This article by Vivian Fung is a more detailed look at my interest in the minority cultures of the Yunnan province of China, previously featured in the New York Times article entitled “Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music” (March 30, 2016).
My interest in the culture of Yunnan stems from a desire to understand and rediscover parts of myself. Yunnan, which borders Tibet to the north, and Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to the south, is home to the highest concentration of minority cultures in China, with more than 25 diverse ethnic groups culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority. I was originally drawn to Yunnan by its music, in the course of writing a piece Fulcrum Point New Music Project in Chicago in 2011 (directed by Stephen Burns), a work that became “Yunnan Folk Songs” for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and large ensemble. The variation in the music among the different ethnic groups, particularly in tone, ornamentation, and timbre characteristics, make for culturally rich and captivating material. But apart from the music, I also wanted to find out what the concept of “minority” meant in the most populous country in the world. The word “minority” is a term I relate to; having written an article several years ago entitled “Embracing My Banana-ness: One Composer’s Journey Towards Finding Her Identity”, questions of my identity often surface in the course of my work as a composer. I am racially Chinese, but was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, and now live in the United States. Accordingly, I have always been an outsider of sorts, not fitting exactly into any particular ethnicity.
In preparation for my Fulcrum Point project, I listened to various recordings of music from Yunnan. One compilation particularly struck me: a series recorded and assembled by Professor Zhang Xingrong of the Yunnan Art Institute, in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming. Professor Zhang traveled throughout Yunnan with his wife in the 1980s, making field recordings and transcribing songs of many of the ethnic groups in their original dialects. Yunnan Folk Songs is based on my interpretations of seven of those recordings, drawn from the Yi, Hani, Lisu, and Jingpo nationalities.
To see and hear first hand the music that I found so appealing, I arranged to stay in Yunnan for five weeks in the spring of 2012. I contacted Professor Zhang, and he agreed to become my guide and mentor. I stayed on the campus of the Yunnan Art Institute for a part of my time in Yunnan, analyzing and discussing the more theoretical aspects of the region’s music, such as the subtle differences in ornamentation between the subgroups of the Yi tribe, distinguishing the music of the different minorities, and getting acquainted with the many different types of indigenous instruments.
The more involved part of my stay came during various road trips that my husband and I made with Professor Zhang to visit the villages of several of the minority groups and to record their singing, playing, and dancing. We sometimes stayed in hotels, but more often spent the nights in the homes of the musicians we were visiting.
We made three different trips, each several hours from Kunming over unpaved, winding roads into the mountainous regions of the Honghe prefecture, south of Kunming. I was quite surprised by how significantly the music—and even the food—varied from village to village, even though the people were considered to be from the same Yi minority group. Apparently, because many of the Yi live in mountainous regions where travel is difficult, cross-fertilization between communities is rare. The segregation puts into question the number of distinct minority groups actually present in Yunnan. Although the official government count totals 26, controversy on both the number of groups (some say the number should be higher) and the way the groups are defined prevails. There are many examples of small groups being lumped together with larger groups with which they have little in common linguistically or culturally.
One of the most striking aspects of the music is the heterophonic singing and playing that exists in some of the cultures, particularly the Hani. For the Hani people, terraced rice farming has become a way of life, and the scenery was breathtaking in the mountain villages we visited. Traditionally, while planting seeds or harvesting crops, the farmers would sing folksongs to pass the time. As a result of the layouts of the terraced rice fields, the singers would not sing in unison, but sing contrapuntally, as they were a distance away from each other and would feel free to react to each other. I heard this quite prominently in the field recordings that Professor Zhang recorded in the 1980s, featuring as much as eight-part counterpoint, so I was quite eager to experience this firsthand during my trip. We did have the pleasure of recording a group of musicians and dancers who traveled many miles by foot to come greet us. However, the counterpoint was not as pronounced, and the distinct lines not as focused, as in Professor’s earlier recordings. It was wonderful nonetheless to hear in person the melodies weaving in and out. For example, the Hani Rice Planting Song.
Over the course of our journey, it became clear to me that things have changed in the years since Professor Zhang made the recordings I had admired so much before our visit: modern living has crept into even the most remote parts of the province, and traditional customs, such as folk singing and dancing, are slowly changing and fading away. Children of minority villages are often housed at government-sponsored boarding schools miles away, where only Mandarin Chinese is spoken, and the original languages and dialects of minorities are being threatened. Many of the minority languages only are passed down orally, without any phonetic written form, so time away from the family means that the younger generations will not be as conversant in their mother tongues. Folksongs, also passed down orally and once an important part of daily village life, are becoming more precious in the cultural landscape, as TV and radio have wider influence, and more and more villagers move into bigger cities to find work and a steady living.
We visited a woman who Professor Zhang knew from the time she was a teenager living in a small village. When he first met her, she was quite a gifted singer and known for her ability to carry a tune. Zhang and I decided to pay her a visit at the end of our trip from the mountains. Now a wife and mother, she lives in a thriving city known for its marble quarries, in a modern two-story house with the amenities that most villagers aspire to – electricity, kitchen appliances, television, and motorbikes. When we asked her which way of life she preferred though, she responded that she dearly missed her life in the communal countryside, where the extended family was always available for support and the traditional way of life was the norm, even if some of the modern amenities were lacking. I got the sense that she felt isolated and lonely in the big city, and missed the close-knit relationships formed from doing daily chores together. When Professor Zhang asked her if she might still be able to sing some of her childhood folk songs, she remembered a few of them, but struggled to remember many others, and I could see her holding back tears, as she had not thought about her home for quite a while. On the surface, the modern way of life is appealing, certainly more comfortable, but this visit gave me a chance to reflect deeply about the tradeoffs made in pursuit of a “better” life.
Most of the minority groups still live off the land as farmers and sell their modest crops at the market. For all the glitz and glamour that has become the big cities in Eastern China, Beijing and Shanghai being of course at the top of the list for the extravagant and indulgent lifestyles of the new middle class, we saw none of that in Yunnan, especially the further we traveled from Kunming. People are poor, though for the most part, the lands of Yunnan are fertile enough to live off of. Nonetheless, the year we went the land was experiencing severe drought, and farmers were struggling to survive with meager harvests. The Chinese government prides itself in allowing autonomous regions to exist and minority groups to live independently, but the minority groups seem, for the most part, distinctly less well off than the Han Chinese majority. We visited a state-sponsored village that seemed to thrive, but during that visit, an official guide from the local cultural affairs office was our escort, and the village seemed to have an air of a tourist attraction rather than a real, lived-in village.
We were fortunate to have the help of Professor Zhang, who knew many of the musicians personally and thus was able to give us more of an intimate and private view of village life. Although we still had to register with the local government cultural ministers in each village that we visited, without someone so well acquainted with the local communities we likely would have been taken only to “reserves,” where state-sponsored housing and collectives are built for the minority communities. Reserves in favor with the government get more tourism and funding than other, less favored ones, though the latter are more likely to preserve their traditional cultures.
I have many extraordinary memories from this trip, and hope to filter them into upcoming works, including ideas for an opera. I went to Yunnan for the pure love of the music, but came away from the experience with a more comprehensive view about the complexities that arise when traditional ways of life clash with modern development, as is the situation in much of rural China now.
For more video and photo footage of the trip, you can visit the Research section of my website.
– by Vivian Fung
This edition contains warm greetings and a summary of recent ACWC activity from our returning chair, Carol Ann Weaver, an inspiring article by Janet Danielson, and Vivian Fung’s fascinating research into minority cultures in Yunnan Province. Julia Davids, conductor of the Canadian Chamber Choir, wrote a special guest article for us, Gayle Young contributed a piece about Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening, Bekah Simms wrote our first-ever article on composing for wind ensemble, and Carol Weaver wrote a fascinating piece about her travels to Africa and Earth Peace, a composition that grew out of those travels. ~ Tawnie Olson
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