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New generations tune in to Nanyin

Time:2019-04-17   Source:China Daily


Chen Enhui (front), deputy director of the Nanyin department at Quanzhou Normal University, her colleagues and students stage Feng Qiu Huang (Phoenix Courting His Mate), a hit play since its debut in 2015. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Allure of ancient music form reverberates again as it strikes a chord with young people, Xing Wen reports.

It's the sound of music but also a chance to listen to the melodic echoes of culture, lovingly passed down through the generations. Dubbed "a living fossil of Chinese musical history", Nanyin was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009. Ten years on, its ancient sound is still winning over enthusiasts.

When Zhang Yongjie, a college student from Ningde city, Fujian province, visited Quanzhou, another city in Fujian, in 2016, she was enchanted by a scene at an elegantly-decorated teahouse. Situated deep in an alley was a five-member band playing Nanyin music, with clappers, a flute and stringed instruments including the pipa (Chinese lute) on stage. The audience relaxed on wooden chairs, sipping their drinks and were mesmerized by the songs of the Minnan dialect of southern Fujian.

"In the exquisitely-decorated place I felt relaxed with melodic tunes lingering in my ears. And I saw the audience simply indulged in pleasure," says Zhang, 27. "I was surprised to see the traditional music form could be so integrated into local people's daily life."


Wang Jinxin (first from left), a pipa player of the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe, collaborates in a concert with the China National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing in 2018. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Wandering the streets and lanes of Quanzhou, a historical port city and a starting point of the ancient Silk Road, one will often hear enchanting snatches of the slow, soft and pleasant melodies emanating from a newsstand on a street corner, a grocery store in a brisk marketplace or a residential house with its door tantalizingly ajar.

That's the sound and ethos of Nanyin, an ancient music genre of Minnan, or southern Fujian province, which can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). One of the country's oldest music styles, Nanyin (literally meaning "music of the south") came into being and thrived as the culture of central China spread to Quanzhou and integrated with local arts. Although its melody was often associated with the lofty dignity of royal court music, it gradually melted into local folk life, and was passed down from generation to generation. Nanyin became "the sounds of hometown and motherland" in the minds of many overseas Chinese who left Quanzhou.

Its aficionados would collect Nanyin cassettes and albums, organize regional associations of Nanyin enthusiasts, hold salons and set up musical theaters. In Quanzhou alone, there are about 500 music associations dedicated to Nanyin's soothing sounds, and more than a dozen festivals and competitions are held annually both at home and abroad.

Zhang, who majored in music engineering in college, was enchanted by the tunes she heard and felt a stirring curiosity about the unfamiliar genre. She found a tutor and learned how to play the pipa. She then enrolled as a postgraduate student on Nanyin music at Quanzhou Normal University in 2017, the only university in China that offers such a course.


Yang Yajing (first from right) performs with her students at an event in Shanghai.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Charms at the start

Cai Qingya got to know about Nanyin's musical allure when she was just 9 years old.

From Xiangzhi town in Quanzhou, Cai, led by her music-loving grandfather, often went to an activity center where an amateur Nanyin performer gave free music lessons.

"About 30 kids sat in the class, learning to sing the tunes and play the instruments. My grandpa asked me to join in, and I did so," recalls Cai, now 22, who majored in the genre at QNU.

Cai entered contests and other activities.

"My parents would prepare beautiful costumes for me and my tutor would help me to rehearse over and over again. I cherished each opportunity to take the stage and perform," says Cai, who later studied at Peiyuan High School and performed with the school's ensemble at events in China and overseas, including a festival in Indonesia.

Yang Xueli, head of the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe, a leading municipal troupe specialized in Nanyin music, says it's best to learn the art when young.

"Most of our troupe's newcomers have learned the music from childhood," says Yang, 45. "It's better to sow a seed of Nanyin in the children's hearts."

According to Yang, a number of primary and middle schools such as Quanzhou's Peiyuan High School and Xiamen's Guoqi High school offer Nanyin classes.

Yang, an award-winning performer, says the municipal troupe also often sends its veteran performers to tutor students in training courses at local schools and conduct workshops and summer camps for young enthusiasts.


Students of the Liubin Primary School in a rehearsal in Jinjiang city, Fujian province.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Modern remedy

On a title page of a 300-year-old music score of Nanyin, according to experts, is a line written in Chinese-xiaochou gaimen-which means "freeing people from worries". It reveals how Nanyin meets people's emotional demands.

Wang Jinxin, 25, echoes with the idea of the worry-freeing functions of Nanyin, who learned the art since primary school and is now a promising pipa player in the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe.

"The music reflects a philosophy of life," Wang says. "And playing it is like encouraging people in a fast-paced work environment to slow down and enjoy a moment of tranquillity."

A Nanyin band is basically composed of five people, with the singer holding the clappers, surrounded by four players on the pipa, dongxiao (flute) and the stringed instruments erxian and sanxian. Among the instruments, the pipa, dongxiao and clappers retain their traditional shapes and techniques since the fourth century.

Wang, who joined the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe in 2015, says he chose to work in the troupe because he saw the innovative efforts made by the group members to spread knowledge of their beloved music.

Wang himself has cooperated with folk music bands, symphony orchestras and improvisational dancers, further exploring the possibilities to vitalize the ancient music.

"The troupe has combined the old art with other forms, such as folk dance and theatrical play, and often lights up the stage with creative designs, including choreography and audiovisual effects to charm young audiences," he says.


Yang Xueli, head of the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe, teaches a local girl to sing in the Nanyin style.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Cultivation base

QNU pioneered setting up a Nanyin department in its school of music and dance in 2003. It then launched a master's program on Nanyin in 2012, and was named as the only Nanyin-themed Chinese traditional culture heritage base by the Ministry of Education on Nov 28.

Zhang Yongjie, now a postgraduate on Nanyin at the university, says the courses give her a broader picture of what the music genre is and how it has evolved over the centuries. About 3,000 songs of Nanyin are passed down, as experts say.

"Now it's easier for me to understand the meaning of each song as I know its background," says Zhang. "And the teachers taught us how to convert the unique ancient music notation into modern scores, enabling us to practice and memorize the songs efficiently."

Besides academic studies, teachers and students perform on stage. Among their repertoire is a popular play titled Feng Qiu Huang (Phoenix Courting His Mate), a classic love story of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220). The play has become a hit since its debut in 2015.

"We hope that through these practices the traditional music will gain increasing popularity among young people," says Yang Yajing, 28, from the musical cast, a doctoral student at Xiamen University who got her master's from QNU in 2017.

Baton takers

"My grandfather, a Nanyin enthusiast, usually hung the instruments on the wall. He hoped the younger generation could carry forward the cultural treasure," Yang recalls. "Now it's time for me to try my best to live up to his expectations."

Hong Xiaoxia has been a music teacher for 10 years since graduating from QNU, and influenced many youngsters with her passion. She ran an extracurricular Nanyin class for students shortly after she became a music teacher at a primary school in Jinjiang, Quanzhou, and soon acquired a good reputation as her students won awards in Nanyin competitions.

"My experience in learning and teaching Nanyin has brought me a wider career platform. I hope my pupils could also contribute to passing down the music and at the same time benefit from it," says she, adding that six of her former students have followed in her steps and enrolled in the Nanyin department of QNU.

"Many of our graduates teach music in primary schools," says Chen Enhui, 35, deputy director of the Nanyin department at QNU, who was among the first batch of the university's 20 Nanyin-major graduates.

According to Chen, there are 14 postgraduates and over 200 undergraduates from QNU who now work in various fields related to Nanyin preservation and inheritance.

Contact the writer at xingwen@chinadaily.com.cn