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Traditional Bai ethnic songs: Baiqu

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Traditional Bai ethnic songs: Baiqu


By Li Xilin    Edited by Zhang Rui    Photographs by Meng Zhigang 

Ubiquitous singing characterizes the film Five Golden Flowers released in the 1950s and 1960s. People sing when they are pledging and expressing love, and even when they are name-calling. The ethnic Bai tunes of Dali in the film Beside the Butterfly Spring is melodiously sung in its traditional antiphonal form which were sung everywhere by the audience.


Singing over farming


Baiqu is a collective name of the popular ballads in the Dali Bai ethnic group area and has been in existence since the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Li Genfan, director of the Shilong Villagers Committee in Jianchuan, Dali, is a well-known Bai singer. He explained that Bai tunes exist in a large volume of works, primarily love songs, and in other forms including folk songs, popular tunes, epics, dancing songs, farming songs, and ceremonial songs. Bai Folk Songs, one of the national major scientific and research project, has a collection of 479 Bai folk songs in total.

Bai folk songs are categorized into two kinds: short tunes and long songs. Short tunes are commonly known as Bai Tunes, or Baiku in Bai vernacular, while long songs are story ballads, known as Benziqu or Dabenqu. According to the music and performance forms, long songs belong to Quyi (Chinese folk art forms) even though its lyrics consist of narrative and lyrical epics.

“Note the vacant Shilong Village in the day. Most people are farming in the fields. You will hear villagers singing traditional Bai folk songs while working. These folk songs are literally about everything: laboring, politics, ceremonies, love, life…you name it, some of which stand out for their unique melodies conveying sarcasm, punning and partial tones,” said Li Genfan.

Singing Gathering at Shibaoshan Mountain


Being one of the main cradles of Bai songs, Jianchuan of Dali has earned the title “Land of Bai Songs”. Jianchuan Bai tunes are included in International Folk Songs.

Bai people of all ages, men and women, from Jianchuan and neighboring counties, will gather together at Shibaoshan Mountain for a grand antiphonal singing celebration from July 27 to 29 of the lunar calendar. Accompanied by the Longtou Sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), Bai tunes are sung in solo and antiphonal forms with improvised lyrics. Some participants told us: “Although antiphonal singing carries only one tune, it covers an abundance of subjects. People express their own feelings through improvised songs, making the uniqueness of Bai tunes.” Li Genfan told us that Bai people sing about whatever they see.

Bai tunes fall in various categories. Starting with Dongshan tune at a high pitch and gripping syllables “A le le”. The melody fluctuates with constant variations, and includes falsetto and true voice, and is usually accompanied by blowing leaves between lips. Graceful and fluent Shanhou songs (Shanhouqu) are lyrically moving such as The White Moon and White Sister that was performed in the past World Festival of Youth and Students.

Loach Tune, Gegeng(ridge-trimming) Tune, and Haidong Tune are popular tunes, with Loach Tune being the oldest and is called the “Mother of Songs”. “People who catch me will become blind; people who eat me will become unfortunate; incapable as I am, I will still sting you with my last bone!” Its lyrics speak of rebellious spirit in an impersonated fish.

There are a bunch of Bai singers living in Jianchuan, including Jiang Zongde the “King of Bai Songs” and Ji Baomei the “Queen of Bai Songs”. We missed them as they were busy preparing for the upcoming Dali Bai Culture Week in Beijing. That did not prevent us from enjoying genuine Bai tunes though.

When dining in the downtown of Jianchuan, we met a senior indigenous culture scholar who sang Bai songs with another lady, giving us intriguing performance of this traditional musical form.


Stories sung in Bai folk songs


Dabenqu is a long narrative epics consisting of melody, certain characters and plots. It takes about two to four hours to perform each libretto and is generally performed by two singers, with one singing and the other playing the Longtou Sanxian instrument.

Holding Longtou Sanxian in arms, a singer was singing Benziqu, telling stories to the villagers in Shilong Village of Jianchuan. Bai people are quite taken with Dabenqu, which is commonly performed on traditional festivals like Spring Festival, Torch Festival, Main Festival, and Ghost Festival, and on lesser occasions like weddings, birthdays and completion of a new house. A popular saying goes, “People sing from every March till September 9 (the Double Ninth Festival of the lunar calendar).”

Imbedded on the Shanhua Tablet are 10 poems of “three ‘sevens’ and one ‘five’ (seven words for the first three lines and five words for the last one in each verse)”— the traditional arrangement by Yang Fu, a prestigious Bai litterateur of Dali during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), (Full title: Poems Engraved on the Shanhua Tablet • Chant for Cangshan & Erhai) between pilasters of the Hall of Avalokitesvara Buddhisatva in the Shengyuan Temple, Qingdongzhuang, Xizhou Town of Dali City. “3-7-1-5” is a special form of Bai poetry — Shanhua style similar to the form in which Dabenqu was composed.

Li brought out two widely-spread Benziqu, i.e., A Letter from Wild Goose and the Lady Wang Talks Diamond Sutra (more than 2,300 lines in total, currently the longest folk epics collected from the Bai people).

Longing for rain during rice’s heading stage, windy autumns will prevail when no rain on White Dew.

No rain during heading stage of rice; the rice lives for nothing in such world.

Willow will change with the seasons; why don’t you change?

How heartless are the swallows on the beam! Flying in pairs all the time.

This was an excerpt from A Letter from Wild Goose, expressing a sense of longing and a bit of indignation of a wife since separated from her husband. “Being ill-informed with blocked traffic in the past deepened her longing for her husband. She could only entrust her longing to the wild goose to bring him a letter,” said Li .

Hometown of A’peng


Shilong Village is at the right fork in the road to Shizhong Temple, Shaxi Town of Jianchuan County, and is renowned for its Bai culture being at the hometown of A’peng, the protagonist in the film Five Golden Flowers. The poor transportation preserved the traditional Bai culture in the area.

We arrived at Shilong in a scorching sunny afternoon. There were a few people on the road only with several folksmostly senior, sitting around the only stall. A few young kids in groups of two and three ran in front of our camera, posing liberally with innocent smiles.

We parked our vehicle right alongside the Shilong stage where a mini-square stood on the open flat ground with a refurnished antique stage on the one side and wooden buildings on the other.

On one side of the road is Jianchuan Shilong Bai Ethnic Songs Culture Training Institute with its newly built front door. The middle part of the door has models in the shape of the rattle stick and Longtou Sanxian and were decorated with the Jiama (a local sculpture) on both sides. According to Li Genfan, director of the Shilong Villagers Committee, the training institute recently reconstructed by the original villagers committee has produced great influence

“From Monday to Friday, we hold classes of rattle stick dancing, Bai tunes, Longtou Sanxian, township plays, and dongjing music.”


Singers from deep mountains


Li Genfan has been acquainted with Bai tunes since his childhood , “My mom could sing it and I learnt it from her.” Li performed a children’s song that he learnt from his mother. The Bai nursery rhyme in the company of rhythm of a Longtou Sanxian was sung in a tranquil afternoon with gentle breeze in Shilong Village, as if everything has stopped.

The Bai nursery rhyme Li sang is Trumpet Flower, whose lyrics roughly goes as ‘so many trumpet flowers bloomed, one red, another white with a sweet fragrance and the flowers were as big as plates, one is prettier than the other and beloved by both the young and old’.

Li Genfan began attending Shibaoshan Singing Gathering at 15 to 16 and has become a principal contender nowadays. “Without Li starting the gathering, nobody feels like singing,” chuckled some by-standers.

Accompanied by Longtou Sanxian at the prelude, Li sang another classical Bai love song, Little Sweetheart at a high-pitch with strong emotions. Li told us that although there were only several melodies of Bai tunes, everyone sings in his or her unique style which adds up to its variations.

Li didn’t talk too much about his singing experience, but turned eloquent when it came to the culture training institute.

Li took us to the Culture Training Institute. On the left side of the door, there was a wooden two-floor building with a certain historical appearance, and the space right opposite to the door served as classrooms. He showed us the scores in the exhibition room and said: “These lyrics make no sense to those who don’t understand the Bai vernacular.”

Short of Bai’s own written language, many Bai songs were lost and few scores were preserved. In order to teach Bai songs in the institute, transliterate lyrics were written into Mandarin Chinese. So all students will receive one copy of the score, and learn the tune and lyrics — the only way with a sample of Bai lyrics being reserved.

On the cabinet was displayed a row of Longtou Sanxian composed of a resonance box, head, handle, tuning pegs, bridge and strings. Straps are hung on the player’s neck and the body is placed at the waist. One needs to use the part between his left thumb and index finger to hold the handle and index, middle and the third fingers pressing the string, and right index finger covered in the conical hollow of the tip of a cow’s horn or bounds a bamboo-made pick, and strikes the string for music. Some Longtou Sanxian  were not only decorated by colorful longtou paintings, but by floral patterns engraved on the frame, making it more a work of art than just an instrument.

  The sunlight in the late afternoon cast the empty yard with light beams, making it hot and dry. Switching to another Longtou Sanxian, Li sang the Bai tune in the institute again after stepping out of the exhibition room. The song he sang sounded like a poem he wrote: “when I hear you singing, the whole mountain is listening, and the whole plateau is in jubilation”.

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