Lanzhou Guzi
    2013-02-27 06:55:41         Web Editor: Guo Jing


Dating back as far as the early Qing Dynasty, Lanzhou Guzi, the local ballad of Lanzhou, the capital of northwest China's Gansu province, has been passed on from mouth to mouth for about 400 years. Going through ups and downs, this art form has survived, but faces an uncertain future. Wang Wei has more.

Floating melodiously with deep, subtle strength, Lanzhou Guzi attracts listeners with heart and soul. It tells love and historical stories, and tales of happiness, sorrow, joy and anger.
Some say the ballad's origin can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty, about 1400 years ago.
As part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2009, it has gained nationwide attention.

Wei Shifa, 72, has been performing Lanzhou Guzi for more than 50 years and says he inherited the art form from his father and grandfather when he was little.

"Lanzhou Guzi has been passed down mouth-to-mouth. It's either inherited through the family or through the local culture. I learned it from my grandfather and father and with my brothers. It was especially popular in rural areas where people would often gather together after work and perform Guzi for days and nights in villages. This provided a good environment for the art to grow."

According to Wei, during Lanzhou Guzi's peak time in the 1950s, people in Lanzhou would often listen to it with friends in tea houses while drinking tea or wine and smoking cigarettes.

It is performed with various Chinese instruments including sanxian as the primary instrument, and others like erhu, guzheng and pipa. Lanzhou Guzi has 10 basic melodies, each with up to hundreds of lyrics consisting of about 2,000 to 3,000 characters.

It tells classic historic stories covering virtually every dynasty of Chinese civilization.

However, during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, it fell into disfavor and slowly died out in cities and only performed in remote villages.

As Wei Shifa recalls, Lanzhou Guzi served as a spiritual pillar for villagers during that difficult times.

"At that time, cigarettes were made from newspapers and dusty dregs, and people couldn't get enough food -- 70 percent of the food on dinner table was vegetables and 30 percent was grains. But people would always perform Guzi together after work every day, and when they sang, they forgot how hungry they were. During weekends, they sang through the night till the next morning and they didn't feel tired at all. It was the Guzi that carried people through that difficult times and bonded families together. "

Although Lanzhou Guzi sustained its popularity in rural areas, it's hard for the art form to compete with today's mainstream entertainment.

One of the difficulties it faces is the loss of qualified artists. Wei Shifa says about 1,000 scripts were saved from the Cultural Revolution, but it's hard for them to be performed and passed down, since there were at least more than 300 professional Guzi artists in the 1950s, but now the number is at most 100, scattered in villages and all in their declining years.

Wei Shifa says he feels a great responsibility to sustain the art form, but he's not confident since Guzi is a very complicated art and learning it is time-consuming.

The piece Wei performed is called "Greetings Between The Fisherman and The Woodsman." He says one complicated thing about Guzi is the tonal ups and downs of each character in the ballad. He says singing one character could last from 10 seconds to 6 minutes, but the tone changes every second. To get every tone correct in one piece requires hundreds of hours of practice.

But Wei has 3 apprentices learning Guzi from him in their spare time.

"All my apprentices can perform on stage now. One of them is a cab driver named Wu Jiaqing. He's been learning it for three years. He listens to tapes while driving every day and can sing eight pieces now. That is quite an amazing learning speed. And the other two are fast learners, too. They can perform four pieces and all three of them are in their 40s. "

However, Wei Shifa hopes more financial support from the government will help boost the art and encourage more young people to learn it.

"We need to find talented children. One hundred students are enough. They could influence many other people who could also introduce Guzi to more people and even foreigners. But we need financial support from the government. Now we have only supported ourselves and bought a DV camera and a 200 yuan recorder, but the quality is not good enough. We want to buy a better one, but that would cost 4,000 yuan and we don't have the money."

Wei organizes a small group of Guzi lovers to practice together three days a week despite the weather. And he hopes that he can contribute another 10 years to passing down Lanzhou Guzi heritage.

For CRI, I'm Wang Wei.


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