The China Singer

One man's uphill effort to introduce the world to the music of the Fujian province

By / August 2013

This past March singers from the mountains and valleys of China’s Fujian province gathered to compete in the second annual Shê Song Cup, a new competition held during the province’s annual cultural festival. Several thousand spectators filled seats, and several thousand more found space in the aisles and the wide expanse of field beyond XiaPu’s #1 Junior High School.

The cup was organized by ZhiHua Lei, a FuAn City government official who hails from the Shê, the 18th largest minority group in China. Lei identifies himself first by his ethnicity and second as a singer. Self expression through singing isn’t a rare thing in Fujian; in fact, it’s very common. “But I am unlike my fellow Shê family in one way,” Mr. Lei said. “Most of us like to sing amongst ourselves. I sing to meet others, to share the songs of my heart with others outside the Shê community.”

In typical Shê style, two singers trade verses almost as if they’re having a conversation, albeit a melodious one. As with any intimate tête-à-tête between two people, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand — let alone appreciate — what’s going on. Few outsiders have ever come into contact with this beautiful, slightly surreal aspect of Shê culture.

For years Mr. Lei dreamed of bringing a wider audience to Shê singing by fusing Mandarin and even English lyrics with the traditional Shê poetry. And yet he struggled to find a following among his people, who are possessive of the old ways and weary of exposing their culture to the outside world.

In 2000, Mr. Lei traveled to Taiwan to attend an ethnic music festival. As he watched from the crowd, a glimmer of an idea started taking shape in his mind. Why not do the same thing with Shê music? By the time he’d returned to the mainland, Mr. Lei was fully invested in the idea and approached the Bureau of Religious Affairs for permission to get started.

The first festival took place in 2005, with the Bureau of Religious Affairs providing a printed backdrop for the stage, microphones, and even helping to find the talent. Several iterations followed, in villages accessible by bus and equipped with large flat fields that could accommodate a stage and an audience. But Mr. Lei wasn’t satisfied with the early festivals.

The performers were instructed to sing out to the crowd, rather than to one another in the conversational style that they were accustomed to. And the sound systems were inadequate, projecting harsh, nasal tones out to the crowds. The magic of the Shê singing style wasn’t coming across.

But Mr. Lei and the government were invested in making this festival work, and over time Mr. Lei came up with an idea to rebrand part of the event as a competition. Thus the Shê Song Cup was born, the goal being “to share Shê music and culture with the outside world, allowing them to experience Shê culture,” Mr Lei said. The contest would piggyback on an already established provincial-level event sponsored by the government.

Held on the evening of the Third Day of the Third Lunar Month, the Shê Song Cup, now in its second year, takes place on a holiday very dear to Shê people. On this auspicious day they celebrate springtime agriculture, romance, and heroism by taking a day off to sing metaphor-laden songs of love while eating special black rice made from mountain leaves. Sponsors of the government event invited their VIPs to fill the audience chairs. Only after they were seated were the gates opened to Shê guests, who filled in the fringe.

Shê singers competed in two different categories: traditional and creative. About thirty performers vied for the awards. Some couples sang centuries-old love songs, some girls performed as though they were studying from a village teacher, and a few sang alone with upbeat pop music accompaniment. The winners were awarded medals the following morning during the weekend’s typical speeches and dance troupe performance.

The addition of Friday night’s Song Cup was an improvement on earlier renditions of the weekend festival, but Mr. Lei said the event still has a long way to go. “There were too few representations of the types of Shê music in existence,” he said. He noted the lack of mountains in the background and the dearth of bamboo in the foreground. Shê music is supposed to happen spontaneously in the middle of Fujian province’s dramatic landscape, not on a sterile stage before a sea of fold-up chairs.

“But it was interesting to watch what happened,” Mr. Lei said. On Saturday morning, on the outer edges of the crowd, small groups huddled and began to sing amongst themselves. The local Shê people had gathered at the edge of the audience, and they were carrying on the tradition of the Shê singing the proper way while the government leaders and VIPs eyed the front stage, where troupes of dancers were performing.

“What turned the Shê community’s attention away from the stage,” said Mr. Lei, “was not the merciless sun beating down on their heads but rather their natural inclination to do the festival ‘our’ way.”

Mr. Lei wonders about next year, about how can he help bridge the gap between the government’s desires for the festival and the Shê people’s? Sitting on the tenuous bridge between the two heritages, Mr. Lei continues to turn his enthusiasm into melodious music rather than harangue. He did not speak his final remarks into the microphone. He sang them.


Laurie Smith lives and writes in China’s Fujian province.