New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

April 17, 2019
Editor: Wei Xuanyi
New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

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. [For China Daily]


Allure of ancient music form reverberates again as it strikes a chord with young people. 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."

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.

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.

New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

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. [For China Daily]

New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

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

New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

Students of the Liubin Primary School in a rehearsal in Jinjiang city, Fujian Province.[For China Daily]

New Generations Tune in to Nanyin

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


(Source: China Daily)

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