The “little pieces” of Yulin
In modern China we can find plenty of exceptions to the simple dichotomy between rural ritual and urban entertainment, but it’s a useful framework. I’ve written a series of posts on ritual activity around the Shaanbei countryside (starting with this, recently-updated), but here I enter the regional capital Yulin to outline a recreational form of vocal music with ensemble, now moribund.
In chapter 12 of my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei (where you can find further leads) I gave an overview of musical activity in Yulin—far short of the thorough treatment of Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 book The hidden musicians, for, um, Milton Keynes.
Once again, as the Maoist era recedes, it still makes an important yet little-explored bridge between earlier history and the reform era.
The regional capital of Yulin
The bustling county-towns, commercial hubs dotted around the barren landscape of Shaanbei, already represent a more modern environment than the chronically poor villages and little district townships remote from the main transport arteries. But entering Yulin, the capital city of the region, one feels frankly in a different world, even if traces of tradition remain.
Yulin, a likely starting point for forays into the countryside, lies towards the far north of Shaanxi province. From the west and north the desert is creeping up year by year. Access was difficult until very recently. The main road going south towards Yan’an, and eventually the provincial capital Xi’an still further south, has been improved since the 1990s; and even by 2000 it was a 20-plus-hour bus ride east to Beijing. A train runs from Shenmu, not far northeast of Yulin, east to Datong in Shanxi province; by 2002 direct train routes all the way from Beijing to Yulin, and from Yulin south to Xi’an, were promised. By 2005 there was a direct flight from Beijing, “Opening up the West” still further.
The city has something of the feel of the wild-west frontier. Main Street (Dagai) retains its old-world charm, though in the evenings bikers rev up at the crossroads. There are four funeral shops along Main Street alone. There are also several bookshops, none of any distinction, and many shops selling CDs and cassettes; even a Buddhist shop selling CDs and cassettes as well as statuettes, incense, scriptures, and so on. Second Street (Ergai) is a kind of Wangfujing or Oxford Street, with pop music blaring from the sound-systems of shops. Away from the centre, the urban sprawl contains both new tower-blocks and rows of single-storey dwellings in traditional cave format. Even the old city walls remain. Coal bricks are piled up in courtyards to protect against the winter cold.
By the 1990s traditional musical activity in the city seemed much impoverished. Yet weddings, funerals, and temple fairs are held here too, all requiring live music. Few of the Yulin city temples have been restored to their former opulence. Vocal liturgy is still performed in the temples, but shengguan instrumental ensemble, once a feature of Yulin funeral ritual, has not been heard since the monks were laicized in the 1950s.
The state-funded Yulin Region Arts-Work Troupe and several opera troupes perform Qinqiang opera, as usual mainly for temple fairs. Towards the secular end of the continuum, the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe performs conservatoire-style arrangements of local singing and dancing.
In 2001 genial cadre in the troupe had a few young erhu pupils, to whom he taught the standard modern national repertory. There was a School of Arts (Yixiao), teaching national styles of singing and dancing. Yangge dance parades were held by work-units, including schools. But with pop music now dominating the soundscape, karaoke, TV, and VCD-players were doubtless city dwellers’ main exposure to music.
Before Liberation, funerals in Yulin, as in Beijing and other northern cities, were often accompanied not only by shawm bands (chuishou; see here, and for Shaanbei also here), but by temple priests, both Buddhist and Daoist. Shawm bands continued activity in Yulin city under Maoism, but since the 1980s’ reforms their activities have expanded; by 2001 there were at least eight bands, all migrants from the countryside.
But their extrovert style seems to hide a lack of discipline. Young shawm-band boss Feng Xiaoping observed, “Yulin is without order (mei guiju). Yulin people can’t appreciate the shawm—they don’t react even when we play well, and if we play badly, no-one ridicules us.” Both here and in the countryside, in the new undiscriminating get-rich-quick climate, ceremonial ostentation is rampant, while the “old rules” go into further decline.
The Yulin “little pieces”
Throughout China, many rural genres with long traditions have managed to outlive Maoism, thanks largely to the continuing demand for ceremonial. In the Shaanbei countryside, folk opera troupes, itinerant blind bards, shawm bands, folk-singers, and spirit mediums managed to weather political campaigns before reviving more openly in the 1980s for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Even in Yulin city, there is demand for occupational chuishou.
The city also had a distinctive amateur vocal music with instrumental ensemble. Like many genres in world music, it barely had a name; like many genres in China, if people needed to call it anything, they might mention “little pieces” (xiaoquzi), “playing little pieces” (shua xiaoqu), or “playing silk strings” (shua sixian). The official title Yulin xiaoqu was casually given in 1958. 
As a relatively literate genre, its popularity was largely limited to the city—unlike small-scale vocal and instrumental groups like errentai or daoqing, widely performed throughout the countryside. We saw how the literate elite patronized the music of the lowly chuishou, employing them as a ritual duty. But the Yulin elite supported the “little pieces” as amateur recreation, and might even perform. The elite outside Yulin city, though thin on the ground, sometimes performed it too; in Yangjiagou village, landlord stronghold until the 1940s, young members of landlord families sometimes got together to play string and wind instruments. But in Yulin city by the 20th century, its main clientele was among ordinary citizens, and its main performers were male manual workers.
Imperial and Republican periods
As often with folk traditions, early evidence is inconclusive. By the 15th century regional governors were often posted from the distant Jiangnan–Zhejiang region of east China, and brief passages from the 1670s show musical activity at the Yulin court. Indeed, from the presence of many southern titles in various Shaanxi narrative-singing repertories, and indeed throughout China, one should not underestimate the wider influence of Jiangnan culture in imperial times. Among the themes of the Yulin songs (mainly love and city life), Jiangnan scenery also features; musically too, traces of Jiangnan style may be heard, although the dominance of the so mode appears to be a local modification. Another theory (also said to be supported by musical similarities) is that the style was based on the opera of distant Hunan, which may have been brought to Yulin in the Tongzhi reign-period (1862–74) by a company attached to a division of Zuo Zongtang’s Hunan army on campaign in the region.
The music is said to have been transmitted outside the regional court in the Daoguang era (1821–50) by Li Diankui and his son Li Fang. Oral tradition names musicians since the late 19th century. More pieces were composed in the early 20th century, and pieces arranged by the literatus Wang Jishi. Later Zhu Xiaoyi (1905–88) was a respected musician; a carpenter, he was also a luthier, making zheng zithers, yangqin dulcimers, sanxian plucked lutes, and erhu fiddles, which he sold as far afield as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.
Musicians were amateur, and male—mainly artisans (silverworkers, watchmakers, tanners, woodworkers, plasterers, cobblers), as well as doctors and dentists. Apart from getting together for fun, musicians were also invited to perform for life-cycle ceremonies. In 2001 I met musicians Luo Xinmin (b.1925) and Wang Qing (b.1954). Luo recalled:
In the 1940s we took part in weddings, longevity celebrations (for which the piece Rejoice in a Thousand Autumns [Xi qianqiu] was prescribed), and first-full-moon celebrations for babies. We played seated on the host’s kang brick-bed—the chuishou played in the courtyard outside. We played mainly in the evenings, the chuishou mainly in the daytime.
Some children of landlord families might play music similar to the little pieces, on pipa plucked lute or bowed fiddle (as in Yangjiagou), but in Yulin the landlords and merchants didn’t maintain a regular band for the little pieces, though they might have a few instruments for people to play; they just invited musicians when they held a ceremonial.
Sources barely discuss the fortunes of the music during the troubled 1930s and 1940s. It is said—compulsorily—to have suffered in the War against Japan and the civil war, but Luo recalled:
The War of Liberation didn’t affect us—people from the Red and White areas got along quite well, going back and forth.
A popular venue was run by one Wang Yunxiang at the Qingxing silver furnace, by the old Drum Tower.
Typically, the sources stress the Party’s avuncular concern for the Yulin little pieces. Along with state organization came research and control—as an urban genre it was quite susceptible to official supervision.
Still, folk activity continued alongside official initiatives until the Cultural Revolution. Memories of old musicians suggest that in this case the “new life” compulsorily claimed for all genres after Liberation was not so fanciful:
After Liberation there was even more activity than before. In the evenings, because there was no electricity, and no other entertainment, people liked to get together.
I chatted with the musicians about our mutual friend Qiao Jianzhong, a Yulin native who had become director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, and whose encouragement had led me to Shaanbei. The oldest of nine brothers and three sisters brought up in an old house in Main Street, his parents were typical of the city folk who enjoyed the little pieces.
Especially in summer evenings, a lot of people came to listen, they could understand the words—Qiao Jianzhong’s mother used to say “This is much better than a film!” Mostly they invited us by treating us to tea and cakes (chayebing).
In the 1950s we were active in the common hall (jiti tingtang) by the Bell Tower in the city centre. The silverworkers’ shop next door to the Qiao family’s house in Main Street was a venue—instruments were available to play there for anyone who came along. And there was an old Chinese doctor called Lin Maosen [1903–68] who loved to sing—he often invited people to his house to play in the [early] 1960s.
If such recreational activity remained common, the life-cycle celebrations at which they had also participated before Liberation were now drastically reduced.
As to the official side, in 1950 a study group was organized in the Yulin workers’ club, and musicians met three evenings a week, training over forty performers—now including women for the first time. The genre gained a wider profile as musicians took part in festivals and won awards at provincial and national level from 1953 to 1960.
Top: Beijing 1957 (left to right, Ran Jixian, Wu Chunlan, Hu Futang, Wang Ziying, Bai Baojin). Middle: preparing for Xi’an festival in 1953. Lower: Hu Yingjie and Wu Chunlan, 1979. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).
Top: female singers consult Hu Yingjie (date unclear). Middle: filming “Music of the Western Regions”, with Hu Yingjie. Lower: filming “Gazing at the Great Wall”. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).
The life of the music through this period, both official and amateur, depended on a group of admired senior musicians.  Zhang Yunting (1900–64), a leather worker, was a fine sanxian player as well as singer. From 1950 he was the main teacher for the study group in the Yulin workers’ club. He won awards at festivals in 1956, 1957, and 1960, and recorded for provincial radio. In 1962 fieldworkers from the Shaanxi volume of the folk-song Anthology visited him. Bai Baojin (1914–83) was a tileworker; a zheng player, he also played jinghu and erhu fiddles, as well as singing. He too took part in the festivals of the 1950s.
Hu Yingjie (b.1921 or 1923) was an admired singer. A manual worker, he later worked for the post office.
In the 1950s some young women were recruited to sing, but most gave up after they got married. Most celebrated was Wu Chunlan (b.1930), a senior-secondary graduate, who learnt with Zhang Yunting in the first group after Liberation. Taking part in official festivals from 1953, she went on to win an award in a 1957 national exhibition.
Two vocal styles have been identified, mainly distinguished by enunciation: the Back street (Houjie) style of Zhang Yunting and Wen Ziyi (1911–68), later only represented by Wu Chunlan, and the Front street (Qianjie) style of Lin Maosen and Hu Yingjie.
Through the Cultural Revolution both folk and official contexts were basically silenced. There were occasional sessions on the quiet; once in the early 1970s, a general from the Lanzhou military region came and insisted on hearing the “little pieces”, so the musicians were assembled at the Hall of Culture, the gate was locked, and they performed for him in secret.
Top row: Wang Jisan, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi, Bai Baojin.
Middle row: Lin Maosen, Zhang Yunting, Hu Futang, Ran Jixian.
Lower row: Zhu Xiaoyi, Li Xinghua, Hu Yingjie, Wu Chunlan.
Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).
Here as ever, expressive culture is about people’s lives through turbulent social change, about which musicking can offer us a revealing window; but the story needs supplementing. As collectivization was raging in the poor villages, how did artisans and manual workers in a regional city weather successive campaigns (on which the sources are scrupulously taciturn)? Of course, they weren’t vulnerable like “superstitious” ritual practitioners, but how were public and private spaces, and expressive culture, influenced by the changing economic fortunes of urban dwellers?  This issue is also relevant to 1950s’ Beijing.
Since the reforms
Official patronage resumed after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but if folk activity revived, it was short-lived; by the 1980s there was little folk counterweight to official modernization.
As early as 1976 a conference on the “little pieces” was organized by the Yulin Hall of Arts for the Masses and the Hall of Culture. In 1977 a team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing came to record. In 1979 a group took part in the folk arts festival for the Yulin region, they recorded for provincial radio, and in 1982 they performed in Beijing. The music was featured in TV documentaries such as “Music of the Western Regions” (Xibu zhi yue) for Shaanxi TV and the CCTV “Gazing at the Great Wall” (Wang changcheng); a Taiwanese TV station broadcasted a programme on the music. An arrangement of the piece Fang fengzheng 放风筝 became part of the touring repertory of the glossy Yulin Folk Arts Troupe.
In 1986, as work on the Anthology progressed, another “study group” was formed to document texts and study the history of the genre, resulting in a useful 1994 volume. A performing group was officially set up, organizing rehearsals twice a week and cultivating new performers—including ten female singers. Hu Yingjie, who had retired in 1980, was a leading member, and even sat on the Yulin city political committee.
Ironically, this period of revival, like that after Liberation, is hailed as another triumph for the Party’s avuncular concern for folk music. But however well-meaning these efforts, since the 1980s there has been virtually no folk activity, and the genre was now performed mainly for visiting dignitaries. Some senior instrumentalists remained, but they rarely got together as there were few singers in the old tradition—and younger people, now mesmerized by pop music, were reluctant to take part.
The polished arrangements of the fewer and shorter pieces played by the official group were increasingly remote from the traditional soundworld. Though the repertory had long been expanding, it was largely after Liberation that pieces were incorporated from other genres, even from outside Shaanbei. As the old vocal dadiao (see below) were rarely performed, and changes were made in instrumentation and technique, the genre was diluted. Luo and Wang found the troupe arrangements incongruous: “The Folk Arts Troupe plays it, but the flavour is all wrong.”
In 2000, students from the composition department of the distant Wuhan conservatoire came for a study-trip. By 2006, keen elderly amateurs in the research association for the little pieces told participants at the CHIME conference at Yulin that they still met informally. Though playing occasionally for life-cycle rituals and temple fairs, they now did so to scrape funds together for the group, and had to meet the tastes of audiences for other less “refined” vocal genres, further diluting the genre. They were gloomy for the future.
The kiss of death
As with other official attempts to “improve” traditional music in China, the change of context from regular amateur entertainment to sporadic cultural showcase on the concert platform naturally led to changes in style. Instruments, technique, and structure were all modified.
Through the 1950s, despite official involvement, instruments had stayed largely immune from modernization. The basic traditional instrumentation is yangqin dulcimer, zheng plucked zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and jinghu bowed fiddle; the singer beats time by striking a ceramic bowl with chopsticks. Until the 1970s all the melodic instruments were small local versions; apart from the yangqin, the strings were made of silk.
Left, lower rows: Zhang Yunting, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi; Hu Futang, Ran Jixian, Bai Baojin. Right: yangqin, pipa, yueqin, zheng; and Zhu Xiaoyi playing a zheng that he made . Source: Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji.
The yangqin dulcimer was a small instrument with fourteen metal strings, known as “ten-note instrument” (shiyin qin) after its main ten pitches. The pipa plucked lute had four xiang frets and thirteen pin frets. Musicians only used three fingers to stop the strings, sounded by false nails of eagle’s wing-bone. Wang Qing recalled a more simple playing style: his father Wang Ziying, a great pipa player, used few finger-rolls (lunzhi). The sanxian plucked lute was quite large, tuned to the pitches so, la, and mi, and played in only first position, the strings sounded one at a time. Again, Luo and Wang lamented that later the common sanxian used for northern drum-singing was adopted, and that younger conservatoire-trained players used a more virtuosic, “less rhythmical” style.
The zheng zither is often portrayed as a kind of folk equivalent of the qin, but like the pipa it too is quite rare in north (and even south) China. In the 1980s some provincial scholars became excited about reviving the Shaanxi (Qin) style of zheng (秦箏); a “Qin zheng” society was founded in the provincial capital Xi’an (see Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations, ch.4).
The Yulin zheng was perhaps the most convincing candidate. It was a small instrument with fourteen silk strings. A fifteenth string made of ox tendon, tuned very low, was only used as an effect for the piece Jiangjun ling to add to the percussive feel, but later as the piece fell from the repertory they didn’t put the string on any more. Luo and Wang recalled that they still used silk strings for the 1979 Shaanxi Radio recording, and in 1980 the zheng teacher Zhou Yanjia, on a visit from the Xi’an conservatory, encouraged them not to change; but in 1982 the decision was taken—by whom, one wonders?—to adopt a standard national conservatoire zheng with twenty-one metal strings.
False nails, again traditionally of eagle’s wing-bone, were used to pluck the zheng strings. Luo and Wang wistfully contrasted the traditional style with that of the recent official version:
Their playing techniques are different from ours. Our zheng uses no “flowery fingerings” (huazhi)—originally the right-hand glissandos (guluzi, guolengzi) were very innocent (danchun).
Luo Xinmin showed us his old zheng, made before Liberation. It has gongche solfeggio names for the strings on the bridge. The older generation sung gongche but didn’t write it down; Luo had learnt the modern system of cipher notation, but knew the gongche names, like the string tunings.
From the Republican period, erhu fiddle and yueqin plucked lute were often added to the ensemble. But since the 1970s, under official influence—again typically—further instruments were added like dizi flute and, to boost the bass, dihu cello and zhongruan plucked lute, as well as the zhonghu alto fiddle. Call me old-fashioned, but the modern plucked bass in Chinese music is unutterably naff. Also since the 1970s, the traditional instruments themselves were modernized; as well as the zheng, “national” standard versions of the yangqin, pipa, and sanxian were adopted; even the erhu rendered the traditional jinghu marginal.
As to structure, phrases are short and four-square, with instrumental guomen interludes. Before Liberation, in a session of three or four hours, the instrumental ensemble usually played a few pieces before the singing began.  Short vocal items in simple strophic form (xiaodiao, “little melodies”, known as yizidiao 一字調) followed, and then, after a break, longer vocal sequences (dadiao, “large melodies”). Dadiao may be either sequences of melodies, or the same melody varied in many verses—or both together. Some melodies may be sung to different texts. Most pieces are sung by one singer, but dadiao may include some duet singing and recitation.
The dadiao are most complex—and, according to elderly musicians, best to listen to. Local scholar Huo Xianggui recorded all the dadiao from 1980 to 1982. By the 1990s, Hu Yingjie was the only one who still knew the dadiao, and he was in his autumn years. The official programme of the Folk Arts Troupe was largely limited to the shorter xiaodiao—the only style the women were taught.
If recordings of the shawm bands are quite hard to track down, at least one still hears them performing for ceremonial. How I hope Huo Xianggui’s precious early recordings of the “little pieces” and other genres will be made available! Online the closest I can find to the traditional Yulin style is something like this.
So for all the riches of musical life in rural Shaanbei, it seemed to me that there was precious little left to study here. It was always instructive to consult ebullient Yulin cultural pundit Meng Haiping—I’ve already cited his comments on the general cultural decline (here, under “The reform era”). He felt the Folk Arts Troupe had basically preserved the regional style at first; but later, finding its “development” unsatisfactory, he rarely went along. As he observed,
If you try to force a cultural form to destruction, you can’t; but some people try to protect it and end up loving it to death.
I still don’t quite understand the dynamics of official involvement. In the 1980s several senior musicians remained, and officials like Huo Xianggui and Meng Haiping clearly had their hearts in the right place. Somewhere along the line, people fall prey to the insidious conformism of modernization and “improvement”. Recently, in Beijing at least, there have been several voices resisting this trend, but they came too late for the Yulin little pieces. The dwindling scene today seems dominated by staged heritage performances on demand, remote from tradition. The Intangible Cultural Heritage project constantly wrings its hands over the crisis of such genres, touting the Party’s embrace while both compounding the problem and refusing to engage with the complex factors involved in the decline.
* * *
In Yulin city after Liberation, the “little pieces” were maintained by amateur enthusiasts even as official efforts were made to publicize and “develop” the music. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, as folk activity failed to revive, official control distorted the traditional features of the music, and by the 1990s it was moribund. So whereas I often discredit “salvage“, and in my work on rural ritual genres I’m keen to document all periods right down to today, in a case like this nostalgia (albeit for Republican and Maoist societies rather than the Tang and Song!) may play a larger role.
Again I’d stress that the main stories in Shaanbei, as throughout China, are to be told in the innumerable poor villages. The ability of cadres to “control” the Yulin little pieces in the regional capital, and the decline of the folk base there, contrast with the independence of the genres in the surrounding countryside.
But again in Yulin we find the conundrum that I broached in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing. Whereas amateur activity in chamber genres along the southeastern coast (e.g. Shanghai, and south Fujian) has remained strong through the reform period, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, genres like the Yulin little pieces effectively died out.
I surmise that in Yulin since the 1980s, the base of senior amateurs was simply too small to resist the official pressures of modernization. Musicians can typically be found to participate in the official modernizing agenda, but here it’s hard to find anyone who believes it a success.
In both ritual and music studies, received images are misleading. In ritual studies, south China dominates the field, but it’s just as important in the north; in musicology, the apparent dichotomy between southern entertainment and northern ritual groups also needs refining.
Of course, the varied local conditions we find throughout China today are obscure heritages from imperial times, complex amalgams of factors such as ecology, economy, lineage customs, and historical migration, further complicated by local histories in Republican, Maoist, and reform eras (local politics and personalities, Japanese occupation, radical Communist leadership, local protectionism, and so on). It is hard as yet to explain these variations, and we need a far more detailed body of work.
 Note Yulin xiaoqu, special edition of Yulin wenshi ziliao vol. 13 (1994), and Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji [Collected Yulin little pieces] (Xi’an: Shaanxi lüyou chubanshe, 2005).
See also the Anthology: (under narrative-singing) Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1995), pp.607–15, 758–9, transcriptions 616–757; (under folk-song) Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1994), pp.421–2, 464–81; (under instrumental music) Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1992), pp.858–9, 878–83, 899–905.
The genre is not to be confused with the rural errentai music of nearby Fugu and Shenmu, also casually named Yulin xiaoqu since 1953, popularized by Ding Xicai: see Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, p.17 n.31.
 For brief biographies, see Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.311–18.
 A starting point might be the Yulin county gazetteer; perhaps studies like 高雨露，近现代榆林城市文化空间形态演变研究 (西安建筑科技大学) are relevant.
 For full scores, see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.899–905; Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.614, 639–44; Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.269–94. Some pieces may be played solo by zheng, yangqin, or pipa.
9 thoughts on “Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei”
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Bravo Steve–a great piece. I really enjoyed it. Sorry I can’t comment on each one. They’re all wonderful in their own way but this one resonated with me, perhaps because I spent a bit of time in Yulin in the 1990s.
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