Yunnan is a realm of song and dance, famous both at home and abroad. Folk music in Yunnan can be dated back to the Warring States Period(475-221BC )in the West Han Dynasty (206BC-25), with unearthed bronze musical instruments as evidence. These bronze instruments include shengs (a reed pipe wind instrument ), cymbals, chimes, bronze drums, gongs, and calabash shengs. The type of instruments found gives us an idea of the form of music at that time. Folk songs either had a single melody and were simple yet effective, or they were highly complex. The music in cyclical form developed from the “Four Tunes” of the Yi ethnic group. The multi-part folk songs of the Hani group has its own musical system which has aroused the attention of music experts throughout the world. Over 200 different musical instruments now exist including wood and skin drums, the seven-note horizontal bamboo flutes and folk dongxiaos (a vertical bamboo flute) as well as more complex wind and stringed instruments. Some minority people have their own folk bands and play complete sets of ancient music.
Folk music in Yunnan falls into three main categories: song, dance and instrumental music.
Songs are the most common form of music in Yunnan, and are closely related to folk literature. They include ancient songs of Creation, sacrifice and festivals. There are songs of hunting, fishing, pastoral songs, farming, logging, husking rice and embroidering. There are love songs, from the ancient “Bashi” love song to the happy and sad songs performed during the marriage ceremony, which tell us about the history of traditional marriage customs. Many minority people sing songs when handing down traditional knowledge and morals; and even in lawsuits, they sing songs to defend the person on trial and pass sentence.
In Yunnan, all ethnic groups can dance. The forms of dances vary from group to group. Some dances are accompanied by singing, such as the Tibetans’ “Guozhuang” dance, and the Naxi group’s “Erere”. Some are accompanied by wind instruments, such as the Lusheng dance ( Lusheng, a reed-pipe wind instrument) of the Yi, Miao and Lahu ethnic groups; some by stringed instruments; some by drums, such as the big drum dance of the Jinuo group; the wooden drum dance of the Wa tribe; the bronze drum dance of the Yi and Zhuang ethnic groups and the Xiangjiao drum dance( a drum on a pedestal, shaped like an elephant’s leg) of the Dai and Bulang minority people. The Hani group’ s “Bengbacha’s” dance is accompanied by songs and bamboo tubes (a kind of percussion instrument).
Traditional musical instruments include wind, stringed and percussion instruments, of which wind instruments are the most popular. They include the bawu, the hulus (calabash instrument), the xiaomendi (a small muffled flute) and the tuliang. The most widely played percussion instruments include the xiangjiao drum and mangluo (a folk gong).
The most typical music includes the Yi group’s ” Guoshan Tune ” ( climbing over the mountain) played with the xiaomendi (small muffled flute), the instrumental trio “Qian’e” of the Lisus, the instrumental quartet “Zhengxuan” of the Yis in Shiping County played on the flute, the dianhu (a two-stringed instrument), sanxian and sixian ( three and four stringed instruments ), the instrumental ensemble of the Hani minority played with the bawu, caogan, flute, muye, sanxian, sixian and erhu (a two-stringed instrument) and the ancient music “Baisha Xiyue” from Lijiang.
Dancing to the sound of music until sunset when their feet become covered with dust”, this local idiom vividly describes the minority people in Yunnan who love singing and dancing.
Among the minority dances, more than a hundred are very well – known. Each minority has its own distinguishing dances. For each of the minorities, the dances vary according to the different branches and regions. For example, the Yi’s dances are divided into the Tiaoyue, Dage, bronze drum, Yanhe, Luozuo, flower drum and Sixian dances. Most dances are used at special festivals. There are sacrificial dances, such as the fierce ox dance of the Dulong ethnic group, the Tibetans ‘ sorcerer’s dance where the dancers wear masks, and the Dongba dance of the Naxi ethnic group. There are dances representing activities such as the Bulang group’ s spinning and weaving dance, the ploughing dance of the Nu ethnic group. There are dances for special ceremonies and rites, for example the palm fan dance at funerals and the “Longpo dance” ( old dragon lady dance )of the Hani and Yi ethnic groups. There are festive dances such as the” Dengluoguo” of the Achang ethnic group, and the big drum dance of the Jinuo ethnic group and dances for making friends and for fun such as the Tibetans’ Xuanzi dance, and the Pumi’s Datiao dance.
The ethnic minorities dance to various musical sounds.
They dance to the sound of drums. These dances include the big drum dance of the Wa ethnic group, the bronze drum dance of the Yi and Zhuang ethnic groups, the Xiangjiao drum dance of the Dai, the Hani’s big drum dance, the Tibetan’s Shougu (small drum similar to the tambourine ) dance, the octagonal drum dance of the Bai, flower drum and flat drum dances of the Yi, the Lahu’s bamboo drum dance, the fish drum dance of the Zhuang, and the tinkling drum dance of the Naxi.
Dances to songs. People dance while singing their own traditional songs. Such dances have spread far and wide, such as the Dage dance of the Yi and Bai ethnic groups, Datiao dance of the Lisu group, “Alili” and “Erere” of the Naxi, “Caitang” of the Miao, and “Guozhuang” of the Muosuo people.
Dances accompanied by stringed instruments. Popular dances include the Tiaoxian, Tiaoyue and Dasanxian dances of the Yi ethnic group, Xianzi dance of the Tibetans, the Pipa dance of the Nu and the Yuezuo and the palm fan dances of the Hani.
Lantern dances are performed with bamboo lanterns mounted on bamboo poles. They include the dragon lantern dance and elephant lantern dance of the Achang ethnic group, the fire horse dance of the Dai, Caima (horse step) dance of the Bai and flower-boat and lantern dances of the Han nationality.
Other dances make use of bells, bamboo hats, bowls, fans and masks and some are accompanied by rhythmic clapping or imitate animals, farming, legends and even everyday life.
Local operas in Yunnan are represented by Dian opera and the festive lantern opera. Dian opera originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)and included the three tunes of sixian, huqin and xiangyan and other tunes from Shaanxi, Anhui, Chu, and Kunqu opera, and combined local language, music and folk customs.
The Festive lantern opera combines opera, folk songs and dances. Its tunes have often been taken from the songs handed down from the Ming and Qing dynasties, together with Yunnan folk songs, dulcimer melodies and religious music. It also features separate acts, fan dances, handkerchief waving, and rattle stick dancing.
Yunnan’s ethnic folk operas include Bai, Zhuang, Dai, Yi, Miao, Hani, Wa, Jingpo, Nuo, and Guansuo opera.
Nuo opera originated from the ancient custom of driving away evil spirits and pestilence, and later developed into a spontaneous performance. It features masks, costumes and impromptu performances, and always includes a god driving away pestilence.
Guansuo opera is a variety of Nuo opera. The actors, who represent warriors during the Three Kingdoms Period (221 -263 ), wear masks and costumes, and hold weapons in their hands. It is accompanied by percussion instruments and the actors perform simple chanting as they drive away evil spirits and pestilences from door to door throughout the villages.
Bai opera, originally called the “Chuichui Melody”, dates back over 200 years. It has over 300 different traditional acts and more than 30 tunes.
Zhuang opera developed from the folk songs, dances and variety shows of the Zhuang ethnic group. The opera, originally created in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has over 340 acts but only four tunes.
Dai opera is a combination of the folk songs and dances, literature and art of the Dai ethnic group. The opera has over a hundred plays. The traditional ones are based on opera songs.
Yi opera was only recently developed during the 1950s, and is based on Yi folk songs and dances. The plays are based on folk legends and practical life. Its melodies combine folk songs, chants, dances and instrumental music.
The folk arts in Yunnan, like all the minority nationalities here, have a long history, and have developed alongside the local minorities. Some have local origins, some have been brought here from other places. No one can count how many there are.
To protect and highlight this precious cultural heritage, the local authorities have organized large-scale collection work for folk literature, music and folk dances, and research into folk architecture, costumes and adornments, folk opera and art. This will help to preserve the treasures for future generations. When you enter the Yunnan Museum and Kunming Museum, you will be able to see the complete picture of the Yunnan folk arts and culture, and will have the chance to appreciate the treasures and wonders of these natural “mountain museums”.
In 1995, the Yunnan Nationality Museum was set up beside the beautiful Dianchi Lake as a showcase for the cultural history of the ethnic groups in Yunnan, with some 10,000 pieces of relics (material objects) collected and over 2000 pieces displayed so far.
We hope that one day, the treasures and wonders buried deep in the natural “mountain museums” will be shared with peoples from all over the world.