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Evolution of Chinese folk music over 100 years

Author  :  CAO ZHIWEI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-09-10


Locals in Zunyi, Guizhou Province, sing revolutionary songs to commemorate the Zunyi Conference, which was held in 1935 during the Long March and marked a significant turning point in China’s revolution. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Since modern times, the development of Chinese Minyao music, literally folk music, songs or ballads, has been on a fast track, with substantial changes in participants, contents, forms, functions and other aspects. In the early 20th century, the New Music Movement in 1912 and the New Ballad Movement in 1918 set the tone for modern folk music, while the two major transformations of folk songs from 1912 to 1937 drew a larger crowd of musicians and developed traditional folk songs to some extent.

Since the start of China’s total resistance against Japanese aggression by the whole nation in 1937, collective consciousness and revolutionary sentiments were gradually incorporated into the creation of folk songs. From the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1970s, the people’s resistance against the Japanese imperialists and other people-oriented themes dominated the world of folk music, demonstrating the distinctive features of the times. After the reform and opening up, “Campus Minyao” or “campus folk songs” fused with revolutionary songs, diversifying the content and form of folk music and pushing the genre into a new stage of development. 

Xuetang Yuege: East-West integration

The New Music Movement and the New Ballad Movement at the beginning of the 20th century marked the division of traditional and modern folk music. The former directly enriched the form and content of folk music performance, whereas the latter attracted many intellectuals to participate in the collection of folk songs.

In some way, the New Music Movement is a symbol of the integration of East and West, laying a practical foundation for the future development of folk song style. The New Ballad Movement is an attempt at innovation, which, like the “new literature,” advocates a return to the common people, making way for folk songs that have been dormant in society for thousands of years to re-ascend. 

During the New Culture Movement, the pioneers tried to take Western culture and the local popular culture as the source for new culture, and so did the writers of folk songs and music. At the beginning of the 20th century, Hu Shi, Liu Bannong and others collected folk songs not only for their own purposes but for literary and academic progress. In the end, the old folk literature and art acquired new form, laying a foundation for the genre to become a part of national and popular culture.

The Xuetang Yuege (school songs) genre was born in modern schools, an inevitable historical development. At that time, modernized schools began to develop, and teachers needed songs for their music classes. While composers wrote mostly Chinese traditional music, intellectuals, who studied abroad, began to set Chinese poetry to foreign melodies. Even though these melodies were not actually composed by those intellectuals, they were still considered the earliest form of modern songs in China. 

The national government strongly advocated aesthetic education in 1912, and music was included as a compulsory course in the curriculum of a typical school. The emergence of Xuetang Yuege benefited from the support of policies at that time.

Renowned Chinese scholar Zheng Zhenduo listed six features of vernacular literature in his book History of Chinese Vernacular Literature, one of which is the introduction of new concepts. In this regard, folk music is constantly innovative by exploring the possibility of the combination of modern Western folk music and traditional Chinese folk music. 

At the same time, the tradition of “one melody for multiple songs” in Chinese folk music has been applied in the creation of school songs at its early stage, and has even become the most important creation principle of school songs.

Behind the scene of East-West integration, there lies the purpose of elite classes to promote democracy and science through music and songs. In reality, Xuetang Yuege played a role in the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolutionary movement and enlightenment thought. For example, “Chinese Men” (“Zhongguo Naner”) and “What Day to Wake Up” (“Heri Xing”) inspired the patriotic enthusiasm of countless schoolchildren. Ni Juemin wrote “Equality” to promote the idea of equality. “Knowledge” (“Gezhi”) “Fortune Telling” (“Pizhanyan”) and “Advocate Women’s Rights” (“Mian Nüquan”) spread scientific knowledge, opposed feudal superstition, and spoke out for women’s rights. 

The Xuetang Yuege genre represented by the works of Shen Xingong, Zeng Zhizhai, Li Shutong and Tao Xingzhi not only reformed the national character and aroused national consciousness to fight for the survival and fate of the Chinese nation, but also realized the ideal of “resorting to aesthetic education instead of religion” to facilitate new ideas, shape new personality and cultivate a new generation of Chinese people.

Revolutionary songs

After 1937, Chinese folk music moved into an era of revolutionary songs, which led to a qualitative change in modern Chinese music. In June 1937, the magazine Ballad (Geyao) stopped publication, ending a massive 20-year effort to collect folk songs. The New Music Movement and New Ballad Movement came to a halt and were replaced by the “left-wing music movement.”

During this period, the social environment faced by folk songs was different from previous times, featuring a close integration of music and politics. The number of people involved in the creation, appreciation and research of ballads continued to increase. From the late 1930s to the late 1970s, folk songs were de facto one of the important ways for the people to participate in politics. 

During the left-wing music movement, Lü Ji, Xu Bieyong, Sha Ting, Long Wen, Xian Xinghai, He Luting and Xue Liang all agreed that the relationship between people’s daily life and the historical mission of resisting Japanese aggression and saving the nation should be handled properly, when talking about the nationalism of folk songs and ballads.

Against the backdrop of China’s total resistance against Japanese aggression by the whole nation, folk songs of that time had a strong “epic” nature, meaning that they tended to tell stories of “heroic battles or courageous acts.” These epic characteristics were in line with the audience’s appetite at that time. The Chinese people were immersed in the anti-Japanese sentiment, which influenced the style of folk songs. 

At that time, the themes of Chinese music were no longer about family and emotions, and the decadent artistic style also disappeared. Instead, the patriotism for fighting the common enemy became a popular theme, producing a series of classic songs such as “Song of the Great Wall” and “Song for the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army.”

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, folk songs as a mainstream literary form of workers and peasants continued to flourish in daily life. Therefore, in the nearly four decades from the late 1930s to the late 1970s, folk songs were closely associated with politics, and collective creation was common. Folk songs of this period can be called revolutionary songs. 

Campus folk songs

Yang Xian’s modern folk concert in 1975 showcased 21 songs of poetry set to music, attracting a group of young intellectuals to join the “write their own songs” movement. There was also the Tamkang Event, an incident that earned its name when Li Shuangze asked the audience “Where are our own songs?” in a 1976 Western music concert at Tamkang University. Then Yu Guangzhong defended the legality of modern folk songs, Tao Xiaoqing, Yang Xian, Ara Kimbo and Wu Chuchu released the folk album “Our Song,” and the magazine China Tide was published. This series of events underlined campus folk songs as an irreversible trend in the late 1970s.

If we say the early 20th century witnessed the transition of traditional to modern folk songs and an enlightenment era for modern folk songs, then the Taiwanese folk song movement in the 1970s could be said to represent the shift from epic folk songs to a new wave of folk songs full of personality. It could also be regarded as the enlightenment era for contemporary folk songs, containing the enthusiastic and deep thoughts of young intellectuals. Moreover, the communication pattern of “one to many” was established, marking the growth of folk song idols. 

In the early 1980s, the reform and opening up and the development of cross-Strait relations as a historical context directly impacted the trend of contemporary folk songs. The integration of mainland folk music with that in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the West began to take a secular turn.

A large number of folk idols, such as Cheng Yuan, Tao Xiaoqing, Lao Lang and Gao Xiaosong, stepped onto the stage, signaling the arrival of the era of secularization and consumerism. As the main force of folk song creation, young people stood at the center of this historical stage and pursued diverse, delicate, rebellious and authentic forms of expression. Therefore, campus folk songs gained their distinctive signature and became a unique music genre in the new era. 

Since the 1990s, campus folk songs have grown into an independent music genre that sustains its popularity still today. Contemporary campus folk songs not only meet the demand of marketization and market consumption, but also meet the needs of musicians to pursue individuality and personality, forming a unique style and characteristics.


Cao Zhiwei is from the School of Journalism at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics.




Editor: Yu Hui

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