Saving Guangxi's cultural heritage from decline
Region rich in ethnic diversity struggles to preserve traditions as modernisation takes hold
Residents of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are enjoying a new two-day official holiday the local government has offered to encourage them to participate in an annual ethnic minority singing festival.
Wednesday was the third day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when crowds traditionally gather to sing in the antiphonal, or call-and-answer, style to find love and make new friends.
Historically, it has been observed by more than 27 million people of Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong and Mulao ethnicities in Guangxi, or half the region’s total population.
However, the 1,300-year-old custom has lost its allure in the modern era, prompting government action to help it survive and regain popularity.
With the event’s auspicious date falling this year on a Wednesday, the day was a major test of whether the festival could thrive again.
Before dawn on Wednesday, Deng Zhiting from Dakeng village in Fangchenggang city got up to take part in the government-organised singalong attended by thousands of Zhuang and Yao people.
But the spritely 72-year-old, dressed in Yao traditional costume and carrying a flute-like instrument, frowned when he saw only a few young faces in the crowd.
“What a lean time for our group’s folk songs,” he grumbled. “We don’t have young people to inherit this treasure.”
Deng mastered folk songs at age 12 and later won the heart of his wife with his golden voice. Nevertheless, today in Dakeng, home to 600 Yao people, no one younger than 35 can sing folk songs, according to Deng, whose children and grandchildren know nothing about the art.
He blamed the trend on an exodus of young people resulting from China’s urbanisation drive. “Some who left their hometowns for urban jobs long ago can’t even speak the Yao language anymore, let alone sing local songs,” he complained.
Also, ballads that required audiences to understand historical stories and customs have scared off the young generation, who grew up with pop culture, said Liang Kejian, a senior folk artist in Guangxi.
Among his peers, Pan Longhai is an exception – a professional folk song singer in his 20s.
Folk songs were a highly significant way of recording the 4,000-year history of Zhuang civilization, Pan said. “They constitute an important part of our group’s soul and roots.”
The new holiday has, to some extent, eased the worries of people like Deng, who fear folk songs could soon fade into history. “Now that the festival has become an official holiday, I see hope,” he said.
The government decision gives ethnic minorities more time and opportunities to catch a glimpse of their ancient culture, said Nong Guanpin, honourary chairman of the Guangxi Folk Literature and Art Society. “I hope it can help stimulate public interest.”
But Pan warned that festivities alone were not a panacea against the disappearance of folk songs. He suggested the government should improve public cultural facilities and support non-governmental organisations to promote cultural education.
Local officials have already started bringing traditional arts into the region’s classrooms. In Wuming county, a cradle of Zhuang heritage, folk songs and the group’s distinctive dancing have been included in primary school curriculums.
Local folk singers are also blending modern elements of rock ‘n’ roll and symphony into traditional tunes to promote their art.
Pan believes such fusion can help inject new life into folk songs, but warned that the nature of the traditional art must be preserved.
“It’s okay to sing a Zhuang folk song in a rock ‘n’ roll way. But if the basic melody is altered, it can no longer be called a folk song,” he said.