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The Haozi of the Yangtze Boatmen
An old boatman by the name of Chen Banggui has called for the Chuanjiang Haozi to be recognized as a ‘living fossil of Yangtze culture’ and an important if intangible component of the heritage of the Chongqing area. So just what is this Haozi and why is it so important to Chen?

Strictly speaking the Chuanjiang Haozi is a “chantey”. This is a term thought to be derived from the word “chant” and preferred by purists in the know to the alternative “chanty”. It is applied to working songs associated with boats where a repetitive tempo helps to regulate the pace of the manual task in hand. The story of the Haozi is as long as the Yangtze River where it has been handed down from one generation of singers to another.

As the only boatman who can still sing the complete Haozi, Chen believes the Chuanjiang Haozi should be recognized as a unique form of the folk art of the Yangtze River Valley.

People began to sing the Haozi when sail power was the order of the day on the Yangtze. According to Chen, boats were once the main means of communication with the outside world for the people of Chongqing due to it being surrounded by mountains and rivers.

In the old days the boatmen adopted the tradition that helmsman was the master of the boat and all boatmen should follow the helmsman’s directions. And so the Haozi appeared for this became the means by which the helmsman could coordinate a team.

According to Wang Qunsheng who is vice-director of the Chongqing Cultural and Historical Museum, it may be possible to trace the roots of the Haozi to the salt industry.

“The Haozi originated along the Yangtze River. It's well known that the kingdom of Ba had developed a salt industry even before the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Boats provided the main means of transporting the salt,” said Wang. "The Haozi is a working song. People in various heavy occupations like lumbermen and boatmen have their own songs to accompany and set the pace for their hard physical labor. But when did these songs come into being? It's natural to vocalize when laboring in teams and struggling together against the forces of nature. So the Haozi appeared with its sounds like hey and wow and its powerful rhythm.

“In the Spring and Autumn Period, the kingdom of Ba was famous for its salt. This had to be transported by boat. At that time shipbuilding skills were not so highly developed and large vessels were pulled upstream by the efforts of rhythmically swaying teams of laborers on the riverbank. Their work was closely coordinated through the Haozi. So, historians have deduced that the Chuanjiang Haozi was created when people began to transport salt by boat."

Huang Xiaodong who is vice-director of Chongqing Museum says there is not much to be found in the historical record on the subject.

“Since the Haozi was then considered as just folk art, it was not so highly regarded by ancient people and they left little for us in their written records,” said Huang. "There have been boats on the Yangtze River since the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) or even earlier. If it is correct to assume that the Haozi has always gone hand in hand with the boats on the Yangtze then we can date it to this time."

Huang tells of Li Daoyuan, a famous geologist in the time of the Northern Wei (386-534). He heard the fishermen singing the Haozi and wrote in his classic work on China's waterways, the Commentary on the Waterways Classic, “Of the three gorges in Badong, the Wu Gorge is the largest. When the monkeys wailed three times, I found my shirt soaked with tears.” This is the first mention in history of the Haozi.

Last year, the Chongqing Museum received a tape from Germany. It contained a recording of the Haozi made by the German consul and his wife at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This is the earliest audio and video material of the Chuanjiang Haozi.

(China.org.cn by Wu Nanlan, April 8, 2003)

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