Rural 'Eco-Museum' in China Preserves a Song Tradition, and a People's Culture

On Saturday, June 21, the Dimen Dong Folk Chorus of Guizhou Province bring their centuries-old vocal tradition to Asia Society New York's stage.

Here's a radical way to recruit museum staff: hold auditions. The earliest employees of the Dimen Dong Eco-Museum — hired even before the museum had been formally established — were chosen not on the basis of their education or administrative abilities but rather on how well they sang.

This is hardly a model for say, MoMA, but in this case it made sense. The first initiative of the Museum's parent organization — the nonprofit, non-governmental Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop in Guizhou Province, founded in 2004 by the Hong Kong businessman Lee Wai Kit — was to document the rich song tradition of the Dong people, one of China's 55 acknowledged ethnic minorities. To avoid the prejudices and political tension that often accompany China's treatment of its minorities, the Workshop sought to avoid mass tourism and professional music circles, both of which frequently put official doctrine and commercial concerns over independent research. But auditioning young locals carried an even more immediate advantage: only true singers could coax the local singing masters into recalling the near-forgotten songs of their youth.

The Workshop's "100 Dong Songs Program" stemmed directly from the 2002 recording Dong Folk Songs: People and Nature in Harmony, a sampling of local solo and polyphonic singing collected and released by Lee's publishing company MediaFusion. After several trips through rural Guizhou we had become familiar with Dong tourist music — the drinking songs and "nature" pieces with vocal techniques mimicking the sounds of birds and insects — but grew increasingly curious about the songs the villagers sang privately among themselves: ballads illustrating proper family relations, or epics tracing their clan origins back hundreds of years.

The recording garnered some fair success. In China, it won second place in the 2003 Ministry of Culture Media Awards, while in the West it was featured on National Public Radio and became a source of inspiration for dozens of artists, from Amy Tan to the Kronos Quartet. Several tracks from the recording became an intrinsic part of David Henry Hwang's Obie Award-winning play Yellow Face.

But at home the situation was less encouraging. For a culture where music was once so crucial — the Dong traditionally lacked a written language, leaving all aspects of their culture to be documented orally in song — mass communication had taken its toll. Granddaughters who would've once learned these songs at home had left their home village to work in factories in other provinces; grandmothers with no one to teach were forgetting the words.

Much as music reflects the culture, the Workshop began chasing Dong culture just as it did the music. Inspired by the preliminary research in the area done by a Norwegian museum concern, Lee's Workshop founded the Dimen Dong Eco-Museum in 2005, turning the entire village of Dimen into an ecological museum. Under its founding director Ren Hexin, the Museum has undergone systematic research in Dong language and village life, from folk architecture and agrarian practices to papermaking and textile arts. In the past decade, the Museum has amassed an extensive video archive of village rituals and folk practices.

Still, it's the Museum's work in music that continues to set the tone. On the heels of a 2008 feature in National Geographic, Travel & Leisure magazine cited Dimen in its 2008 Global Vision award for the Workshop's "rare, forward-looking approach" in its multigenerational mentoring program pairing local students with skilled artisans. In 2012, the Museum was honored at the White House with the International Spotlight Award from the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program of the U.S. President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Although the Museum has parlayed "the Dimen experience" into some high-end, sustainable cultural tourism (by appointment only), its local success is measured by a different gauge entirely. Local youths who just a few years ago would be certain to leave in search of factory jobs now have a reason to stay.

Video: Watch a performance of the traditional chorus below. (2 min., 1 sec.)

About the Author

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Journalist and author Ken Smith divides his time between Hong Kong, where he is the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times, and New York, where he writes for Gramophone magazine.