Half an hour before curtain-time at a concert in Lijiang Autonomous County in southwest China's Yunnan Province, a region inhabited predominantly by the Naxi ethnic group, the 200-seat concert hall is already full to capacity. Late arrivals are standing in the aisles.
The performance Wednesday evening consists of "ancient Naxi music", a centuries-old Naxi minority group custom of performing their folk music.
The ancient music, called Dongjing, or ritual music, was traditionally sung by Taoist monks in mountain caves in most areas of Yunnan province. It has been called a "fossil of Chinese music".
The music was introduced to Yunnan at least 800 years ago and has already died out in China's central plains, comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow river, China's second longest.
Apart from Yunnan province, this ancient music can be traced only to Chifeng city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and to the city of Chengde in Hebei province, both in northern China.
The ancient music was traditionally performed only during the Spring Festival, popularly known as the Chinese Lunar New Year, to worship the gods and pray for a "Happy New Year".
First introduced as Taoist rites, the music is peaceful and lofty, expressing the some of the most beautiful aspects of Chinese culture. The music is unique in that it incorporates gongchipu, a type of traditional musical notation.
"Listening to ancient Naxi music, you don't use eyes or ears or any other sensory organs, but rather your heart. Because this is the sound of life," a member of the audience said.
By the 1980s, barely 30 Naxi people in outlying Lijiang County were skilled in the music. Among these, seven are now nearing 90 years of age, and approximately 20 others are over 65.
Xuan Ke, 72, an expert in Naxi folk music and President of the Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Association, said that ancient Naxi music evolved from the popular religious and imperial music of the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD) Dynasties and originated between the 7th and 13th centuries.
During this period, Ci, a type of poetry composed to accompany melodious tunes which was characterized by strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, emerged.
This unique poetry could be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.
Traditional Dongjing music operas include Waves Washing the Sands, The Sheep on the Hill and Song of the Water Dragon.
"Due to the rise and fall of successive imperial dynasties and the vicissitudes of life, the vividness and richness of this ancient music has not been passed from generation to generation," Xuan lamented.
"As only wealthy intellectuals could afford to hold concerts ofreligious or imperial music for their families in the old days, musicians could pass on their knowledge and skills only to male offspring from well-off families."
"As a consequence," he explained, "these days very few musicians still know how to play ancient Naxi music."
Fortunately, the lovely ancient Naxi music has been revived over recent years in Yunnan and is becoming increasingly popular, especially with the younger generation.
To date, Dongjing music groups are mushrooming in Yunnan, especially in the areas of Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Baoshan and Chuxiong.
Usually, an ensemble is equipped with Sheng (a type of Chinese panpipe), Xiao (Chinese vertical bamboo flute), Guan (a wind instrument) and Di (a bamboo flute), as well as drums, gongs and various kinds of stringed instruments.
There are 340 Dongjing ensembles in Dali Autonomous Prefecture of the ethnic Bai people. The city of Dali in the prefecture boasts 100 ensembles with up to 10,000 Dongjing fans.
Lijiang Autonomous County of the ethnic Naxi group has set up 19 Ancient Naxi Music Associations as well as 11 performing troupes.
A growing number of young enthusiasts are taking part in the performances. In one group with 34 members, 14 are under the age of 50, and eight are 40 or under. Its youngest member, named He Yugang, is only 24.
Local governments at various levels in Yunnan have resorted to urgent measures to protect the unique Dongjing music. These measures include sending trained players to gather Dongjing operas from communities scattered in outlying mountainous regions and performing for these ethnic groups.
Two of the noted masters, Lei Hong'an and Peng Youshan, during a survey of nearly 100 counties in Yunnan, have found that 134 and 111 Dongjing operas remained intact in Kunming, the provincial capital, and Mile county, respectively.
The Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Association was formed in 1987 by Dongjing masters Xuan Ke, He Yi'an and Yang Zenglie to study, revive and carry forward the music as well as to train new young stars.
Since May of 2000, the Yunnan Provincial People's Congress has passed three bylaws concerning Dongjing protection, including the "Protection by law for National Folk Traditional Culture in Yunnan Province".
Lijiang autonomous county of Naxi ethnic group, too, enacted a code on the "Protection and Management Bylaw For Ancient Naxi Music".
A host of private classes have been held to teach and pass on Dongjing music.
Even though these classes cater to the locals' needs, and many parents send their children there, Dongjing music still has to be taught by the elderly, as normal schools do not provide these kind of music classes.
Last April, a unique Dongjing music and culture workshop was held during a special ethnic fair in the city of Dali, which drew both masters and music fans from around China. They exchanged information and experiences, and dance troupes and musical groups gave lively performances.
With Dongjing music enjoying growing fame both at home and overseas, its troupes have performed in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and have toured some 20 countries, including the United States and Britain. A British recording firm has published a CD of the unique music.
(Xinhua News Agency August 23, 2002)