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Performing a Legacy
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  • A nanyin performance at the Wudianshi traditional blocks in Jinjiang, Fujian Province, on June 13 (DONG NING)
  • Ancient buildings preserved at the Wudianshi traditional blocks in Jinjiang, Fujian Province (DONG NING)
  • A performer manipulates a hand puppet during a show in Jinjiang, Fujian Province (DONG NING)
  • Su Tongmou, a master performer of nanyin in Jinjiang, Fujian Province, teaches students the art (LAI JINCAI)
  • A performance of the Gaojia Opera, which has both comedic and dramactic themes and a clown as the main character, in Jinjiang, Fujian Province, on June 13 (LU YAN)
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  • 2. 五店市_035210_副本.jpg
  • 6. 手偶_035214.jpg
  • 1. 苏先生  赖进财_035209.jpg
  • 4. 高甲戏_035212.jpg

Every month, Su Zhiyin sets aside four or five days for her favorite hobby--singing nanyin. Living in Jinjiang, southeast China's Fujian Province, the 60-year-old retired business woman has been practicing the art for over two decades.

Nanyin is a musical performing art originating during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220) that is central to the culture of the people living in the southern part of Fujian, as well as residents on China's southeastern coast and overseas Chinese of south Fujian origin.

Su told Beijing Review as she prepared backstage at the 12th Jinjiang Nanyin Festival, that for her, the traditional art is a part of life. "The magical power of singing nanyin can make all my worries go away," she said.

Traditional music fossil

Su provides the vocal part in a nanyin song, which is sung in something like a dialect originally from south China. She and instrumentalists form the ensemble. There are two other ways to perform nanyin. One is purely instrumental and the other includes a humming voice, while sometimes a singer plays clappers while singing slow, simple and elegant melodies.

"When I sing, I relate to the stories and immerse myself in them completely," Su said, explaining that the lyrics are usually about Chinese folktales and ancient poems.

The two main instruments used during a nanyin performance are a bamboo flute called dongxiao, and a pipa, a crooked-neck lute played horizontally. There are also other wind, string and percussion instruments involved.

In ancient times nanyin was performed at weddings and funerals and during joyful festivities in courtyards, markets and streets. Today, it continues to be deeply rooted in the social life of the people in south Fujian, with many nanyin clubs or societies dotting the regions where they live. Members get together regularly and enjoy the music fun.

Nanyin is one of the oldest existing music genres in China, but the ancient art is in danger as less people devote themselves to the art form.

Su Tongmou, 79, is a master performer of nanyin and also the founder of the Jinjiang Nanyin Association. He said most nanyin performers are amateurs, and although they have a passion for it, they can hardly get to the quintessence of the art.

"There are doctoral students majoring in nanyin, but their knowledge is limited to theory," Su noted, adding that it takes both a natural gift and hard work to really pursue nanyin. "I think few people are capable or willing to do it. It's a pity."

Luckily, there are people who are dedicated to spreading the traditional art to as many people as possible. Wang Mingxian, 74, who lives in Xingtian Community in Jinjiang, has been volunteering as a nanyin teacher for almost three decades and is currently teaching mostly primary school students.

In 1991, as a senior nanyin performer, Wang proposed that Xingtian Primary School offer nanyin classes that he could teach for free. Now decades later, he has hundreds of students.

"I hope the cultural gem passed on from our ancestors will never be lost," Wang said. "I will keep teaching until the day I can't."

Wang Jiaying, a six grade student of the school, said, "I think it's pretty cool to learn nanyin. It's a strength that differentiates me from everyone else."

Traditional blocks

There are many nanyin houses in Jinjiang where people can enjoy a musical performance while having tea and snacks. One area--the Wudianshi traditional blocks located in downtown Jinjiang--also preserves other traditional art performances like the Gaojia Opera, dating back to the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and famous for its clowns, along with hand-puppet shows with a history of almost 2,000 years. All of them are included in the national intangible cultural heritage list.

The blocks are also home to over 100 artistic structures from various dynasties such as ancestral temples, historical residences, art galleries and exhibition centers. Covering 8.4 hectares, the blocks have been a tourist magnet since renovations were completed in 2015. According to Ke Guolin, head of Jinjiang's Bureau of Culture, Sport, Press and Publication, it is a priority to protect the blocks and keep them from becoming overcommercialized. He said the unique features and historical connotation of the blocks can add to the city's charm.

"We hope when people think of Jinjiang they will think of more than a modern city for economic development, and see its historical profundity and wealth of memory," he concluded.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to luyan@bjreview.com 

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