Folk Songs of the Yugurs

By staff reporter WU XUEFENG


Sisters Du Xiuying, 75, and Du Xiulan, 72, were born in Sunan Yugur Autonomous County in Zhangye City of Gansu Province. Their father was a well-known folk singer, who began to teach them how to sing when they were around 10 years old. As the Yugurs have no written language, it has been the task of the older generations to pass down the ethnic group’s history and legends through the lyrics of their folk songs. Xiuying and Xiulan know dozens of Yugur folk songs in a variety of languages, including Eastern Yugur, Western Yugur, Tibetan, and Mandarin, and they have played a vital role in protecting and passing on Yugur culture. In 2009, the two sisters were included into the list of the third batch of inheritors of national intangible cultural heritage.


THE Yugurs come from the west and move eastward. They herd cows and sheep and they ride on camels towards the sun,” Xiuying and Xiulan sing to a lilting air. Their song is about the precious memories of an ethnic minority with a small population and an arcane spoken language. The sisters sing with passion and heart; they have dedicated their lifetime to Yugur folk songs.

Du Xiuying (right), 75, and Du Xiulan (left), 72, sing Yugur folk songs to perpetuate Yugur culture, and have been included into the list of inheritors of national intangible cultural heritage. 


No Written Language


The Yugurs live primarily in Sunan Yugur Autonomous County, Gansu Province in western China. Comprising a population of about 14,000, the Yugurs are one of China’s smallest ethnic minorities. Yugurs often say that they can sing once they can speak and they can dance once they can walk. In fact, the most primitive memories and histories of the Yugurs are passed down from generation to generation via folk songs, which are considered the ethnic group’s roots and soul.


The Yugurs are fanatical about folk songs. In the past, there were professional Yugur singers, who were hired by local families to perform at funerals and weddings. Singing has always been an important part of Yugur life. There is an old saying: “If I forget my hometown, I won’t forget my language. If I forget my language, I won’t forget the songs from my hometown.” On the grassland and mountain slopes herdsmen can often be heard singing enchanting folk songs.


Back in the 1940s, Xiuying and Xiulan lived with their parents in Guanghua Village, Dahe Township in what is now Sunan Yugur Autonomous County. At that time, their father herded cattle and their mother milked cows. Du Zhancai, their father, was the last shaman of the Yugurs. When they were around 10 years old, the two sisters started to accompany their father to various social activities where they learned many folk songs and stories of their ethnic group. They gradually mastered both the Eastern and Western Yugur languages. They explained that there were very few Chinese loanwords in Yugur songs, stories, and sayings, and that they only used the Yugur language while singing or relating stories, in which some elements of the Turkic language have been preserved.


Their memories of childhood are characterized by singing. Any Yugur can sing at any time and on any occasion as long as they want to. Young women and men often express their love for each other through song. In Xiulan’s memory, Yugur people had different songs for different occasions, such as herding sheep, feeding lambs, holding weddings or funerals, felt-making (a traditional handicraft of the Yugurs), and horse riding. “Because life in the old days was hard, many Yugur songs are sad,” Xiulan said.


“When we were little we helped our parents herd cattle on the grassland. When our parents taught us a new song in the evening, the next morning we had to sing the song by ourselves before breakfast. By doing so those songs are embedded in our memory,” said Xiuying.


As early as 1955, 15-year-old Xiuying made her debut at the cinema in the county town of Sunan, where she sang for young people who were there to attend the Youth Congress. “That was the first time I had ever stood on a stage. Before that I had only sung on the grassland. I felt so nervous that my face turned red and my hands and legs were shaking. I felt my voice tremble, too,” Xiuying recalled. But she was met with rapturous applause and the audience wanted to hear more. From that point, she gained confidence and performed at various occasions, accumulating rich experience.


Into Their 70s


Most Yugur folk songs come about through improvisation during day-to-day activities, such as herding, mowing, thread-twisting, felt-making, or driving camels, or on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and religious rituals. In recent years, along with the social development and changes in local people’s lifestyle, the number of folk singers has dwindled, and many songs have been lost as singers grow old and pass away. The legacy of Yugur folk songs is under serious threat.


“The extinction of our songs means the end of our lives,” said Xiuying. Like most Yugurs, Xiuying and Xiulan can speak Mandarin. They know scores of Yugur folk songs and can explain the meaning of those songs in Mandarin. Xiulan taught herself to read. She has read books on Yugur history and helped scholars from UNESCO and other institutes from home and abroad engaged in Yugur culture with their research by providing and translating a large number of primary resources.


In 2014, Xiuying and Xiulan sang in a recording studio for the first time. “The recording sessions lasted for two days. Three songs, Coming from Xizhihazhi (which tells the story of Yugurs moving from the west to the east), Twelve Chinese Zodiac Signs, and Epic of Seremake, were put onto one disc,” said Xiuying. The two sisters greatly valued the experience of recording their heritage in this way. On the day of the recording, they dressed in their best, wearing their family heirlooms – headgear mounted with turquoise, coral, and sapphire. They said it was their lifelong wish to preserve Yugur folk songs by utilizing modern technology, and were willing to make their contribution to ensure the songs don’t die out with the singers.


In January 2015, Xiuying and Xiulan, as national inheritors of Yugur folk song, together with six of their students, participated in an innovative program about the succession of ethnic minorities’ craftsmanship held at He Lüting Musical Hall at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. There they performed folk songs and dances in Yugur costumes, and were warmly applauded by audience.


Today, the children and grandchildren of Xiuying and Xiulan have all grown up and work in Sunan County and other regions. Xiuying and Xiulan both left the mountainous area and settled down in the county where they bought their own apartments. They feel particularly proud of Xiulan’s youngest son, who has published a book called Cliff Paintings in Sunan Yugur Autonomous County, the first ever book on the research of local cliff paintings.

Du Xiulan tells young people about Yugur history. 

Inheritors of Folk Culture


During every summer vacation since 2010, volunteers from Lanzhou University have come to Sunan County to organize classes for local pupils to study Yugur folk songs. Xiuying and Xiulan volunteer to teach the students the Yugur language and songs. “It feels so great to teach children songs and watch them sing and dance as they create dances according to the storylines of the songs that we teach them,” Xiuying and Xiulan said.


Eleven-year-old Anlu has attended the summer training class three years running. Although she talks to her mother in simple Yugur at home, her mom seldom has time to teach her more because she is too busy. Anlu said she learns many new words and expressions through folk songs in the class. “I want to learn because I don’t want Yugur culture and language to disappear,” Anlu said, clearly proud of her ethnic group.


This pride has encouraged many Yugur people, including Xiuying, Xiulan, and little Anlu, to voluntarily shoulder the historical mission of inheriting and passing on the Yugur culture and language. With the support of governments at various levels and non-governmental organizations, they are all doing their bit in different ways to ensure the succession of the Yugur folk songs on the beautiful grassland of Sunan.


In recent years, the local government has paid great attention to and supported the protection of Yugur culture. The Sunan County government raises money in various ways to establish a cultural center for discovering, protecting, researching, and publicizing local culture, and encouraging education and creation in this regard. It also set up the China Yugur Ethnic Group Museum, the Yugur Intangible Cultural Heritage Preservation and Succession Center, the Yugur Song and Dance Preservation Center, the Center of Nomadic Culture, and the Center of Yugur Folk Culture, with the aim of sharing Yugur culture and folklore. Lan Haidong, deputy chief of Sunan County Bureau of Radio, Television, and Press, said: “The sisters have sung and taught Yugur folk songs for almost their whole life. The Yugur folk songs are in their blood and part of their life. Every ethnic group has its unique customs and culture, which should be inherited and passed down to future generations.”


In order to better promote Yugur culture among young people, the county government has introduced Yugur culture into campuses by launching Yugur language learning programs in kindergartens and elementary schools, establishing Yugur folk song children’s choirs, running Yugur song and culture classes for children, and organizing themed lectures on Yugur culture. All this is in efforts to enhance local people’s commitment to Yugur culture and thus effectively promote its succession and innovation. So far the county government has compiled and publicized books, CDs, and tapes, such as Folk Songs of Chinese Ethnic Minorities – Sunan Yugur Autonomous County (124 Songs), Home of Yugurs, and Sweet Smell on the Grassland. Relevant materials pertaining to as many as 310 Yugur folk songs have been collected and sorted. In the past decade, the local government has utilized multimedia technology such as film, photography, and sound recording to chronicle and keep the traditional Yugur culture alive. All those materials have been on exhibition at the Yugur Intangible Culture Heritage Preservation and Succession Center.


“People enjoy listening to Yugur folk songs and China attaches great importance to the preservation of Yugur culture. We don’t have a written language so it will be a huge pity if we lose our spoken language,” Xiuying said. “Now, Yugur language classes are available from kindergarten. I hope to teach Yugur folk songs to more children and provide as many spoken materials on Yugur intangible culture heritage as I can to scholars from home and abroad and students in colleges and universities,” Xiuying said.