Hua’er: Folk songs from Northwest China

UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Hua’er: the sound of heaven permeating China’s great Northwest. Hua’er is a music tradition shared by nine different ethnic groups. In 2009 was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Hua’er folks songs from Northwest China

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
“Ah … Of all mountains Liupan Mountain is the best. I took a hike there and, oh, how green the mountain and how clear the water! …” As Yang Wude, a man of Chinese Hui Nationality, sings soulfully, the beauty of the Northwestern landscape rides on the tunes of “Hua’er” (literally “the flower”) and travels far and wide amidst high mountains and across the yellow soil. This man from the wheat fields wears a red mandarin jacket and a white cap. Songs echo loud and clear among the white clouds in the blue sky. It’s June 2010. Close to a hundred enthusiasts of different styles of “Hua’er” from Southern Gansu, Dingxi and Lanzhou (all in Gansu province, China) display their skills on a stage in front of the Gansu Museum, as part of a ceremony welcoming the fifth World Cultural Heritage Day.

“Whatever I see and think, I can sing it. My father, my sisters and my children can all sing.” Says Yang Wude to the reporter, “I can sing ‘Hua’er’ for days and nights and I still can’t finish it.”

“Hua’er” is a form of Shan’ge (“mountain song”, a Chinese folk song genre) that is popular among the Han, Hui, and Yugu peoples living in China’s northwestern provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang. Historical records show that, during the reign of the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1572-1620), a man of letters named Gao Hong, who held a post in Hezhou (today’s Linxia, Gansu Province) on imperial appointment, wrote: “A crack of the whip and my horse gallops forward on a path of flowers / On and off, yet long in passing, I hear Hua’er.” These two poetic lines, more than 400 years old, are considered the earliest description of “Hua’er”. A product of centuries of integration between nomadic and agrarian cultures, “Hua’er” is an open system nourished by many sources. It is a cross-cultural history of many ethnic groups.

There are close to a hundred set patterns of “Hua’er” melodies, to which singers have set their own impromptu lyrics and created songs that have been passed down from mouth to ear.

Naming a mountain song “Hua’er” has been extremely rare in the history of any culture. The name itself reminds people of the song’s beauty. In fact, the name “Hua’er” has its origins in romantic love. Young men and women living on the plateaus of the Northwest often used folk songs as a way to express their romantic feelings towards each other when they were out in the fields. In springtime, housewives whose husbands were away from home would change into flowery clothes and go out into the fields, where they would sing out loud as they worked. As wildly clear and sweet songs of “Hua’er” flowed one after another from their hearts, the women turned their longings for their loved ones and for a happy life into musical notes, which could be either sad or happy. The voices of “Hua’er” waft among the hills and the mountains and fly into the sky! Because the lyrics usually refer to girls as “hua’er” and boys as “shaonian” (lad), “Hua’er” the song is also called “Hua’er and Shaonian”.

There are close to a hundred set patterns of “Hua’er” melodies, to which singers have set their own impromptu lyrics and created songs that have been passed down from mouth to ear. These lyrics have been perfected into gem-like wholeness: “Like the stuffing under an embroidered pillow case, you have been in my heart for two-three years, and tears of longing have flooded my heart.” These songs express feelings that are simple but powerful. ey can be resounding, ringing through the clouds like ripping silken fabric; or they can be gracefully restrained, lingering with sadness.

Hua’er folks songs from Northwest China
Hua’er, with unique regional feature, is extensively welcomed in Northwest China.

As time passed, singing “Hua’er” in the fields gradually evolved into the “Hua’er meets”, a form of collective antiphonal singing that lasts from two to six days. At a “Hua’er meet”, people don’t ask each other their names or where they come from, but they always exchange a few pieces of “Hua’er”. “At a Hua’er meet you don’t distinguish between the elderly and the young;” however, this does not mean that you can exempt yourself from all faux pas. In fact, since most “Hua’er” songs are about romantic love, it has been customary to avoid singing them in the presence of elders. The “Hua’er meet” gives “Hua’er” singers an opportunity to test their ability and affords them a stage where they can display their talents.

The beauty of “Hua’er” lies not only in its sound, but also in the many moving stories about it that have become famous.

In 1941, Wang Luobin, the Chinese folk musician who is generally given the honor of being “Father of Western (China) Folk Songs”, went to Qinghai Lake to shoot a film. In this film, a Tibetan girl by the name of Zhuoma, who could sing “Hua’er”, played the role of a shepherd girl. The film director asked Wang Luobin and Zhuoma to ride the same horse, which galloped as the girl whipped it and sang “Hua’er” with heavenly beauty. At sunset, they returned from the pasture and gently prodded the sheep flock to go inside the fences. She turned around and blushed as she looked at Wang Luobin, lifted her shepherd’s whip, and gently hit him with it. She turned around again and walked into the tent.

Since most “Hua’er” songs are about romantic love, it has been customary to avoid singing them in the presence of elders. The “Hua’er meet” gives “Hua’er” singers an opportunity to test their ability and affords them a stage where they can display their talents.

Early the next morning, the film crew left Qinghai Lake. Wang Luobin, astride a camel, could not help looking back again and again. As the camel’s humps rose and fell and the camel bell tinkled, Wang Luobin’s feelings expressed themselves in song:

In that faraway place 
There is a good girl
When you have walked past her tent
You will surely look back and want to see her
How I wish to be a little lamb
Frolicking beside her
So she might daily land her blacksnake whip
Gently on my body

In That Faraway Place has been passed from mouth to ear and become a song that every Chinese can sing. In the 1950s, this song was heard all over the world as world-famous singer Paul Robeson made it one of his favorites in his repertoire. Wang Luobin lived all his life as a songwriter in the Great Northwest, saying that this was a land that gave him inspiration for his music and that “Hua’er” was the soul of his creative work.

In 2009, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Qinghai, the provinces where “Hua’er” had enjoyed the most extensive popularity, jointly applied to the United Nations for “Hua’er” to be designated as a “Chef-d’oeuvre of Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The application was approved, and “Hua’er” was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

In recent years, however, under the impact of new media such as Net TV, the inheritance and development of “Hua’er” has undergone shocks of varying degrees.

Ma Jinshan, in his 70s, is a national- level Intangible Cultural Heritage inheritor. In 2005, in order to train the next generation of inheritors, he established a “Hua’er” art school in his hometown in Gansu Province, using his own money. Now he has put all his resources into this school, but he has no regrets at all: “‘Hua’er’ is our country’s folk art. Its survival is now in danger, and we must help it live on no matter what it costs us.” Up till now, Ma Jinshan has spent over 70,000 yuan on this school, which now ha s more than a hundred students , the youngest o f whom is only 8 years old. The best of his students have been invited many times to perform in Beijing. Now, Ma Jinshan has passed the singer-teacher relay baton to his son Ma Xiaolong.

In 2009, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Qinghai, the provinces where “Hua’er” had enjoyed the most extensive popularity, jointly applied to the United Nations for “Hua’er” to be designated as a “Chef-d’oeuvre of Intangible Cultural Heritage”.

Beyond the traditional way of singing it, attempts have been made to develop “Hua’er” with the help of new media. The Su Yang Band, formed in the summer of 2003, has repackaged “Hua’er” with a rock-and-roll image. Su Yang, the principal founder of the band is a musician who has never stopped reflecting; he has found a creative, more lively way and in confidently moving forward recreating “Hua’er” using the Ningxia style of “Hua’er” as the heart and rock-and-roll elements as the structure. rough notes of electric guitars and bass, “Hua’er” flows unbridled and sparkles with a new life.

Modern elements have infused new blood into “Hua’er”, as it goes, in the forms of concertos and symphonies, to theaters, performance stages, TV screens …

The rich and resonating notes of spontaneous, impromptu compositions of “Hua’er” express the peoples’ satisfaction in the spiritual culture of the Great Northwest. e modern “Hua’er” is changing with the beat of the times and because of this change, “Hua’er” will live on.

More about traditional chinese music in ConfuciusMag:


Confucius Institute Magazine 11

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 11. Volume VI. November 2010.

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