Re­viv­ing An­cient Melodies in the South

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Zhang Xue Pho­to­graphs by Dong Fang

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.

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