Folk Songs of the Yugurs

China Today (English) - - CONTENTS - By staff re­porter WU XUE­FENG

The most prim­i­tive mem­o­ries and his­to­ries of the Yugurs are passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion via folk songs, con­sid­ered to be the eth­nic group’s roots and soul.

Sis­ters Du Xi­uy­ing, 75, and Du Xi­u­lan, 72, were born in Su­nan Yugur Au­ton­o­mous County in Zhangye City of Gansu Prov­ince. Their fa­ther was a well-known folk singer, who be­gan to teach them how to sing when they were around 10 years old. As the Yugurs have no writ­ten lan­guage, it has been the task of the older gen­er­a­tions to pass down the eth­nic group’s his­tory and leg­ends through the lyrics of their folk songs. Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan know dozens of Yugur folk songs in a va­ri­ety of lan­guages, in­clud­ing East­ern Yugur, Western Yugur, Ti­betan, and Man­darin, and they have played a vi­tal role in pro­tect­ing and pass­ing on Yugur cul­ture. In 2009, the two sis­ters were in­cluded into the list of the third batch of in­her­i­tors of na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.

THE Yugurs come from the west and move east­ward. They herd cows and sheep and they ride on camels to­wards the sun,” Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan sing to a lilt­ing air. Their song is about the pre­cious mem­o­ries of an eth­nic mi­nor­ity with a small pop­u­la­tion and an ar­cane spo­ken lan­guage. The sis­ters sing with pas­sion and heart; they have ded­i­cated their life­time to Yugur folk songs.

No Writ­ten Lan­guage

The Yugurs live pri­mar­ily in Su­nan Yugur Au­ton­o­mous County, Gansu Prov­ince in western China. Com­pris­ing a pop­u­la­tion of about 14,000, the Yugurs are one of China’s smallest eth­nic mi­nori­ties. Yugurs of­ten say that they can sing once they can speak and they can dance once they can walk. In fact, the most prim­i­tive mem­o­ries and his­to­ries of the Yugurs are passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion via folk songs, which are con­sid­ered the eth­nic group’s roots and soul.

The Yugurs are fa­nat­i­cal about folk songs. In the past, there were pro­fes­sional Yugur singers, who were hired by lo­cal fam­i­lies to per­form at funer­als and wed­dings. Singing has al­ways been an im­por­tant part of Yugur life. There is an old say­ing: “If I for­get my home­town, I won’t for­get my lan­guage. If I for­get my lan­guage, I won’t for­get the songs from my home­town.” On the grass­land and moun­tain slopes herds­men can of­ten be heard singing en­chant­ing folk songs.

Back in the 1940s, Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan lived with their par­ents in Guanghua Vil­lage, Dahe Town­ship

in what is now Su­nan Yugur Au­ton­o­mous County. At that time, their fa­ther herded cat­tle and their mother milked cows. Du Zhan­cai, their fa­ther, was the last shaman of the Yugurs. When they were around 10 years old, the two sis­ters started to ac­com­pany their fa­ther to var­i­ous so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties where they learned many folk songs and sto­ries of their eth­nic group. They grad­u­ally mas­tered both the East­ern and Western Yugur lan­guages. They ex­plained that there were very few Chi­nese loan­words in Yugur songs, sto­ries, and say­ings, and that they only used the Yugur lan­guage while singing or re­lat­ing sto­ries, in which some el­e­ments of the Tur­kic lan­guage have been pre­served.

Their mem­o­ries of child­hood are char­ac­ter­ized by singing. Any Yugur can sing at any time and on any oc­ca­sion as long as they want to. Young women and men of­ten ex­press their love for each other through song. In Xi­u­lan’s mem­ory, Yugur peo­ple had dif­fer­ent songs for dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions, such as herd­ing sheep, feed­ing lambs, hold­ing wed­dings or funer­als, felt-mak­ing (a tra­di­tional hand­i­craft of the Yugurs), and horse rid­ing. “Be­cause life in the old days was hard, many Yugur songs are sad,” Xi­u­lan said.

“When we were lit­tle we helped our par­ents herd cat­tle on the grass­land. When our par­ents taught us a new song in the evening, the next morn­ing we had to sing the song by our­selves be­fore break­fast. By do­ing so those songs are em­bed­ded in our mem­ory,” said Xi­uy­ing.

As early as 1955, 15- year- old Xi­uy­ing made her de­but at the cinema in the county town of Su­nan, where she sang for young peo­ple who were there to at­tend the Youth Congress. “That was the first time I had ever stood on a stage. Be­fore that I had only sung on the grass­land. I felt so ner­vous that my face turned red and my hands and legs were shak­ing. I felt my voice trem­ble, too,” Xi­uy­ing re­called. But she was met with rap­tur­ous ap­plause and the au­di­ence wanted to hear more. From that point, she gained con­fi­dence and per­formed at var­i­ous oc­ca­sions, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing rich ex­pe­ri­ence.

Into Their 70s

Most Yugur folk songs come about through im­pro­vi­sa­tion dur­ing day- to- day ac­tiv­i­ties, such as herd­ing, mow­ing, thread-twist­ing, felt-mak­ing, or driv­ing camels, or on spe­cial oc­ca­sions such as wed­dings, funer­als, and re­li­gious rit­u­als. In re­cent years, along with the so­cial de­vel­op­ment and changes in lo­cal peo­ple’s life­style, the num­ber of folk singers has dwin­dled, and many songs have been lost as singers grow old and pass away. The legacy of Yugur folk songs is un­der se­ri­ous threat.

“The ex­tinc­tion of our songs means the end of

Yugur peo­ple had dif­fer­ent songs for dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions, such as herd­ing sheep, feed­ing lambs, hold­ing wed­dings or funer­als, felt­mak­ing (a tra­di­tional hand­i­craft of the Yugurs), and horse rid­ing.

our lives,” said Xi­uy­ing. Like most Yugurs, Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan can speak Man­darin. They know scores of Yugur folk songs and can ex­plain the mean­ing of those songs in Man­darin. Xi­u­lan taught her­self to read. She has read books on Yugur his­tory and helped schol­ars from UNESCO and other in­sti­tutes from home and abroad en­gaged in Yugur cul­ture with their re­search by pro­vid­ing and trans­lat­ing a large num­ber of pri­mary re­sources.

In 2014, Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan sang in a record­ing stu­dio for the first time. “The record­ing ses­sions lasted for two days. Three songs, Com­ing from Xizhi­hazhi (which tells the story of Yugurs mov­ing from the west to the east), Twelve Chi­nese Zo­diac Signs, and Epic of Sere­make, were put onto one disc,” said Xi­uy­ing. The two sis­ters greatly val­ued the ex­pe­ri­ence of record­ing their her­itage in this way. On the day of the record­ing, they dressed in their best, wear­ing their fam­ily heir­looms – head­gear mounted with turquoise, co­ral, and sap­phire. They said it was their life­long wish to pre­serve Yugur folk songs by uti­liz­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, and were will­ing to make their con­tri­bu­tion to en­sure the songs don’t die out with the singers.

In Jan­uary 2015, Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan, as na­tional in­her­i­tors of Yugur folk song, to­gether with six of their stu­dents, par­tic­i­pated in an in­no­va­tive pro­gram about the suc­ces­sion of eth­nic mi­nori­ties’ crafts­man­ship held at He Lüt­ing Mu­si­cal Hall at the Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic. There they per­formed folk songs and dances in Yugur cos­tumes, and were warmly ap­plauded by au­di­ence.

To­day, the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan have all grown up and work in Su­nan County and other re­gions. Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan both left the moun­tain­ous area and set­tled down in the county where they bought their own apart­ments. They feel par­tic­u­larly proud of Xi­u­lan’s youngest son, who has pub­lished a book called Cliff Paint­ings in Su­nan Yugur Au­ton­o­mous County, the first ever book on the re­search of lo­cal cliff paint­ings.

In­her­i­tors of Folk Cul­ture

Dur­ing ev­ery sum­mer va­ca­tion since 2010, vol­un­teers from Lanzhou Univer­sity have come to Su­nan County to or­ga­nize classes for lo­cal pupils to study Yugur folk songs. Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan vol­un­teer to teach the stu­dents the Yugur lan­guage and songs. “It feels so great to teach chil­dren songs and watch them sing and dance as they cre­ate dances ac­cord­ing to the sto­ry­lines of the songs that we teach them,” Xi­uy­ing and Xi­u­lan said.

Eleven-year-old Anlu has at­tended the sum­mer train­ing class three years run­ning. Although she talks to her mother in sim­ple Yugur at home, her

mom sel­dom has time to teach her more be­cause she is too busy. Anlu said she learns many new words and ex­pres­sions through folk songs in the class. “I want to learn be­cause I don’t want Yugur cul­ture and lan­guage to dis­ap­pear,” Anlu said, clearly proud of her eth­nic group.

This pride has en­cour­aged many Yugur peo­ple, in­clud­ing Xi­uy­ing, Xi­u­lan, and lit­tle Anlu, to vol­un­tar­ily shoul­der the his­tor­i­cal mis­sion of in­her­it­ing and pass­ing on the Yugur cul­ture and lan­guage. With the sup­port of gov­ern­ments at var­i­ous lev­els and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, they are all do­ing their bit in dif­fer­ent ways to en­sure the suc­ces­sion of the Yugur folk songs on the beau­ti­ful grass­land of Su­nan.

In re­cent years, the lo­cal govern­ment has paid great at­ten­tion to and sup­ported the pro­tec­tion of Yugur cul­ture. The Su­nan County govern­ment raises money in var­i­ous ways to es­tab­lish a cul­tural cen­ter for dis­cov­er­ing, pro­tect­ing, re­search­ing, and pub­li­ciz­ing lo­cal cul­ture, and en­cour­ag­ing ed­u­ca­tion and creation in this re­gard. It also set up the China Yugur Eth­nic Group Mu­seum, the Yugur In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage Preser­va­tion and Suc­ces­sion Cen­ter, the Yugur Song and Dance Preser­va­tion Cen­ter, the Cen­ter of No­madic Cul­ture, and the Cen­ter of Yugur Folk Cul­ture, with the aim of shar­ing Yugur cul­ture and folk­lore. Lan Haidong, deputy chief of Su­nan County Bu­reau of Ra­dio, Tele­vi­sion, and Press, said: “The sis­ters have sung and taught Yugur folk songs for al­most their whole life. The Yugur folk songs are in their blood and part of their life. Ev­ery eth­nic group has its unique cus­toms and cul­ture, which should be in­her­ited and passed down to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

In or­der to bet­ter pro­mote Yugur cul­ture among

The lo­cal govern­ment has uti­lized mul­ti­me­dia tech­nol­ogy such as film, pho­tog­ra­phy, and sound record­ing to chron­i­cle and keep the tra­di­tional Yugur cul­ture alive.

young peo­ple, the county govern­ment has in­tro­duced Yugur cul­ture into cam­puses by launch­ing Yugur lan­guage learn­ing pro­grams in kinder­gartens and el­e­men­tary schools, es­tab­lish­ing Yugur folk song chil­dren’s choirs, run­ning Yugur song and cul­ture classes for chil­dren, and or­ga­niz­ing themed lec­tures on Yugur cul­ture. All this is in ef­forts to en­hance lo­cal peo­ple’s com­mit­ment to Yugur cul­ture and thus ef­fec­tively pro­mote its suc­ces­sion and in­no­va­tion. So far the county govern­ment has compiled and pub­li­cized books, CDs, and tapes, such as Folk Songs of Chi­nese Eth­nic Mi­nori­ties – Su­nan Yugur Au­ton­o­mous County (124 Songs), Home of Yugurs, and Sweet Smell on the Grass­land. Rel­e­vant ma­te­ri­als per­tain­ing to as many as 310 Yugur folk songs have been col­lected and sorted. In the past decade, the lo­cal govern­ment has uti­lized mul­ti­me­dia tech­nol­ogy such as film, pho­tog­ra­phy, and sound record­ing to chron­i­cle and keep the tra­di­tional Yugur cul­ture alive. All those ma­te­ri­als have been on ex­hi­bi­tion at the Yugur In­tan­gi­ble Cul­ture Her­itage Preser­va­tion and Suc­ces­sion Cen­ter.

“Peo­ple en­joy lis­ten­ing to Yugur folk songs and China at­taches great im­por­tance to the preser­va­tion of Yugur cul­ture. We don’t have a writ­ten lan­guage so it will be a huge pity if we lose our spo­ken lan­guage,” Xi­uy­ing said. “Now, Yugur lan­guage classes are avail­able from kinder­garten. I hope to teach Yugur folk songs to more chil­dren and pro­vide as many spo­ken ma­te­ri­als on Yugur in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture her­itage as I can to schol­ars from home and abroad and stu­dents in col­leges and univer­si­ties,” Xi­uy­ing said.

Du Xi­uy­ing and Du Xi­u­lan teach chil­dren Yugur folk songs on the vast grass­land.

Du Xi­uy­ing (right), 75, and Du Xi­u­lan (left), 72, sing Yugur folk songs to per­pet­u­ate Yugur cul­ture, and have been in­cluded into the list of in­her­i­tors of na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.

Du Xi­u­lan tells young peo­ple about Yugur his­tory.

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