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Rescuing the fading music
( 2003-11-11 08:47) (China Daily)

If you pay a visit to Enshi in Central China's Hubei Province, a folk song will be echoing wherever you go - either on a bus, at the dinner table, by a river, or in a giant cave.

"It's the first month of the lunar New Year, I'm going to pay a New Year's call..." a Tujia girl will start the cheerful love song.

The climax comes in due time when the girl suddenly raises her voice with a flirting query, "the sister is going to cross the river, who would push me (in the boat)?"

Men in the accompanying group would not be able to resist the temptation to answer the call with even louder voices, "I will push you!"

The Dragon Boat Song, which originated in mountainous Lichuan County in western Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, is now known to almost all Chinese people. It became world famous in the 1990s when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included it into "the world's 25 best folk songs."

The local residents, mainly of the Tujia ethnic group, have a tradition of enjoying entertainment with dances and numerous songs that either celebrate love or mourn the dead.

Research in Lichuan between 1979 and 1981 discovered that more than 1,420 folk songs were circulating among Tujia people. The ethnic group, which has no written language, has been passing down the songs, dances and operas by word of mouth for generations.

However, experts are worrying that many old folk arts are facing the danger of extinction, as they now exist only in the memories of a few old people scattered in this area.

"If they die before any measure is taken to save the treasure, it will mean the extinction of the precious cultural heritage of Tujia as well as the country," said Tian Fagang, deputy director of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee in Enshi.

Tian, a Tujia man who graduated from Huazhong Normal University based in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, is an expert in the folk arts and traditions of his country people.

"With the development of the economy, Tujia people have become more and more merged into the outside world, which inevitably modifies their traditional way of living," Tian said.

For example, except for a few elderly women in the rural areas who still wrap cloth around their heads, most Tujia people no longer wear the traditional headgear they were once known for.

Some traditional opera masters are too old to take on apprentices, while fewer young people want to learn from them. Without an heir, the opera style that has existed for hundreds of years may come to an end soon.

"It is easy to protect concrete cultural relics, but people often ignore the importance of intangible arts and culture," said Tian.

During the past 20 years, Tian and his colleague Tan Zongpai have never stopped taking steps which have measured every corner of the mountains and woods of their hometown.

In the 1980s, the central government launched a campaign to collect samples of folk arts at the grass roots level across the country. The local government in Enshi also sent out researchers to interview more than 4,000 folk artists, recording their songs, folklore and poems into 15 written volumes.

In later years when the country embarked on market-oriented economic reforms, the official work of rescuing fading folk arts came to a halt. However, Tian and Tan never gave up in their efforts to promote their local cultural heritage.

In the 1980s when Tan was the director of the Lichuan Cultural Relics Management Station, he walked around the mountains on his own time and found more than 300 places of cultural relics. One of those was Yumuzhai, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) fortress built by a local tribesman. Yumuzhai is now on the waiting list for State protection.

In recent years, the retired man in his 60s has continued his work by digging up more examples of ethnic culture.

It was Tan who discovered a family headed by Mou Yiqiang, and a village where almost all of the residents can sing various folk songs. Last spring, the lives of people from Tujia was brought into the national spotlight when Tan was invited to appear on a talk show on China Central Television (CCTV).

"In my first 40 years, my hometown seemed to me to be only steep cliffs, winding paths, and villagers carrying goods with bamboo sticks," says Tan in the epilogue of his most recently published book entitled "Lichuan Minzu Wenhua Lansheng (Glimpse of the Ethnic Culture in Lichuan)" about the ethnic culture of Lichuan.

"But in the past 20 years I have rediscovered my hometown and found the mountains and rivers here are invaluable, and people living here are so wonderful, with a rich history dating back thousands of years."

Fortunately, the local government of Enshi has restarted its protection plan for folk arts. Last year, it drafted a 10-year plan to save and revive folk arts and culture.

The first part is to sort out the documents and books on folk stories, scripts of opera or plays, and song lyrics.

Because of the limited funding, the art forms can now only be recorded in papers. If more funds can be raised, the best way should be multimedia, such as video or even digital recordings, says Tian Fagang.

The second phase, which is already under way, is to enlist the living masters of certain art forms and encourage them to pass the skills to younger people.

This measure is meant to avoid the regrets associated with the fate of Huang Daguo, a well-known master of Badong Tang Drama. The master died two years ago at the age of 95. Only part of the more than 200 plays in his memory were transcribed before his death.

There are now 16 masters enlisted, who were selected from more than 100 folk artists aged over 60. They will enjoy special government subsidies of 100 yuan (US$12) a month. In the rural areas of Enshi, 100 yuan is enough to cover a person's basic living.

Moreover, some ecological protection zones of folk arts will be set up. Some areas, such as Shemi Lake in Laifeng County, will be set up as a protection zone of a dance called the "Hand-Sway Dance," according to Tian.

"In this way, I believe there will be more folk songs that can be heard throughout the world like the Dragon Boat Song," says Tian. 

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