Hequ 1953: collecting folk-song


The fieldwork team sets off into the Hequ countryside, 1953.

After the Russian revolution, the work of ethnographers in the Soviet Union and their satellites was severely hampered right until the 1990s (see also here). So turning to China, I remain deeply impressed by the energy of fieldworkers documenting folk culture in the first fifteen years after the 1949 “Liberation”, for all its limitations.

In autumn 1953, in one of the first major field projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu and Li Yuanqing dispatched a team to spend three months collecting folk-song in rural Hequ (“river bend”) county in Shanxi. On the banks of the Yellow River at the borders of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, this large isolated area in the far northwest corner of the province connects the Datong region and the much-studied Shaanbei (see also here).

The results of the project were published in the 244-page

  • Hequ minjian gequ 河曲民間歌曲 [Folk-songs in Hequ], ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1956, reprinted 1962).

Hequ cover

The team of eight was led by Xiao Xing 晓星, and included Li Quanmin 李全民 and Jian Qihua 简其华, who went on to do significant field research further afield.

Meanwhile back in Beijing, a Czech couple were documenting narrative-singing, while Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi were discovering the shengguan wind ensemble of the Zhihua temple. Whereas the study of temple music was rather bold, folk-song—the creation of the labouring masses—seemed to make an acceptable topic.

But despite the experience gained in the Yan’an base area in the 1940s, where collecting folk-song was already a pillar of CCP cultural policy (as shown in the 1984 film Yellow earth), the editors reveal a certain resistance among local cadres to the idea, and go to some lengths to justify it. With the social changes upon Liberation, they hint that it was already to some extent a salvage project: “people don’t sing shanqu nearly as much as before”.

Hequ singer

Here one can hardly expect candid ethnographic coverage of the Japanese occupation, civil war, and the early years of Liberation (cf. Hinton‘s detailed, but also ideologically-driven, accounts for the land reform and later campaigns in a village in southeast Shanxi). And sadly, the volume includes only a few very brief biographical accounts of the singers. This 1953 photo of Guan Ermao was reproduced in the Anthology.

As in Shaanbei, the repertoires are dominated by “mountain songs” (shanqu), “Walking the Western Pass” (zou xikou), and errentai genres. Through the zou xikou songs the collectors paid attention to seasonal migration, and songs about love and marriage prompted them to explore the lowly status of women—in the “old society”. They documented work hollers (including those of boatmen), and the songs of miners. Apart from lyrics and transcriptions, the introduction (5–41), and the substantial report (107–224) are inevitably pervaded with the language of the day—”feudalism”, “working masses”, and so on; the authors’ attempt to explore the relation of the songs with people’s lives is constrained by ideology. Still, there’s rich material here.

For a definitive 2-CD set with archive recordings of Chinese folk-song, note

  • Tudi yu ge 土地与歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs], ed. Qiao Jianzhong (Taipei: Wind Records, 1996).
Hequ map

Field sites in Hequ county, 1953.

The bleak Hequ landscape later formed the backdrop for Chen Kaige’s 1991 film Life on a string. By the way, I’m curious to learn of any household Daoist activity in this little-studied region.

* * *

After the Cultural Revolution disrupted research, and lives, the collapse of the rigid commune system from the late 1970s soon allowed the task of documenting expressive culture to resume—now with the monumental Anthology project. The folk-song volume for Shanxi

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中國民間歌曲集成, 山西卷 (942 pp.)

was published in 1990. For Hequ, indeed, it includes some transcriptions from the 1956 volume.

I touched on folk-song collecting in

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

Clearly, as William Noll also observes, we always have to interpret texts in the context of their time; learning to read between the lines is a basic task in studying both early and modern Chinese scholarship. Yang Yinliu and others had to learn to use the rhetorical language of communism to handle ideological pressure. However obligatory his language of class struggle, he documented both folk and élite traditions with great insight.

Still, explicit or implicit ideological frameworks will inevitably affect the work of collection and presentation. An obvious case is the former Maoist highlighting of “revolutionary songs”.

It is a tribute to the advances of Chinese musicology since the 1980s that Yang Mu’s comments (“Academic ignorance or political taboo? Some issues in China’s study of its folk song culture”, Ethnomusicology 38.2 [1994]), based mainly on his experiences in China in the 1980s, now look dated. Yang caustically describes the limitations of Chinese folk-song collection, questioning the “authenticity, representativeness, and reliability” of the early Anthology folk-song volumes. He observes the narrowly political nature of fieldwork in China: that “the arts must serve proletarian politics”, and that collection often served as material for new composition. Yet this criticism again seems to fail to distinguish slogans from genuine intent or actions.

Yang Mu reasonably finds such collections misleading, with revolutionary songs being given space far above love songs. Yang points out that revolutionary songs are not representative of actual folk-song activity, as they were not popular, being performed only for government-sponsored events—at least by the 1980s, and quite probably through the Maoist era too, I might add. Such songs may be academically significant as reflections of the Party’s artistic policies, but as Yang Mu says,

after asking the local singers to sing all types of their local folk songs, and having listened to them singing for many hours, I never heard a single song that could be considered “revolutionary”.

Singers may know a few such songs, but they are not part of their customary repertory. Yang Mu claims the scholars arguing against political control lost the battle, but revolutionary songs take a more modest place in most of the published volumes, so quickly has Chinese thinking shaken off Maoism. Whereas until the 1980s revolutionary songs compulsorily opened most collections, in the Anthology they take their chance along with other songs.

in the Anthology the list of themes at the end of each volume (with minor variations), however subjective, is as useful as any rough-and-ready system. Political songs are included under the headings “social struggle” and sometimes also “revolutionary struggle”, both with sub-categories; a category called suku, “speaking bitterness” or lamenting hardship, may be included under either heading. In many volumes these songs occupy around 10% of the total, which one may still find “unrepresentative”, though by no means as dominant as Yang Mu suggests. I gave a couple of examples:

table 3

table 4

Yang Mu also criticizes the excessive selection of “texts describing or complaining about the bitter life, suffering, and distress of the laboring class people before they were liberated by the CCP”. But such songs are not always clearly about the old days, and even if they are (such as deploring a cruel landlord), songs lamenting the bitter life of olden times are rather common in many societies, and motivations for singing them may be quite complex; they may embody a kind of historical memory, and might even be seen as a subtle criticism or expiation of current woes. Many songs I have consulted in this category seem, like the blues, to be simply lamenting hardship or separation, with no clear time-frame. So I would be less keen to assume political bias here.

Still, if songs praising the CCP are no longer dominant, songs criticizing it are entirely absent, which may or may not reflect reality! Songs with “negative” (e.g., feudal, religious, or sexual) texts may have been censored, both by singers and collectors.

In the Anthology love songs and work songs are in a majority. The ritual and religious soundscape has been allowed a certain presence throughout; but if the collectors and editors have significantly reversed any revolutionary bias, a secular bias may remain. How may one assess their relative importance? Short of fly-on-the-wall recording of folk-song life over a long period, singers may indeed censor songs they see fit to sing for outsiders, long before collectors and then editors make their own selections.

By contrast with Yang Mu’s criticisms, I’ve already discussed the choice of one local cultural cadre collecting the repertoires of blind itinerant male bards in 1980s’ Shaanbei (see here, under “Research and images”):

“When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!”

For more on folk-song collection, see here.

* * *

For Shanxi, neither in the 1956 report nor in the Anthology folk-song volume do the collectors give revolutionary songs pride of place; but they hardly fulfil their aspiration to evoke people’s lives. And while the 1980s’ Anthology fieldwork now looks impressive by comparison with the later superficial reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, it too falls short in ethnographic detail.

All the same, I’m full of admiration for the team that spent those months “among the people” in 1953. And how one wants detailed accounts of the fortunes of their peasant hosts as collectivization and campaigns got under way.

3 thoughts on “Hequ 1953: collecting folk-song

  1. Pingback: One belt, one road | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: A 1956 fieldtrip to Hunan | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: A 1956 fieldtrip to Hunan | Stephen Jones: a blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s