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Nanyin: the gentle art of the South

A thriving cultural fossil.

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Published: 14 Jun 2018


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For new ears unaccustomed to traditional musics from China, nanyin (南音)—literally translated as "Southern sounds"—makes a distinctly different impression in its quiet, chamber-based appeal.

This is in comparison to the orchestras of expanded instruments which ventriloquise for Chinese classical music today, products of 1950s reforms in China made in emulation of European symphonic music. (Han & Gray 1979, Tan 2000)

Often described as elegant and low-key—even somewhat dubiously, "Zen"—nanyin is thought of today as a refined musical genre played in genteel settings of private chambers and quiet temples. There are reasons for this, drawn from its illustrious history.

The art form, which originated in Quanzhou, Fujian province, has a lineage that goes back to the Ming dynasty. Indeed, oft-told legends about nanyin musicians who played for and were honoured by the Emperor Kangxi in private, exclusive events abound, and are constantly repeated even as their origins may be suspect.

But the fact that a strong literary tradition backing up the art form exists, found in valuable handwritten scores passed down—some in secret—over hundreds of years within musicians’ guilds and families, has added to nanyin’s aura. As a musical genre, nanyin also bears strong relations to the Southern Chinese opera form of Liyuan (黎园) (Pear Garden) theatre, where many tunes and stories are drawn.

As recent as the 19th century, nanyin was practised by men in elite circles and female courtesans. Within the specific repertoire of zhi (指) in the nanyin corpus of music, grand stories were told of virtuous as well as forbidden love, while long and lyrical descriptions of flora and fauna populate the title texts of the instrumental repertoire of pu (譜).

Thriving in Taiwan, Southeast Asia

Today, nanyin’s reputation as a living cultural fossil is somewhat romanticised, but this in itself has become an interesting development. The genre—while originating in the Chinese mainland—has travelled with the growth of the Chinese diaspora, and flourished over the past few hundred years in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In fact, some practitioners think of the genre’s practice in the diasporic territories as more faithful to versions heard in the past, before the vicissitudes of the Cultural Revolution in China itself wreaked havoc on many nanyin cultural bearers and venues and opportunities that enabled its practice.

And yet, culture has continued to thrive and adapt in its own resilient ways, and in parallel territories. Today, nanyin is still very much sung in the original Quanzhou dialect, even as the versions of spoken Chinese in Taiwan (minnanhua) and Southeast Asia (Hokkien) have changed over time. Different performing styles have also evolved in different regions. The name nanyin—used in China and Singapore—is contested and referred to differently in different territories: it is nanguan (南管) in Taiwan, and guanxian (管弦), nanqu (南曲) and nanyue (南乐) in other arts circles.

Competition and reinvention

So—“whose” South—does nanyin come from and belong to, then? In Taiwan at the height of and parallel to the Cultural Revolution in China, nanguan (南管) belonged first to the domain of amateur clubbers who played largely for self-cultivation, or for temple rituals, weddings and funerals.

However, the form soon attracted the attention of the state, which—as scholar Wang Yingfen describes—unwittingly forced new challenges upon the genre by investing in it in a big way, turning the genre into an arguably successful and commoditised industry. Guilds grew competitive over social status, commercial opportunities and touring opportunities, even as younger musicians began to see the attraction of the form and take up instruments.

Today, similar debates have also arisen in China, where the genre in its form as nanyin has more recently enjoyed a spate of strategised national encouragement, in contrast to how the folk arts were once forced underground during the 1970s.

In fact, in 2009, nanyin was officially inscribed on the Representative List on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO by China, alongside other valuable traditions including kun (昆) opera, celadon making, Tibetan Opera and seal-carving. The ensuing developments have both re-energised as well as opened up new problems of cultural ownership, monetisation, and standardisation of creative styles (via institutionalisation and professonalisation) for the genre.

In Singapore, nanyin has recently also come to receive support from the state, which has begun to diversify its funding of musical activities, expanding its original investment in national orchestras to include a focus on traditional cultures. New roads, opportunities and challenges have been carved out for the form, and nanyin has begun to branch out in radical new ways, and is no longer just an “ancient” art form.

No longer just an “ancient” art form, practitioners at the flagship Siong Leng Musical Association for example have ventured into fusion collaborations with multicultural musicians and theatre practitioners, while the more purist Chuantong Nanyinshe has staunchly hung on to its mainstay of “traditional” repertoire of pieces by Singaporean musician Teng Mah Seng and the classics of several hundred years old. Indeed, the “South” of nanyin’s Southern Sounds have acquired new loci and languages.

What to look out for in a nanyin concert

Nanyin ensembles comprise two ensembles, the core ensemble of the shangsiguan (上四管) and the secondary ensemble of the xiasiguan (下四管), which is called in for an expanded set up. The core ensemble comprises:

  • the paiban (拍板) wooden clappers, typically used to keep time and held by the singer,
  • the lead instrument of the pipa (琵琶) (played sideways as opposed to upright in a standard pipa),
  • the three-stringed sanxian (三弦) lute (which supports the pipa),
  • the vertical flute of the dongxiao (洞箫), which elaborates on the pipa melody,
  • and the two-stringed fiddle erxian (二弦), which supports the xiao (箫).

Nanyin Thumbnail 01

This illustrates how instruments are positioned in a core <em>nanyin</em> ensemble. From left to right: the <em>sanxian</em> (三弦), the horizontally held <em>pipa</em> (琵琶), the singer holding the <em>paiban</em> (拍板) wooden clapper, the <em>dongxiao</em> (洞箫) and the <em>erxian</em> (二弦). This was taken during <em>Moving Horizon – A Nanyin Journey</em> by Siong Leng Musical Association, as part of <em>Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts</em> in 2014.

The supplementary ensemble comprises a reeded wind instrument called the ai zai (嗳仔), a small gong nested in a basket called the xiangzhan (响盏), a pair of bells called shuangling (双铃), two pairs of bamboo clappers called sibao (四宝), and a wooden slit drum called the muyu (木鱼) with a gong extension called a jiaoluo (叫锣).

As with all folk music forms in China, nanyin is melody-driven rather than harmony driven: every instrument plays a version of the same tune (with the exception of percussion instruments), and the devil is to be found in the details—of stratified polyphony, of asynchrony, of musical anticipation and delay.

To the unaccustomed ears, the fact that instruments do not always seem to start and stop at the same time might come across as slippery ensemble-work. But this is the beauty of the aesthetic of nanyin, where some time delay between lead instruments and instruments preparing for their melodic arrival is the key ethos.

Zhi (指), Pu (譜) and Qu (曲)

Nanyin pieces are traditionally organised according to the following sub-collection of repertoire.

Zhi (指), literally referring to “finger”, make a category of suites numbering over 40, and are performed as purely instrumental pieces or in the form of narrative songs with instrumental backing.

Pu (譜) make the smaller category of purely instrumental suites, with no feature of the voice.

Qu (曲) refer to “loose tunes” that are sung as one-off pieces, where the singer is the main focus of the activity.

A typical nanyin concert would mix and match several of these sub-genres, and programmatic content would include love stories as well as descriptions of scenery and nature.


Qupai (曲牌)

If everything seems to sound similar to you, or tunes appear to move aurally around in circles at your first hearing of nanyin, do not fret. As with most Chinese folk music and Chinese opera, the concept of qupai (曲牌), or “labelled melodies” exists.

Here, a stock melody well-known to a particular region acts as a place-holder for a tune, into which different types of text are “slotted”, depending on the piece or occasion.

The tonal variations in the Quanzhou (泉州) dialect, as well as plot situations in the singer’s text will in turn determine the musical openings and endings of phrases and minor extensions and occasional motivic development of these stock tunes. Often, padded syllables are added to fill out phrases, or deployed for the aesthetic presentation of long, melismatic and flowing melodies.

1 Kuo-Huang, Han, and Judith Gray. "The modern Chinese orchestra." Asian Music 11.1 (1979): 1-43.Beng, Tan Sooi. "The" Huayue Tuan"(Chinese Orchestra) in Malaysia: Adapting to Survive." Asian music 31.2 (2000): 107-128.


Contributed by:

Tan Shzr Ee

Tan Shzr Ee is an ethnomusicologist and Senior Lecturer at the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Routes of Asian Music

Asia is home to a staggering diversity of traditional music forms, many of which have their roots in ritual ceremonies that also incorporate theatre or dance. We trace the history of these musical forms and the journeys they have taken in today’s globalised world.
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