In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.
At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)
Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.
Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 611 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.
This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:
And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social and ritual context:
One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristoffer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.
Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!
For a broader introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.