Action needed before ethnic voices fall silent
Some months ago, protesters twice rallied in Guangzhou in defence of Cantonese, following a proposal to switch prime-time provincial television programming to Putonghua. The protesters feared their native dialect was being marginalised and could disappear.
Cantonese is not imperiled, at least not yet, but a lot of ethnic minority languages in China are. In Yunnan province, for example, some of the many ethnic minorities have already stopped using their own languages in favour of Putonghua, while others are in the process of doing so.
Action needs to be taken soon to preserve the languages and cultures, including the music and art, of ethnic minorities.
A new show, Hear the World: DADAWA, shows the richness of these cultures. In the show, Uygur, Tibetan, Kazakh, Mongol, Miao and Han musicians perform in harmony, evidently enjoying each other's music, without any sense of antagonism or hostility. Its star is the singer Zhu Zheqin, whose stage name is Dadawa, a word, we are told, that means 'moon' in Tibetan.
Dadawa was appointed a National Goodwill Ambassador for China by the United Nations Development Programme last year and was charged with helping to preserve minority cultures on the mainland. 'It's an honour to reintroduce [these cultures] to the modern world and spread them worldwide,' she said.
Last year, she spent four months travelling more than 20,000 kilometres, gathering songs and music from remote parts of the country, including Inner Mongolia , Xinjiang , Tibet, Yunnan and Guizhou , visiting forest tribes and nomads and recording their music and crafts along the way.
This experience inspired her to launch the eclectic Hear the World concert, which features traditional instruments such as the guzheng, or Chinese zither, as well as the Guizhou leaf, the mouth harp, the handmade horse-head fiddle and the cello.
She brought along what she calls ethnic music masters from various corners of the country to share the stage with her. Featured were the haunting 'flying songs' of the Miao people of Guizhou, tantric music from Tibet, the dombra, or Kazakh lute, and the music of the Dong people, whose three million members are scattered in the border areas of Hunan , Guizhou and Guangxi .
One performer demonstrated khoomei, or throat singing, a skill that, Dadawa explained, had been lost to the Mongols of Inner Mongolia. However, it was reintroduced from Mongolia.
Dadawa said her concert would 'bring the genes of these ethnic legacies into a contemporary setting'. This she did with electronic music, live instrumentation and vocals as well as special visual and audio effects.
But the best part of the show was towards the end when she spoke to the audience, in Putonghua and also in Cantonese, to the delight of the audience. The diva was born in Guangzhou.
Rather than just preserve the old, she is enlivening it with her sense of creativity. As she said, it is time to build 'Created in China' and not just 'Made in China'.
Dadawa is passionate about her work and her music. 'I want to use my position to spread their cultures. I want the world to see their treasures, which deserve respect and protection. Their musical roots are deep in their cultures and have been passed on for generations,' she said in an interview. 'I really hope their cultures will still be around in 100 or 200 years, and that their art will have also evolved.'
This task - the preservation and development of ethnic music in China and elsewhere - is urgent and cannot be left to the government.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.