Mountain songs (shan’ge) were a common part of life in Xiakou village until the 1960s, and they are still remembered by older villagers, but the songs are no longer sung today. What can we learn from a musical tradition that survives only in memory? How might these songs be “read” as texts documenting historical experience? What role does the “reader” play in the interpretation of mountain songs as historical text?
This essay is not a historical study of shan’ge as a musical form; Schimmelpick (1997) provides a comprehensive history of the mountain song genre, and other works focus more broadly on the evolution of folk music in China. Many analyses of folk traditions in modern China take a constructivist approach, highlighting the manipulation of those traditions—in terms of both form and content—as tools of propaganda during the revolution (Hung, 1987), and as cultural commodities in the post-socialist market economy (Rhees, 2000). The role of cultural mediators in defining mountain songs and reinventing the genre to serve nationalist and revolutionary agendas also plays an important part in the story of shan’ge in the village of Xiakou, since developments outside the village directly affected local understandings and performances of the songs. As local manifestations of national and even transnational forces, mountain songs thus provide a window on the village’s modern historical experience of interaction with the outside world. But this essay argues that the history of Xiakou’s shan’ge does more than reiterate a national narrative reflected at the local level; as artifacts of village cultural life, the mountain songs are vital historical texts revealing local identity in everyday practice.
This video features Zhu Congde, 78 years old in 1993, singing by a corncob fire in the common ancestral hall of his home, which he had largely given over to his grown son and his family. Sitting next to Zhu Congde is Wu Guangkui, 80 years old in 1993, from the dominant Wu patriline of the village. Wu encouraged Zhu to sing the most common mountain song: The more you sing a mountain song the better it sounds / The more you beat the copper gong the better the sound / If you don't have a hammer, no sound from the gong / If you don't have a girl [literally, sister-in-law] you can't sing a song
At the end of the song, they raised two important points. First, mountain songs were always sung while working in the fields. More specifically, the songs were sung in the “old society” (jiu shehui) during multi-family labor exchanges, primarily during hoeing, planting, and weeding corn, and sometimes while transplanting rice shoots. The songs were described as “comfort” (anwei) for workers, and they were sometimes sung while working, sometimes the singer rested and sang for the laborers (on their own plots, sometimes on rented plots). In addition to “comfort,” the songs also seem to have provided a rhythm for this work, in that the lyrics frequently include lists and “counting off.”
The second point they raised was that the song is supposed to be sung by two people, back and forth. The duet or, more accurately, dialogical countersinging, is one of the main forms of mountain song, along with call and response. Older people often recall that mountain songs would be sung back and forth across the mountain fields separated by valleys, and there are frequent mentions of a divided landscape in the songs: the “echo” (huiyin) trope, and references to people “on the facing mountain.”
The other divide stitched together by the mountain songs was that of gender. Since work groups were often divided according to sex, many of the songs (a majority that I have heard and seen) are love songs, or at least, concern relations between the sexes. These songs are often unsentimental, mixing love and work; for example:
Many other mountain songs are rife with flirtatious sexual innuendo, such as "Gifts to a loved one" also sung by Zhu Congde:
The teasing flirtation evidently went both ways, as in the song recounting the resourcefulness of a young woman “one egg, two yolks”:
Not all mountain songs are lighthearted. Some express a deep melancholy at the suffering experienced in the countryside: premature death, crop failure, being cheated in the marketplace, separation from a true love.
Mountain songs in their “old society” folklife context were work songs that served to bound the village community together across the landscape, and to communicate social relations—primarily between the sexes—that were generally taboo in other social contexts (where the segregation between sexes was strict). Keeping in sight the theme of performance, the musical style of the mountain songs is also important to their content and context: together the songs form a common repertoire, built through spontaneous transmission across generations (that is; informally, at work, from oldtimers). But each performer also used improvisation (e.g. details that would make clear that a particular person was the subject of the song, or wordplay and puns) making each performance an invention. Having a good voice and unique style were not the main criteria for judging a “good” singer, though, as most people talked about a good singer as “one who remembers songs.” The performer as rememberer suggests the importance of mountain songs as a repository of collective memory, and a source of local identity. Some of the songs passed down have specific reference to local landmarks, and the people we interviewed indicated that there was a unique Xiakou “style” and accent to the singing. Thus mountain songs are expressions of local identity—but shan’ge are not exclusive to the village, and can be found (or could be found in the past) throughout South China.
The ethnomusicology of mountain songs
The most in-depth ethnomusicological study of shan’ge is Antoinet Schimmelpennick’s Chinese folk songs and folk singers (1997), which focuses on surviving mountain song traditions in the Wu area of southern Jiangsu province. Schimmelpennick’s research addresses a number of issues relevant to understanding mountain songs in the village of Xiakou.
In distinguishing shan’ge as a distinct genre as opposed to a generic signifier of “folk song” Schimmelpennick emphasizes their “monthematism” or the setting of many song texts to one localized tune: “Every village in the Wu area appears to have its own tune or its own local variant of a regionally popular tune. This ‘monothematism’ of the performers is one of the most remarkable aspects of shan’ge singing in the area…a single shan’ge tune may be used for singing hundreds of texts strongly varying in length, rhythm and stanza structure. Also, a single tune may serve to express very different moods, from sadness or despair to happiness and frivolity. For example, it can be used both for dirges and for light-hearted love songs. It is only through variation and continuous adaptation of the music that singers can make all their texts fit the same basic tune.” (1997, 224). The phenomenon of monothematism highlights the link between shan’ge and local identity. Schimmelpennick notes that: “Many tunes in Chinese music are related to specific regions. Some are considered typical and representative of one specific region. They mark people’s local identity. Singing the local tunes, like speaking the local dialect, is a way of belonging, a commitment of people to their social environment. This is not an explanation for the existence of one-tune repertoires, but it puts the musical aspect of shan’ge in a wider social perspective.” (1997, 301).
In addition to this local identity attached to the songs, each performer had a unique tonal signature within the common melodic structure and shared repertoire. This phenomenon can be heard by comparing the singing style of Zhu Congde (featured in the recordings above) with that of Wu Guangkui, represented in this recording (left). Both men are singing mountain songs that share a basic “Xiakou” melodic structure; however, within that common melody each singer has a signature style, unique to that individual and consistently used in every mountain song he sings. The individual style in mountain songs is an expression of the particularism—of “flavor” (weidao) and “earth” (tu)—that is characteristic of local cultural life as a whole, and that assumes special value in a context of conformity, associated with the routines of agricultural labor.
Shan’ge were traditionally associated with agricultural labor. In the Wu area of southern Jiangsu studied by Schimmelpennick, shan’ge were most commonly found in rice-growing areas, and the connection between farm work and shan’ge is reinforced in the lyrics of many mountain songs. The singing of shan’ge in the Wu area followed the seasonal distribution of work, with more singing during the busy agricultural season of plowing, planting, and especially weeding of rice sprouts. Work and singing were group activities, and as in Xikaou the shan’ge served to relieve the tedium of labor with camaraderie in the field. From Schimmelpennick’s description of shan’ge contexts, and from the local villagers she interviewed, it seems that the style of mountain songs in Xiakou most resembles the “yundao (weeding) songs” of the Wu area. In the Wu area during traditional times, professional or semi-professional shan’geban (mountain song groups) were sometimes hired by landlords or rich peasants to help speed the progress of agricultural work. The shan’ge sung by these groups form a distinct repertoire, according to Schimmelpennick, of complex part-singing (Schimmelpennick 1997: 276-287). The existence of these specialized groups seems to be linked to the general prosperity of the Wu region, and to the organization of labor. The absence of shan’geban in Xiakou is probably due to the comparative poverty of “mountain districts” with proportionally smaller amounts of paddy land, and more relative equality between villagers, who frequently noted that the practical difference between “landlord” “rich peasant” and “middle peasant” in the period before Liberation was quite small. It seems that group singing in Xiakou was of the spontaneous, self-organized variety, and that the repertoire also included the more common type of “sijutou” (four line), relatively short, shan’ge. These songs are also referred to as haozi , and they are similar to other agricultural work song traditions such as “field hollers” in the American South. Two examples of this kind of shan’ge can be heard in the recordings below:
Schimmelpennick describes another aspect of the Wu area shan’ge repertoire that also seems to be absent from the Ya’an area: ballads and long historical epics (narrative songs), some of which consisted of thousands of lines, and which took literally days to sing to completion. Still, these epic songs are exceptional; the vast majority of the shan’ge Schimmelpennick found to be love songs, again like the mountain songs of Xiakou, which highlights the important function of the shan’ge in courtship, or at least flirtation between the sexes:
Schimmelpennick is clear that the shan’ge she studies are primarily survivals of the past rather than a living tradition. She attributes the decline (and posits the eventual disappearance) of shan’ge to the decisive break in transmission caused by the revolution, and to the change of performative context brought about by processes of modernization. While the persecution of shan’ge singers during the Cultural Revolution is well documented by Schimmelpennick in the brief portraits of individual singers she presents, it is also the case that the “watersheds” of 1949 and the Cultural Revolution are standard—even formulaic—dates or stages in the officially sanctioned historical master narrative. When asked to consciously periodize their historical experience, and even in their unconscious (un-selfconscious) representations, rural Chinese will often formulaically invoke 1949 as the divide between “old society” and “new society”. Likewise, and especially in the case of government officials and urbanites more generally, the Cultural Revolution is formulaically invoked as an umbrella explanation for destruction of traditional culture, and as a public/political marker for personal suffering. While this standardized history is something of a ready-to-hand stereotype, it is also based in real experience, and I am not suggesting that the accounts of Schimmelpennick’s informants is inaccurate or intentionally misleading. Looking closely at the experience of shan’ge singers in Xiakou both confirms and qualifies this broad outline of the historical transformation of mountain songs.
A brief history of mountain songs in Xiakou
It is obvious that the context in which we collected these songs during the early 1990s was quite different from the context in which they were originally sung. For one thing, each singer emphasized that it was difficult to remember the words because they were not working while they sang—these songs were memories being pulled off the shelf and dusted off by oldtimers, they are not part of the work and living folklife of Xiakou today. What happened to sever this tradition? In answering this question, mountain songs become a window on the local experience of the revolution.
The most obvious way of seeing the beginnings of the incomplete transition of mountain songs from old society to new is in the content of the songs. A song specifically remembered as dating from the period of “Liberation” [the communist victory in 1949-50] expresses hope and optimism in its lyrics:
A spray of pink flowers (shizi hua'er fen dudu 金枝花儿粉嘟嘟)
“A Spray of Pink Flowers” / A husband dies very young / the matchmaker cries, “sister, that day I passed by your door / and heard you crying loudly for your husband” / the matchmaker cries, “sister, there is a good family on yonder mountain across the way / their paddy fields are dense with seedlings, their barn has a longhorned ox / and a pair of big fat pigs / Don’t fear that this matchmaker is spinning a yarn, / there is also a pair of mules turning the millwheel”
This song clearly comes out of the local mountain song tradition, with the same tropes of premature death, of the divided landscape, of love and matchmaking, and of agriculture (in this case, plenty). Just a few years later, during the Land Reform campaign (in Xiakou, 1951-4) comes a mountain song revolutionized in the “new folk song” genre:
“The green leaves of June corn” / All the People of the nation have been revolutionized (lit. “turned over” fanshen) / There is food, clothing, and land for all / Everyone supports Chairman Mao / Chairman Mao is like the sun / Brilliant, warm, shining everywhere / The spring planting grows daily / The autumn harvest will be a bumper crop / Chairman Mao leads us in growing our crops / To those with no tools, give tools / To those with no land, give land [...]
The Chinese communist party’s revolutionary folklore project began in the 1930s in the Northwest China base area of Yan’an. It was an example of the Party’s cultural “mass line”: collecting folk tunes from the peasant grassroots, systematically redefining the words to inculcate revolutionary consciousness, and then giving them back to the people. As the reinvention of folk songs followed the advance of the PLA, along with this “new wine in old bottles” came other new musical forms as well, including the importation of North China folk tunes to other regions of China, and the introduction of western melodies (e.g. “overthrow the landlords ” to the tune of Frere Jacques). The nationalist message of this new music can be heard in Wu Wenxue's singing of “Socialism is good” (shehui zhuyi hao).
But even more damaging than the change in content was the change in context brought by the revolution. In Xiakou, the mountain songs were de-contextualized from work; not destroyed, but re-placed with the end of breaking the local ties of community to engineer a broader, higher identity with the state.
In the 1950s, during the first stages of agricultural collectivization, where the unit of production was still at the village level, but land was divided equally between families, and the harvest was controlled by the collective, villagers recount meeting a group of travellers from another village and sitting down with them under a tree to while the day away swapping songs—a new phenomenon. In this transitional period, mountain songs began to be re-placed from the fields—as part of intra-village cooperation—where they provided “comfort,” to an inter-village space of communication, where they provided “amusement.” This shift in the context accompanied the shift in work from private to collective production, and reflected the optimism of villagers who trusted the Party’s promise to “turn peasants into workers.” The change of context for mountain songs has to be understood as connected to other changes in village life; for example, basketball was introduced, as a way of making new ties of village solidarity, and of facilitating the communicative ties between villages.
The recontextualization of mountain songs kept pace with the accelerated rate of collectivization in the late 1950s. As part of the Great Leap Forward which attempted to dissolve villages as meaningful units of production into huge “People’s Communes,” mountain song contests were held, completing the re-placement of that tradition away from its locality and work context. But the reassociation of the mountain songs with the promise of the Great Leap Forward proved to be the decisive rupture in the transmission of the tradition. Collectivization on a mass scale was a massive failure, ending in famine and especially high death tolls in the mountainous areas. The blow to Xiakou was almost unimaginable; nearly half the population starved to death.
To those who survived, the mountain songs seemed to have lost their meaning. People say they no longer sang the songs because “no-one felt like singing” or because “there was nothing to sing about.” Considering the experiences of the two singers we have seen, this is not surprising. Zhu Congde lost his parents, his wife, and two children in the famine. When he used his position as production team head to distribute grain locally instead of giving it to the commune, he was criticized as a rightist—a fright that haunted him throughout the collective period. Wu Guangkui, who carried a “rich peasant” class label, was a constant target of village class struggle campaigns for almost twenty years. No wonder they didn’t feel like singing.
Mountain songs lay dead from deracination until 1983, when de-collectivization was underway and production was returned to village families. They were revived not spontaneously by villagers, but as part of a folklore collection project undertaken by the county Culture Bureau. In this folklore project, the mountain songs were again redefined, this time through what we might call, following Joseph Levenson, “museumification.” The Culture Bureau’s published collection informs us that “mountain songs reflect the worldview and spontaneous self-expression of the laboring masses,” and proceeds with a rather bloodless classification of the different modes and types of songs. Significantly, the sexual innuendo characteristic of the genre is sanitized, and the theme of pre-liberation class exploitation is somewhat emphasized in the collection.
For the mountain songs of Xiakou, the 1980s brought not only the regularizing scrutiny of the culture bureau, but a new variable, as well: the introduction of foreigners through an international livestock development project. Now deracinated from work and re-placed as public entertainment, suitably sanitized and safely museumified, mountain songs could serve in a new performative context of entertaining guests from afar with characteristic “local flavor.” The old bottles were dusted off once again, and filled with the new wine of international friendship:
In this video (left) Wu Suyong sings a song of thanks to the foreigners for the donation of goats to the village. At a party publicizing the dairy goat development project, held in a family courtyard in Xiakou, villagers sang mountain songs, which now served as a kind of cultural commodity “selling” the village to international patrons. Not simply the words, but the implicit meaning of shan’ge were transformed into an objectified form, the folklorized essence of “peasant life” conforming to (ironically generic) definitions of local identity provided by cultural mediators. Mountain songs reappeared, but without being brought back to life.
At this point in the outline history of mountain songs in Xiakou, how can we answer the question of what the changes in context of these songs tell us about broader historical transformations in the village? Our analysis suggests three conclusions:
1. We can say with some certainty for our locality in Sichuan, that the Great Leap Forward was a watershed event marking the end of peasant enthusiasm for the revolution; at the very least, the “death” of mountain songs as a living tradition is evidence of deep disillusionment.
2. We can see that collectivization, and the GLF in particular, did cause a decisive rupture in the meaning of village traditions, and that the resurgence of local traditions in the post-Mao period are not cases of “underground survival” but of transformed revival. The case of mountain songs reveals the deep ruptures in cultural life that were caused by fundamental changes in production and the deep penetration of the state into village society.
3. By transformed revival, I suggest that the meaning of mountain songs have changed along with their performative context. They are now cultural artifacts, or cultural capital, which the locals can use to assert their local identity and interests—as in the case of the villagers using the mountain songs to “sell themselves” to the international development project… and to us.
Our act of recording mountain songs sparked an artificial revival of shan’ge in the village. As villagers learned of our research interest in the songs, they sought us out and engaged in a collective re-membering of the old tradition in spontaneous groups. Young people came to these recording sessions out of curiosity; they had never heard the songs because shan’ge had ceased to be a meaningful tradition. Only our presence and interest brought them back, however briefly.
Not all work song traditions have died out in the village. As long as the context persists, the music lives on. The most obvious counter-example is the practice of singing to keep the rhythm of work done by taijiang, the skilled carriers who do the back-breaking work of lifting and moving heavy rocks in the quarrying trade, and who do the heavy lifting in construction work, as seen in the video (left).
The most common kind of music heard in the village these days is Chinese pop music; there is no interest among the young people to learn the old songs. I, however, do have a strong personal interest in mountain songs, beyond academic research. As an amateur musician in the “folk” traditions of the American South (specifically Old Time and Bluegrass music) I have tried to incorporate mountain songs into the repertoire of the bands I play in, including one group that toured China in the winter of 1998-99. Below is a video clip of our band performing an interpretation of the shan’ge (taught to me by Zhu Congde) with which this essay opened:
In this video (left) we are performing at a concert in the provincial capital of Chengdu, and I invited friends from the village to the show, where they heard me sing shan’ge. Engagement with village life leads me to move beyond being an “objective” and dispassionate cultural observer to become a cultural contestant, weighing in with my own opinion on the enduring value of mountain songs. More on this experience can be found in the supplemental essay “cultural contestant.”
About This Essay
This essay considers the ways in which local experiences of the revolution can be understood through changes in the content and performative context of shan'ge (mountain songs), a folk tradition of work songs and ballads once common in this part of Sichuan, but which have now virtually disappeared. The essay includes links to audio and video recordings, made over the last fifteen years, of mountain song performances in Xiakou village, portraits of the singers, and broader reflections about the role of the observer in documenting and interpreting the historical meaning of these folk songs.