Mongolian Tenor Qifulin

By staff reporter JOY JIAO



Qifulin is China’s best known singer of Manhan folksongs. 

Born in Zhunger Banner of Inner Mongolia in 1953, Qifulin, is the country’s best known singer of Manhan folksongs. A full-time farmer and part-time singer, like most folk artists he is self-trained. Over the past decades he has introduced this cultural heritage of his ethnicity to regions along the Yellow River and won fame as one of China’s foremost ethnic crooners. In 2012 he was designated an official inheritor of China’s intangible cultural heritage.


THE Yellow River flowing by Zhunger is the glue binding the Mongolians and Han peoples, two folks who are bosom friends.” Sung for 200 years, Manhan folksongs are indigenous to the Loess and Ordos plateaus where Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region meet. A blend of Mongolian and Han singing techniques engender an exuberant, earthy style.


Qifulin, a Mongolian, is a household name on the Ordos Plateau. People clamor to greet him whenever he appears in a bustling part of town, or is encountered ambling along a rural dirt track. According to this revered folk singer, best known for his rendition of 99 Turns of the Yellow River, the prime quality of a Manhan folksinger is the ability to compose an impromptu piece according to circumstance. A singer thus plays it by heart and by ear, rather than hewing to set rules. A good voice is of course equally important.


Childhood Obsession to Lifelong Profession


Qifulin was born to a Mongolian family in Xiaotanzi Village in Zhunger along the Yellow River. As song and dance lurk within the genes of Mongolians, it was natural for the youthful Qifulin to develop a keen interest in the Manhan folksongs which sprang from the lips of locals, his parents included.


“It was a time without radio or TV, and other forms of recreation were scarce,” Qifulin recalled, “so the villagers entertained themselves by singing Manhan folksongs. Daily exposure to this genre naturally inculcated it.” His devotion to the art impresses other villagers: “He has been a big fan since boyhood. His family’s poverty never dented his zest for singing.”


Whenever a performance was staged locally – a rare event then – young Qifulin would sit for hours on a stool, his eyes riveted on the stage, while his contemporaries soon lost interest and started fidgeting. One day, as he was herding sheep, word spread that a troupe was performing in the next village. He locked his flock in a vacant courtyard and went to audition for a walk-on part with the troupe. Qifulin’s father panicked at sunset when there was no sign of him or the sheep. When his dad finally found him late that night, the youth was onstage singing in his debut performance.


Years went by and Qifulin became a teamster, hauling coal, charcoal and other freight around the plateau. On these long, tedious journeys Manhan folksongs became his closest companions and confidantes. “That trucker job prepared me for my later singing career,” Qifulin said. “I experienced more of the world and learned ever more Manhan folksongs. During this time I nurtured the ability to turn an offhand observation into a song.”


This talent soon won him acclaim among local farmers. At 20, he enlisted to build a canal connecting to the Yellow River. The work was arduous, but Qifulin still made time for his pastime, leading antiphonal singing with co-workers in the course of their labor. One day, under the glow of the setting sun, boats were skimming on the sweltering Yellow River by the construction site, a sight that suddenly inspired Qifulin. He dropped his spade, dashed to the river, and belted out a refrain. His resounding voice carried far in the wide expanse, equally to boatmen tallying on the waters and farmers tilling in the fields.


Heard all over China


When our reporter reached Qifulin for a phone interview, he was tending his land. “I have just returned from a performance outside the region and am now at work in my fields. I have more than half a hectare to sow this year,” he said.


Since 1987 Qifulin has performed Manhan folksongs all over the country, and abroad too. He has appeared in such high-profile events as China Central Television’s (CCTV) Spring Festival Gala and the CCTV Competition for Western China Folk Songs, as well as a world tour for indigenous singers.


He has proclaimed his name, and his voice has been heard from his hamlet in the grasslands to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, from his village radio sender, to CCTV.


Qifulin first broke into the spotlight in 1987 when he won first prize with 99 Turns of the Yellow River at a young singers’ contest in Zhunger Banner, an honor he scarcely expected as an amateur singer with no formal training.


He snapped up another first prize in 2000 for a farmers’ team at a farmers vs. herders singing competition staged by a regional TV channel. His Planting Willows on the River Bank elicited thundering applause from the audience. Inner Mongolian TV afterwards offered him a job as a contract singer.



 Manhan folksongs from 200 years ago are popular among both the Han and Mongolian peoples.

Higher Than Luciano Pavarotti


Instruction in Manhan folksongs is oral, with no scores or other written records. Qifulin, who is musically illiterate, has an astounding voice that sets him apart from other singers.


At a Beijing performance, the producer was so enthralled by his singing that he measured the pitch. The result was a High A. When the excited producer said: “You reached High A! Do you know Pavarotti?” Qifulin replied, at a loss: “What is High A? And who is Pavarotti?’


Lacking any vocal training, Qifulin can barely offer a lucid explanation of how his voice is produced. “I sing just the way I would if I were on the plateau. It feels as if the sound comes out of my mouth, soars to my forehead, then to the top of my head, before sinking into my belly. My entire body exerts itself to support it. I just sing with my real voice.”


This is all Qifulin can say about his “technique.” This is how he has sung for the past 40 years. And songs slip from his lips whenever a sight inspires him. When asked “What would life be like without songs?” he replies: “There is no life without song.”


Promoting the Art


Qifulin has performed commercially since 2004, once as music consultant for a Beijing restaurant. Yet he often felt that a rural tableau was the best setting for Manhan folksongs. So he returned to his hometown, where the art was born and where it belongs.


In 1996, Zhunger Banner was nominated by the Ministry of Culture as home of Manhan folksongs. In 2008 Manhan folksongs were added to the List of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritages. One year earlier, Qifulin was distinguished as an outstanding inheritor of folk culture by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association, and the Chinese Dancers Association. Qifulin feels that the award obligates him to disseminate this ethnic folksong genre among the public. To this end, he has lectured at the Central Conservatory of Music and taken students from around the nation.


Qifulin is sanguine about the future of Manhan folksongs. “The course the Zhunger Manhan Folksong Research Institute organized has just concluded. Its participants’ ages ranged from eight to 80.” This circumstance infuses ever more confidence into the veteran singer. “I have scant education and cannot read musical scores, so I am not qualified to be a teacher, but I will keep singing, so that more people will listen to and like it.” This is the dream Qifulin has always lived by.