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Nan Yin – A Historical Perspective May 30, 2006

Posted by kentneo in Customs.

Text by Koh Sze Wei 

Siong Leng Music Association is the name of the troupe. This is one of the only two Nanyin (Nankuan, Namguan in Taiwan or older Singaporeans) associations in Singapore, and is indeed located along Bukit Pasoh Road. The other is “Chuan Tong Nan Yin She” which is translated to “Traditional Fujian Music Association” which is further down Bukit Pasoh on Teo Hong Road. The later is made up of mainly senior citizens, who play their afternoons away with the sounds of Nanyin in their association every other day, and has a true air of old Nanyin associations. The door of this association is always open, and any strangers are welcomed to sit down and listen to their ancient music. Ability to speak Minnan (Hokkien) dialect seems a must if you want to communicate with the misters there. Siong Leng on the other hand is an experimental group developed from a traditional Nanyin association. They have tried various forms of arts with Nanyin, and have their own Chinese orchestra, but seldom do they have people playing during weekdays in the premises.

Brief Introduction of Nanyin:

Nanyin (also known as Nankuan, Namguan) is the traditional form of music of the Quanzhou Hokkiens. It is basically played by an ensemble consisting of a Pipa, Sanxian, Dongxiao and Erxian, with a clapper. This is the so called the four instruments (Si Guan). There is also the ten tones (Shi Yin) which consist of a flute, Aizai (Ai-a in hokkien, which is a Hokkien suona) and a few percussion instruments.

This form of music has its roots to ancient Chinese music, and has elements from Tang dynasty music. The formation of the ensemble is typically seen in Tang dynasty paintings of musicians. Besides, the instruments are even better evidence that this form of music is ancient: the Pipa being played horizontally, the Erxian which is almost the same as the ancient Xiqin (still used it in Korea), the Dongxiao or vertical flute which is 1 feet and 8 inches (according to old Chinese ruler), the clapper which is made up of 5 pieces of wood etc. The appearance and structure of these instruments and the way they are performed are truly ancient, when instruments in all other parts of China have evolved into what we see in the Chinese orchestra. This is precisely the reason why some people say they resemble Japanese music instruments which unarguably have their roots traced to the Tang kingdom (check out those in the Shosoin). To say Nanyin is Tang dynasty or even Han dynasty music is actually overly generalised. I would prefer to say that there are Tang dynasty elements in it, and it is formed and enriched over the later dynasties. Till now, Nanyin pieces still use the ancient form of score known as gong-chi score, and titles are often similar to Song dynasty ones. The songs of Nanyin are sung in classical Quanzhou accent Minnan dialect, which is also recognised by many linguists to be one of the most ancient form of Han language in China, preserving much elements of ancient and archaic Chinese.

This form of music reached its peak in the Qing dynasty when the imperial scholar Li Guangdi (if you watched the Chinese serial Kangxi Emperor, you will know who he is), who is a native of Hutou Town, Anxi County, Quanzhou Prefecture took an ensemble to perform in front of Emperor Kangxi, earning the musicians the title “Yu Qian Qing Ke”, or “Musicians of the Imperial Hall”.

Nanyin in its birthplace, Quanzhou region of Fujian province, is very popular. This form of music has been widely utilised and incorporated into many opera forms like Liyuan Opera, Gaojia (Gaogak as Anxi Hokkiens call it) Opera, String and Hand Puppets etc, all of which native to Quanzhou region. In cities and counties of Quanzhou, it is not difficult to hear the sounds of Nanyin, both in cities and villages. This music form definitely has an inseparable place in the hearts of old “Chuan Chew Lang” (Quanzhou Hokkien), not because of anything, but because it is their “Hiong Yim” (hometown music), which sings out their “Hiong Jieng” (nostalgia).

For more video clips on Nanyin performance by Siong Leng Music Association, go to http://nanyangtemple.wordpress.com/


1. shan - September 5, 2016

I was born and raised in Singapore. Now, I’m living in the US since 1984. Growing up in 金鳳村 kampong Kim Hong at Lorong 3, Geyland Rd, a Hokkien village, every year we frequently had Hokkien Opera performing in a makeshift stage facing the temple behind our house. When I returned to Singapore for a visit in 1995, I hardly recognize the country of my birth and childhood. I suppose the street opera thing has now gone extinct.

Now, Singaporean Chinese is speaking Mandarin and forgot about dialects altogether, except for the older generation. When I called my mom on the phone it’s natural for me to talk with her in Hokkien as the way I grew up. But, somehow my mom would go into into speaking Mandarin. I felt so weird speaking Mandarin with my mom. When I was growing up in Singapore before the government started to make the Chinese speak Mandarin, my mom didn’t know how to speak or understand Mandarin.

I guess time has changed. I’m glad that Siong Leng Music Association and others like it are making the effort to present our Chinese ancient culture and train the next generation to pass down our heritage.

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