31 October 2005 2005 nian 10 yue 31 hao

Artlog: October

The bar in Lhasa has every kind of person,
It just doesn't have the one who I care for.
She told me that she doesn't love me,
Because I am a person without money.

The bar in the city has every kind of drink,
It just doesn't have my highland barley wine.
One cup, two cups—I will not feel drunk,
Because I am a big boozer.

The world outside has every kind of song,
It just doesn't have this song of mine.
One song, two songs—no one will become popular,
Because we are itinerant singers.

— lyrics from The Bar in Lhasa by Genga

I always complain that there's no high culture in Qinghai, but then again I've never really looked very hard. This month I have decided to make more of an effort to seek out art. Here is a record of my discoveries.

October 1: By word of mouth, I heard about a calligraphy exhibition at the Qinghai Museum. It was a competition called "Step into Qinghai", and featured three exhibition halls with submissions from artists all over China. The pieces were all produced especially for the competition, although only a few related directly to Qinghai in terms of content.

Although I've seen chinese calligraphy before, I've never seen a proper exhibition. It was really interesting to compare the pieces, and think about why I liked some and not others. I went with a friend, who swapped opinions with me and told me a bit about the different styles (regular script, running script, grass script, etc). Once you've developed a critical eye, chinese calligraphy can be really interesting, and at its best truly beautiful. And although knowing a bit about calligraphy technique and how chinese characters are formed is useful, actually understanding the content (which is usually classical poetry, Mao Zedong quotations, and so on) is not at all essential. I could only read the odd character here and there, and in the case of the more cursive scripts, even educated chinese often can't understand without a great deal of effort.

The best pieces, it turned out, were from established calligraphers who didn't want to enter the contest, but sent along a "congratulatory piece". Here are my two favourites:

Calligraphy (1)          Calligraphy (2)

Tonight, I also had dinner at a "western" restaurant (actually, the menu had dishes from various asian countries too), which is not something I do very often. I mention this because I think the appreciation of art and food are not too far removed! The food was mediocre, but at least a change from the norm, and dessert made it all worthwhile: walnut pie.

October 5: On the way home in a taxi tonight, I heard part of a radio play on the local Qinghai radio station. It was about two sisters home alone, and something that they saw inside the television set: a person without a head! Apparently, there is a ghost story on the radio every day at this time. I'm not a fan of scary stories, and was glad I only heard the first ten minutes of it.

October 6: On the basis of few songs I once heard on a compilation of chinese rock music, I bought an album by Siqingerile today. This mongolian chinese singer does some rocking covers of folk classics, and writes her own songs too.

What I bought, unintentionally, was a VCD. I prefer CDs for their sound quality, but unfortunately it's quite common for only the VCD version of an album to be available. Anyway, some of the videoclips on the (pirated) Siqingerile VCD do not actually match the music, and the last three songs do not feature Siqingerile at all!

Today I also watched Jackie Chan's latest film "The Myth" in the cinema. As I had been warned, it was pretty bad, but there wasn't any other choice. I only know of two cinemas in Xining, and not only do they both screen the same film, they screen the same film continuously for a period of about two weeks.

October 12: For about the last year, I've been meaning to visit one of the several tibetan performance halls in Xining. Some offer food, some only drinks, but of course the highlight is tibetan singing and dancing. Today, a friend finally took me to a place called Sujinima. The performances I enjoyed the most were a capella folk songs, sung in a captivating, throaty, high-pitched style. Unfortunately, this gave way pretty quickly to more modern songs, and the finale, believe it or not, was a flavour-of-the-month pop song, the theme from a Korean soap opera no less! Overall it was a fun evening, with the audience being invited to join in guozhuang dacing around the room, and I (as the only foreign friend) even got up and sang a song, but it was all a bit amateurish. That, along with the pop music, destroyed any sense of authenticity it might otherwise have had.

Sujinima Tibetan Performance Hall

October 15: Today, in Guanting, I watched a local festival called Nadun. The festival actually began two months ago; it moves from village to village, with the villages in the lower, warmer areas (where the harvest is finished earliest) holding it first. Nadun is a mangghuer (tu) nationality festival, and is unique to the Sanchuan area. It features dancing, plays, and religious ritual. The plays are more like story-dances really, and mainly portray the deeds of mythical figures, although the one I like most (perhaps because it's the only one I can understand) is about a man teaching his son and his daughter-in-law how to plough the land.

Nadun Festival
Part of the main dance, which continues for at least an hour.

Story-dance at Nadun Festival
The story-dance about ploughing the fields.

October 18: Today I bought another VCD, Qinghai shehuo music. Shehuo just means a festive community gathering, so this is the kind of folk music and song that might accompany yangge dancing for example. I'm quite interested in chinese folk music.

October 23: Today I bought a VCD by Zhang Chen, a Qinghai hip-hop artist. He raps, humourously, on subjects like counterfeit products and Xining women, and his style seems like a cross between american rap and traditional chinese spoken word styles. I don't actually like it, but I want to play it for some friends and see their response.

October 29: According to a poster I saw in the city, today and tomorrow a Qinghai poet called Li Bingbing will be giving poetry readings in some local colleges. Unfortunately, I'm in Guanting at the moment and will not be able to attend. Or perhaps that's fortunate, because I flicked through a book of his poetry in the shop the other day, and was not very impressed.

And so commences my journey into Qinghai art and music. In light of my intention to leave Qinghai soon, I will probably continue to buy CDs over the coming month or two, particularly music that is unique to north-western China.

One kind of music that I probably won't buy, but which is worth mentioning, is what I call grassland pop music. There are a number of big name tibetan and mongolian singers like Yadong (tibetan), Han Hong (tibetan), Tengge'er (mongolian), and Dedema (mongolian), who churn out music which combines gentle melodies, regional imagery (grasslands, blue skies, snow-capped mountains, shepherd girls, butter tea, highland barley wine, etc), and slick commercial production. I think of it as a hybrid of folk and pop music. Some of the biggest hits get airplay in the east of China, but there I don't think this kind of music enjoys anything like the popularity it does here.

The song I translated at the top of this article, "The Bar in Lhasa", is a more upbeat number which does not really fit this mold. It's pretty popular at the moment though, perhaps more for its novelty value than anything else. And, I can sing it!

Hello Todd, nice to hear from you again. My own personal favourite genre of music remains Blues, although I'm eclectic enough to take on pretty well anything. The a capella you mention sounds like it would be something that would interest me as well. My latest buy over the w'end was a CD of Gregorian chants - delightful!

If you happen to be back in Perth around Thursday Nov 17 I'm having a full-moon gathering at Gallop from 5:30pm. (Moon will rise around 7:30pm - consider yourself invited :-))
David Tehr
31.10.2005 , 17:32

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