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A Farmer's Odyssey to Keep Folklore Alive

For Zhao Zhongtian, Mother Goose, famous for introducing nursery rhymes to English-speaking countries, was his own mother.


"I still remember being nestled in my mother's arms and listening to her humming the rhymes," the farmer from Zhaodian village, Yanggu County of East China's Shandong Province, recalled. "Her rhymes changed every day and she never repeated herself."


Even though he failed the college entrance examination in 1980 and had to return home to work on the farm, he still spent his spare time writing.


His mother was a motivating factor, telling him, "You could write a book if you can record every rhyme I've sung to you," Zhao recalled.


For the past 26 years since 1980, Zhao not only dictated his mother's tales but went on an ambitious hunt to collect old folk rhymes and other folklore along the Grand Canal and the Yellow River Valley in East China's Shandong Province and Central China's Henan Province.


The words in his manuscript total more than 2 million Chinese characters, and it took him 30,000 kilometers of biking to gather them.


He visited some 1,000 villages and talked with about 10,000 folklorists.


From his manuscripts, he has recorded 1,500 folk rhymes, more than 200 games and 2,600 slang terms, possibly the largest collection of its kind in the local Shandong dialect.


As a common farmer, Zhao's work remained unnoticed and ignored for years, despite the fact that he sent out some 400 letters and visited some 60 government agencies and research institutes.


But now, he is waiting for experts in the city of Liaocheng of Shandong Province to evaluate his collection.


A panel of experts in the city spoke highly of Zhao's collection after their initial study of the works.


Zhao's hope, he said, is to at least have his work printed and passed down as folk cultural heritage for the people living on the banks of the ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Canal and the middle reaches of the Yellow River Valley.


Some experts suggest that some of the collected folklore had been passed down by word of mouth for centuries.


Many of the rhymes were sung as lullabies or counting rhymes or chanted during hard labor or street sales.


Now in his 40's, Zhao said his motivation for the project came from within.


"I want to accomplish something in my lifetime," he said.


Collecting tales


Zhao, who often had to beg people to chant or sing for him so he could record the tales, said the road to collecting the folklore was sometimes difficult.


Of the 10,000-some people he has interviewed, only a few hundred are still alive today, and many of them have forgotten the songs and stories they once knew.


Zhao said he remembered hearing a needle-thread salesman singing his sales when Zhao was young.


He later learned the man was Li Yanjiu, a native of Central China's Henan Province, who moved to Zhangqiu Township in Yanggu County.


He said selling needles and thread was a very small business. However, Li earned a name for himself as the "King of Sales Singing."


"He was a legend as he never repeated the songs he sang every day," Zhao said. "Nobody knew how many songs he carried with him in his stomach."


In 2003, Zhao visited Li twice and jotted down five sales rhymes.


When he went to look for Li the third time two years ago, the elderly street peddler had passed away.


"It is very painful when I hear about the passing away of those elderly people like Li, who took away the folklore with them," he said.


Collecting songs is what Zhao loves the most.


As his home county area is located between the Yellow River and the Grand Canal, the villagers have guarded against floods by building an embankment by the Yellow River.


"Some embankment rises as high as 15 meters," he said.


Every year in the past, hundreds of thousands of local people would go and harness the embankment. They used huge stone rammers each weighing some 70 kilograms.


"Usually nine people maneuvered one stone rammer, and they sang as they threw the rammer up and down," Zhao recalled.


The scene could be quite spectacular as hundreds of stone rammers rose (sometimes as high as 2.5 meters) and fell to the accompaniment of the songs, he said.


He is also proud of some chess games that local farmers developed a few centuries ago. Playing as a break from their farm work, they used stone pieces and drew the boards on the ground.



Sometimes Zhao Zhongtian (right) plays chess, a game centuries old, with his neighbours.


During his search, Zhao discovered that some forms of chess were even canonized by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).


His book is diverse in its content. One recorded rhyme tells a story of a naughty young boy performing his daily tricks, from playing with a stick, to catching a bean bug, a grasshopper and then a turtle


In another, a young village woman named Xiangxiang goes to a fair. With her shiny black hair flowing and a pair of circular earrings waving, the red silk-clad Xiangxiang draws the attention of a local man.


The man called the matchmaker near Xiangxiang's home and learned that Xiangxiang had already seen corn flowering 18 times:


Green onion for green onion, chives for chives;


River lotus goes with white lotus roots;


Balsam poplar flowers match buds of pomegranates;


The dark cloud joins the white cloud in heaven;


And the beautiful girl matches her man on earth.


Last year, Zhao's mother died, at the age of 70, without being able to see her son's work in print.


But his goal of having his collections published is looking optimistic these days.


"I hope I can ask my mother to rest in peace now," he said.


(China Daily June 7, 2006)

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