A Brief Introduction to Nanguan Music
Nanguan, also known as nanyin in present-day China, is an instrumental and vocal ensemble music that originated in the Quanzhou area in the southern Fujian Province of southeastern coastal China. During the 18th century, the music was brought by Hokkien seafarers and emigrants to Taiwan, Hong Kong and other diasporic locations in Southeast Asia. It has since been transmitted by hundreds of amateur nanguan clubs that share common musical and cultural practices despite their temporal and geographical separation.
The musical genre of nanguan has its own distinct organology, notation, theory, and tune classification system. Some of its instruments, such as the pipa and erxian, differ from their counterparts in other existing Chinese music genres but resemble traditional instruments extant in Japan and Korea, such as the Japanese biwa and the Korean haegeum. Although scholars have observed similarities between nanguan and the music of the Han, Tang, and later dynasties, the earliest nanguan songbooks date back to the 1610s during the late Ming dynasty. A comparison of these Ming songbooks with current ones proves that some nanguan songs have remained intact and identical for at least 400 years and are still sung today.
A nanguan ensemble typically consists of five instruments: pipa (four-string plucked lute), sanxian (three-string plucked lute), dongxiao (vertical end-blown flute), erxian (two-string bowed lute) and paiban (wooden clappers). In a vocal piece, the singer claps the paiban to punctuate the meter as he or she sings in Quanzhou dialect with a meticulous articulation of each word in melismatic melodies. The music tradition is known for its elegant and serene quality. Within a piece, the tempo starts slowly and gradually accelerates. There is little fluctuation in dynamics, although minute nuances and dynamic changes occur throughout a piece. When a livelier atmosphere is desired, four percussion instruments and one aia (small double-reed suona) are added to form a ten-instrument ensemble. However, even in this larger ensemble, the elegant, stately atmosphere still permeates. Interestingly, it has often been observed that nanguan bears certain similarities to the music of Japanese gagaku and Korean aak.
The genre’s repertoire consists of three categories: the 48 song suites known as zhi, the thousands of individual songs known as qü, and the 16 instrumental suites known as pu. The song suites and individual songs contain lyrics that are derived from historical stories popular in southern Fujian areas. The instrumental suites often bear programmatic titles that reflect natural creatures, flowers, or animals.
The collective music-making in a nanguan ensemble seeks to achieve the aesthetic value of he (harmony, togetherness): the pipa leads the group by playing the skeletal melody as notated and is supported by the sanxian, which doubles the melody an octave lower; meanwhile, both the dongxiao and erxian add ornaments to the melody in their respective idiomatic ways, thus rendering a heterophonic texture. In other words, the pipa’s and sanxian’s plucked notes can be compared to a “skeleton” on which the “flesh” comes into formation with the dongxiao’s and erxian’s interwoven melodies. Together they bring nanguan music to life.