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Date: 07/19/99
Author: Huo Yan and Xueqian

Fang devotes life to singing

TODAY'S young men may rack their brains to find clever ways to express their love.

But more than 40 years ago, with only one trick, Grandpa Fang Shoude drew his lover into his arms and into his life.

"I kept singing love songs to my girlfriend every time we met," recalled the Zhuang ethnic elder.

"At last, my honeyed words worked," he said. "A poor young man married a pretty girl of a rich family."

Grandpa Fang is now widely recognized as the "king of folk songs" in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

He lives in Nandan, a small village near Liuzhou, where the Yongjiang and Longjiang rivers meet.

Each of the 12 ethnic groups in Guangxi, including the Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong and Jing has its own unique folk songs.

But Liuzhou is said to be the birthplace of all the songs of the region. Legend has it that Liuzhou is the hometown of Liu Sanjie, the goddess of folk songs.

"Although it is known to all that Liuzhou's grotesque-shaped stones are collectors' favourites, the city is best-known for its excellent folk singers and huge folk singing gatherings," Fang said.

Fang did not learn to sing until he was 13.

But he was found to have a talent for the folk art by Huang Sandi, then "king of folk songs" in Guangxi.

According to usual practices, every apprentice paid the master singer two full baskets of grain as tuition at the New Year.

However, "I was an exception. I studied hard in singing to live up to my teacher's expectations. And now I have made it," Fang said.

Folk singing is an indispensable part of life in Guangxi.

They sing after a day's hard work, at festivals, weddings and funerals.

"People sing songs to express their sorrows, happiness and wishes and to communicate," said Fang, who is still proud of his love song trick decades ago.

Every year, on March 3 by the lunar calender, a grand folk song festival is held for the Zhuang, Li and some other ethnic people in Guangxi. The festival was recorded as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Large-scale gatherings for folk singers form spontaneously across Guangxi during the festival. Such gatherings are called huanlongdong, or huanwogan, by the locals. The term means "singing in the fields or on the mountains."

The singers at the gatherings are mostly unmarried young people. Dressed in bright-coloured new clothes, the girls gather in sets of three and four in an open ground amidst lush woods or bamboo forest, facing a band of boys with shining eyes.

Singers of the two sides stand within metres distance, exchanging songs. They sing to each other by certain formulas, according to Fang. For instance, there are greetings, introductions, questions, narration and interactive story-telling sessions.

"Whether you know the girl or not, you just go straight up to her and challenge her with your luring songs and graceful gestures," said Fang. "At first sight, I fell in love with Wu Xiuzhen, my wife today. She was the girl next door, who was then wooed by many. But I was the final winner."

The 64-year-old has won the title of "king of folk songs" more than 16 times in folk singing competitions of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

He knows the old standards and can improvise. What makes Fang the "king of folk songs" is his rare talent in doing improvisations. That singled him out from the other singers. Fang seems to always have song lyrics at his fingertips and he sings songs about what he sees and feels in daily life.

"When I am in the mood,I come up with better songs," Fang said.

Over the past two decades, Fang has witnessed great changes in Zhuang and Miao villages in Liuzhou.

Once he created a song to express his joy over the changes:

Walking through the tea garden,

I saw the tea trees bearing rich fruits.

If you ask which one is bigger, the sea or the tea oil tank?

I say, one drop of seawater contains three drops of tea oil!

Listeners are often amused at his humour and novel wording and marvel at his fluency and ability to sing unstopped for hours.

But, "Young people in love can sing for a whole day at the lunar March 3 gatherings. And young people have more beautiful voices," Fang said modestly.

Fang once was given a crown decorated with jewels when he won the "king of folk song" title. He sees it as his most precious possession.

Fang lives a farmer's life peacefully with his wife in Liuzhou. In his spare time, he sings at all kinds of occasions for neighbours.

In 1978, the folk song enthusiast was appointed as a researcher and teacher in the local cultural centre.

"Until then, I realized that folk songs are cultural heritage from our ancestors. And folk singing is a kind of 'folk art.' So I got more serious in my job," said Fang, who has taught hundreds of singers.

Currently, Fang teaches 36 students.

Fang is satisfied with them and hopes one will win the crown next. However, there's one thing Fang can never feel satisfied with.

That is, among his three children, only his daughter can sing a bit. His two sons do not sing at all but are busy making money by manufacturing construction materials.

Fang retired from the culture centre three years ago and now lives on pension. Occasionally, Fang works in the vegetable lot or herds a buffalo for his elder son.

But he still indulges in singing folk songs at various gatherings. That, he confessed, is his most important spiritual sustenance.

"I won't stop singing my songs until I leave this wonderful world," Fang declared.