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Urban Folk

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Folk music has continually fed into popular music and mass music.

Folk Anthologies

Since the early 20th century, Chinese researchers have been collecting, revising and redistributing folk songs. The Communists have continued this practice, publishing huge anthologies of folk melodies in cypher notation. These efforts captured songs that would otherwise have disappeared without a trace. However in the process songs were adapted to Western equal tuning to suit cypher notation, written down in standard Chinese rather than dialect, and erotic and other ‘reactionary’ expressions were replaced with praises of Mao Zedong.

In 1938 the Beijinger Wang Luobin composed his first song based on a folk melody. He would continue to collect and revise folk songs for fifty years, mostly in China’s northwest. Many of his folk-inspired compositions became hugely popular in the PRC and beyond. For instance, in 1983 the Taiwanese pop star Luo Dayou reused “Youth Dance”, a Xinjiang folk song over which Wang Luobin claimed copyright.

In short, folk and pop are intertwined. Zeng Suijin and other Chinese scholar even propose to see pop music as modern folk music. This reflects the idea that folksongs do not represent only the countryside but the whole nation. Indeed, the Chinese word for folksong, min’ge, implies a connection with renmin, ‘the People,’ as in ‘the People’s Republic of China’.

To sidestep these debates we will focus on urban folk here. Urban folk is a kind of commercial popular music. Its main instrument is the acoustic guitar and its main source of inspiration is American folk. Although adaptation of folk songs by the official singers also cater to urbanites, I will discuss them under the rubric of Mass and Propaganda music (see below).

Nostalgic Perfectionism

The Campus Song movement of 1975-1982 in Taiwan initially called itself folksong movement. It’s guitar-based songs expressed dreams of a better place. Folk came to represent an untainted and eternally unattainable ‘true, good, and beautiful’ (zhen shan mei). This nostalgic perfectionism made these folksongs suitable for mainstream pop (see Taiwan above).

Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and the PRC tried to emulate the success of Taiwanese Campus Song. In 1993 in Beijing Gao Xiaosong, Huang Liaoyuan and other heavyweight music producers launched the careers of Ai Jing, Lao Lang, Ye Pei and A Duo under the banner ‘campus folktune’ (xiaoyuan minyao). Ai Jing’s hit “My 1997” wondered about the opportunities the upcoming return of Hong Kong might have on a personal level, but by and large these and later folk pop singers such as Pu Shu and Wang Juan remained within the apolitical ‘true, good, and beautiful’. Zhang Chu also emerged in 1993 with a more unpolished folk rock sound. His poetic lyrics equally appeal to college and university students.

Indie pop, which emerged in more recent years in Taiwan, is related to this strand of urban folk music (see below).

Authenticity

In the late 1990s the duo Wild Children started to collect and adapt northwest Chinese folk tunes to guitar. The fact that they valued authenticity over marketability has earned them much praise in the band scene. When the anti-mainstream stance of underground music was exposed as putting rockers out of touch with reality and The People, Wild Children’s style of humbleness, traveling and learning from locals offered a way out. More concretely, the duo opened the River Bar in Beijing, which between 2001 and 2003 became a hotbed for the emerging folk scene. IZ, Yang Yi, Xiao He, Wan Xiaoli and Zhou Yunpeng first performed here.

Meanwhile in Taiwan expressions of local and aboriginal Taiwanese identities were becoming less repressed. This enabled the emergence of folk albums by aboriginal singers and bands, such as Panai, Purdur and A Moving Sound. Many of these albums were published by TCM records (since 1999). The band  Work Exchange successfully helped mobilizing a local community to stop the building of a dam, which helped gaining national recognition for their Hakka music. Also in his solo career lead singer Lin Sheng-xiang stresses authenticity and closeness to his local community.

Avant-garde Folk

In the PRC, guitar-based American-influenced folk is a more or less coherent musical genre. Whereas in the West it may have anti-urban and anti-modern tendencies, in China it to some extent represents cosmopolitanism and modernity. Many Chinese folk artists have no qualms whatsoever against using the latest technology, and making this audible in their shows and recordings. After his important 1999 self-recorded dialect folk album, Hu Mage started making avant-garde sound collages. Xiao He makes extensive use of his loop station and midi guitar in his improvised live performances and has added quirky background electronics to Zhou Yunpeng’s successful, socially engaged album China’s Children. In this light, even Dou Wei’s ambient jazz, Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s experimental and noisy pop rock, and Liang Yiyuan Daoist sound collages can be subsumed under folk.

 

For the complete chapter, please download the PDF below