Four generations of a Chinese family keep traditional Nanyin music alive

Updated 2017-12-01 10:30:56 Global Times

Have you heard of Nanyin, the music of elegance and magic that is one of the oldest forms of Chinese court music. Ancient writers compared the sound to the fragrance of the magnolia flower or the texture of floss silk.

A representative type of traditional Chinese music, Nanyin was listed as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009.

With the rise of modern music, Nanyin was gradually forgotten. Fortunately, a Chinese folk art competition held at the end of October in East China's Fujian Province has reintroduced Nanyin to modern audiences. Musical performance Gu Yun Xin Chuan (Inheritance of Traditional Rhymes), performed by a team of 21 musicians, depicts the history of Nanyin by telling the story of a family that has kept the music alive through different generations.

"I picked up Nanyin music when I was 3 and started performing at the age of 5," Zheng Fanghui, a fourth generation cultural inheritor of Nanyin music, said in an interview with, going on to describe her childhood as a continuous "miniature Nanyin concert."

Born to a family of Nanyin musicians, Zheng displayed a musical talent for Nanyin at a young age. Her ability and sweet voice caught the attention of many skilled Nanyin artists, who then became her teachers and imparted many useful skills to her.

As she grew older, she ended up becoming a teacher herself. She now teaches music at a middle school in Quanzhou, East China's Fujian Province.

A century of persistence

Zheng's family relationship with Nanyin began with her great-grandfather and has continued down through the generations for more than 100 years.

"My grandpa once made a living as a zhanguan," Zheng said.

"A zhanguan is a Nanyin musician who is invited to teach at communities and villages. He always stayed at each place for four months."

Her mother, Wu Shuzhen, took the next step in helping spread Nanyin beyond China's borders. At the invitation of some Chinese friends in Indonesia in 1990, Wu traveled to Djakarta, where she taught Nanyin for the next 10 years.

The efforts of Zheng's family paid off. In 2006, Nanyin was added to China's national list of intangible cultural heritages.

As the next inheritor of Nanyin, Zheng followed in her mother's footsteps. She incorporated Nanyin into her class curriculum at her middle school. She also wrote several books on teaching Nanyin, which were later listed as key reference materials by China's Ministry of Education.

Their family tradition of holding small-scale Nanyin concerts at home has continued, even after the death of Zheng's grandpa. Wu plays the lute, while her brother plays er'xian (a two-stringed musical instrument) and Zheng plays the bamboo flute. Singing is handled sometimes by her daughter and other times by her nephew. Sometimes, passersby stop and enjoy the music as it drifts from their home.

'Living musical fossil'

Consisting of zhi (fingers), pu (musical scores) and qu (music), Nanyin is regarded as an integrated style of music. Due to its age, it is often called Chinese music history's 'living fossil,' with the earliest record of the music dating from the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220).

Nanyin is more than just music. Through the expression of beautiful music, it ties Chinese culture and history together. Realizing this important cultural function of Nanyin, Zheng has worked hard to preserve this traditional sound. As a representative of the Quanzhou Municipal People's Congress of Quanzhou, Zheng submitted a proposal to establish a museum for Nanyin in the Licheng district in Quanzhou.

"Many of my friends asked me why I want to do this," Zheng said

"Licheng is where Nanyin originated. The Nanyin practiced there sets the standard for Nanyin musicians. To help preserve this standard, I would like to keep antique musical instruments and some audio and video materials at the museum, which will make for a good platform to help introduce Nanyin to Chinese and foreigners."

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