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Oldest peacock dance a guy thing
By Zhang Qian

A peacock flutters down to a river bank, observes his own reflection in the water, sips a bit of water, then grooms his feathers and spreads his beautiful tail into an iridescent fan of green, gold and blue.

To the beats of a foot drum (xiang jiao gu 象脚鼓), a small cymbals (nao bo 铙钹) and mang (硭), a kind of gong, 65-year-old Yue Xiang from Yunnan Province portrays a magnificent peacock with graceful movements.

Though most people associate a peacock dance of any kind with the famous female dancer Yang Liping, the indigenous of the Dai ethnic peacock dance was originally a courtship dance by the more beautiful male peacock, which has a fan, not the more ordinary-looking female peahen, which is more drab and does not have the same spectacular plumage.

This male peacock dance was inscribed on China's first list of National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006.

Dancer Yue, the 65-year-old "Peacock Dance King" in Yunnan, is himself a preserver of the dance legacy. From July 11 to 17, he performed in a show of international indigenous music for the 42nd International Council for Traditional Music hosted by Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

More than 600 experts in traditional music and dance from more than 56 countries and regions attended, discussing preservation of traditional music worldwide; efforts in China were a major topic.

The International Council for Traditional Music is an NGO founded in 1947 in formal consultative relations with UNESCO. It aims to promote study, performance, preservation and documentation of traditional folk music, as well as dance from all countries. It organizes world conferences, study groups and meetings.

The council's meeting in Shanghai this month was the first-ever session here; it had convened in Fujian Province in 2004 and in Hong Kong in 1991.

China has 56 ethnic groups and a rich and diverse traditional musical culture. Yunnan Province, in the country's southwest, is a region with the most minority groups - 25.

Yang Yandi, vice president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, says the music is precious because it's closely related to the daily life, cultures and the natural environment in which it was born.

"To a degree, it was naturally born with people's lives, rather than intentionally composed as an art form," Yang says. "It is unique and irreplaceable to the regional culture, just as genes are to a human being. For example, you never see peacock dance in costal regions where there are hardly any peacock."

Indigenous dance

Worship of the peacock, an auspicious symbol, is said to be the origin of the peacock dance among Dai people, according to peacock dancer Yue. Watching and intimating the elegant movements of peacocks in the forest is the way the Dai dancers create the art.

The indigenous peacock dance can be performed in solos or groups. There are set moves such as looking out from the forest, walking in the woods, drinking and playing on the riverbank and playing chasing games in the woods. Some dancers emphasize imitating the birds' movements, some focus on what the bird may be thinking, and others create dances based on legends.

The Dai peacock dance is traditionally performed only by men, since only the male peacock possesses the gorgeous tail fan.

It was presented at almost every major festival, including the Water Splashing Festival and some Buddhist activities. Many traditions have been lost as the Dai move to cities, adopt modern lives and lose touch with tradition.

The dance that once every Dai person could perform is no longer popular. A few peacock masters such Yue offer low-cost dance lessons, the indigenous dance just doesn't appeal to young people who want to get out of rural areas as soon as they can and make a better life for themselves in cities.

The same is true for many other traditional ethnic music and dance forms in Yunnan Province, according to 30-year-old Li Huaifu, deputy director of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritance Center attached to the Kunming Vocational Academy of Art, established in 2001 to preserve and promote traditional arts in Yunnan.

Li is also passing down hai cai qiang (海菜腔), an indigenous song created by ancestors of the Yi ethnic group as they picked aquatic plants in lakes. According to him, traditional music was on the verge of extinction in his hometown before he and his sisters joined a national CCTV singing gala competition in 2004.

"Hai cai qiang was once a popular regional singing style with a history of around 700 years in my hometown, but only a few old artists could sign a few stanzas before 2004," says Li.

The impact of modern civilization and the low pay for traditional singers are the two major reasons for decline in an area where many people used to be able to sing and dance.

"Visitors to ethnic towns in Yunnan always find young people wearing T-shirts, while they dance, and speaking Mandarin," says Li. "They may be more familiar with karaoke than singing in antiphonal style. It's inevitable in the modern world."

Before 2004, Li and his sisters were earning only 20 yuan (US$3.27) a month through traditional dancing at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritance Center.

"You cannot convince young people that you should carry on the tradition simply because it is precious but with no promising-future attached," says Li.

Cultural lessons

But the work became more financially appealing after Li and his sister received various performance invitations in China and from foreign countries after their performances were broadcast on television.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritance Center recruited students aged from 14 to 20 years old, receiving both traditional arts and cultural lessons for free.

Quite a few masters of cultural heritage give lessons at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritance Center, while students may travel to remote villages to learn from masters who are too old to travel.

Certificates are presented after graduation.

Though teacher Li cannot make promises since students have not yet graduated, he is optimistic because of the attention focused on preserving traditional indigenous arts in recent years.

Supportive policies from local and central government also encourage dancers. They may include competitions as well as making traditional folk arts part of standards state curriculums.

How to preserve traditional music and dance in modern, globalized society is a universal topic, says president Yang of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

"Should we preserve it in a museum-like way or transfer and combine it with modern life? There isn't a definite answer yet and there won't be a universal answer for everyone," he says.

The National Intangible Cultural Heritage List is a positive movement of China to preserve traditional art in a museum-like way, but it also faces the problem of too much commercialization that damages traditional arts.

"Different methods may work for different arts in different regions and ages. Experts and artists worldwide are making their approaches as though they are crossing a river by feeling the stones," says Yang.

Zhuang ethnic song book

The Poya Ge Shu (坡芽歌书), or Poya Song Book, of the Zhuang ethnic group in Yunnan Province uses simple pictogram and symbols written or painted on homespun to help people memorize ancient songs.

The Poya Song Book has been passed down through generations of Zhuang people in Funing County, southeastern Yunnan Province.

Poya is the name of the Zhuang ethnic village, comprised of around 55 households where the first song book with 81 picture-like characters was discovered in 2006. Each character represents a single folk song.

In the Zhuang dialect, poya is a hillside covered by an edible plant sometimes used to prepare "colored rice" for guests.

The song book is believed to date back to the pre-Qin Dynasty (before 221 BC), characterized in this region by a matrilineal society, since most song books were passed down by women, according to Huang Xiang, leader of the Poya Folk Song Team who has been promoting the Poya Song Book in national and regional singing competitions.

"The Zhuang people sing about almost everything in their lives," says Huang, "To help them memorize the many folk songs, they recorded them by painting on homespun to remind themselves of the songs as well as the way elders taught the songs to younger people."

The first Poya Song Book was discovered in 2006 in a survey of cultural resources in Funing County. Middle-aged Nong Fengmei forgot some songs when she performed for folk song collectors and took out the song book to refresh her memory.

After careful collection, study, translation and documentation, one Poya Song Book of the Zhuang ethnic group was published in 2009. The Poya Folk Song Team also took first prize in a regional singing competition broadcast on regional television.

In 2011, the book was included in the list of National Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Nong was identified as the successor to the long tradition.

Songs of Hani ethnic group

Polyphonic music, containing at least two lines of melody, is popular in Hani ethnic group in Yunnan Province and has a long history. It is distinguished by multi-part choruses.

The subjects are typically love songs, working songs and songs in praise of the rural landscape.

"Wuchu A'ci" (吾处阿次 "Mountain Song of Transplanting Seedlings") and "Love Song" were representative works discovered by Hani musician Wu Zhiming when surveying on ethnic music in 1986.

"I happened to overhear the amazing polyphony by Hani women who were transplanting seedling in the paddy terrace, and I was immediately moved by such powerful music," Wu recalls. "I believe it is a kind of traditional music that had never been discovered and it has at least five vocal parts."

Traditional Hani polyphonic folk songs can be performed by a chorus or with accompaniment. Eight-tone music is collected and recorded in field study. Wu says he has heard more than 10 distinct parts sung by 20 people in chorus.

Almost any Hani woman older than 16 years of age could sing "Wuchu A'ci" when Wu first carried out research in the 1980s, but now "most of village young people left their hometowns for work, instead of farming the terraces where the polyphone songs were born," says Wu.

"You cannot blame them for trying to make a living, but it's a pity the musical treasures are lost," he adds.

To save the polyphonic songs, Wu set up his own school and singing teams to promote the music eight years ago.

The situation is improving, more people are interested and the government is giving subsidies.

But government incentives cannot overcome the lure of the outside world where there are no polyphone seedling planting songs.

"All our efforts may just postpone the inevitable end," says Wu.

Musical instruments of Nujiang

A wide range of ethnic musical instruments are played in Nujiang of the Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province where many of ethnic groups live.

They include qi chu (jaw harp made of bamboo 起出), di li tu (10-12cm bamboo flute with four sound holes 笛哩吐), da bi ya (four-string lute 达比亚) and tree leaves used by Lisu, Nu, Dulong, Bai and Pumi ethnic people.

"Though seemingly simple, the music instruments can be played in multiple ways invented by local people in their leisure time," says Bai musician Yang Yuanji of the Nujiang Folk Sing and Dance Troupe.

Apart from performing all together, some musicians may play the bamboo flute with their nose; one person may play two flutes at the same time. "Playing music together is a traditional romantic outlet for boys and girls," says Yang.

Qi chu, which has a gentle sound of whispering, is sometimes used to deliver love message. There's a legend that a cruel governor, afraid of people criticizing him, banned everyone for talking, even among married couples. Violators were punished by flogging or even to death. The inventive Lisu people then invented qi chu to talk without actually "using" their voices.

"Since the 1930s, conservative Christian missionaries in the region discouraged the singing of folk songs that they considered too 'earthy'," Yang says. "So the ethnic people resorted to playing traditional instruments, which happened to help many of them survive."

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