Reviving Ancient Melodies in the South
Nanyin, literally “southern music” in Chinese, refers to the traditional music of southern Fujian Province, which has been handed down for more than 1,000 years. Hailed as a “living fossil” of ancient Chinese music and dance, it remains popular with Fujian dialect speakers residing in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and other regions of Southeast Asia, but it especially warms the hearts of overseas Chinese people.
Also known as “southern melody,” the songs originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), according to historical records, and became widely popular during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), during which time it was blended with the folk music of the Central Plains.
The original flavors have been preserved thanks to surviving instruments, sheet music and well-preserved playing and singing style, and today Nanyin is considered one of the four schools of classical Chinese music. In 2009, Nanyin was included on UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
This ancient art has been particularly well preserved because it is recorded with a special kind of writing known as “gongyipu,” which has of course been misinterpreted widely over the centuries.
In recent years, the legacy has gone digital with the publication of Selected Nanyin Classics by Xiamen Southern Music Group (XSMG), which has proved the most accurate tool yet for Nanyin performers and fans to enjoy every style of the southern melody.
The instruments used to perform Nanyin are primarily a vertical bamboo flute, pipa, erxian and sanxian (two and three-stringed plucked instruments) and clappers. During a performance, the pipa, or Chinese lute, is often played horizontally, as depicted in the famous painting of the Five Dynasties (907-960), Night Feast.
The biggest challenge modern musicians face when handing down such an ancient cultural legacy is preserving the authentic flavor and style while keeping it fresh with new ideas that align with the times.
“Blazing new trails based on the foundation of tradition has always been the aim of Nanyin artists and troupes,” remarks Yang Xueli, president of the XSMG and recipient of the Peony Performance Award, the highest honor for Chinese folk artists. Since the day she started studying Nanyin in art school in 1989, Yang has never lost passion for the art despite myriad ups and downs.
Over the last few years, the XSMG has engaged in heavy efforts to popularize the art with the philosophy “Approach the Audience and Serve the Residents.” Today, the group performs more than 200 times annually for public welfare, spreading the southern melody to every corner of the city of Xiamen. Every Sunday afternoon, they appear on stage in Zhongshan Park for free. The melodies echoing through temples and halls have attracted increasingly larger crowds, providing greater fuel for the ancient folk music’s preservation across generations.
Cultural heritage requires constant injections of new life. In Xiamen, some primary schools now offer Nanyin performance classes. The XSMG has launched regular campaigns by joining hands with local musical troupes and schools to provide training programs and summer camps helmed by their most excellent tutors. Moreover, it has organized periodic contests that provide a stage for young standouts. It has closely cooperated with the city’s art schools and supplied them with expert teachers.
The song “Ode to the Golden Stone” sung by millennials frequently whisks audiences back to the Song Dynasty. The song recounts a love story about Song-dynasty poet Li Qingzhao and her husband, which is perfectly understood thanks to the singers. Both Xu Dani, who played the female poet, and Pan Wenlong, who played the husband, are standouts of the new generation of millennial Nanyin artists who graduated from the art schools that collaborated with the XSMG.
Western orchestral instruments have even been used in a bold attempt to combine the traditional art with more world music.
The ancient music deeply rooted in southern Fujian has enjoyed great popularity around the world for centuries. Over the last few years, the XSMG has performed in many places in China such as Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, as well as in countries including France, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.
“The national is international,” Yang Xueli notes. “The best way to help the world share southern melodies is to create more excellent pieces of work.”
Picture of One Hundred Flowers, performed by the Southern Musical Troupe, which is mostly comprised of artists born in the 1990s.
One of the four treasures of the southern musical instruments is the bamboo clappers.
Young artists Xu Dani and Pan Wenlong perform in the Nanyin oratorio Ode to the Golden Stone.
The double bell is a southern musical instrument used to balance the beat.