Nanyin, Inseparable Part of Quanzhou Locals' Life
    2012-12-21 13:40:40         Web Editor: Wang Wei

Artists from the Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble perform Nanyin, a Chinese folk musical style with a long history. [Photo: Wei]

The folk music style known as Quanzhou Nanyin was listed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. As a living fossil of Chinese music culture, Nanyin has becomes an inseparable part of many locals' lives in the city of Quanzhou.

Let's follow our reporter Shen Ting to find out more about the mysterious charm of this traditional and melodious art.


Nanyin, literally translated as the music of the south, is a Chinese folk musical style with a long history. The performers usually sing melodious arias to the accompaniment of 4 kinds of traditional instruments, including dongxiao, a vertical flute; nanpa, a bent-neck Chinese lute; erxian, a two-stringed vertical instrument; and sanxian, a three-stringed plucked instrument.

This music style first originated in the central plains of China and was passed down to Quanzhou in Southeast China's Fujian Province in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), more than 1,000 years ago, due to several major migrations as a consequence of civil wars in Chinese history.

According to Zeng Jiayang, Deputy Head of Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble, after the music style came to Quanzhou, it started to gradually integrate with the local musical culture to form today's Quanzhou Nanyin.

"When I was learning Nanyin in my childhood, it was called Xianguan instead of Nanyin. Nanyin is the official name. In the 1950s, many troupes were adding official names to local music styles and dramas. For example, the names of Liyuan Opera and Gaojia Opera in Quanzhou were stylized at that time."

Many scholars believe that Quanzhou Nanyin is the mother of other operas originating in the city, which basically use the music from Nanyin. However, Zeng says Nanyin absorbed classical pieces from other operas during its development.

"For example, there was a classical piece in the Liyuan Opera which was adapted according to traditional Nanyin. It was adapted so successfully that many Nanyin performers also used this piece. So, they influenced each other during their development."

As a traditional Chinese performing art, Zeng believes Quanzhou Nanyin is quite different from Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera.

"Nanyin only uses true singing. It is quite different from Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera, which use a lot of falsetto or combinations of true singing and falsetto. Also Nanyin is sung in the local Quanzhou dialect, so if you go to learn Nanyin, you must correct your pronunciation and learn to speak a standard Quanzhou dialect first."

Zhuang Lifen has been studying Quanzhou Nanyin since 1993. Now, she is one of the main performers from the Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble. She agrees that correcting the pronunciation became the first obstacle for her in the beginning, even though her hometown is in Fujian Province.

"I remember that, on my first Nanyin class, two old teachers sang Nanyin in front of us. I couldn't understand it because the dialect in my hometown is different from the standard Quanzhou dialect. I thought it was difficult to learn because I needed to learn to pronounce the Quanzhou dialect first."

Starting out, Zhuang didn't like this folk music. But after learning for a period of time, she started to feel the charm of Nanyin, and she regarded performing Nanyin as a good way to slow down the rapid pace of modern life.

"When I get together with some of my friends or my classmates, we perform Nanyin together."

Wu Shaochuan is the head of Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble. He shares the same sentiments as Zhuang.

"For elderly people in Quanzhou, Nanyin is a part of their lives. They cannot separate Nanyin from their lives. I was born in South Fujian and brought up in the Nanyin culture, so I cannot separate it from my life either. As long as we live in the traditional city of Quanzhou, we can get in touch with Nanyin and hear it anytime, anywhere."

According to Wu, there are more than 500 Nanyin troupes in the area of Quanzhou, most of which are amateur troupes. The Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble is one of the two professional Nanyin troupes in South Fujian. There are even more troupes performing this folk art in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

In this sense, Nanyin is more fortunate than many other traditional operas, which are on the verge of extinction in modern society. Wu also tells us that the Quanzhou government has been playing a positive role in protecting this folk music style, even before it was listed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

"The city of Quanzhou has been attaching great importance in the preservation and inheritance of Nanyin for more than 20 years. It promoted Nanyin in elementary and middle school as one of the courses, which is a great achievement in recent years. Several days ago, we participated in a ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of a Nanyin research institute. We came to learn that the institute had educated a great many Nanyin performers in the past 10 years. Some of these performers went to further their study in the Nanyin major at Quanzhou Normal University, becoming teachers in Nanyin. I think we did a good job in protecting and inheriting the art."

These days, when people all over the world prefer pop music to traditional music, Quanzhou Nanyin, an elegant folk art, still prevails and is enjoyed by the people of Quanzhou.

For CRI, I'm Shen Ting.


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