China’s Musical Secrets | Songlines
Wednesday, August 19, 2020

China’s Musical Secrets

By Frank Kouwenhoven

An ambitious Folk Music of China series by Naxos World features folk songs from all of the country’s 55 officially recognised ethnic minority groups. The compilations offer a COVID-proof musical journey to rural China. Frank Kouwenhoven reports

Music In China 4

Hou Dudu recording Dong singers in Xiaohuang, Guizhou

China’s ethnic minorities may not occupy more than nine per cent of the country’s population, but they contribute considerably to the country’s amazing patchwork of different languages and cultures. In China’s rural south every next village may yield new surprises in terms of ethnic costumes, musical instruments or ritual ceremonies. But other parts of the country, too, are sometimes impressively rich in contrasts. The official number of 55 ethnic minorities (plus the Han Chinese majority) acknowledged by the Chinese government is, by any reckoning, an understatement: the number has been kept artificially low by lumping together culturally disparate groups, even groups who speak different languages.

A new series of compilation albums – seven released so far, with another 12 to come over the next 18 months – by Naxos World offers no more than a first taster, albeit an impressively sizeable one, of China’s ethnic vocal riches. Each album only offers a handful of songs (on average between five and ten) for every minority – the Han Chinese majority is not included. Nevertheless, they display a wonderful array of different vocal techniques, styles and ways of singing, ranging from solos to choral songs, and a welcome opportunity to dive into such little known musical treasures.


In recent decades a number of anthropological films were made about Chinese minority cultures, and some fine albums of specific regional traditions of minority music in Yunnan were produced (by PAN Records and ARC Music). But this is the first time that we get such a wide-ranging sonic overview, covering practically every officially acknowledged minority in China. It is primarily thanks to the Chinese musicologist Hou Dudu (46) that we now have direct access to these songs. He started the entire project out of sheer enthusiasm for “minority sounds.”

The recordings are generally brief (one to five minutes), but they are of unique value as cultural vignettes, introducing us to ethnic groups that have often made little or no impact outside their own native regions. Who can claim to have heard songs of the Salar, a Turkic people of north-west China (featured on Volume 1)? And how many people outside China – or indeed inside China – can claim to be familiar with songs of the Lahu, a small hill tribe in Yunnan Province?

Hou Dudu with Miao people, in Guizhou province

Hou Dudu with Miao people, in Guizhou province


The Lahu songs are special because many Lahu have become Christians under Western missionary influence. After Western tunes and harmonies and psalm texts entered Lahu territory, many traditional songs were affected. Today a great many Lahu villagers love to play guitar and apply Western harmonies and invent new tunes using Western scales. The Lahu have turned their music into a profitable business, by erecting huge stages and attracting big tourist audiences. Listeners may need to wait for a later instalment in the series to hear these Lahu Western-influenced songs.

Basically every album in the series contains musical surprises. What to think of the intricate vocal harmonies of the Zhuang, Yao or Buyi, complex and dissonant, yet in no way indebted to Western harmonies? Or what about the intricate vocal ornaments of Tibetan singers, or the high-piercing voices of Miao mountain singers?

“I myself was often taken by surprise by what I heard,” says Hou Dudu, the collector of all these materials. A native of Beijing, Hou is currently resident in Shanghai but in the early 2000s he was a student of viola and composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. When he began to work for Kuke, a commercial recording company in Shanghai, he developed broader musical interests. His attention was caught by ethnic minority songs sung during a music contest on Chinese TV. “It was so strange, so appealing, so unlike anything else I knew,” says Hou. He then got the idea to collect folk songs from all of the country’s formally recognised minority groups.

Hou Dudu recording the Lhoba in Milin County, Nyingchi, Tibet. The man in national costume (right) is Da Yaxia, the only singer left in the Lhoba area, aged 90 at the time of recording. He has since died.

Hou Dudu recording the Lhoba in Milin County, Nyingchi, Tibet. The man in national costume (right) is Da Yaxia, the only singer left in the Lhoba area, aged 90 at the time of recording. He has since died.


The central Chinese government had already commissioned officials to collect rural songs in the 1950s and later, in an effort to document and preserve the country’s folk traditions. Unfortunately, many recordings made at that time were poor in quality and not well-preserved. Hou managed to get Kuke interested in his ambitious project: to produce high quality recordings of songs by every known ethnic minority in China. Although the aim was not commercial, Kuke was willing and the idea was primarily to set up a professional database for future reference.

From 2009 to 2013, Hou and his wife Li Zhao (who acted as sound engineer) criss-crossed China and gathered folk songs from every recognised ethnic group, including the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. Hou was mainly interested in the minorities, not in Han folk songs, which were not sufficiently ‘exotic’ to his taste.

Hou and Li carried out their fieldwork intermittently, travelling thousands of miles by train or plane to provincial capitals, and from there further on by bus or hire car. “Finding singers was the hardest thing,” says Hou. He profited from the knowledge of local cultural bureaus set up by the Chinese government in the 50s, but also mobilised many friends to help him trace performers. The recordings were mostly made on the spot, in or near singers’ homes, and were then carefully edited, giving the voices a more spacious ‘studio’ ambience. Hou and Li sometimes managed to get hold of full texts, but often had to make do with summaries. But local people were hospitable and supportive and eager to co-operate. In poor areas Hou and Li paid the singers token fees.

The recordings were eventually published as 55 short albums – one for each ethnic minority group – by Kuke under the name Tianlai (Sounds of Nature) and were mainly distributed among a number of music libraries and Chinese university departments. The series won a state prize for Best Folk Music Album in December 2017.

Now Naxos World is releasing the complete recordings for the first time outside China, as 19 albums, one for each geographic region. The CDs are well documented, providing descriptions of the songs, names of singers, locations, and substantial introductions to every ethnic group. Every minority is represented only by a handful of songs and performers, which naturally creates gaps and disparities. Some groups like the Zhuang, Yi, Uyghur, Tujia and Tibetans comprise millions of people while other groups only consist of a few thousand. Even though the bigger ethnic communities are granted more playing time, the music selections cannot result in a fully representative overview. As Hou himself admits: “If we had wanted to collect songs of, say, all the different Yi communities in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi, it would have taken us many extra years!”

Hou and Li Zhao with children in Zaidong Dongzhai in south-east Guizhou

Hou and Li Zhao with children in Zaidong Dongzhai in south-east Guizhou


Clearly the series only reveals the tip of the proverbial iceberg. People familiar with ethnic music from Yunnan will search in vain for the incredible eight-part harmony songs of the Hani. Songs of the Salar are represented by just one single performer; some other tribes by only two or three singers. But this should not deter listeners from enjoying these albums. Perhaps a more substantial critique of the series is that it offers a too neat picture of China’s ethnic groups, all lined up as separate cultural islands. However, this is how the minorities are frequently portrayed in China: as peripheral peoples, each with their own specific habits and characteristics, colourful, and usually somewhat behind the Han majority in terms of social progress and ‘modernity.’ Chinese TV frequently celebrates minority groups in somewhat derogative terms – the ‘wonderful, colourful dancing Yi People’ – as if dealing with exotic animals or circus acrobats. Naxos World thankfully avoids such descriptions, but maintains the fiction of cultural islands floating in a sort of vacuum.

The reality is that local people in China – whether Han or minority – usually do not identify first and foremost as ‘Chinese,’ but as ‘Gansu-nese’ or as ‘Qinghai-nese’. They often feel more closely related to their direct ethnic neighbours than to any visiting outsiders. There is extensive exchange among many ethnic groups within regions. On this basis, it would have been fairer to group China’s rural folk songs (including Han songs) by region, rather than to devote albums to separate ethnic groups. To give an example: the songs sung by Dongxiang in Volume 1 of the series would sound exactly the same if sung by Han Chinese! The inter-ethnic connections and joint social settings are often overlooked.

One other thing that is absent from the series are bawdy and erotic songs. Hou claims that such songs are mainly sung by Han Chinese – not by ethnic minorities. I think that’s debatable – sturdy Tibetans may get red in the face even when they’re singing about the chanting of a cuckoo (a love metaphor), but not all ethnic groups in China are this prudish! Unfortunately, due to strict censorship, songs of this kind still cannot be published in the People’s Republic of the 21st century.

However, as a series Folk Music of China remains a superb musical treasure trove, and as long as China remains out of bounds for travellers, the best thing to do is indulge in these fine sounds from a still underestimated major cultural region of the world.

Find out more: www.bit.ly/NaxosChineseFolk

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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