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The River Still Sings

A documentary about folk rock musician Su Yang and four other artists from Northwest China explores the ancient music traditions of the Yellow River Basin

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Music documentary The River in Me reaches its emotional peak when singer-songwriter Su Yang performs his trademark song “Virtuous.” Its powerful rhythm, folksong melody and poetic lyrics brings the film to a surging climax. 

“The pomegranates are blooming, and the leaves are turning yellow / My aunt teaches her children to be virtuous,” Su sings in his heavy northwestern accent. “You are the most special woman in the world / I’m the most ordinary weed in the ground.”  

Released on June 18, the 98-minute documentary follows the creative footprint of Su, an influential rock musician from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and his creative exchanges with a group of four artists, each representing a different folk art from Northwest China, from the gritty vocals of Qin Opera and shadow puppetry to flirtatious love songs known as Hua’er, and storytelling from northern Shaanxi Province – all of which have influenced his work.  

Su draws inspiration from stories and legends from the deserts of Ningxia. His lyrics often evokes imagery of rural life, such as wildflowers and grasslands, wind and sand, rice and wheat, the barren Helan Mountains and the Yellow River – the cradle of Chinese civilization.  

His music combines rock with northwestern Chinese folksong to create soulful melodies that transcend language barriers. With stunning panoramas of the Yellow River Basin, the film explores how the ancient melodies of the river still flow in the veins of its people today. 

Under Currents
“Guanju,” the first entry in the Book of Songs, is one of the first love songs recorded in Chinese history.  

 “Guan-guan go the fish hawks / on the islet in the river. The virtuous, beautiful, young maiden / the nobleman would love to marry her.” 

About 3,000 years ago, civilizations along the Yellow River expressed their love and passion for life through songs. A total of 305 survive today in the Book of Songs, which is considered the first work of Chinese literature.  

About three years ago, a group of young people embarked on a journey to the Yellow River. They eventually traveled across Northwest China and accumulated 1,600 hours of footage that captures folk music along the river and the lives of the artists keeping these ancient traditions alive. This year, they made the experience into a musical documentary, The River in Me.  

The documentary is a part of the Yellow River Runs Forth, a project Su Yang launched in 2016 to showcase the sounds and images he gathered over the past two decades in Northwest China. Lei Jianjun, the film’s producer and professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University, suggested that the documentary should not only show the singer-songwriter’s own music journey, but more importantly his musical inspirations from Northwest China who remain relatively unknown.  

Su listed four artists he has known personally for over 10 years: Hua’er singer Ma Fengshan from Gu’an County, Ningxia; shadow puppeteer Wei Zongfu from Huanxian County, Gansu Province; Qin Opera performer Zhang Jinlai from Yinchuan, Ningxia; and storyteller Liu Shikai from Yulin, Shaanxi Province. 

“My music isn’t influenced by any particular artist. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated with all sorts of folk arts and music from the Yellow River Basin, especially [these four kinds],” Su told NewsChina.  

Dong Xuan was one of four ethnomusicologists enlisted to research and conduct fieldwork for the film, which she described as a rare opportunity. “There is no precedent for ethnomusicologists in China to participate in film production,” Dong, who focuses on Hua’er song and northern Shaanxi storytelling, told NewsChina. “It encouraged scholars to come out of their ivory towers and connect with reality.”  

Lei invited three young directors to film the documentary, including two of his students, Ke Yongquan and Yang Zhichun, and He Yuan, a scholar at the Visual Anthropology Research Center of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.  

The directors and their crews spent 18 months living with four folk artists, during which they gathered more than 1,600 hours of clips and around 500,000 words in field notes.  

Yang Zhichun filmed shadow puppetry master Wei Zongfu. In order to faithfully portray Wei’s life, Yang lived with his family for nearly two years in their yaodong, or cave dwelling. “After two years of rural life I’ve come to understand how closely and intimately people are connected to the land under our feet,” Yang said. 

Yang left the village on a clear sunny day. As he rode on Wei’s motorcycle and listened to Su Yang’s “The Yelling Song,” he suddenly realized part of the melody was identical to a tune Wei sings in one of his shadow puppet plays.  

“At that moment I began to understand Su Yang’s songs. And it was that moment that I realized that these traditions are still flowing in the veins of the people who live there. Traditional folk arts are living in the present, in their lives,” Yang said. 

Voices of the Earth
The first time Su Yang wanted to write a song related to his hometown, an American TV series he saw as a boy came to mind – the 1977 miniseries Roots based on author Alex Haley’s novel that traces his family’s African-American history and heritage, which begins with a young captured slave from Africa.  

The music he heard on the show enchanted him, and he spent years seeking out similar music. In 2000, one of his friends, an aficionado of blues and jazz, gave him a collection of early field 
recordings of African-American music.  

“When I listened to the music, somehow it instantly reminded me of the wheat field near Tongxin Road in Yinchuan where I spent my childhood,” Su said.  

Su was born in 1969 in Wenling, a coastal city in East China’s Zhejiang Province. At seven, he and his parents moved to Yinchuan, capital of Northwest China’s Ningxia. Yinchuan is on the Yellow River, considered the cradle of Chinese civilization for the ancient cultures that developed along it. The region has a rich musical heritage, and some of its folk songs have been passed down for centuries.  

Liu can still recall the endless plains and farmland he saw the first morning he woke up in his new home.  

Every time he passed that wheat field, Su would hear a farmer singing a song. The lyrics left a deep impression on him: “The river of Ningxia, narrow at both ends / between the Yellow River to the east and the Helan Mountains to the west. The river of Ningxia is a river of gold, silver, rice and wheat.”  

“When I was young, I was confused by the lyrics,” Su told NewsChina. “Most land in Ningxia is barren and extremely short on water. How could a river in Ningxia be of gold, silver, rice and wheat?” He also noticed that many place names in Ningxia are related to water.  Su gradually realized that the song was about hopes for a better life. He rewrote the song with his own lyrics: “The river of Ningxia, narrow in both ends / golden millet and red flowers bloom on the banks. I just hope one day we farmers / do not need to live at the mercy of the weather.” The song, “The River of Ningxia,” is on his 2006 debut album Virtuous.  

In 2001, Su began to combine rock with Hua’er, a unique form of folk song from Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai Provinces of Northwest China. Hua’er singers compose their own lyrics and songs using nearly a hundred set melodies. Often, they are flirtatious love songs performed in a public setting with the subject of the song present, which makes for a lively form of entertainment. Since 2003, Su has visited small villages around his hometown to seek out people, mostly community elders, who remembered traditional folk songs. He learned a variety of singing techniques and expressive forms from folk artists.  

Su went on to release two more albums, Like Grass (2010) and The Riverbed (2017), both with strong folk influences. He rewrote old folk songs and invited listeners to explore their cultural origins.  

He has played at musical festivals around the world, from China to the US and Brazil. Last year, he performed at the annual International Poetry Festival of Medellin, Colombia, one of the most prestigious in the world.  

“The rhythm and melody in music breaks the barrier of language. The most important thing in music is to awaken emotions,” Su said about his performance in Medellin.  

The River in Me does not follow the narratives common to documentaries about ethnic music and folk art, such as the struggle to keep dying traditions alive. Instead, the crew focused their camera on the everyday lives of four folk artists, without offering any judgments or conclusions. Director He Yuan primarily documented the lives of storyteller Liu Shikai and the Qin Opera troupe leader Zhang Jinlai. “They are presented as ordinary people on camera. I intended to capture the minute details of their daily lives and let the details speak for themselves,” He told NewsChina.  

Singer-songwriter Su Yang

Qin Opera performer Zhang Jinlai plays Jia Sidao, a chancellor of the late Song Dynasty (960-1279)

An old book contains a libretto of a Qin Opera

Life Stories
Liu Shikai was born in Yulin County, Shaanxi Province, a place famous throughout China for its rich folksong heritage.  

Storytelling in northern Shaanxi is a form of narrative singing. Performers often sing about legends and stories in the local dialect accompanied on a sanxian (a long, three-stringed instrument) or pipa (four-stringed, guitar-like instrument). Liu said he learned the art of storytelling from his father, who was also a celebrated storyteller. 

Today, storytellers seldom make a living from their art. Liu was a farmer. He married at 20, but his wife died of an illness several years later, leaving him and their two-year-old son. To make ends meet, Liu would travel to perform in villages across Shaanxi and neighboring provinces during the slack season.  

Liu met his second wife while touring Yanchi County, Qinghai Province. After they married, Liu gave up storytelling and opened a brick factory. They were married and had two sons and a daughter.  

However, tragedy struck Liu’s life again a decade later as his second wife died not long after giving birth to their daughter. To feed his four children, Liu occasionally worked in construction, but mainly relied on income from storytelling.  

The crew arrived in Liu’s hometown in time for his daughter’s wedding. However, they found the gifted storyteller speechless. In the years following the deaths of his wives and his three sons leaving to work in cities, he had for the most part lived with his only daughter. Now, at 58 years old, Liu was not prepared to part with his newlywed daughter and return to a solitary life.  Later, Liu suffered from shingles for six months, which further distressed him. Director He Yuan said Liu had been struggling to come to terms with the fact he was aging. “He didn’t feel old before. But after his daughter got married and he got sick, something deep inside him quietly changed,” He told our reporter. 

After he recovered, Liu moved the tombs of his two wives – each buried in Yulin, Shaanxi and Yanchi, Ningxia – to a new gravesite in Yulin so that he could be buried next to them.  

“I might be a lonely old widower for my remaining days. But you know what, I’ll become an emperor as soon as I die, because I have my two wives to accompany me. I’ll be the happiest man in the afterlife,” Liu said.  

He Yuan said the best story that Liu has sung is his own, an autobiography called “The Life of Liu Shikai.” “He weaves his life experiences from childhood to the present into his songs. Both he and Su Yang are expressing themselves in local dialects through local tunes. Sometimes it seems like that we’re hearing the Yellow River singing itself,” He said.