by Ernie Diaz
Turn around and wave goodbye to your youth if you look forward to the Spring Festival, or holidays in general, as you look forward to an easy-chair after a long day on your feet. If, on the other hand, you look forward to holidays as being freed from a cage, you’ve still got it, tiger.
Do not discount the power of that difference, the friction it can create. In suburban strata, that difference can lead to having to get off the couch and deal with neighborhood kids knocking over garbage cans.
In less alienated strata of society, and older, the friction is used to polish a ritual, a ritual demanding not the lives of their young, but their deepest energies. Most of China will be using firecrackers, not to scare off demons, unless that’s the way you want to look at it, but rather to ionize the qi around them with non-stop banging. A kama-sutric few will employ other methods.
Northern Shanxi manages to remain as close to the earth and skin of the teeth as when it served as terminus to the Long March. The running…we mean strategically retreating stops in Northern Shanxi. If you’re a warrior, you fight or cut a deal. Mao took Yan’an without so much as a feint for his rifle.
Yan’an’s high-spirited still cut a deal, with whatever gods are responsible for crops and weather. A martial dance, all yelling and relentless beating of the waist-drums, will serve for the destruction that otherwise is as cyclical as the bumper harvest. As to the waist-drums, they are not recycled or reclaimed but rather worn on the hip. Heavy drum kits seriously reduce agility onstage, as no end of classic rock fourth-men discovered too late.
Oh, sure, downtown Yan’an apartments this time of year are bursting with cigarette cartons, seed assortments, and CCTV gala blare. The waist-drum dancing is for Ansai, out in the loess, where far fewer youth have had their spirits broken by the straight-jacket gym suit, followed by the friction when family expectations meet third-tier reality.
But also this time of year, the ritual will serve to replace the ruin that must precede new growth. These are the days in Ansai when you see small armies of unbowed peasant youth march onto a hillside and claim a war-dance-zone.
Any but the most infrequent Beijing pedestrian has seen the seniors stomping the ground beneath a bridge or in a park of a summer night. They wave fans while a solitary drummer keeps a primitive triple-third beat. The waist drum is to that what the Battle of Inchon is to a schoolyard rock fight.
A drum attack hundreds strong, voices raising hell and dust, all advancing as if in victorious battle, fancied up with the twirling and somersaulting any well-blooded village should have the talent to boast. It rather begs the question of when we forsook whooping and hollering at an ancestral dance for whooping and hollering at a televised sports match.
This symbolic combat fertilizes the ground and clears the air for New Year’s Day, after which all is harmony. There is the jiaozi-eating, munching with the family, but also must there be more noise; shattering old qi with sound waves is intensive work, apparently. So smaller groups of waist-drummers do their visitation duties, and fireworks greet their arrival. What next before the dancing? Seriously, we’re asking you to guess. That’s right, a stiff belt or three of the home-made spirits. You can still drum, if not dance, without the gift of sight.
Then come the songs, drums, and poignantly, more firecrackers, a generally ear-splitting panic that will hopefully balance out a lunar year’s worth of one day passing as quietly and unremarkably as the last. So has it been for four hundred generations, so mote it be for another 888.
The inspiration for the waist-druming precedes the dance itself by a good millennium. Northern Shanxi has ever been a borderland, invaders inevitably turning invaded as fresh batch after batch of grass-fed barbarians swept in from the North and West. Drums did for trumpets, in a Bronze Age China where finely crafted instruments were at a premium. You have a goat skin and a few pieces of flexible wood, you have an alarm drum.
Then again, the herd-folk were much more abundant in ancient China, and the shepherds made drums, too. Maybe battle drumming and goat drumming merged into waist drumming the way breakbeat merged with bass and drum to create dubstep. Except that the people who waist-drum do have souls.
It’s more than the drumming itself. Ansai county is folk culture heaven. That might not satisfy those who need the synthetic rhythms of the drugged, but it was good enough for Chen Kaige, who included a waist-drum parade to bolster the sterling authenticity of Yellow Earth. Ansai waist drummers do all the big national gigs, the Hong Kong Return Show, the 60th Anniversary spectacular.
So no one begged UNESCO to recognize Ansai’s intangible heritage, but it’s still nice to know they have. The new exquisitely hand crafted papercuts going up in windows, the dough figurines, well we’re nerdy enough to go into it, make no mistake.
But what’s the use. These arts will get no real love, academic or otherwise, until they’re gone, soon now. The kids are all off in factories that turn out cheap manufactured perfection by the container. Not nearly enough left in the village who can care enough, let alone want enough to learn these arts. The waist drumming is certainly more appealing, especially granted its extremely seasonal requirements.
There’s hope, there’s hope. Peng Hui, deputy-director of Yan’an city’s publicity department, does his best to raise awareness. One hundred-four items of intangible cultural heritage in the city’s thirteen districts and counties, he informs the Chinese media. Thirty thousand folk songs, tens of thousands still singing them, thousands who can still work the scissors and sculpt the dough.
And now North Shanxi has more than government pittances or NGOs to rely on for a continued arts program. Sucking oil and wresting coal from the ground have wasted the landscape but fattened an army of hustlers into millionaires. Pray the nascent return of the patron grows as rapidly as has the return of high-rolling gambler.The Ansai government has coughed up a good one million RMB to protect its cultural heritage, a relatively princely sum. Those who have dealt with Shanxi coal-mine-owners will understand.