14 July 2005 2005 nian 7 yue 14 hao

Journal: Flower Festival

In fact they had known each other since they were young. Brother Mangeng was the ferryman's son. Yuyin used to go with him into the mountains to pull bamboo shoots, pick mushrooms, and gather firewood. They even used to sing mountain songs from hill to hill and from cliff to cliff, cursing at each other for fun. Little Yuyin would sing: "Laizai trees stand there in a line, If you dare chop wood then come by, Smash smash! My sickle will cut you down, Slash slash! My sickle will gouge your eye!" Little Mangeng would reply: "That mountain maid is good and nice, If you dare pull bamboo come by, With a red silk cloth I'll cover your head, In a coloured sedan I'll lift you high!"* They would carry on singing and cursing at each other, one mountain song after another. Mangeng never lost, but Yuyin never won. In her heart she would hatefully curse him: "Go to hell! Who wants your red silk cloth and coloured sedan? Pooh! Pooh!" Sometimes she would also think: "What an uncouth rascal! Let's see whether or not your coloured sedan comes to lift me one day!" Afterwards, both of them grew older year by year, and Yuyin's understanding grew greater year by year. Brother Mangeng joined the army. If Hu Yuyin ever thought of that line from a mountain song "In a coloured sedan I'll lift you high", her face would get hot, her heart would leap, and she would feel a glad kind of shyness.

— from A Town Called Hibiscus by Gu Hua

* A red silk cloth (or veil) and sedan chair are common features of a traditional chinese wedding.

There is a type of folk song in China called shange (mountain songs). These are typically sung in a high register, with a very free rhythm (in other words, it's difficult to clap along to them). Some lyrics are well-known, but experienced singers can also take an existing melody and improvise their own lyrics. Traditionally, they are sung without musical accompaniment. This recording that I made, though not of great quality, might give you some idea of the sound.

There are various regional names for these songs, and in Qinghai and Gansu they are known as huar (meaning "flowers"). This name reflects the fact that mountain songs are usually sung outdoors, for example while working...or courting. Indeed, love is the theme of a great many mountain songs (and I am told that some are even quite ribald!).

In some areas of Qinghai, young people gather in certain valleys on the sixth day of the sixth lunar month to sing these love songs, relax with their friends, and who knows, perhaps even meet that special somebody. In Sanchuan, there are at least half a dozen such gatherings, but one of the most popular places in Minhe County is a little further north in the valley where Qili Temple is located. Although Liuyue Liu (the sixth day of the sixth month) is the day with the most people, some stay as long as three days.

Of course, people have been teasing me for ages about this, saying that I should learn some mountain songs and look for a wife at one of these flower parties. But jokes aside, I certainly was hoping I would be able to visit one of these gatherings to soak up a little bit of folk culture, and as luck would have it Mr Zhu invited his friend Kevin to see the event this year and I went along for the ride. Kevin also brought two other foreign teachers and one of his students. There were about a dozen of us in total, and we took a sheep with us too:

Jin Baoyuan cutting up a sheep
Jin Baoyuan begins cutting up the sheep.

The area around Qili Temple is really very pretty, with a crystal clear stream running through a valley surrounded by green hills. Although there is a bridge downstream, a lot of people prefer the challenge of jumping across on the rocks. In many places, the edge of the stream was lined with people, either waiting their turn to cross or watching everybody else test their skill. A cry would go up if anybody fell in the water, or if a man took off his shoes and carried his wife or girlfriend across on his back.

Mr Zhu jumping the stream
Mr Zhu took up the challenge of jumping the stream.

A few of us crossed the stream and climbed up the hill on the opposite side (I conservatively opted to wade across, instead of jumping). The mountain-side was full of people sitting together in groups, holding umbrellas to keep the sun off, and a number of people were singing. Some of the better singers attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.

Singing Qinghai 'Huar'

When we got back to our picnic spot, the others had already started stewing the lamb in "medicinal water". There is a spring near Qili Temple, and the water from there is supposed to be good for treating stomach diseases. It has so many minerals that it tastes like battery acid, but the lamb cooked in it was definitely very tasty.

After our bellies were full, we were keen to hear some singing, and at that moment a young man walked past with some of his friends, singing as he went. We called him over, and plied him with beer and watermelon, but he didn't actually need much encouragement to sing a few huar. By that time, a bit of a crowd had started to form, and a woman on the other side of the circle was dobbed in by her friends as having a good voice, so she let loose with a loud song. To some extent, these songs are a challenge for others to "reply" with another song, and the first singer lost no time in answering. For a while, we were caught in the crossfire of songs flying back and forth. I really didn't understand any of the lyrics, partly because the songs were all sung in dialect, but I wish I could have understood because at some points the crowd would laugh at something which had been sung. Eventually, various other people took a turn, including Mr Zhu (who is a very good singer) and some others in our group. I sung too, but I can't sing any huar so I had to break tradition and sing something more ordinary. And one of our guests, Solomon, gave a rendition of his now-famous "Take This Hammer". Apparently an old negro work song, it has a number of "ha!" exclamations in it, which never fail to draw tears of laughter from the crowd.

Listening to Qinghai 'Huar'
Friends and onlookers enjoying the music.

At one point, a young lady in a green dress sang for us, and I noticed that she had nothing to shade her from the sun. Probably motivated less by chivalry and more by the environment (ie. a festival of love songs), I grabbed an umbrella, leapt up, and held it above her while she sung. But after the song, she quickly disappeared, and my friends scolded me for letting her get away!

The day was less interesting for Mr Zhu's brother-in-law Jiefu (actually, that's just how I address him—elder sister's husband. Since I always call him that, I can't remember his real name!). He came with us, but slipped away by himself quite early on, and we didn't meet up with him again until it was time to leave. The problem is that Mr Zhu's sister-in-law Erzihua was also there, who by some strange reckoning is Jiefu's sister—they're not closely related, but they come from the same village and have the same surname. It's not appropriate for them to be in the same place when mountain songs are being sung, just as it is not appropriate for this type of song to be sung when members of a different generation are present, especially one's parents. If Erzihua is there, then Jiefu has to stay away, and if Jiefu is there then Erzihua has to stay away. Indeed, some people think these songs are "unhealthy" and shouldn't be sung at all. Being heard singing them could even be grist for the gossip mill! (I'm told that not all areas of Qinghai are this conservative, though).

After enjoying the songs for a while, I snuck off to take a piss in a small thicket of trees. There was another group of people sitting a little way further down the slope on the other side of the thicket, and one of them spotted me and came running up to invite me to sit with them and have a drink. Normally I would decline this type of invitation from a stranger, especially considering that I had come with friends, but in this case I accepted. I was probably motivated less by goodwill and friendship, and more by the fact that I had noticed from the corner of my eye that the young woman in green was part of this group! It turns out that she had come all the way from Haishiwan (close to the Minhe county seat but across the border in Gansu Province). We sang a few songs for each other (she sang really well!), before Erzihua called me back because it was time to cook mianpian.

Making 'Mianpian'
I helped to make the mianpian, stretching the dough into a strip and then tearing off squares and tossing them into the pot. The dough was a bit too firm, meaning that the mianpian came out bigger and thicker and had to cook longer, but they still tasted the same.

When we eventually packed up in the afternoon, we put all our rubbish in a big canvas bag to take away with us. I was very impressed with this, because chinese are often not very responsible with their rubbish. In populated areas, it's hard to find a stream or a gutter that isn't full of litter, although that probably has something to do with the fact that places like Guanting do not have a rubbish collection service. Burning is the only other viable way for rural people to deal with rubbish.

We were a bit pressed for space on the way back, because only one of the vehicles we came in was returning to Guanting. That was a little pick-up truck, so Jiefu and I sat in the tray and sang songs all the way home. We stopped the car at one point to pick wild strawberries. And when we were almost home, Jiefu finally gave in to my questions about huar and, in a low voice so that Erzihua sitting inside the car wouldn't hear, taught me the first line of one song: "Little sister, I've walked by your front door three times" (why don't you come out and sing with me?).

 
Hi Todd,

China seems to be coming up more & more in general conversation these days. People seem overall quite excited about China's economic growth, but a little wary of where it's all going. The jury is still out with most I have spoken to, including a few sino/asian experts from our own DEFAT (Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade).

Just wondering if you have ever seen this website? www.theepochtimes.com/aboutus.html

They seem quite ANTI-CCP, so I hope I'm not getting you into trouble by posting it on your site?

Life continues apace in sunny Perth. With weather like this, who would think it's winter?

Hope you're well,
DT
David Tehr
01.08.2005 , 12:47


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