where the two both had a hand in establishing a library of Scandinavian and Nordic literature. They spoke of Dr Lustig's linguistic endeavors and how he and his wife are working with the Jingpo of Yunnan's Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (德宏傣族景颇族自治州) to preserve both their language and culture in a quickly changing world.

GoKunming: How did you first become involved with the Jingpo?

Dr Anton Lustig: My initial contact with the Jingpo came during my first trip to China in 1991. At that time I had already made up my mind to focus my research on the Jingpo's Zaiwa language, not knowing much more than the whereabouts of their villages.

Months and years of living with the Jingpo people had an ineffaceable influence on me, and so I kept returning to the area, even long after completing my thesis. Joined by my wife and our friends, I ended up doing a non-profit project for the empowerment and education of the Jingpo village children.

GK: You have produced the first ever grammar and dictionary of the Zaiwa language. What group of languages does it belong to?

Dr Lustig: Zaiwa belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family. It is one of those gradually disappearing relics from the past — from a time when numerous ethnic groups were still migrating southward through the steep mountains and narrow valleys in the west of China. My Grammar and Dictionary of Zaiwa, based on my PhD thesis and originally published in 2002, is the main existing work on this language.

Jingpo village of Wudian during Spring Festival
Jingpo village of Wudian during Spring Festival

GK: Many minority languages are disappearing. How healthy is Zaiwa and what are its chances of surviving and growing?

Dr Lustig: Zaiwa is still the main language for the Jingpo among themselves. Now is the most crucial time for conservation of this language because young Zaiwa speakers are losing even their basic vocabulary. Many Jingpo children growing up in cities don't speak a word of Zaiwa.

When the last remaining speakers of a language are just a few old people, then it will be too late to prevent the language's extinction. Every language represents a unique way of thinking. There are so many things that you just cannot express with as much verve and humor when translated into other languages — if it is even possible to translate.

This endangered situation concerns mainly oral Zaiwa as there hardly is anything interesting to read in written Zaiwa. The pinyin-based Zaiwa writing system has only existed since the 1980s and is scarcely taught. Very few Jingpo people — only an estimated 15 percent — know how to use it.

GK: Jingpo children are, I presume, bilingual — using both their mother tongue and Mandarin Chinese. This must give them some advantages, but what problems do they face in education and how are they hampered by their social environment?

Dr Lustig: Jingpo kids, growing up in a much-troubled but also ethnologically and ecologically very diverse environment, are multi-lingual and generally much gifted in the arts. However, this area, on the border with Myanmar and is severely affected by drugs and HIV/AIDS. The kids' development is hampered by the complex social and health problems in the area. Also they are at a great disadvantage in the prevailing examination-oriented education system.

That is why my wife Li Yang and I started the Prop Roots Program in 2009. It is a non-profit project aimed at empowering Jingpo children with their own culture utilizing their own creativity. Our goal is to empower the Jingpo children through good education.

They grow up in an eroding culture, with poor chances for development, and immense problems related to drugs and AIDS. We help boost the kids' self-esteem by providing them opportunities to be involved in interesting activities and classes, while also stimulating use of the Zaiwa language and incorporated elements of Jingpo culture. We do this by utilizing Zaiwa story puppet shows, painting with leaves and flowers and "film your own village" projects.

In our classes, they naturally become aware that they have a rich, interesting and unique background, which they can proudly share with the outside world. We connect them with pen pals, volunteers and visitors from elsewhere in China and abroad. We are also planning joint summer camps for Jingpo kids and kids from big Chinese cities.

All of these activities help improve their sense of identity and self-esteem, so that they can dare to speak out and reach for their ideals, become more thoughtful and creative, and stand strong against the temptation of drugs.

Jingpo men at the Munao Zongge dance festival in Longchuan county (龙川县)
Jingpo men at the Munao Zongge dance festival in Longchuan county (龙川县)

GK: Sounds like a project for the very long term. What are your plans to make it sustainable?

Dr Lustig: Indeed, it is a very long-term project. We are aware how challenging our goal is. That's why my wife and I have moved from Beijing to one of the Jingpo villages we love. We are determined to go for our ideals and help the local children.

Of course there are problems galore for grassroots people. Establishing an NGO requires the same level of entrepreneurship as when starting a business, only the funding is an even bigger challenge. In the first three years, Prop Roots was still young and more like a personal initiative for us and our friends.

We mainly organized summer and winter camps for the Jingpo children, as well as art exhibitions for them in Beijing. We weren't diligent enough about fundraising, so 80 percent of Prop Roots' backing had to come from our personal incomes. The remaining 20 percent came from donations.

Funding became an even bigger challenge when we started building our children's education center in a beautiful mountain village named Yingpan [营盘村], at the end of 2011. It is a specially-designed eco-friendly building. It uses bamboo, recycled materials, stones and bricks in both traditional and more modern, innovative styles. The center will be used for children's activities and will display their artwork as well as traditional Jingpo cultural items.

It will also enable us to accommodate volunteers, researchers, artists and other visitors. Construction of the center has swallowed all our savings and also forced us to take out heavy bank loans.

Of course, money doesn't grow on trees and we must find long-term solutions. The Prop Roots center, located on a quiet mountain slope with great views, is a lively and multi-cultural platform full of creativity. We are therefore preparing to partly also run it as a special guesthouse with all profits being used for providing a better future for the Jingpo children.

Jingpo woman at the Munao Zongge dance festival in Longchuan county (龙川县)
Jingpo woman at the Munao Zongge dance festival in Longchuan county (龙川县)

GK: Can you tell us a bit more about the Prop Roots guesthouse?

Dr Lustig: The Prop Roots children's activity center is nearly finished. It was designed by one of China's top architects and blends in perfectly with the subtropical hillside environment.

It contains a large activity space, a children's library and cozy rooms for volunteers and other guests. My wife and I had a hard road to get this done, since we did it mainly from the last of our own money. The local contractors had never worked on anything like it before.

We'd be happy to see both visitors and paying guests who would like to experience a Jingpo village life first-hand. We will be able to take them along when visiting remote villages and they can see traditional festivals, weddings and other ceremonies. Dehong Prefecture, especially its western mountains where we live, is not known as a tourist area.

GK: If visitors want to help out, what kind of contributions could they make, apart from the obvious financial one?

Dr Lustig: They could bring donations for children's activities. Things such as paint, brushes, paper, old cameras and speakers — we have a list of much-needed items on our website. Visitors could also design art or science projects and activities for the children.

Both long term and short term volunteers for Prop Roots would be welcome as well. People with expertise in education project design, communications, fundraising, human resources and financial management could all help Prop Roots.

Wudian village
Wudian village

GK: How much has the mountain ambiance of the Jingpo region influenced your own artwork and music?

Dr Lustig: Living close to nature is definitely good for creativity, but I didn't come here to be a hermit. Locking myself up in a Beijing studio could also be great for creating art, but I want to give my art more dimensions. However, I know it is not easy to run an NGO and be an artist at the same time.

My 20 years of cultural immersion in China must have subconsciously added an Asian or non-European flavor into my paintings and music. Some of the ancient and mysterious airs around Jingpo traditional culture and language might have also quietly snuck into my creations.

From now on, I will be able to mainly work at the Prop Roots center. Here in the Jingpo mountains, where I am joined by energetic village kids and surrounded by infectious Jingpo music, I can truly transcend borders between cultures and disciplines.

Living here also allows me to pay more frequent visits to Jingpo shamans and folk musicians. Many of them are senior citizens living in the deep forests on the top of mountains. Sometimes I adopt Jingpo musical themes and soon I will also include Jingpo musical instruments.

GK: When I visited you in the Jingpo village of Wudian in 2008, there were changes in the air, especially in terms of infrastructure. New roads and amenities were being built. Are the communities less isolated now and if so has this been of benefit or created new problems?

Dr Lustig: During the past 21 years that I have been coming back to Dehong, I have always had two impressions. On the one hand, things are changing so fast that it is impossible to catch up. Concrete houses are quickly replacing traditional bamboo houses. More and more families have televisions and mobile phones, which would have looked like alien technology to them a decade ago.

Along with the fast economic development occurring in other parts of China, many people have a slightly easier life. But the overwhelming tide of globalization and urbanization is pulling the Jingpo toward a far more competitive modern culture that stresses the market economy. The traditional Jingpo way of life is being washed away, leaving them with a feeling of emptiness and inferiority.

On the other hand, many things seem to never change — the friendships, the magnificent Munao dancing, the warm smiles around smokey fireplaces and the fresh taste of wild vegetables coupled with burning sips of locally-brewed rice wine.

Images: Richard Arridge (2008)

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Great interview! Sounds like a fascinating and worthwhile project!

I'm sure saving a dying language must a good thing, but I'd be interested to hear specific reasons why. Anyone care to make the case?

i don't know. i'll just pull something out of my butt. language is part of culture. and if language is lost, then a big part of the culture is lost. and different cultures make the world a much more interesting place, unless you like the sci-fi futuristic scenario where everyone wears the same silver suit with a v-shape on the front.

Why not? Variety is good, uniformity is boring.

As a teacher of English, my job is to help people communicate in a common language. In that case surely uniformity of language is vital, rather than boring....?

Glad to see the helpful discussion here and thank you so much for your interest and response. I don't need to say more about the value of revitalizing ethnic languages and cultures. Just want to emphasize that Prop Roots is a project that aims for a better future for the Jingpo children. We are using language, culture and art education as tools. The ultimate goal is not conservation, but empowering the Jingpo children with their own culture and their own creativity. We believe the most powerful weapon against drugs is their confidence, and courage to pursuit their dreams.

Ocean, so by your logic chinese people should stop learning chinese and only learn english?

Want to make it clear that I'm sorta playing Devil's Advocate here and have nothing but respect for Prop Roots goals and work.

But no, learning a lingua franca doesn't logically mean you should abandon your mother-tongue. My question really is whether encouraging the use of a language that almost nobody else speaks is worth the effort? I suspect it is, but I'm not sure I have a convincing argument why. I agree with it being a vital part of a culture - maybe that's a good enough reason in itself? But a similar effort to learn languages which are widely spoken seems to make more sense to me somehow.

hey ocean, just because it's COOL, man. I wish I could speak a language that only 20 other people on the planet could speak.

google seems to think it's worthwhile...

Google is launching a new project to help save over 3,000 dying languages.
It's called the Endangered Languages project, backed by an international coalition of scholars and linguists.

A dying or dead language can be used a a 'code' language too in time of wars like the Navajo did.

Another point is that the survival of the significant bodies of oral literature of many of the local peoples relies upon their language remaining extant. For more information on global efforts at oral literature preservation for endangered languages, see www.oralliterature.org/

Great find, abcdabcd. Here's a direct link to the Zaiwa language:

Perhaps something Dr Anton Lustig would be interested in contributing to.

Yereth, thank you for following up on my post. I should have mentioned it.

If it's good enough for Google... Thanks @abcdabcd and others. Fascinating topic and interesting/compelling arguments.

Devil's advocates and Coolness are all much needed in this age full of changes.

"Our" Zaiwa language is not on the EndangeredLanguages site. (Thanks for the link though, Yereth!) Meyor/Zakhring/Zaiwa is another language, just remotely related to what we speak here, and more endangered.

Perhaps worth adding to the site, if you think their cause is worthwhile. I'd be curious to know how different the languages are and how far removed they are physically.

Does anyone have a contact email for Dr. Lustig?

try to PM Prop Roots

This may or may not be of interest. The International Centre for Conservation Education (ICCE) based in UK, did a lot of work in Africa using traditional drama, song, and puppets, for env ed purposes. There may be some transferable lessons.
I'm not trying to teach you to suck eggs, just adding my 2 cents.

Thanks for the info!

Our Zaiwa and Meyor/Zakhring/Zaiwa are separated by lots of mountain ridges, and probably belong to different branches of the language family, so the differences could be quite enormous.

Mails are welcomed to: antonlustig@gmail.com

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