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Tongshan Labor Drum--the Millennium Legend in the Clouds 10-06-30

  Reported by Liu Yuguan and Xie Zhibing (

  “Da Didong Didong, Da 0 0; Da Didong Didong, Da 0 0 ”,the vigorous drum and the resounding singing sound wafts from the distance. The sonorous drums beat the pulse of the earth; the quaint and mellow singing falls upon the ploughs, hoes, sickles and pickaxes, expressing the tragic romance in thousands of years of slash and burn farming.

  The drum sound and the singing seem like the war drums’ sound of the war between the states of Wu (1200-473BC) and Chu (1042-223BC), which crosses two thousand years of history and echoes at the fields during the Spring farming season and the fall harvest season and in our hearts.

  Today we will bring you to listen to the Provincial-level non-material Cultural Heritage--the ancient and beautiful legend of Tongshan labor drum in Qutan Village of Tongshan County.

  Labor Drum Returns to the "Battlefield" to Urge and Inspire People to Work

  On May 29, the villager Zhang Shanyu got up just as the sky turned bright in the east.

  Finishing breakfast quickly, he carried his labor drum, moistened the throat and walked proudly towards his cherished "battlefield".

  It turned out that one household was going to transplant rice seedlings, so they specially invited Zhang Shanyu who is a famous labor drummer in the local place to urge and inspire them.

  Coming to the edge of the fields, Zhang Shanyu sang while playing the drum: "First I invite male singers in the east to sing, second invite male singers in the west, third invite male singers in the south, and fourth invite male singers in the north. All of you, if you think highly of me, let us sing highly together." Twenty to thirty people responded in unison: "Oh, Huo Huo Huo..."

  After singing the song Inviting the Male Singers, the crowd gathered in the fields. Rice-transplanters (the male singers) wore their straw hats, rolled up their trousers and bended down to start planting. Zhang Shanyu sung as playing the drum, and the male singers sung with the rhyme, echoing each other. The work entered into the tense period, the sound of the drum also became urgent and forceful, and the drummer sang and all the people jointed in the singing. Their sound of singing went across the valley leading to the sky, resounding through a few miles and a few villages. The long-time work made people lose morale, Zhang Shanyu timely sang a few flirting songs to change the atmosphere, to which many female singers jokingly responded, and the field was full of joy.

  The all-embracing folk songs involve many aspects, such as heroes, history, legends, love, etc. However, it also has its own rules. Zhang Shanyu said that during a day's labor, we sang different songs at different time. When the sun rises, we sing Look East and Morning Comes, followed by Sun. During lunch time, we sing Delicious Lunch.

  After a brief rest at noon, the crowd returned to the field to continue their hard work. As sunset, some male singers got tired and were not as agile as in the morning. Once someone lagged behind, Zhang Shanyu went to him and sang chaffing songs in front of him to arouse his sense of shame and drove him to catch up with others.

  "Plant a seedling in the earth (lead singer), good (the public); gain a lot of rice, yes; a bumper harvest year, ah; cereals come to us, ah; after eating it, the old live long, yes; after eating it, the children are healthy, yes." The sound of the drum changed from gentle to urgent, coming to the climax and indicating the last urge. When Zhang Shanyu sung Call It a Day, others echoing, the song's rhythm and well-knit sound of the drum added radiance to each other.

  It was getting late and the work had been finished. Male singers stopped working and went home in the shine of the setting sun. Resonant sound of the drum and the clear sound of the singing wafted to the distance, only leaving the frogs croaking in the fileds.

  Folk Labor Drum Has a Long History, Once Being the Spring and Autumn War Drum

  It is said that Tongshan labor drum's history can trace back to ancient Spring and Autumn Warring States Period (770-221BC). According to legend, Tongshan County is the border of the ancient states of Wu and Chu in the Spring and Autumn Warring States Period. Ancient soldiers often sung to the music of war drums to urge and inspire them while stationing at the frontier. Later the villagers used the war drums in labor situations to urge and inspire people to work and formed a custom.

  Tongshan County Annual in the Tongzhi period (1861-1875AD) of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911AD) writes that “the cliff and the clear light, the bridge and the night drum, the fishing songs and the fishermen’s sing, and the field drum and temple bell", of which "tiangu" refers to Zaitian drum, one kind of the labor drums. The historical data shows that in the early Ming (1368-1644AD) and the Qing Dynasty, the labor drum became universal and developed into its heyday. According to historical data, the labor drums have enjoyed great popularity and moved towards the peak during the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China.

  The drummer Zhang Shanyu, 54 years old, is one of representative successors of Tongshan labor drum, which is a provincial Non-material Cultural Heritage Protection project. The most prosperous period of the labor drum is the rural cooperatives period, which Zhang Shanyu and the older generation witnessed. He said although he was still small at that time, he was particularly impressed. In Busy Seasons, a few production teams totaled hundreds of people marched forth to the fields to labor, the sound of labor drums resounded through the whole village and the kids sang and danced around the drummers, enjoying themselves.

  The staff of Tongshan Cultural Center tells reporters that Tongshan labor drum is a singing way of Tongshan people during collective activities in the field. Single drum, double drums or many drums may be played based on scenes of different sizes. The performers are the drummers and the male singers. The drummers sang as the lead and beat the drums, and then male singers followed him while doing their work simultaneously.

  Speaking of this, Zhang Shanyu hangs the drum on his waist, holding the mallet in his right hand and beating the drum, while his left hand supporting the drum. He began to beat the drum and sing to the crisp music of the drum.

  His sound of the drum attracted several villagers to gather around him and joined in the singing.

  The Labor Drum Becomes the Villagers' Recreational Way after Its Popularity

  After the lively singing, Zhang Shanyu started to talk about his experiences of learning. He began attentively learning to beat drums from his father at the age of 17. However, it was more difficult to learn than expected, because one should not only beat the drum while singing songs but also need to improvise lyrics in accordance with the environment and atmosphere. Fortunately, he persevered by virtue of his love for the labor drum. A few years later, his skills surpassed his father, but he did not stop the pursuit of learning. Instead whenever he had any doubt, he would pay a visit to the elder drummers in the nearby villages to learn from them.

  Little by little, he acquired the skills of playing Zaitian drum, Washan drum and Haocao drum. In Busy Seasons, Zhang Shanyu bustled about in various villages of Tongshan County and enjoyed the carefree happiness and liveliness from dawn to sunset. Zhang Shanyu told reporters that almost everyone in the village can sing, but not everyone can play drums, therefore he enjoyed great popularity due to his consummate skills.

  However, the popularity of labor drum did not last. "After the 1980s, the collective labor was replaced by single family labor because of the implementation of the contract system, so labor drum seldom played the role of urging and inspiring people to work." Saying this, Zhang Shanyu became a little depressed.

  Though the labor drum stepped down from the fields, it brought a great leisure time to the poor villagers who did not have much entertainment. This should be attributed to Zhang Lanyu, a villager. Since the 1950s and 1960s, as night fell Zhang Lanyu sang and beat the drum in his own yard. Many villagers then took their benches and sat around him, spending the beautiful nights joyously among the singing of the congregation. Later, televisions became universal and people loved watching them. However, Zhang Lanyu, as usual, played the drum sang until his passed away the year before last year. He was 86 years old when he was gone, and the labor drum accompanied him for more than 70 years.

  The death of Zhang Lanyu left the originally-lively village in silence. Then Zhang Shanyu took over the drum to continue the tradition, becoming the only drummer in the village.

  Tongshan Labor Drum Walks onto the Stage, Reproducing Past Glory through Integration of Innovation

  Labor drum is quite fashionable in Tongshan County. Lots of people in various villages or towns have a keen interest in it just like Zhang Shanyu, for example, Jiao Hanen in Dalu Town, Liu Hesheng in Fanni Village, Ruan Youcai in Jianshe Village, etc. However, drummers with proficient skills are few and far between. According to statistics, there are just 50 inheritors of Tongshan labor drum. What’s more, they are already in advanced years. If people do not redouble heritage efforts, the future of labor drum is not optimistic. Zhang Shanyu said that it was not easy to acquire proficient skills fully. His three apprentices had to stop learning and leave home for other cities to make a living.

  Fortunately, after the reform and opening up, though it has disappeared in the fields, thanks to the folk-custom workers and artists, it's performed on stages, walking into common people's lives in the form of artistic performance.

  In 1954, Tongshan Labor Drum Dance participated in the provincial Amateur  Art Show and won the Excellence Award. In 1988, Tongshan labor Drum Xigenghe won the Silver Award in the Grand Prix of Hubei Folk Songs and Dances, which was filmed and sent to CCTV by Hubei TV as the excellent program shown for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Since then, Tongshan labor drum walks onto stages frequently in various forms and has won acclaim from the audience. In 2007, Tongshan County invested RMB 660,000 Yuan to choreograph a large-scale folk dance and music play-Deep in the Clouds, which focused on labor drums, folk songs, and folk dances. After the performance in counties and cities, it proved to be a smash hit in society. Deep in the Clouds was also invited to make a tour performance in Guangdong, Shenzhen, Singapore, etc., bringing Tongshan folk culture to the world.

  Tongshan labor drum has walked onto stage, which does not only exude a unique charm but also gives a promising road to its heritage.

  Does Tongshan labor drum have a future?

  Zhang Shanyu said that he would give lessons to students in the nearby schools in slack season to establish native friendship for Tongshan labor drum in the minds of the children. Sometimes he plays the drum and sings at home to exert a subtle influence on the villagers so that more people will care about labor drums.

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