The songs remain the same


The ancient music of the Naxi people, long-suppressed, is sounding out again in the Chinese province of Yunnan, although many of its finest players have grown old or died, writes Fintan O'Toole in Lijiang

'The music is sad", says Xuan Ke, "because it is addressed to the gods. If you look for freedom and rights to human beings, and you get nowhere, there is only God left to address. So by the time you turn to God, there is a sadness there and you can hear it in the music."

The music Xuan Ke is discussing, as he sits backstage before a concert in the medieval city of Lijiang in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan, is the ancient music of the Naxi people, of which, at 76, he is the revered master. The Naxi are one of more than 20 indigenous ethnic groups in Yunnan, which shares borders with Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Lijiang, and especially its old town Dayan, a dense huddle of cobbled, car-free streets, swift-flowing canals of clear, fish-filled water and low courtyard houses, set in a valley dominated by mountains that rise above 5,000 metres, is their capital.

Most nights of the week, he leads his orchestra of traditional musicians, many of them now in their 80s and so unsteady that they have to be helped onto the stage, in renditions of stately ceremonial tunes, some of them written more than 1,200 years ago. Many of them are in fact ancient Chinese court and religious compositions, brought south by imperial armies but now mostly forgotten in old China.

As we talk, his assistant comes with the blue silk robe he wears on stage, and he puts it on over his blue jeans and fleece, transforming a sprightly but elderly man in comfortable clothes and big gold-rimmed glasses into a maestro and cultural icon. And he goes off to take his place in front of his musicians with his wooden clappers, keeping time for the complex interweaving of strange and wonderful instruments, the bamboo qiqin, the lute-like quxiapipa, the four-stringed Persian sugudu that came here with the Mongols, the haunting wooden flute, the fabulous four-decked gong-chimes. Arrayed above his head, across the arch of the stage, are the black-and-white photographs of 34 old musicians who were once in his orchestra, all now dead, some of the last of his dying breed.

Xuan Ke is not, though, quite what you expect from the representative of an old indigenous culture, preserved in its purity by the remoteness of this frontier. He speaks fluent, almost unaccented English and talks easily of the parallels between Irish music and Naxi music. He is collected after the show in a polished black sedan which takes him to his new house outside the town - he left the old one, where he grew up, a few years ago because there are too many tourists in Dayan. He is well off enough to have recently made a large donation to a local school. But this other self, the successful, cosmopolitan artist, is another kind of illusion. Xuan Ke's story is much more interesting than either of the first impressions he makes, and says a lot, not just about the Naxi people, but about the shifting fortunes of China's 55 indigenous ethnic minorities.

THE NAXI, OF whom there are now around 300,000, are certainly an ancient and distinctive people. Their own myths of origin say that their founder was one of three children of an earthly hero and a sky goddess, the other two being the Tibetans and the Bai, a people that lives mostly in Sichuan and Yunnan. Li Xi, director of the Lijiang Museum, himself a Naxi, told me that the myth is accurate enough and that the Naxi originated from the migration southwards of nomads from the Tibetan Plateau.

They have their own religion, Dongba (a complex weave of shamanism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism), their own language, and their own form of writing, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian and Mayan writing systems and the only hieroglyphic script still in use anywhere in the world. Even in the city, most older women still wear a version of the traditional costume, with blue caps and skirts and a shawl whose bright and dark colours and seven circles represent the sun, moon and stars.

Xuan Ke was born in Dayan in 1930, to a Naxi father and a mother from an aristocratic Tibetan family. But his world was not some kind of ethnic Shangri-La, untouched by outsiders. There is a photograph of him sitting in a washbasin, taken, when Xuan was a year old, by the Austrian-American botanist and ethnographer Joseph Rock. There is another taken in the same year of him with his mother, father, five sisters - and their German tutor, Miss Hostman. Though it is not obvious from the photographs, in which he wears typical Chinese traditional dress, Xuan's father, Xuan Ming De, was in fact an ordained Christian minister and the first Naxi man to learn English. Yunnan, with its astonishing variety of plants, and its long border with Burma, and thus with the British Empire, attracted western scientists, missionaries and scholars. (To this day, the most important collection of Naxi pictographic manuscripts is not in China, but in the Library of Congress in Washington, to which Rock sold them.) This was the milieu in which Xuan Ke grew up, steeped in Naxi culture but also in Christianity, the English language and western classical music, which he picked up from his European and American teachers at a mission school in Lijiang. When he was 15 he was sent to another mission school in the provincial capital Kunming. It had strong associations with Yale University, and many of the teachers were Americans. He continued his musical studies until he left college in 1949, the year of the foundation of the People's Republic.

Xuan Ke has a photograph of himself as a slim young man in a bomber jacket conducting a choir on a flag-draped street in Kunming to welcome the arrival into the city of the People's Liberation Army in February 1950. He was, at the time, the conductor of a small orchestra in the city. In the early 1950s, he was made conductor of the philharmonic orchestra at the opera house in Wuhan. But in 1957, Mao began his "anti-Rightist" purge of intellectuals, especially those thought to be too susceptible to western influence. In the booklet that is given to those who buy tickets for the performances of his traditional orchestra in Dayan, Xuan Ke is described as a man who experienced "many ups and downs". It does not say that the downs included more than 20 years as a prisoner.

When I asked him why he thinks he was arrested, he used the Chinese word "guanxi". It means "connections" and is usually used in the same sense as the Irish use "pull" - family and friends in high places. But his connections were not of the benign kind. Not only was he a western-style musician and a Christian with a background replete with both foreign and ethnic minority influences, but his eldest sister, who now lives in exile in Nepal, was married to a Tibetan who worked closely with the Dalai Lama. Such connections were enough to damn him.

XUAN KE WAS sent to work as what he calls a "slave labourer" in a tin mine in southern Yunnan. He does not want to dwell on his experiences, except to say that "I was fed on animal food, abused and sometimes beaten. Many of the prisoners I was with committed suicide, or became too ill too survive and passed away. There were about 3,000 of us. By the time I was released in 1978, half of the prisoners were dead." Why did he survive? "People are different. Some have a spirit, a belief, and it's completely different for them than it is for those who have nothing to believe in. I am a Christian. My belief gave me a very strong living spirit. I survived."

When he got out in 1978, as part of Deng Xiaoping's post-Maoist reforms, he returned to Lijiang and got a job teaching English in a local school. "I became famous in Lijiang," he says, "not as a musician but as an English teacher." He got married, had children and settled down. Within two years, however, he took a bold and potentially dangerous step. He reformed the Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Association, persuading old musicians to literally disinter a dormant tradition. "Many of the instruments we now use are a hundred or two hundred years old and had been buried or hidden between walls during the Cultural Revolution." So were the beautiful ceremonial chairs on which the musicians sit. "We had to dig them up, clean them and repair them before we could start." For Xuan Ke, the music was a way of reconnecting with his past after a ruptured life, with beauty and refinement after his experience of brutality, with human society after his enslavement. "I was born here and this music was everywhere when I was growing up. It was one of the best parts of our lives." But for the old musicians, many of them now dead, whom he enticed back into public performance, it was a tentative and potentially tricky assertion of a suppressed identity.

The Dongba culture of the Naxi, like the cultures of most ethnic minorities, had been virtually suppressed in the post-Revolutionary decades. The People's Republic inherited an old imperial suspicion of the non-Han peoples and added its own contempt for the shameful past. "Under the Qing dynasty," says Li Xi at the Lijiang Museum, "Naxi culture was looked down on and there were cases where, if you passed the exams that would normally entitle you to be an official, but it was discovered that you could read Naxi pictograms, you were actually excluded from office. After 1949, there was a different reason for distrust. If you could read the Naxi script, it was assumed that you were a landlord, and that was not a good thing to be. During the Cultural Revolution, many Naxi artefacts were destroyed. I feel so lucky to be able to promote and research Naxi culture. Before, people would have been beaten and imprisoned."

THE CHANGE, FROM this perspective, has been extraordinary. Li Xi has a fine museum, founded in 1984 and recently rebuilt, and it even has a Dongba shaman on hand much of the time to answer questions about the native religion. Xuan Ke's orchestra was not suppressed but embraced. In the hall where he gives his concerts, there is a prominently displayed photograph of the then Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin posing with the orchestra in 1999, a wooden flute to his lips, Xuan Ke on his right hand side. In the local schools, the Naxi language and the pictographic script are being taught alongside Chinese, and even many Han children are learning them.

The change has many sources. Genuine guilt for the past is one them. The economic potential of tourism - Lijiang is, ironically, one of the few places where young Chinese people can see the kind of old town where their parents might have grown up - is certainly another. Even a devastating earthquake in 1996, which killed 300 people and caused serious damage (now repaired) to the old town, has actually helped.

"It brought a lot of international attention to Naxi culture," says Li Xi, "and that in turn brought a lot of foreign tourism." He acknowledges that tourism can be an ambivalent force but believes it has been crucial in giving young Naxi people a reason to hold on to their own culture. "Before, people couldn't put a value on their culture, now they can."

For the music, it may all be too late. Xuan Ke says sadly that "many of the musicians exist now only in these black-and-white photographs and it won't be too long before the rest of us join them. It's difficult to know in this time and in a society where pop music and karaoke are everywhere whether we still have a place, whether anyone will want to listen. Maybe if they do they'll find this music again."