Zhou Yunpeng: We Want to Sing in Dialect [Updated]

Update: The Liu Yong poem Zhou quotes is in Middle Chinese, not Mandarin. However, the pinyin transcription is in Modern Standard Mandarin.

Zhou Yunpeng, the blind folk rocker from the northeastern city of Shenyang, serves up tart satire in his songs. Performing at small venues in Beijing, Zhou sings about the darker side of the new China: coal mining accidents, the Karamay Fire, and the drifting lives of the unemployed have all reared their heads in his lyrical music. In his music and poetry, he sighs at what is lost in our modern lives.

Zhou’s editorial, “We Want to Sign in Dialect,” appeared in December 22, 2011 edition of Nanfang Daily. As is common, Zhou uses the term fangyan to refer both to dialects of Mandarin, such as is spoken in Guizhou Province, and non-Mandarin languages, such as Shanghainese. Original text here. (Translated by Harriet Xu)

As all cities are building their own Tian’anmen, and everyone must speak Mandarin, there is no longer a place for theater or a home for folk ballads. Chinese musicians have already made a conscious about-face. Their mouths are no longer full with foreign words, and their eyes are no longer fixed on the Beatles or Pink Floyd. At the end of the 90s, a man from northern Guangdong Province, Yang Yi, rode a 28 bike to northern Shaanxi Province, singing Shaanxi folk music in a Shaanxi accent, as home-grown as it gets. Jiangsu eccentric Zuoxiao Zuzhou simply invented an out-of-tune dialect with an absurd accent. It was like the sound of a seller’s voice in a small southern city alley, buzzing and crashing, an honorable refusal of Mandarin.

Our ancestors left us treasures embedded in these dialects: a unique family inheritance, a bag of tricks, inexhaustible. With the start of the new century, the band from open-skied Gansu Province Wild Children sang “Ballad of the Yellow River” and “If I Had Known Earlier” on the road as they entered Beijing. Following this, respectable underground rock and roll bands that used the Lanzhou dialect began to arise. These performers called out, changing their greetings to “Hǎo zhe ne? Qù nǎ ha? (好着呢? 去哪哈?)”

Does singing rock and roll require the din of northern dialects? The Shanghai band Top Floor Circus sings in authentic Shanghainese, using a sissy accent for big punk music. They declare, “I am Shanghainese, and if I die, I want to die in beautiful Shanghai.” In 2010, they made jabs at the Shanghai World Expo Their shows were banned and they paid 20,000 yuan in fines. Setting a precedent for heavy penalties for underground music in China.

The band Wu Tiao Ren, from Haifeng County in Guangdong, is all about the Haifeng dialect. Their album Memories of the County Town is incredibly beautiful, funny, and violent, as if to remind us, “I am a peaceful ‘southern barbarian,’ but you’d better not mess with me.”

A new folk star from Guizhou, Yao Thirteen, has translated Liu Yong’s “Bells Ringing in the Rain” into the Guizhou Zhijin County dialect. Simply put, it is in no way second to the classic translation. Entranced, you’ll feel like Liu Yong is an old Guizhou buddy who eats sour soup fish.

As I think of my voyage through a thousand miles of mists and waves
Where the evening clouds are somber and the distant skies vast
Lovers has suffered since ancient times the sorrows of parting.
How can I further bear my solitude in this clear autumn season?
Where shall I be when I wake from my drink tonight?
Willow banks, the breeze at dawn, and the waning moon. (trans. Liu Wu-chi)

Middle Chinese:

Niàn qù qù qiānlǐ yānbō, mù’ǎi chénchén chǔ tiān kuò.
Duōqíng zìgǔ shāng líbié
Gèng nǎkān lěngluò qīngqiū jié!
Jīnxiāo jiǔ xǐng héchù? Yāngliǔ àn, xiǎofēngcányuè.


Guizhou Dialect:

Wǒ yào shuō zǒu lei, zhī qiānlǐ lei yānwù bōlàng lei
A hēi bábá de tiān, hǎo dà o…
Lāmen jiǎng, shì zhī yàngzi lei, líbié shì zuì nánzài lei
Gèng qiú búyào jiǎng, xiànzài shì qiūtiān lei
Wǒ yī hā jiǔ xǐnglái, wǒ zài nǎ diǎn
Yángliǔ lei ànbiān, fēng chuī yíge xiǎo yuèliàng lei…


Dialects have a definite power and give us deep satisfaction. Mandarin is only suitable for explaining the “animal world” or for reading eulogies. If you were to come back home for the Spring Festival and use proper Mandarin to tactfully state, “Father, Mother, happy Spring Festival,” everyone would laugh at you and think you had just come from the Spring Festival Gala.

I’ve heard that some offices have issued orders restricting the Guangzhou media from using Cantonese on television channels. To me, this is a crime. We are already familiar with how to tear things down. Let us not raze languages to build a grand plaza. Our parents’ generation and our ancestors lived within their dialects. If I just open my mouth, you’ll immediately know where I’m from. True enough, the ground below my feet is no longer is mine. But within the realm of these dialects, my ancestors and I can rest in peace.

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