To sing Chinese songs well, one first has to be able to discern the different aesthetic standards for Chinese and Western music. Many people claim that all music is the same, but the famous chinese singer Yu Junjian believes there are some major differences.
Speaker: Yu Junjian
Famous Chinese Singer and 1st class performer of the Song and Dance Ensemble, General Political Department of Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
To sing Chinese songs well, one first has to be able to discern the different aesthetic standards for Chinese and Western music. In a sense, our aesthetic standards represent how we normally appreciate things around us. Many people claim that all music is the same, but I believe there are some major differences.
Take for example the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the section representing Fate. In numbered musical notation, Fate can simply be written as 3331 and 2227. The question is, how can such a simple melody make Beethoven a great composer? Western music stresses overall coordination and when the notes 3331 are played, different orchestral sections such as the violins, violas and cellos are played simultaneously for a combined effect. This is similar to the composition of a Western oil painting, which emphasizes the strict coordination of perspective, form and light. To some extent, Western music is also similar to styles of singing used for bel canto and Western opera, both of which require the use of full chest resonance. For instance, when we sing “Che bella cosa e’ na jurnata ‘e sole” (”What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!” from ‘O Sole Mio, or My Sunshine, a globally known Italian song), chest resonance has to be used. That’s why we say that Western art is multi-faceted.
Chinese people and Westerners express themselves very differently in that the former tend to be subtle and delicate, while the latter are more straightforward. That is why most Westerners are very direct in expressing their opinions, while most Chinese or Asians are likely to be more subtle.
This is not the case for Chinese music, which stresses the beauty of the melody. A case in point is a classic Chinese folk song Meeting at the Mongolian Yurt, a Mongolian song with a beautiful and impressive melody. The lyrics ”On the 15th of the month, the moon rises in the sky” are familiar to many of us. Whereas Western music is like an oil painting in presentation, Chinese music is more like a traditional Chinese painting. For instance, in a Chinese painting, a lotus can be painted in such way that the space under the flowers can be left blank to indicate the presence of water. In traditional Chinese painting this is termed liu bai ‘leave blank’, one of the techniques xie yi ‘paint an idea’. By contrast, in order to present lotuses in an oil painting, the artist must paint water around the flowers. Similarly, flowers and birds have to be presented as detailed forms as well. This is realistic painting. Chinese people and Westerners express themselves very differently in that the former tend to be subtle and delicate, while the latter are more straightforward. That is why most Westerners are very direct in expressing their opinions, while most Chinese or Asians are likely to be more subtle. For example, when uttered by the Chinese, ni hao ‘you good’ is not necessarily a normal greeting like Hello, it may even imply the speaker’s discontent (ni bu hao, literally ‘you no good’) depending on his tone and intonation.
The second thing to bear in mind when singing a Chinese song is to sing with accentuations. What does “accentuation” mean? In this case, an accentuation refers to the modification of the last note of a line in a song by prolonging and amplifying. For example, accentuations make the following line go like this-“On the 15th of the month~, the moon rises in the sky~”, which makes the song more beautiful. However, Westerners do not follow the same rule. For the Italian classic O Sole Mio, “Che bella cosa e’ na jurnata ‘e sole” (“What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!”) is sung exactly according to its original musical notes, without any accentuations. Addition of accentuations would render the original line awkward, so you cannot sing a Western song with accentuations, whereas accentuations are a must in singing Chinese songs. This is where Chinese singing styles and songs and their Western counterparts differ.
Easterners like to refer to their history, while Westerners normally talk about the present. So which is the superior style of singing, Western opera or Chinese folk song? Actually, this is a question frequently asked by ordinary people, but the truth is that the two are not at all comparable due to differences in their respective artistic forms. As the Chinese saying goes, ”You like your radish; I like my spinach.” People have different tastes, and we have to live with this fact in real life and in art.
Specifically, how can we sing Chinese songs well?
Singing is a form of recitation. I believe that the sensibility of many people about music, to a large extent, stems from the literary dimension of music. The lyrics are crucial to a song and a singer’s literary training plays an important role in singing a song well. The better your understanding of literature, the better you can sing because the message of a song is in its lyrics. In order to sing a Chinese song well, it is necessary to first recite the lyrics well. Recitation embodies the charm of the language. Therefore, to sing a Chinese song well, you need to hone your language and recitation skills. My suggestion is that, in order to sing a Chinese song well, you have to speak Chinese well and fully understand the meaning of the lyrics.
Chinese composers attach great importance to the logic of their lyrics. In fact, some songs are written in the form of a narrative. For instance, if a song is about love between a man and a woman, Western lyrics will be very explicit in saying “I love you”. Chinese lyrics instead tend to be more subtle, as manifested in the following lyrics: “A lotus is planted in a new water vat; in time it is in full bloom. A golden ant moves around the sides of the vat, what a pity the water separates it and the flowers.” These lyrics compare a man to a golden ant, circling around the water vat with no hope of reaching the flowers. Thus, love is depicted in a very implicit manner. Set to music, the song feels just like a narrative and this is a sign of a good folk song.
In addition, portamento should not be used excessively. The popular Chinese song Swan Geese goes as follows: “Flocks of swan geese line up in the sky, the river winds through the autumn grassland, and the horse-head fiddle plays a sorrowful melody.” Portamento can be used in this verse all too easily and many people pronounce the word yōushāng ‘sorrowful’ as yóu shāng ‘oil-injury’. Similarly, due to the misuse of a portamento, the word jiāxiāng ‘home’ in ”In their mind is their home in the north”, another line of lyrics in Swan Geese, can sound like jiǎ xiāng ‘false home’. The use of the Chinese language requires accuracy, therefore, we have to overcome these pitfalls to sing Chinese songs in the correct manner.
The folk song that is known to be the oldest in China only contains four Chinese characters: hou ren xi yi, literally ‘wait for you, oh’. This song is about Yu the Great, a legendary ruler in ancient China, who managed to tame the floods that frequently plagued the Chinese heartlands. He was so intent on controlling the floods to benefit his people that he passed his own home on three occasions without stopping. So, his wife had to ask her servant girl to wait for him on the mountain to take him home. In the lyrics, “xi yi” works as the interjection “oh” in ancient Chinese. The lyrics simply says, “Oh, waiting for you”, so why is it considered a folk song? It can indeed be a song if the sound of every single character is prolonged as it is sung. The ancient Chinese saying ”When words are not enough, one can sing” tells us that people would resort to singing if their words failed to be understood or could not be heard. The Chinese language is rich in meaning, and how you say something depends on what subtle meaning you would like to convey. Therefore, when people learn Chinese, they should also pay attention to these things.
The lyrics are crucial to a song and a singer’s literary training plays an important role in singing a song well. The better your understanding of literature, the better you can sing because the message of a song is in its lyrics. In order to sing a Chinese song well, it is necessary to first recite the lyrics well. Recitation embodies the charm of the language.
The folk songs from Shaanxi Province in north-western China are characterized by their high-pitched accentuations and its frequent use of falsettos; songs from Shandong Province in eastern China, however, depend on the singer’s plain bold voice and cannot be sung in falsetto; while ditties are more popular south of the Yangtze River. Folk songs vary from one region to another as China is a huge country where each region has its own unique characteristics. All in all, what I am trying to say is that, in order to sing Chinese songs well, the first thing is to pay close attention to accentuations and portamentos; the proper use of a portamento will embellish your sound. Lastly, make sure to correctly pronounce the lyrics.
(Sorted according to audio recording, not confirmed with the speaker)
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 41. Volume 6. November 2015.
View the PDF print edition