芦笙絮语 Playing for the Ancestors

The global Hmong diaspora is the result of Hmong migrations from China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar over the last 200 years, followed by a wave of refugee resettlement to the United States, France, French Guyana, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Argentina since 1975. Across this diverse geographical landscape, one icon stands out as uniting Hmong culture and identity—the ‘qeej’ (pronounced “keng”). This bamboo reed instrument is central to Hmong ritual practice, and therefore iconic of Hmong values. The qeej has the unique power to carry messages played by mortal ritual practitioners to the realm of spirits and ancestors, so that these messages are clearly understood. Qeej songs contain much more than mere musical notes and melodies. The instrument speaks to the spirits, conveying denotational content in a spirit language that can be comprehended by the ancestors (and other qeej masters). Filmed in a Hmong community along the Sino-Vietnamese border in Yunnan Province, China, Playing for the Ancestors portrays various elements of qeej art and ritual practice, including qeej production, funeral songs, and the significance of this unique instrument in Hmong cosmology. Qeej experts provide insight into the nature of this instrument and its capacity to help them provide for loved ones when they pass away. Despite its centrality to Hmong identity, the future of qeej expertise is a serious concern for the current generation of masters, who worry that failure to pass on this knowledge and practice would mean an end to Hmong life as they know it.

This film was an official selection of European Association of Social Anthropologists Film Programme in 2020, Lisbon, Portugal, and also the official selection of Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival (SVAFMF) of 2021.

  • Manman Yang
    Director
  • Dr. Jacob R. Hickman
    Director
  • Manman Yang
    Producer
  • Manman Yang
    Cinematographer
  • Manman Yang
    Editor
  • Project Title (Original Language):
    芦笙絮语
  • Project Type:
    Documentary
  • Runtime:
    36 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    February 1, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    10,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    China
  • Language:
    English
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4K
  • Aspect Ratio:
    16:9
  • Film Color:
    Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    No
  • European Association of Social Anthropology Film Programme 2020, Lisbon, Portugal
    Lisbon
    Portugal
    July 21, 2020
    Global Premier
    Official Selection
  • Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival (SVAFMF)
    Vacouver
    Canada
    November 1, 2021
    North American Premier
    Official Selection
Director Biography - Manman Yang, Dr. Jacob R. Hickman

Manman Yang, born and raised up in the southern China. She got her M.A. in Drama and Film Study from Beijing Film Academy in 2015, and then started working as a documentary filmmaker and curator. Driven by cultural shock from her study and experience in Europe, she started to use documentary filmmaking as a way to explore the world and various realities.

She was enrolled as a M.A. student of the Germany university HMKW in the program of Visual and Media Anthropology from Oct. 2020.

She was the content researcher and film developer for British Science Museum in its one year tour exhibition SUPERBUGS in China, which explored how society was responding to the enormous challenge of antibiotic resistance. She made a documentary for the British Embassy in Beijing on 2019 Newton prize about the UK-China scientific innovation partnership. Her short documentary A DAY WITH XIAOHUI became the official selection of 2019 Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival (SVAFMF) and was screened in Vancouver. In 2019, she started to use the methodology of visual anthropology with documentary filmmaking by cooperating with the American anthropologist Dr. Jacob R. Hickman to make a documentary on the Hmong minority in Yunnan, China ( PLAYING FOR THE ANCESTORS, official selection of EASA Film Programme 2020, Lisbon, Portugal).

In 2019, she set up Believing is Seeing Studio in Guangzhou, focused on documentary production and visual anthropology.

Now she is making her first feature length documentary on the LGBT community in China, SOME BODY TO LOVE, which won the Jury Award in an SVAFMF pitch session.

Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she co-produced the newly issued exhibition VIRUS: OUR ENEMY OR FRIEND presented by the Guangdong Science Centre, and produced 4 episodes of short documentaries for science education purpose. She also hosted a live streaming TV program related to epidemic topics as a planned event of the aforementioned exhibition, which reached more than 100,000 online viewers in 1 hour.

Throughout 2020, she wrote and directed a feature-length documentary I AM From Nantou ( 我是南头人,50 mins), a film about a historical urban village renewal project in Shenzhen and presented by the local municipal government. The story tries to depict the complex relationships between the urbanization processes in Shenzhen, the migrant workers, and the city’s history, in order to show how the efforts of individuals could reflect on the urban spirit of Shenzhen. This film will be put on-line in April, 2021.

Dr. Jacob R. Hickman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University, where he specializes in psychological anthropology, cultural psychology, and Southeast Asian studies. He has conducted over 50 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Hmong communities in Thailand, Vietnam, China, France, Australia, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota since 2004. His current research interests include understanding how Hmong communities, ritual practice, morality and ethics, family life, and subjectivities have changed at various points in the global diaspora. In particular, Jacob seeks to understand how social life in these various countries and communities where Hmong have migrated affect these various elements of Hmong social life.

Jacob Hickman did his graduate study at the University of Chicago in the Department of Comparative Human Development, an interdisciplinary program that emphasizes psychological anthropology. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and a Fulbright Fellowship (China, 2018-2019). He has authored numerous articles and book chapters on Hmong religion and ritual, migration, life course, and morality and ethics.

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Director Statement

This film is based on the fieldwork of Dr. Jacob R. Hickman who conducts ethongraphic research in Hmong communities throughout the world, including China, Vietnam, Thailand, the United States, and France. He has been conducting research with Hmong in Yunnan since 2014.

The fieldwork for this film was funded by a Fulbright Fellowship and research grants from the Brigham Young University Kennedy Center for International Studies and College of Family, Home, and Social Science.