As the music ensemble begins to play, a transformation comes over the voluble and energetic Lim Ming Yi, an administrative manager and principal musician of Siong Leng Musical Association. Seated in the centre with a wooden clapper, her bearing is sombre as she sings the nanyin vocal piece ‘Nostalgia’.
“I am very bubbly now, but when I perform I am serious,” Ming Yi muses.
Based on the romantic Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, ‘Nostalgia’ reflects Li’s deep emotions about his life and career. The melancholy of this visceral piece tugs at the heartstrings, and I profoundly feel the composer’s heavy grief in the music.
“We don’t usually smile or have any expression when we play, so as to suit the zen nature of the music. We should all be in a calm state,” Ming Yi adds.
Nanyin vocal pieces are sung in the Minnan dialect, which is widely spoken in southern Fujian Province, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Minnan is also very similar to Hokkien in Southeast Asia.
“You may be able to find nanyin music in countries where you can find people speaking Minnan dialect, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Vietnam,” Ming Yi explains.
“For Taiwan nanyin [performers], they are more traditional and down-to-earth. They keep [to their] roots and stick to the tradition very closely, as compared to China,” she reveals.
A ‘Living Fossil’ of Ancient Chinese Music
Nanyin, which literally translates as ‘Music of the South’, has been around for over 2,000 years. With origins from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), nanyin is a form of liyue (ritual and music) that was traditionally performed only in the royal court.
According to the Classic of Rites and Music, ritual and music forms like nanyin were practiced by ancient Chinese rulers to improve themselves spiritually. “Through ritual, human nature is preserved, through music, harmony is upheld.”
Later, civil turbulence forced court musicians to migrate south, where they spread nanyin to the common folk. Nanyin became an inseparable part of folk culture, particularly in Fujian’s Quanzhou region.
Nanyin, which is also called xianguan or nanguan, is written in the ancient Chinese music notation system gongchepu – one of the world’s most well-preserved notation systems. This ancient music genre was listed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
“It is regarded as the ‘living fossil’ of ancient Chinese music,” says Ming Yi.
Nurturing the Spirit With Music
Nanyin falls in the category of instrumental ensemble music, which can either be played or sung. The length of a nanyin piece may range from a brief two minutes to a lengthy forty minutes.
Nanyin songs and music are slow-paced, serene and elegant. I found them deeply soothing and calming to listen to.
The lyrics of nanyin songs are often epic poems, descriptions of scenery, or a classic vignette of longing.
“The song may be about a wife waiting for her husband. It is usually a lady conveying her feelings. Or it may be talking about beautiful scenery,” says Ming Yi, who doesn’t understand the Minnan dialect and relies on her teacher to decipher the lyrics.
Wang Xinxin (王心心), a celebrated nanyin virtuoso and the founder of the Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble (心心南管樂坊) in Taiwan, compared nanyin singing method to practising Chinese calligraphy.
In Chinese calligraphy, one must stay focused and in a state that nurtures the spirit. A single stroke can take up to a few minutes to complete. In a similar vein, due to nanyin’s extremely slow and meditative characteristics, a nanyin artist may sing a word for as long as a minute.
Ming Yi says, “We use our real voice in nanyin singing, and most of the strength comes from the diaphragm.”
“[In nanyin], the speed of the music is not fixed. It varies between different musicians and singers. It is very elastic and fluid. The rhythm is not spontaneous, and can drag on from one note to the next,” adds Seow Ming Xian, project manager and principal musician of Siong Leng Musical Association.
Like other traditional Chinese art forms, nanyin artists focus on their inner nature or bearing (yun, 韻) to convey the spirit of the music.
“We hear the ‘yun’ of the person. The nanyin yun,” emphasises Ming Yi.
“Or weidao (味道, which translates as taste),” quips Ming Xian.
“It is like when you cook soup – the longer you cook, the better,” says Ming Yi. “Those who have stronger ‘yun’ go deeper into the music.”
The Three Styles of Nanyin
The repertoire of nanyin consists of three overlapping styles: zhitao (指套), pu (谱) and qu (曲).
Zhitao refers to relatively complete suites containing both lyrics and instrumental scores and fingering. The lyrics are evocative and often allude to a story.
“One of the most representative zhitao pieces is Enjoying Festive Lanterns (趁赏花灯),” says Ming Yi. The piece is about the tough love story of a couple.
Qu refers to vocal repertories that can only be sung. According to Ming Yi, there are as many as 2,000 vocal pieces in nanyin. One example is Precipitous Mountains (山险峻), which narrates the story of Wang Zhaojun (王昭君), one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China.
Pu refers to instrumental pieces with no associated lyrics, and they are written in gongche notation.
“Pu can only be played instrumentally. There are a total of 13 instrumental pieces. Four of the more significant ones are Four Seasons (四时景) Sentiment of the Plum Blossoms (梅花操), Trotting Horse (走马) and Homecoming Birds (百鸟归巢),” she explains.
Trotting Horse invokes the galloping of a majestic horse using tone and rhythm, while Sentiment of the Plum Blossoms praises the resilient plum blossoms that bloom during the harsh winter.
According to researchers, over 2,000 pieces of nanyin music have been recovered, including Buddhist music, court music and music for processions.
“If you look back at the history of nanyin, there was a period of time when nanyin was very frequently performed in temples, so perhaps that’s why there is an association between incense and nanyin,” Ming Yi shares.
“And the scores were all passed down from generation to generation. We don’t know who composed them.”
“We do have happy nanyin songs,” chirps Ming Yi. “An example would be Pears in the Wind, which talks about food!”
“But to you, it won’t sound happy because it is still slow, just that the pitch is a bit higher,” remarks Ming Xian.
Many people liken nanyin to Chinese orchestra, but the two are vastly different. For example, in nanyin the pipa is held horizontally, whereas in Chinese orchestra the pipa is held vertically.
“In many ancient Chinese paintings, you can see women playing the pipa horizontally. The pipa in Chinese orchestra is actually a modernised form. The neck of the Nanyin pipa is actually bent.” explains Ming Yi.
“In traditional nanyin, we have four main instruments and five percussion instruments. And we all learn to play the instruments [while] looking at the same piece of score,” she continues.
The four primary musical instruments used in a nanyin performance are the pipa (琵琶), a four-stringed lute); the sanxian (三弦), a long-necked three-stringed lute; the dongxiao (洞箫), a vertically held bamboo flute; and the erxian (二弦) a two-stringed fiddle.
“Not everybody can play the dongxiao. It depends on the positioning of your mouth and the way your mouth is shaped, so that all the air can go into this triangular cut,” Ming Yi says.
The five percussion instruments are the wooden clappers or paiban (拍板), the copper bells or shuangling (双铃), the cymbals or jiaolou (叫锣), the gong or xiangzhan (响盏), and a pair of bamboo clappers known as sibao (四宝) or sikuai (四块).
The strings of the lutes are made of nylon, says Ming Yi. By contrast, the strings of the erxian – which is very similar to the erhu – are made of silk, hence it produces a more soothing sound.
“The percussion instruments are made of two types of materials. So sometimes, you can hear the sound of wood, and at a certain time, you can only hear the sound of copper,” chimes in Ming Xian, who plays the dongxiao.
The Rising Stars of Siong Leng
Ming Yi and Ming Xian represent Siong Leng’s younger batch of principal artists, who are well-versed in various nanyin, Western, and Chinese chamber instruments.
Siong Leng Musical Association (SLMA) was established in 1941 to preserve, develop and promote the nanyin genre. With support from the National Arts Council’s Major Grant scheme, Siong Leng has set its sights on training its young artists to be the successors of this beautiful and ancient art form.
“My mother is the executive director of Siong Leng. So since young, I was forced to learn nanyin,” confesses Ming Xian. His grandmother Mdm Goh Boon Keow, mother Mdm Celestina Wang, and brother Ming Fong are all stalwart supporters of Siong Leng and have dedicated themselves whole-heartedly to the art.
“My mom is a good friend of Ming Xian’s mom. At that time, when I was 10, they wanted to train a young group of nanyin musicians, so they approached my mom, who also forced me to join,” quips Ming Yi.
To Ming Xian and Ming Yi, nanyin is the epitome of elegance and quiet taste. While it was not easy to appreciate at first, their love of nanyin grew over time.
“Towards the end of secondary school, I started to appreciate this music more. It is more zen [in] style, and it really helps to calm me down, and you can convey feelings. That is why I chose to stay until now, as there is beauty and elegance in nanyin,” Ming Yi says candidly.
Has practicing nanyin helped you become a better person, I ask.
“Nanyin teaches us teamwork. And it teaches you to be calm and patient. It’s very soothing and flowing,” says Ming Yi.
“Our master in China taught us that nanyin performance is not a one-man show. It is not about showmanship. You cannot perform by yourself, or portray yourself as a soloist. You should only work as one,” stresses Ming Xian.