The Performance of Traditional Chinese Folk Songs
In 2017, Yu Feng, President of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China said, “Music is one of the carriers of culture. The exchange between Chinese and world music cultures has a long historical standing” (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, II). Yu Feng goes on to say that even though Chinese people have learned western music, up to now “Chinese music and culture has not been fully recognized and understood by the world” (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, II). That is one reason why my research on performing traditional Chinese folk songs is so important. As an Asian Studies student at UMBC and former professional musical theatre performer, I was curious about traditional Chinese Folk Songs. I asked myself, if I am going to perform the songs with any degree of competence or sincerity, then I should take the time to learn about and document the historical and cultural context behind them.
Learning Chinese folk songs provides singers with the opportunity to know about the people of China's musical expressions, traditions, and values. It allows them to learn about their culture and helps them acquire language skills. An audience is necessary for the singers because they will be able to create a folk song that is suitable for a particular audience, for instance, love for one's country, work, living standards, political, or other social issues. Based on the people's existing challenges or trends, a singer can compose a folk song that addresses those situations (Lau 2007 22-27). People who want to learn Chinese folk songs must go through various steps in the learning process.
This paper will discuss the steps a learner should go through to learn the Chinese folk songs, the different regional vocal folk songs, and an example of a folk singer who rose to fame while performing this genre of Chinese music.
The History of the Chinese Vocal Music
The Chinese vocal music represents the singing styles of all 56 ethnic groups in China, including the Tibetan, Uygur, Mongolian, Korean, and the Han peoples. Each of these people has their unique features which together form the larger Chinese vocal music. The Chinese vocal music is made of the folk long song by the Mongolians and the Beijing opera and kunqu opera by the Han people (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 3). The Book of Songs, which consists of 305 poems composed between the 11th and 6th century Before Christ and during the era of the Western Zhou Dynasty, divides the vocal music into Song, Ya, and Feng, based on their contents. The Feng collection consists of folk songs from regions whose main themes include love for one's homeland and nation, personal reminiscences, laments concerning oppression, ode to one’s hometown, family affections, and romantic love. Meanwhile, the Song and the Ya consists of songs done at court banquets, sacrificial ceremonies, and court meetings (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 3).
It is the Qin Dynasty's emperor that first established an office of compiling and collecting ballads and folk songs. This office, or Yuefu in Chinese, also guided folk singers on how to become professionals. During the 8th century A.D., a professional performing and singing institution known as Liyuan was established by the Tang Dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong. Later during the Christian era, Indian Buddhism and Buddhist music was introduced. The fusion between the Chinese tunes and Buddhist music led to Chinese Buddhist music, indicating an exchange of culture and music between countries. During the 14th century A.D, under the Yuan Dynasty, a combination of tunes from the south and north China led to kunqu opera, first emerging in Jiangsu Province in Kunshan. This opera continued to develop in the next six centuries and was regarded as the mother opera in China. Several unique folk operas emerged successfully after the 16th century. The folk opera’s unique local cultural characteristics enhanced the Chinese people's vocal music in terms of their works, techniques, and styles. The influences and blends between the operas added energy to the Chinese vocal songs. The Beijing opera entered the limelight between the 18th and the 19th centuries, receiving acknowledgment as China's crown jewel as vocal music. At the beginning of the 20th century, vocal music from the Western world reached China. The fusion between the two cultures and vocal music led to new singing styles, including China's national operas and the art songs (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 4).
What Are Folk Songs?
According to the definition in "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music compiled by Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne, "folk songs are sung without instrumental accompaniment and passed down orally by their anonymous authors. Folk songs are generally popular among rural residents, although urbanization and industrialization has resulted in their spreading to towns, cities and factories." Different regions in China have their own unique folk song styles. Because of the vast Chinese territory made of different topographies, climates, and terrains, the citizens have unique human characteristics and lifestyles. These differences led to other songs. For instance, there were songs from the plateau with melodic fluctuations, passionate and resounding, and songs from the plains which were smooth, refreshing, sweet, and delicate (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 32).
Different Regional Styles
Different styles of Chinese folk songs have been grouped into seven regional categories. These include the alpine snowfield songs, Xinjiang folk songs, the long songs, which belong to the northern prairie style, Sichian and Guizhou, Yunnan's mountain songs, which belong to the southwest plateau singing style, Hua'er and Xintianyou belonging to the northwest plateau style, the northern work songs with a bold and rugged style and the Jiangnan ditties belonging to the Yangtze River Delta style (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 32). In China, the Northern folk songs, sung mainly in the northeastern plains occupied by the Liaoning, Jilin, Jiang, Heilong, and Shandong, and Hebei, are mostly ditties with four-sentence structures. Additionally, the Northern folk songs from the northwestern plateau occupied by eastern Qinghai, western Inner Mongolia, Ningxxia, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi are regarded as mountain songs that are drawn-out and have immediate pitch rises (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 32). Moreover, there are also Southern folk songs made of elegant and sweet tunes from the south Yangtze River.
The southern folk songs originate from the Jiangzhe plains, which include Zhejiang, Shanghai, eastern Anhui, and southern Jiangsu. Some of the southern folk songs originated from Taiwan, Fujian, and Guangdong (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 80). There are also songs from the southwestern plateau found among the Han people of Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan. The southern plateau songs are known as mountain songs similar to those of the northwestern plateau but with a narrower range and fewer variations. The southern plateau is mostly considered to have emerged from ditties (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 94).
Categories of Traditional Chinese Folk Songs
There are three main categories of traditional Chinese folk songs. These groups are based on social situations where the songs originated or place of performance. The three groups include the little tune, the mountain song, and the work song (Lau 2007, 22-27). These songs mainly belong to the Han people who are the largest Chinese ethnic group found in about twenty-two provinces. In China, work songs helped in the coordination of different physical activities and unified the rhythmic performance of tasks among a group of working people. The songs raised people's spirits while working. On the other hand, mountain songs were created by the people living in mountain villages many years ago. The people expressed their agrarian style of living through a category of folk songs called mountain songs. Lastly, little tunes are lyrical songs that were associated with city and town dwellers, especially in old China. The lyrics highlight memories of games or love, customs, and political issues (Lau 2007, 22-27).
Steps in Learning a Traditional Chinese Folk Song
According to Jia and Zhenyu in Easy Steps to Chinese Music, learning Chinese folk song requires the novice to understand the phonetic symbols and tones linked to the different languages and ethnicities and how vocabularies and tones form sense groups which can express meaning clearly. Since China is made of about thirty written and eighty spoken languages, there are sometimes versions of a single song in different dialects sung by unique ethnic groups. A singer can apply different pronunciations or languages based on the particular song's cultural and regional characteristics. Therefore, a person should learn and understand the most applied systems like those of Pinyin and Wade-Giles. Afterward, a person must learn the finals and the initials of the Chinese syllables. One must understand the Chinese language's standard pronunciation, which comprises three elements, including tones, finals, and initials. Additionally, an individual should know how to differentiate between the English consonants and vowels and the initial Chinese syllables, which are made of consonants. Furthermore, the learner should understand that the Chinese syllable initials are made either of vowels and consonants or vowels alone. Surprisingly, some of the Chinese standard pronunciation syllables lack initials (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 11-15).
After that, a learner should know about tones represented by phonetic symbols of the standard Chinese pronunciation. This will allow a singer to grasp the first, second, third, and fourth basic tones of the standard pronunciation. As a result, an individual will learn how to pronounce the four tones, often pronounced more shortly and lightly. Lastly, a learner should master the sense groups and where to stress to know the expressed concepts portrayed by the pronounced words. In this step, a person will learn how vocabularies, tones, or Chinese pronunciations form sense groups that can express meaning with stresses. The first thing to know in this regard is how words form sense groups based on the needs of the tempo and meaning. Usually, neutral pauses appear between sense groups (combinations of ideas or concepts). The learner understands how sense group pauses are critical in enabling audiences to understand the meaning of a performance or an expression. Lastly, mastering the stresses allows a person to learn how stresses change meaning in language. The Chinese stresses are divided into logical stresses, grammatical stresses, and word stresses. These stresses support one another and play an important role in the Chinese expression. Understanding how the stresses change meaning in words may help a learner further in learning the language and the expressions in songs (Jia and Zhenyu 2017, 15-25).
Singers must understand the meanings of a song. To interpret the lyrics of a folk song, they must understand that songs are a reflection of society. For example, the singer must be able to associate the song with the place in which the song originated. Also, the singer should understand the social theme. For example, a region’s particular “traditional” songs may discuss labor production, love and marriage, customs of the people, social struggle, and suffering that occurs in life. A “Revolutionary Song,” on the other hand, will have topics discussing contemporary politics, and production and construction. A performance of a Chinese Folk Song should be multi-layered. This is accomplished by the performer bringing in his or her own personal meaning into the songs while interacting with the audience. The song interpretation can also be adapted to include new contexts in order to reach today’s audience. (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 94-98). Musical reformers in China in the Mao and post-Mao eras were determined to support and create “stage-worthy performance methods for vocal and instrumental music traditions (Gibbs 2020, 32). This included for singers to be trained in bel canto vocal production which is used in Europe opera to improve the vocal technique, including tonal focus, stronger breathing and volume, and steady and fluid notes.
How Chinese Folk Songs Are Performed Today
The folk songs' modernization started with studying and collecting the songs and their lyrics at the beginning of the twentieth century. These activities were carried out in the Geyaoxue Yundong or folk song studies of the Chinese folk songs leading to the modern academic folk song studies discipline (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 20). However, these studies were different from the old studies, which focused mostly on the songs' texts as a production of the poor or lower-class Chinese people done certain periods. The old studies indicate that folk songs performance was done as a type of expression people made against some vices in society, to entertain, or to express love. However, contemporary folk songs mainly focused on individuals performing on stage (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 20).
The modern folk song performance is done in specific contexts where the singer follows the process of audience-performer interaction. Additionally, there is meaning-making done by the audience during the performance by the folksinger. Lijun and Ziying point out that modern folksingers follow a narration process with parallel narrative layers which are combined when iconic songs are being performed. The performance integrates different degrees of identities and provides the audience with an opportunity to make sense of their place in a rapidly changing world. In modern folksong performance, artists endeavor to embody a collective experience of the different regions and the country through individual performance. This provides listeners or the audience what Lijun and Ziying refer to as a "sense of continuity" in a world with rapid social changes.
Chinese Folk Singers and Fame
The performance of Chinese folk songs and traditions has provided many artists with the opportunity to be the face of the nation's culture. As a result, they have been raised to iconic statuses and become famous among the Chinese people and globally. However, becoming a symbol of the nation through folk song does not happen immediately. It takes time, talent, and skill to reach the level of icons. Interestingly, in China folksingers were once rejected by singing competition judges for using non-conservatory-trained vocal styles, but were later praised for the same styles (Gibbs 2020, 44). Lijun and Ziying say that singers can even rise to a position where they represent an era in country history, much like the "Queen of Enka," who symbolizes Japan after World War II. Such recognition and representation can also go beyond one's country. In this aspect, a person can be seen as a representative of people across a wider global region. These authors opine that when an individual's recognition and representative role goes beyond one's life and nation, multiple symbolism layers may emerge and complicate the idea or the song's intended message, especially as being a marker of a specific people or place. This shows that iconic or famous singers can tie together numerous narrative threads or stories as they use the influence possessed by traditional folk songs (Gibbs 2020, 41-45).
An example of a famous Chinese folk singer is Wang Xiangrong. Before reaching national or international recognition, this individual first became northern Shaanxi Province's symbol. After rising to fame, he became a spokesperson in the region's local advertisements. Later, he became a representative of China's culture abroad and home. (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 100). This artist was born after the People's Republic of China was founded. He was born in a mountain village in a remote area known as Marugeda close to where the Yellow River and the Great Wall intersect. His love for singing started early in life, although he rose to fame only after winning some regional contests in the 1970s. Additionally, his folksong singing talent was validated when he won a national contest conducted in 1980 in Beijing. After working hard for many years, the Beijing contest acted as a tipping point in his life. After the reward, Wang Xiangrong was recruited into the regional dance-and-song troupe, which allowed him to participate in local, regional, as well as international tours. This artist later moved to Xi'an's provincial capital. It is in this city that he took several powerful positions in many associations. At some point in 2009, he was elected to the national-level representative ambassador for the northern Shaanxi's intangible cultural heritage, particularly for folk songs (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 103).
According to Lijun and Ziying, those who rise to positions of fame while performing folk songs are individuals who can bring together pieces from different regions and one which embodies the country and its history. Wang Xiangrong successfully performed folk songs that embodied the region and his nation's history. For instance, one of his famous songs “The Infinite Bends of the Yellow River” talks about the Yellow River, presenting to audiences “with a narrative of progress connecting the struggles of history to China’s recent rise” (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 106). In observing his performance Lijun and Ziying were able to realize why the life of iconic singers like Wang Xiangrong “resonate with audiences, how singers adapt performances as the move from smaller to larger places, and how singers’ lives and songs intersect with tensions resulting from social change” (Lijun and Ziying 2019, 101).
Video Performances and Written Analysis
As part of my research in performing traditional Chinse Folk Songs, I gathered a pianist and a guzheng player and recorded us performing a few songs. The video I produced includes examples of regional styles, a northern, southern, central folk song, as well as an ethic minority song. Besides the video performances, I have included my written observations about the songs as well as the historical, political, and cultural context behind them.
Gibbs, Levi S., ed. Faces of Tradition in Chinese Performing Arts. 2020. Indiana University Press: Bloomington.
Jia, Lei and Zheng Zhenyu. 2017. Easy Steps to Chinese Music: Folk Songs. Music Society of China: Beijing.
Lau, Wai-Tong. "Teaching Chinese folk songs with an authentic approach." Music Educators Journal 94.2 (2007): 22-27.
Lijun, Zhang and Ziying, You. 2019. Chinese Folklore Studies Today: Discourse and Practice. Indian University Press: Bloomington.