Ethnic Music Tests Limits in China

The New York Times – Asian Pacific
July 2011

Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

Chinese musicians who belong to an ethnic minority, like the members of Hanggai, a Mongolian band, know that they need to steer clear of politics in their lyrics and performances.

Published: July 16, 2011

BEIJING — They have toured Europe, played alongside marquee names like the band Coldplay and earned plaudits in the international press. But here in China, the growing popularity of the Mongolian rock band Hanggai has not exactly inspired adulation from the authorities.

The New York Times

Officials in Beijing keep a firm grip on China’s ethnic regions.

During a recent music festival the band organized in the suburbs of Beijing, Hanggai stacked the roster with musicians who, like the band’s members, are known for combining traditional ethnic music with contemporary genres. There were performances by Mamer, an experimental musician from the Kazakh border region of China who plays a long-necked lute, and Zhang Quan, a peripatetic folk singer from the arid northwestern plains.

The event, undiminished by the erratic sound quality and overpriced food, attracted a swarm of state security officers who monitored the crowd with suspicion, impatience and a hint of curiosity.

A growing roster of alternative performance sites and music festivals has allowed Chinese ethnic minority musicians like the members of Hanggai to enjoy an unusual degree of financial security and cultural prominence.

But in China, where the central government maintains a firm grip on popular media and cultural events, minority musicians walk a fine line: play it safe and they may lose their audience; go too far and they may lose their stage.

About 8 percent of China’s population, or more than 100 million people, belong to 55 state-designated ethnic minority groups. Centuries of isolation and autonomy have made many of them linguistically and culturally distinct from the majority Han.

But over the past 30 years, a variety of social, economic and political forces have pushed them toward assimilation into mainstream Chinese culture. The lure of well-paid work in the cities draws young people away from traditional village life. Television and popular music have eclipsed traditional forms of entertainment.

Moreover, many groups feel marginalized by Beijing’s policies that regulate minorities. Economic incentives that have lured millions of Han Chinese to the country’s western, southern and northern fringes have created socioeconomic rifts along ethnic lines.

“There’s a widespread belief among minorities that Han have an unfair advantage in terms of getting better employment and opportunities in minority areas,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities at Pomona College in California. Such resentments, he added, were an underlying factor in recent uprisings in Tibet and the western region of Xinjiang, where rioting by ethnic Uighurs claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Han Chinese.

In its official media, the Communist Party seeks to paint a very different picture.

At the forefront of state-sponsored minority representation are the “song and dance troupes” that appear regularly on television. These shows portray minorities as exotic and unthreatening — with bright clothes and wide smiles and who are fanatical about singing and dancing. Many disparate minority groups often perform on stage together to symbolize ethnic harmony. Songs are often performed in Mandarin.

The lyrics are frequently apolitical paeans to the rugged allure of China’s borderlands. In 2009, the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya had a major hit with the crisp, karaoke-friendly “I Want to Go to Tibet.” The song’s music video looks like a public relations campaign for Tibetan tourism, juxtaposing government-financed group dances with video clips of the Beijing-Lhasa express train.

The status quo poses a challenge to those who wish to perform traditional songs as they are, with lyrics often describing less salubrious aspects of minority life.

“About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.”

Mr. Aojie rose to national fame in the late 1990s with the pop trio Mountain Eagle. Although he grew up in the Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan Province, one of the country’s poorest regions, he has largely assimilated to city life. He wears shoulder-length dreadlocks and designer jeans. His celebrity has earned him a prestigious job directing programs for a performance group affiliated with the All China Federation of Trade Unions, a government institution.

Many such programs are political in nature: Mr. Aojie recently returned from a week in Yunnan Province, where he helped local entrepreneurs develop a program promoting patriotic songs.