TALL STONE LION VILLAGE, CHINA
THE written word is as ephemeral as the rain for peasant Wang Tingming and his neighbors in this poor village on China's arid loess plateau.
Apart from the red couplets pasted on doorways for good luck, most written words in Tall Stone Lion are scratched into the fine, yellow soil and soon erased by the relentless wind.
What endures for Wang, as for his ancestors over thousands of years, is the language of song.
"We sing about all aspects of life ... about work and love," says Wang, an illiterate, middle-aged man who is one of the poorest peasants but best singers in the village.
"We sing about the time when the water in the gullies turns to ice, and when it melts again," he says, his skin reddened and clothes dusty from tilling parched fields.
Folk music is a living tradition in Tall Stone Lion and many similar communities of clustered earthen caves dug into loess hillsides in Shaanbei, or northern Shaanxi Province. Passed down orally from generation to generation, the wailing, atonal tunes remain essentially unchanged, though the lyrics evolve.
Villagers, like Wang, sing while laboring on the narrow, curving strips of terraced land that ring the hillsides here like seemingly endless steps into the blue. They sing while carrying sedan chairs cloistering brides veiled in red, and at Chinese lunar New Year festivities. Most of all, they sing spontaneously, with friends, family, or alone.
"It's very casual," says Wang. "Men sing more than the women. The women sing, too, but usually they are shy and sing secretly."
Richly descriptive, full of local color and Chinese legend, the folk songs are the musical rejoinder to the bold, kaleidoscopic paper-cuts snipped out by the nimble hands of Shaanbei peasant women.
Belted out with a dramatic range and irregular, sliding tones, the songs mirror the stark contours of life in northern Shaanxi. They resonate as a tribute to the generations of Chinese who have toiled to survive in this desolate land.
For centuries, the amateur singers of Tall Stone Lion had crooned songs with traditional themes of nature, labor, and most of all, about love.
But this changed when Mao Zedong's communist guerrillas set up their headquarters in the caves at Yan'an, just 30 miles away, and the spirited folk songs became a tool of the revolution.
"After the Red Army reached Shaanxi in 1936 following the Long March [to escape Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces], traditional songs became revolutionary," says Liu Wenjin, Director of China's Central Philharmonic Society of Folk Music in Beijing.
"Many musicians wrote revolutionary songs to the traditional tunes to extol the revolution and its leaders," says Mr. Liu.
One of the most famous songs praising Chairman Mao, "The East is Red," borrows its tune from a traditional Shaanbei folk song called "Riding on a White Horse." Another example is "The Nanni River Bend," lauding the farming skill of the 359th brigade commanded by Wang Zhen, now China's vice president.
During Mao's radical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the peasant Wang was a teenager learning to sing, the only songs officially sanctioned were eight "revolutionary operas" promoted by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing.
"A lot of the old songs were about people's feelings, so they were considered unhealthy," says Gao Maolin, the school teacher at Tall Stone Lion. "People weren't supposed to sing about love and relations between men and women all day, they were supposed to sing about the revolution."
"Of course, people kept singing secretly," adds Wang.
Like the sturdy dry-land willow trees of Shaanbei, which grow back again and again after their branches are chopped down to the trunk, the Shaanbei songs revived once the decade of cultural violence passed.
In the early and mid-1980s, the folk music won new nationwide acclaim, popularized in several immensely successful films romanticizing the loess plateau, such as "Yellow Earth," directed by Chen Kaige, and "Red Sorghum," directed by Zhang Yimou. A "Northwestern Wind," or "Xibei Feng," blowing from Shaanxi swept China. As the fad spread, a new kind of pop music based on the folk songs blared from buses and shop windows across the country.
China's top rock-and-roll artist, Cui Jian, was inspired by Shaanbei music in composing his hit "Nothing to My Name," which became the anthem of students protesting at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
But to Shaanxi natives, none of these hybrids can compare to the unrefined, solitary voices of peasants like Wang, which wail out unexpectedly, when one is walking down a dirt path, or passing the mouth of a cave dwelling.