At the tender age of 17, Song Zuying had to climb over a mountain to reach her primary school in Hunan Province's Yantouzhai Village. Each morning, as she reached the mountain's peak, she would sing out loudly or cried out to the rolling mountains. She loved the echo that bounced back from within the silent valley.
One day, when she cried out as usual, a voice answered her from the other side of the mountain. She sang and the voice followed her.
Song, who comes from the Miao ethnic group, came to discover that the world outside was not that far away from her home that was located in a remote mountain village.
With her voice and her singing, she was able to communicate with people she had not met and with a world she was too young to know.
Determined to explore the outside world, she managed to leap from the mountains to a local performing troupe in Hunan Province, to Beijing and then across the world to stages in the United States and beyond.
Song, 41, is the only Chinese soprano to have given acclaimed recitals at the prestigious Sydney Opera House (December 2002), Vienna Musikverein Golden Concert Hall (November 2003) and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (October 2006).
"It's so great that the audiences in Sydney, Vienna and Washington loved my songs. I enjoyed collaborating with the foreign orchestras and choruses," she says.
In May, the Kennedy Center honored Song for her contributions to cultural exchanges between the US and China.
"American audiences enjoyed Song's wonderful performance at the center last October and her voice makes her the top international ambassador for Chinese folk music," says Michael M. Kaiser, president of the center in Washington, DC.
In addition to being a world-class singer, Song is also a navy soldier. She joined the navy in the China Navy Song and Dance Troupe in 1991. In May, Song was promoted to vice-president of the Troupe.
"The commanders trust me and promoted me to that position. I would like to do something for the development of the troupe," says Song, who is getting used to her new title.
Is it a coincidence that the girl who is a natural singer is also named Song?
In June 1966, Song was born into a poor peasant family in Yantouzhai Village in southwestern Hunan Province. Her father was often ill in bed and her mother had to shoulder the heavy burden of the family. One year, the family could not afford Song's school fees. A kind benefactor passing through the village lent her 5 yuan ($66 cents) so that Song would not drop out of school. Her mother paid back the money by cutting and selling firewood.
Many friends and relatives tried to persuade her mother to let Song, who is the eldest child of the family, with a deaf-and-dumb younger brother and a younger sister, quit school to help the family earn a better living. But her mother firmly believed that school was the only opportunity for Song to secure a bright future.
Song not only inherited a beautiful voice from her mother, she learned mountain songs from her too. Song's mother also encouraged her, at the age of 15, to apply for the local performing troupe of Guzhang County where she performed for three years. This launched Song's stage career.
The hard life in the Yantouzhai Village hasn't faded from Song's memory.
Since 1995, she has donated books, computers, television sets, pianos, teaching facilities as well as money to the Yantouzhai Primary School. In 2004, she set up the Song Zuying Education Fund and has raised some 1.77 million yuan for education projects in Hunan Province.
"I always remember that kind benefactor. Without his 5 yuan, I would have quit school, grown up as most ordinary village women do and there would be no singer named Song Zuying today. Sometimes you give out a little, but others benefit a lot. Especially in the poverty-stricken areas, a small sum of money might change a kid's whole life," says Song.
At the age of 17, Song passed the audition to the Song and Dance Troupe of the Xiangxi Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hunan Province. And two years later, she was admitted by the Music and Dance Department of the Central University of Nationalities to become the first girl from her village to Beijing.
After graduation in 1987, Song returned to the Song and Dance Troupe as a soloist. However, as she performed with the company, she found that the local audiences did not embrace folk songs but preferred pop music that was gaining ground in China. She wanted to return to Beijing and she applied for a national singing contest, but did not make it.
The turning point in her career and in her personal life came in 1988 when she participated in a TV contest for young singers held in Hunan Province. This time, she not only won the contest, but also met Luo Hao, who later became her husband.
A composer and the producer of that contest, Luo was impressed by Song's voice and her singing talent. He introduced Song to Jin Tielin, president of the China Conservatory of Music, who was the judge of that competition. Jin admired her talent and soon took her in as his master student.
Song really came to the fore when she sang The Little Pannier on CCTV's Variety Show during the Spring Festival in 1990. After hearing her perform the song by chance, director Huang Yihe put her on the bill for the Spring Festival Eve show. Ever since, she's been singing on CCTV's Variety Show at Spring Festival.
Since then, Song has gradually become one of China's most popular sopranos. Her trademark songs including Happy Life, A Song Flying out of Miao Mountain, Spicy Girl and Love My China are popular in China.
In 1996, Song toured Australia with a Chinese performing arts company. When she visited the Sydney Opera House, the idea of singing Chinese folk songs at world-famous venues crossed her mind. It resulted in the three acclaimed concerts abroad.
"As a singer, what I can do for the country and the people is to promote Chinese songs to the world, in addition to singing songs for them. I am honored to be a culture ambassador between China and the world," says Song.
Song's talent and achievements have won international recognition. Earlier this year, her CD The Diva Goes to the Movies: A Centennial Celebration of Chinese Film Song, received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album. And the CD is part of the Library of Congress collection in the United States.
"Though I did not win the award, I feel happy to have been nominated. To me, it was a big surprise. It means that the Western music scene has noticed Chinese songs. The CD was not recorded for a Grammy, I did it to express my appreciation for Chinese movies and movie songs. I grew up with these songs and to some extent, these songs inspired my interest in singing," says Song.
In September 2005, Song became a mother. Many people want to know what type of music Song plays for her little one.
"Mozart, Schubert and Dao Lang's pop song The First Snow in 2002," she says, laughing.
(China Daily 08/01/2007 page23)