China's 1,000 Year Old Court Music

by AFP/Verna Yu, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: China / Beijing

BEIJING, Aug 16, 2005 - Tears streamed down Kong Hongli's cheeks as she stood on stage along with dozens of other peasants from northern China, singing the melancholic tune of folk song "Liu Sheng Ya."

"The lyrics are so sad, that stirred something in me," the 34-year-old performer said backstage, still wiping the tears from her face.

A farmer from the remote countryside of Shaanxi province, Kong's musical career has not been easy.

Like many women in her village, she is torn between her traditional family responsibilities and her role as one of the guardians of the 1,000-year-old music heritage.

The Nanjixian West village, 60 kilometres (37 miles) west of Xian -- the capital of the opulent Tang Dynasty (618-907) -- is on the site of ancient imperial hunting grounds.

It is said that court musicians, who entertained the imperial family when it took residence there, left behind their music manuscripts with local peasants whom they trained as musicians, and the royal tunes were eventually absorbed into the local music style.

Although it is impossible to trace back how the imperial music would have sounded all those years ago, the unique-sounding choruses and ensembles of flute, drum and "sheng" -- a reed wind-instrument -- now performed by villagers offer the only clue to the mysterious sounds of the ancient melodies.

Today, villagers take great pride in a musical heritage that has survived years of tumultuous Chinese history, but are also worried that their beloved heritage will not be able to withstand the test of China's rapid and ruthless modernisation.

Already, very few villagers can read the traditional music notation "Gongchipu" and there are only three music societies left in the area, compared with some 200 in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and about 40 in the 1950s.

As China's economy booms and farmlands are increasingly requisitioned for property development, tens of thousands of able-bodied men have been leaving the countryside to make a living in more prosperous cities.

This spells trouble not only for the livelihood of farmers but also for their unique musical tradition, which has been passed down only through the patrilineal line for generations.

Facing this bleak prospect, the Nanjixian West village Music Society made a radical decision in 2000 to break with the generations-old tradition and start to train women.

"It was the first time the music has been taught to women," Tian Zhonghe, a senior member of the music society said. "But now, women play a pivotal role in its survival."

Five years on, women make up roughly half of the 35-strong village orchestra but problems remain for the preservation of the heritage.

In rural China, where women still play a more traditional role at home, they are expected to put the family above personal interests and as a result, most women musicians face a difficult dilemma.

Even though Kong feels a responsibility to carry on the village's valuable heritage, she said it is extremely hard for her to devote time to her art while taking care of her son, sick husband and her elderly parents-in-law.

"There is a lot of pressure on me as I'm the one who must shoulder all the family responsibilities," Kong said.

Lu Xiaoli, a fellow musician, said her parents-in-law, who in Chinese families hold a revered authority position, were so averse to her nightly rehearsals they once bolted the door for eight days so she couldn't go home.

"They even threatened me with divorce. Even if that's the case, nobody can stop me," said the woman with a determination and self-confidence not commonly seen among rural woman.

"Through music, I've found self-respect and dignity," she said.

But not every woman is as brave as her.

Around a dozen who joined the orchestra in 2000 have already dropped out. Even Kong, one of the most talented players in the orchestra, has moments of doubt.

"I can't leave behind my music," she said, letting out a faint sigh. "But I really don't know how much longer I can carry on."

Zhang Zhao, a village school principal and a keen promoter of the Jixian ancient music, is deeply anxious about its future.

"During the Cultural Revolution, manuscripts and instruments might have been lost but the music survived in the artists' heads and they still had the ability to play," Zhang said.

During the militant Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), numerous music scores were ordered to be destroyed, but many defiant villagers secretly plastered them into walls and hid instruments under floorboards to preserve them.

"But the problem now is, if no one is able to play any more and there is noone to inherit the music, then there is no chance of its survival at all."

Showing off Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty instruments in the village collection, Zhang lamented that few people in modern China are willing to maintain the tradition.

"If these instruments are no longer played, they lose their value," he said.

His village school is the only one in the area that teaches the music in the classroom, but many parents disapprove, considering the class a distraction from the core curriculum.

"Music is a live thing -- it isn't like murals or paintings, which can just survive on their own. You need people to play them and to pass them on," Zhang said.

"It has survived wars, political movements, if it doesn't survive the test of modern times, then we'll be letting our ancestors down."

Tian, who championed the recruitment of women into his orchestra against much opposition, said performing the music is not only an obligation but a source of immense pleasure.

"We are not part of China's economic upsurge, we're not getting rich like everyone else, but we are spiritually fulfilled," said the farmer.

"We are proud heirs to the Tang dynasty tradition. Just how many people in this country can hum the tunes of our ancestors?"

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