Preserving Haozi folk music

By Wang Qian ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-04-03 09:41:39

Preserving Haozi folk music

The opening and flourishing of the Grand Canal during the Ming (1368-1644)and Qing (1644-1911)dynasties has left rich cultural legacies in Zaozhuang in Shandong province. Photo by Ju Chuanjiang/China Daily

The Grand Canal's heritage has prompted over 80 sites to seek a shared UNESCO listing. Wang Qian follows the ancient passageway's course into the future.

Xu Deguang still often reminisces about chanting songs to lead boatmen as they hauled barges through dangerous shoals and rapids along the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.

The 97-year-old is believed to be the only living inheritor of haozi, a type of folk music sung to synchronize boatmen in Zaozhuang city in southwestern Shandong province, where a significant section of the canal still functions.

"In the past, navigation depended on the song-leader's ability," Xu says.

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"He was vital and decided the rhythm and tone, depending on water flow and rowing pace. This enabled the others to harness their collective strength according to the rhythm."

Unlike other places' boatmen's ballads, whose lyrics are mostly improvised, the lyrics of Zaozhuang's haozi are said to have been standardized by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Qianlong. Haozi is now a provincial-level intangible culture heritage.

"Previously, haozi was only used for boats that delivered grain and goods for the royal families from south to north via the canal. The lyrics were approved by the emperor and can't be changed," Xu explains.

There are 11 main haozi forms in Zaozhuang, each with different lyrics and functions. They include those for punting, rowing, mast-hoisting and sail-spreading, shouldering, breaking and overcoming rapids.

Xu grew up in a poor family near the canal. He started to help his parents at age 7 and learned from a veteran lead singer who once worked on the imperial boat.

"The lead singer requires not only a good memory and lungs but also enough knowledge of potential dangers. Few people could do it," Xu says.

But he was well rewarded and enjoyed a good reputation.

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