Whistling on a Bike in China (1989)
I would only have six weeks but I wanted to know how the Chinese people survive. What they laugh at. How they play. What we have in common. I came with a mouth organ and some of my own music and before I left I had sung, danced and played with many of the different peoples I had met in China.
Guanghzou, a big city in Guandong province, was freezing cold, millions of people swarming through the streets, I hired a bicycle and cycled alongside thousands of other cyclists, through mad traffic, with bells ringing, and horns blowing, the air was smoggy with fumes; the modern, functional buildings had been built quickly, cheaply and were ugly not a good first impression. But Guandong is a frontier city. You have to go into the countryside, where most of the people live, to find the real China.
Leaving Guandong province (which the English call Canton) by very slow train, in the hard sleeper class, but with blankets and Hot water, eating place, I met a young man called Spirit of the Forest; who spoke good English. He had learned it at University after teaching himself initially. We talked in the bitter cold with a bucket of hot coals near out legs. Like most Chinese men, his uncle chain smoked. Spirit had no religion but respected his ancestors. He thought that Hong Kong would probably still not be opened to the Chinese after 1997. He told me that to leave China, a chinese person must have a sponsor or family in the country they choose to visit, and given the choice he would choose to visit Australia, USA or England.
Speaking of Chinese life he said that contraception is available free from hospitals, but abortion must be paid for. He believed that the Cultural Revolution was not good for the population, it prevented people from speaking freely, and also from learning English and meeting foreigners. But he and his uncle agreed that China had improved since Liberation in 1949. Spirit worked up near Beijing on the Railway construction, he was trying, with difficulty, to transfer his job to work here in a pottery factory.
I was trying to learn chinese as I travelled. I met a
young man trying to learn English, so, with a phrasebook, he would pronounce
the chinese words for me and I would try to sing them back, then I would
speak the English words for him to repeat. But dialects and accents change
so much from place to place, that trying to speak Chinese became a complicated
Leaving Guilin, I took a bus to Yangshou, a small town on a winding river, where people live on the boats that they build. It was a misty rainy climate. In the Market you can see live river fish, pigs and Comic stalls, or rent a comic and sit reading it over hot coals to keep warm. Here the mountains are peculiar shapes, more like big mounds, it looks like they made mountains out of molehills.
Cycling is a good way to see the countryside, slow and deliberate. You are never along in the middle of a field, but you will always come across someone, somewhere. Me and Deasy, my companion hired a couple of bikes and cycled towards Moonhill, past the famous Banyan tree which seems to grow its roots under and above the ground. On our way an old woman led us, climbing up rocks to show us the caves in her village, inside where cattle take shelter and fodder is kept dry. We pedaled on to find the Black caves. Here we were given a torch each by an attendant who guided us through the stalactites . Tapping the stalactites they rung and shuddered dry notes like a marimba. I could hear them dripping, huge stone curtains towering above. One I counted, dripped every seven seconds. Here in the belly of the mountain it was warmer and quiet.
After a long day we went to a small restaurant to eat. There was an old guitar hanging up on the wall. I pulled it down and started to pick some tunes on it. After while, the restaurant owner and the kitchen workers had pulled back the tables and we were all dancing and singing together and laughing,. Some western tunes that the chinese know are 'Auld Lang Syne' 'Edelweiss', 'Midnite in Moscow'. The owner of the place, Charlie (after Charlie Chaplin.) sang a song, "If you're going to marry, don't marry any others marry me", and a march they called, "Sons of the Dragons", they gave us a drink of brandy for playing, we all shook hands, cook, waitresses, friends and Charlie.
Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, was much more peaceful, less horn blowing! The sun shone, but it was cold in the shade. Blind masseurs wearing white coats offered their services for a small fee on street corners. Using acupressure they would stimulate pressure points and relax tired muscles. Other people offered to clean out your ears with what looked like a sharp knitting needle. A chiropodist was busy cutting and dressing a man's foot and a dentist searched someone's mouth.
There are few flowers frown or cultivated in Yunnan province.
The few they had were displayed inside pots and were put out in the city
square. Food is the priority, vegetables, broad beans, rice; they have
to feed a billion people so no space is wasted.
At the building of the ethnomusicology dept (I'd been given the address by The Music Workers Association in Guanzhou.) I explained that I wanted to hear some Chinese folk music and singing. At first they were distant, until I played them a tune on my mouth organ, which excited them. A friendly woman, Qing offered me some tea. She told me it was the wrong time of year for festivals, where folks would gather together especially to sing, and that towns near the Laos-Vietnam border were out of bounds, she did suggest a couple of towns to visit to find live music, but I decided just to follow my ears and nose instead.
Qing told me that she had begun singing opera and classical music with a company. She sang a few phrases for me as we walked down the stairs. Now she had a job collecting and researching folk music. She had a son 11 years old and earned 200 yuan a month (£30). In this department field recordings are transcribed, foreigners aren't allowed to hear tapes but Qung discreetly let me hear some singing that she had recorded. She asked me to play again for her friends, she wanted to record my singing on her tape machine. So I made up a song about arriving in Kunming, then a phone rang in the middle. I copied her phone ringing with my mouth organ, everyone in the office was laughing and clapping. She asked me all about my song, when and where I wrote it? What style was it? She recorded all these questions and my answers. Qing's colleague gave me a book of Yao people's songs which he had notated. I asked him if the Yao people themselves understood the notations, "No, they pass on the Songs orally". Decorations and inflections in the voice were impossible to notate. They asked me to come back to see them on my return.
Two blind folks were busking and signing on the streets of Kunming, near the railway station. A woman singing and playing accordion and a man bowing a two string fiddle called an Erhu, the bow hair is played between the two strings and pushed to scrape against one or the other by the second finger of the bowing hand. A soulful sound like a weeping voice in the hands of a good player, or perhaps, like a musical saw but richer and more controlled. The songs they sang were popular songs of the province, they also played requested from the crowd who gathered around them. Nothing was contrived about their singing, their voices were full and natural, unlike the voices of the people I heard singing opera, who I assume were singing an affected style as characters in a story.
One blind Erhu player played through a small battery amp. He didn't seem to play any tunes but held a conversation with his Erhu, short scratchy phrases, which he'd answer vocally, and were much enjoyed by the local children.
In the Green Lake park at weekends people sang folk opera
pieces together, not in costume, but couple's signing for each other and
the crowds that gathered. They were accompanied by banjo and Erhu, and
were enacting a story, taking turns to sing and gesture or dance. It was
inspiring to see these older couples of 60 years old, performing to each
other, their only prop a silk scarf or a hat. Other folks in the park
played dominoes or brought their knitting, while they listened.
Here, in Greenlake Park, was a definite meeting place for folks out of town, tribal peoples gathered here to listen to their own tribal singer sing a long story or ballad while another clapped the rhythm, it was like a kind of rapping. The song also had some humour and truths for folks laughed in places at the story. Older women in the crowd mouthed the words of this song as the performer sang, lasting some eight or nine minutes.
China is a huge country and travelling is slow, so I planned to spend all of my time just in this, the south western region of the Yunnan province. I decided to head for a town called Dali, before Chinese New Year, so that I could watch the town change as New Year arrived. Taking the bus from Kunming, up through the mountains. We stopped in Chuxion. Here I saw bowl makers, melting scraps of aluminium, then carefully dusting and tightly pounding the earth into the mould box, and cast these basins on the street. One young boy pumped air into the fire using bellows by hand to raise the temperature needed to melt the pieces of metal .
A man with pieces of snake skin, string, and wooden rods
was making and selling erhus (2 string fiddles) on the street.
Cong told me about the young girl we were playing with. She and her family lived in this same compound her father had gone fishing with dynamite some 12 years ago, he had blown his hands off and also been blinded by the explosive. The girl's mother was deaf, so now her grandpa had to be their breadwinner. He was old and the work was too much for him. This 'bad luck' made them a poor family.
The Town Dali lies slightly North West of Kunming up in the mountains by the side or Erhai Lake. If you go further west you come to the Burmese border, to the North West is Tibet. The tribal people who live here are called Bai people. There are 20 different tribes in the province of Yunnan. Achang, Bai, Benglong, Bulang, Dai, Dulong, Hani, Jingpo, Jinuo, Lahu (which means "Roasting Tiger meat" in their own language) Lisu, Miao, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Tibetan, Wa, Yao, Yi, Zhuang,. There are a total of 56 minority tribes living in the whole of China, all have their own unique language and dress. The Han Chinese are the majority tribe in China, it is they, who we believe are "The Chinese" because they outnumber the minorities by millions.
A tribe has to be officially approved as a separate nationality by the state council. The Jinuo people, for example became China's 56th Nationality in 1979. (The decision was made on the basis of findings that they have a language (belonging to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family), customs, economic structure and psychology or their own not shared with other peoples.
Bai people from the surrounding villages of Lake Erhai, including Dali, come to Shapin market on Mondays to buy and sell furniture, fishing baskets, spices, meat, poultry, clothes, bloth, tools. From early in the morning people swarm into the town, built upon the hillside, carrying wardrobes upon their backs, and with horses and carts bringing goods. The women do most of the selling and buying, handfuls of peppers, sampling seeds, fishing baskets, jewellery, embroidery patterns, shawls, baby clothes. A shoe repairer would repair a torn sack with his sewing machine. Engravers would carve characters on print blocks by hand, in tiny detail, intricate and fine. These craftsmen work outside in the sunlight rather than blinding themselves under artificial light, cramped inside a dull workshop.
Even the smallest children shouted "hello" or "Ni hao", as I cycled through villages. The Bai are warm, open people with an earthy humour, they are more colourful then the Han Chinese.
At Erhai lake fishing families prepare their boats, 50 feet long, wooden boats using straw matting, which turn them into shelters on the water. Men make and repair nylon fishing nets. The boats are punted in and out of the harbour by long poles. The kids help their families and work on the boats from a young age. The boats are also used for transporting sand and cement. Around the lake is farming land, Women come and wash freshly picked vegetables near the boats in the harbour.
I went to take a hot bath in Dalis' bath house, where women and men bathed separately. There were eight marble bath tubs in continuous use. It was cold outside. We all stripped down and waited, sitting on one bed each for a turn to bathe in the piping hot water. A deaf-mute man ran the baths bellowing and mouthing people directions, "Your turn" "Next" "Time Up" After they had soaked for a while, he'd rub down the Chinese men with their flannel while they lay down on a wooden board. I got out of my bath, he beckoned me over, I lay down, He massaged me through a towel, drying me at the same time, then, suing Eucalyptus oil, he pummeled my back. All good for blood circulation. His grandpa had taught his father who taught his son the art of accupressure. A wood furnace heated the water inside a boiler. Everyone came out of the baths shining and flushed. All the boys, the men seemed as skinny as me, I didn't see any overweight Chinese on my visit.
New Years Day, by the lunar calendar takes place between the end of January and the middle of February. In Dali the spring festival was explosive, kids lighting fireworks, tossing them in the air, under feet, and into puddles which made the water fly as they exploded. Reams of bangers carried into doorways exploding and raining with fire, deafening, like machine gun war. Cow horns are blown and gongs and drums beaten in the villages. Days before the actual arrival of New Year people get busy slaughtering hogs, chickens, cattle and sheep and making bean curd, rice wine and glutinous rice pastry, women embroider holiday garments. People hang up New year pictures and gather for a family banquet. Next day young people clad in new clothes gather in open lots, in or outside the village, to sing and dance. There were two different dragon processions, curling and weaving their way down the main street, underneath one dragon, a long line of energetic men twisting and running across the street led by Suoni horn players and drummers. Groups of girls dancing light steps with tambourines, and singing, led by a flute and banjo player. A monk Character with clappers and an old man chased each other around in some kind of playful theatre ritual, as the new year swept away the old year. Kids played a tune they had learned on the instruments that they were being taught. A girl of eight or nine played an accordion, others performed a song and dance piece, another girl struggled with a tune on an electronic keyboard, all throughout, explosions of fireworks drowned her melody. A young girl of about 14 played a 4 string instrument called a Pipa, with delicate, beautiful fingers, creating harmonics on the fretboard and dexterously flocking the strings with every finger. Older men played hammer dulcimers, cymbals, and racks of bells and a zither.
A funeral procession passed. White is the colour of mourning
here, white as snow in winter. Led my musicians. A gong player and a man
blowing a reed instrument called a suoni horn which is very hard to blow,
it needs a lot of wind, as does a bagpipe chanter. It's like trying to
blow up a hotwater bottle.
In the evening I heard there would be folk dancing in the big Hotel, bus loads of tourists would come here for an excursion to see the forest and hear songs and dances. The dancers danced with pitch forks and acted out fertility dances, courtship songs and dances.
In one dance piece the dancers all blew on leaves, making them vibrate like grass reeds, and playing a squeaky melody. Another dance told a story of young girls walking in the forest. Then a tiger comes, here tow men are inside the tiger like a Pantomine horse. Then the boys come and save the girls. There was humour in their performance. They used accordion, banjo, flute, cymbals, hammer dulcimer. The men danced another piece while playing a kind of three stringed fretless bass, with a long 'broomstick' neck and a barrel like sound box with metal snares or resonators that vibrated or buzzed near the bridge as the strings were plucked. You could hear these acoustic instruments thrumming and buzzing from far away.
I returned to Kunming to visit my friends at the Dept of Ethnomusicology. Qing invited me to a public singing competition that evening, it was to be televised and was to encourage singing and participation. The TV coverage made the contest a prestigious and special event. Reporters from Kunming daily papers were also present.
The songs themselves sounded like parodies of western pop music; Barry Manilow, Englebert Humperdinck, Wham, Shirley Bassey. After hearing all of the folk, and 'honest' street music, it was a culture shock for me to hear the worst kind of "Love songs", melodramatic singing, overblown posturing it was like a Eurovision song contest!
Each singer was dressed in their "stage costume" no one clapped often, unless someone sang with some passion. The band kept time badly. Here I was a guest at a live TV broadcast, the judges were made up of 'Pop songwriters', they hoped to export these songs to the rest of the world!" But is seemed that the reverse had happened. The Han Chinese had, it seemed, already been culturally colonised by Western pop and disco music via Hong Kong. It was the minority tribal peoples, the Sani, Bai, Naxi, Ti, Yao, Dai folks who had kept their own identity and traditions alive, the ancient songs they were still proud of singing.
Singing is still an important part of tribal culture.
People make up words as they go and sing a new song for easy special occasion.
The Miaos for example, not only sing for entertainment, but also to settle
disputes. A quarrel took place in 1944 between Xijiang village and a neighbouring
village over a piece of land. Each village selected an able singer to
reason with the other. A date was set and county officials came to the
village to judge the song contest. They sang from dawn to dusk and it
turned out that the singer from the other village won. As a result, Xijiang
village lost the land and, in accordance with Miao customs, the head of
the village spent several years in jail.
Dung people having singing contests, to test not only the singing voices of the young people but also their cleverness in improvising new words to old songs. As the contest begins, make and female singers pair off. The themes of the songs are love and beauty expressed indirectly with many metaphors and subtle allusions. Usually the make singer starts the improvisation, and the young woman must respond. Then he must answer her verse. A really clever performance brings claps and cheers from the audience, but if one pair get stuck there are sure to be catcalls and friendly teasing. When all of the young people have performed, there are always the old traditional songs, in which the entire village joins lustily. Every Dong village has its drum tower, the largest is in Mapang. From it, in the days before electricity and loudspeakers, a long drum made of a hollowed tree trunk was beaten to call the villagers together. The square before the tower in the centre of the village is also the gathering place for after work socialising, storytelling, songs. In addition to singing many songs on the history of the Dongs and their way of life, the ballad singer makes up many out of current life. There are songs for all occasions, weddings and celebrations of all kinds, working together. A few bars played on reed pipes in the middle of the night can get everyone out of bed for an impromptu song fest at the foot of the drum tower. From historical epics to rousing drinking songs and love songs accompanied by the Pipa a mandolin-like string instrument. There are songs to welcome and songs to send off a guest and songs for a chance meeting on the road. An unusual type are the "flute songs", in which the singer plays his sown flute accompaniment with his nose. Peng Jianqun, who visited Xijiang village, a large settlement in the wild Leigong Mountains of southwest Chinas Guizhour province, tells one story about why Miao people were singing on special occasions.
"One evening I heard singing as I approached a house in Xijian village. 4 women stood up on a slope near a gate while three others stood down below. The hostess was seeing the visitors off with a song:"
"You Kindly came to out house
"The visitors sang in reply:"
"It is out obligation to see
The host related the story behind the songs.
His 80 year old grandmother was ill. The wives of his three cousins had come to pay their respects, bringing with them two chickens, five catties of meat and twenty catties of glutinour rice. Custom usually dictates a three day stay, for courtesy calls, but it was the busy season so the visitors had stayed for only two days!
I had stayed for six weeks, yet it was not enough time. I did not want to leave. There was much more I wanted to see and understand of this vast country. But I'd had a glimpse and been touched by the spirit of the Chinese peoples. I left, wanting to return one day.