In the CCP’s latest claim to end poverty, the title of the enigmatically-named One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) policy may sound to some more like a critique of Maoism—perhaps a succinct postcard home from Shaanbei written by an Educated Youth sent down in the Cultural Revolution:
One belt [per family], one road [in the whole county].
And it wasn’t a Gucci belt, either.
Stories are common of families who only had one pair of trousers between them, to be worn by whoever had to go out. Like the traveller’s tale of fieldworkers finding villagers who hadn’t even heard of Chairman Mao, this sounds far-fetched. There’s a celebrated critique of such inflated poverty stories in At last the 1948 show (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”):
But in this case there’s plenty of evidence. Among many such accounts, the story of Wang Xiangrong (b.1952), “king of Shaanbei folk-song”, is interesting. He fought his way up from grinding poverty to become a major folk-song star, and his story has become part of the romantic official myth of Shaanbei (note also Levi Gibbs, Song king: connecting people, places, and past in contemporary China, 2018). For 1953 fieldwork documenting the folk-song repertoire just east in Hequ, see here.
You can see that in this documentary, but it’s still a good ethnography of his changing life, with some precious old footage, and relatively free of the usual hagiographic style of such programmes:
Of course, such superstars are merely the glossy tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed hanging out with Wang Xiangrong in Yulin in 2001, finding him engaging and unpretentious. I did a little sketch of him in my Shaanbei book (pp.210–12)  —a rare excursion for me into the world of both folk singing and mediated urban performance (for the former, do read the works of the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck):
Wang Xiangrong was brought up in a poor desert village with a population of only a few dozen, 45 kilometres from Fugu county-town to the northeast of Yulin. He recalls, I fear not fancifully, that he had no clothes of his own till going to school at the age of 8. The youngest of four surviving children out of nine, he was 13 when his father died. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to graduate from senior secondary. From 1971 he worked as a schoolteacher; in 1975 he toured Inner Mongolia with a band performing errentai. In 1977 he took part in the county band, in 1979 he was spotted by Yulin cultural cadres at a training session in Fugu county, winning a prize in a festival in 1980 and joining the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe by 1983. He has recorded for many films and TV programmes, and since 1988 has made several foreign tours, including a highly successful tour of Japan in 1999.
The kind of singing paraded by the troupe is mostly heavily mediated with kitsch orchestral accompaniment. Wang Xiangrong is perfectly aware that it is a manufactured style, attuned to the rosy official Communist image of Shaanbei. In between the extremes of that style and folk-singers performing in village life, even the few unaccompanied recordings of Wang and others show a certain refinement of rural style, such as a studied vibrato and the dramatic holding of high notes.
Wang makes something of a play of his “shaman songs” (shenguan diao), learnt when he was young from two shaman uncles; he is familiar with the “precious sword” (baojian) and the sheepskin drum struck with a stick. Similarly, he learnt rain songs by participation in rain ceremonies in his youth, for which a group of six villages regularly formed a “parish” (she) from 1957 to 1962, and even—still more secretively—through the Cultural Revolution.
I get to meet the jovial Wang Xiangrong, and with the help of a friendly cadre in the troupe who is a neighbour of the Qiao family, I am surreptitiously invited to the troupe’s evening concert, to be held in the great hall of the fancy hotel that I can’t afford to stay in.
It’s a private invitation concert for a high-ranking deputy of Li Peng, and I am not officially invited, but my new friends smuggle me in backstage to watch from the wings. If I attend formally in the audience, the bigwig will have to meet me, which would cause complications; he is happy to pretend I’m not there, and I’m happy not to get involved in courtesies. So, after all this time openly attending village rituals that some cadres might consider sensitively backward or superstitious, now that I finally find a concert showcasing the official image, I am forced to attend it in secret!
From the wings I watch the troupe go through their programme, announced suavely by a glamorous female MC in qipao costume speaking standard Mandarin, which I haven’t heard for ages, even from local cadres. Wang Xiangrong isn’t singing this evening, but there are two solo singers, accompanied by a full orchestra in the pit. Introduced by the MC, a plump female singer does two sets, changing from a red ballgown with a magnificent ruff to a pink ballgown—hardly outfits that reflect the dress of the Shaanbei countryside. With the aid of a mike, she milks the songs, using all the studied hand gestures of conservatory style, backed by the orchestra in national silk-and-bamboo style, with dizi flute solos and pipa lute tremolos to the fore. A male singer in elegant white silk costume also performs a set, his songs introduced by a mellifluous dizi solo. The singers’ facial expressions range from the smile of contentment to the longing gaze afar.
Illuminated by fancy lighting, male and female dancers wear a variety of glitzy costumes, wielding props such as fans, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs, stock props of national dance. For one dance the girls perform acrobatics while holding aloft lotus lanterns, kitted out in green trousers, skimpy tops with fishnet midriffs, and little red floral headpieces. From my forays to the villages I have always been mystified why Mizhi county is nationally famed for its beautiful women. Now I realize they have evidently all been poached for the Folk Arts Troupe; I am reminded of the palace girls of imperial times, slave-girls at the mercy of predatory officials.
Having failed to witness shamans practising in the countryside, it is ironic to see the troupe performing a so-called “shaman dance” for the Party bigwig, the male dancers wielding cute papier-maché tridents, accompanied by the orchestra in pompous martial vein. In another dance the men wield cymbals, lighting effects adding to the drama.
Anyway, you get the idea: such staged performances are a world away from those I had been witnessing in the countryside. I won’t go into detail, as you can see this kind of thing daily on Chinese TV; but the links with local culture are tenuous.
Whereas rural music-making depends on family and community solidarity in ceremonial traditions stretching back to imperial times, I can detect no social base for the stage performances of the official troupe, and its kitsch versions of Shaanbei culture are utterly diluted; it is contextually, historically, and musically light. I can’t see whom this kind of thing satisfies; but of course one could say, as I would for the music of the chuishou shawm bands, that this too is ritual, not “merely” music; the official culture sanctioned by the state serves a need for “civilization”, for modern “national” values on a token base of traditional local culture, on behalf of a segment of the population. And I realize there is fieldwork potential here too: these performers have lives too, doubtless a lot less glamorous than their stage personas. But if this style is part of the overall picture, it’s a very small one; no-one in the countryside seems to be emulating it.
A few days later Wang Xiangrong takes me for a song-session in a fancy Mongolian yurt restaurant in town. His best buddy Li Yu, the charming and portly boss of the Puhui liquor factory, arrives late, having already got a considerable head start in the evening’s drinking activities. Brought up in Yulin, Li recalls his time doing army service in the Cultural Revolution mainly for picking up a repertory of dirty songs, which were then all the rage—a lot of that generation will give you a similar alternative view of the period. Now doing a roaring trade with his liquor business, Li is a model capitalist, with rather good taste in music. In 2000 he organized a contest for drinking songs (jiuqu dasai) at his liquor factory, which was apparently a great success.
Li and Wang, veteran drinking artists, are the stars of the banter over supper; other guests (including a nice academic from Yan’an, two young and distinctly nervous women, and me) are in their thrall. Wang holds court with his songs while Li Yu keeps his glass topped up with fiery baijiu liquor. The colorfully-costumed waitress is expected to sing for guests, and doesn’t expect to be forced to drink, but with Wang Xiangrong she has bitten off more than she can chew: she is expertly, ritually, cajoled into joining in a toast after repeated verses. Wang is enjoying singing, but the fun is as much in the ritual badinage.
Wang is a real character, but I’m not in my element. One of those pathetic English men who has never sung a song on his own in his life, in 1999 I had managed, virtually at gunpoint, to sing Do, a deer and Rule Britannia at a banquet in a Shaanbei temple, which still haunts me—the sacrifices we make for our art! I got away without singing that evening in the restaurant—thankfully, Wang Xiangrong had my number. Indeed, apart from rural contexts for singing, such restaurant settings may be becoming a common context for singing among the urban petty-bourgeoisie.
Wang’s accounts of his poor childhood might seem suitable material for work-teams encouraging people to “speak bitterness” about the “old society” before Liberation—only they refer to the period long after the arrival of the Communists, as many work-teams discovered to their consternation. For Shanxi peasants’ discontent at their inability to clothe or feed themselves under the commune system, see here.
Talking of “liquor songs”, here’s a related passage from my Shaanbei book (pp.13–14):
Though the Communist myth of Shaanbei has ingeniously, or ingenuously, portrayed it as an archetypical paradise of industrious peasants, a rose-tinted homeland for both traditional and revolutionary folk-song, it is no simple task today to get a handle on the life of singing in society there. In view of the continuing vitality of social folk-song culture in Gansu and Qinghai provinces to the west, the lack of local folk-song festivals in Shaanbei (either now or before Communism) is curious. And if the romantic depiction in the film Yellow Earth of a shepherd declaiming a song from a mountainside was once true to life, it appears to be rare now. Also largely absent from social life today are “revolutionary songs”; even during the commune period, renditions were largely limited to (albeit frequent) political meetings. Change is hard to assess—if only one could eavesdrop on daily life in 1934, 1964, and 1994, for instance—but recollections of senior villagers suggest that singing is heard less often today than earlier in the twentieth century.
Since the 1990s, record shops, both locally and throughout China, have sold highly mediated CDs of “Shaanbei folk-songs”, including some revolutionary songs. Shaanbei folk-song now has a rich virtual life in many Chinese websites. Indeed, peasants seem to be aware of the label “Shaanbei folk-songs” when talking to outsiders, even if their own terms for the songs they sing in daily contexts are more nuanced. The gulf between such mediated, commodified versions, with their polished singing style and smoochy or disco accompaniment, and singing in social life, sung in a rougher voice and usually without accompaniment, is easily heard.
“Famous singers” highlighted by Chinese scholars often come from strong family and village traditions, but tend to tailor their style to the demands of the state troupes to which they graduated. However close such singers remained to the folk style, or however far they departed from it, their stage performances accompanied by new-style “folk ensembles” have remained the tip of the iceberg. All music is worthy of study, but it is a less mediated style that dominates singing in daily life in the poor countryside of Shaanbei.
Thus under the broad umbrella of “folk-song” are singers performing for drinking parties, the consecration of a new cave-dwelling, calendrical and life-cycle ceremonies, rain processions, and shamanistic exorcisms. Beggars doing the rounds of weddings and funerals now appear to be among the most common exponents of song (also featured on the DVD with my Shaanbei book).
Otherwise the nearest I got to hearing singing in context was when I visited a villager at his cave-dwelling during a lunchtime drinking session with a group of his male friends (DVD, C2). The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed. Even if I could stomach the liquor, I realized how hard it would be for me to participate meaningfully in their world. Where opportunities to hear impromptu singing are few, asking singers to perform their repertory is sometimes a necessary expedient. I have attempted to get a few song sessions going, but have never overcome the artificiality of the occasion.
So much for “One Belt”—as to “One Road”, even in the 1990s when we went in search of village ritual groups, whenever someone gave us a lead to a village worth visiting our first question was always “Is the road OK?” (lu haozou ma 路好走吗？). We lost count of the times our jeep got stuck in mud or found the track impassable. This became known as “travelling the socialist road”. Indeed, it can still happen today, although the transport network has improved significantly since around 2000.
For Chinese fieldworkers’ mixed feelings about rural China, see here.
 Whose footnotes give further leads—though Shaanbei bibliography, discography, and filmography all need constant updating.