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The melody of the Chinese folk song is as a rule quite simple. Its composition is often limited to the repetition of a few conventional intervals based on the pentatonic scale. Its tonal range very seldom goes beyond an octave and half. Still, the songs can be very charming to the Chinese ear.
As to subject matter, again little needs to be said. Buddhist nuns, desperately beautiful and as desperately in love, lament their own fate. Monks dream of tenderness. Prostitutes curse their keepers and procurers. Poor Romeos send their missives by the back door through the medium of obliging servant girls who thus work their way to concubinage. The just and the poor in heart are rewarded with unexpected success in final examinations, summa cum laude. The wicked are consigned to the fire of purgatory. Dutiful wives, pious children, councillors and warriors loyal unto death - these all deserve a place in a moralistic society.
On a simple and naive background like this, it may seem paradoxical to say that many of the folk songs have been contaminated with bad literary influence. They have been passed through the literary machine to be polished and refined, but the outcome is downright vulgarity. On the other hand. the child of nature may become over-sensitive of his academic short-comings and all too unconsciously begin to simulate literacy. That we can usually tell by the way he mutilates his classical allusions, which in his hand may turn out to be not only tasteless but also senseless. For instance, the phrase willows like mist degenerates into willow trees mist, the two being pronounced somewhat alike.
The examples given below are taken from various parts of the country. Some of them are still fresh and defiant and as naughty as can be. Others have become sophisticated, profusely decorated. Feng Yang Hua Gu or The Flower Song of Feng Yang is a beggars' song. In a typical scene a couple go begging together. The man plays a small drum and the woman beats a gong. As they sing, they dance. In the original text the first verse runs somewhat like the following:
Emperor Zhu was the first ruler of the Ming Dynasty who began his life as a Feng Yang beggar. The theme of the song has been greatly changed, but in form it still retains the dance rhythm and the nonsensical chorus which is imitative of the sound of the drum and the gong. This is the song we now sing with the beggars:
The Feng Yang Flower Drum Song
(Set to the original tune, not translated word for word)The next song, Meng Jiang Nu of the Twelve Months, has an old old theme. Emperor the First of the Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall. Men were drafted from all quarters of the Empire, "lazy men to stuff the earth" as meat stuffs the dumpling, according to one of our operatic farces. One of the men conscripted was Wan Xi Liang and he stuffed the earth. His wife, Meng Jiang Nu, went all the way from Suzhou to look for him. Not a trace of the man could be found. So she cried and cried until the Great Wall fell down in commiseration and delivered to her his bones. Meng Jiang Nu of the Twelve Months or the Four Seasons is most popular around Suzhou. Here I translate four verses, one representing each season.Man and womanRight hand drum, / left hand gong, /
Gong and drum we'll / sing our song.
Other songs we / cannot sing, /
We shall sing you a / Feng Yang Song. /
Feng Feng Yang Song ay, / ay, ay, ay. /
Chorus: Drr diundung piao-i-piao, /Woman
Drr diundung piao-i-piao, /
Drr piao, drr piao, /
Drr piao, drr piao-piao and drr /
piao-piao piao-i-piao. /Wretched life, / flimsy fate, /Chorus
Never have I / married a decent mate. /
Could you not be / a magistrate? /
You play the flower drum / early and late. /
Early and late ay, / ay, ay, ay. /
ManFlimsy fate, / wretched me, /Chorus
Never have I / married decently. /
For your wives wear / embroidery, /
But my wife, ah, / just look and see, /
Those big dirty feet ay, / ay, ay, ay. /
* If you cannot read sheet music, please click here and listen to the MIDI file.
The next piece is a lullaby. Blue Bamboo it is called.
Several times in these lectures I have called your attention to the fact that the literary man took great delight in developing or more often ruining our popular themes and melodies. I now present you with two such pieces. They are still considered folk songs inasmuch as they are actually sung by the common people. You can see even in the translations that they have been touched by the grinding wheel of the lapidary.
The first example is the Si Ji Xiang Si or Love in the Four Seasons. The tune seems to have originated in the Jinan region but has found a congenial home in the south. It is customary in the Suzhou tea shops for story teller to begin the evening's entertainment with a sort of overture. He plays on the three strings and sings a characteristic song. Love in the Four Seasons is popular in all its varieties of melody and verse. The original text must have been composed by a literary man who had lost caste, so to say, and become a story teller. We have, especially around Suzhou, a great many of those half-baked literary men with all the pink and white trimming. I cite only one stanza, the song of spring.
I shall next translate the first verse of a song written by a literary man of good standing who also composed the melody. It is, therefore, what we used to call a zi du qu, poem and melody from the same hand. Being commonly sung at present, it deserves a place among our folk songs. It is really a semi-classic. Its pattern also is too intricate for Chinese folk literature. Dao Qing or literally Say What you Like originated about two centuries ago.The common folks, you know, cannot stand such high literary pressure. They break down and escape in travesty. We have a very impressive song by the name of Su Wu the Shepherd. Su Wu was a messenger of the Han Dynasty to the land of the Huns. They detained him for nineteen years but could not undermine his fortitude.
One can be moved or at least amused to hear a whole battalion of soldiers singing this Su Wu song, swaggering. But our street urchins do not sing it the same way.
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