Stories About Traditional Chinese Music: Vocal Masters Throughout Chinese History (Part 1)
(Clearwisdom.net) Were there any vocal masters in ancient China? Many people may doubt it. In the mind of modern people, the Bel Canto singing method came from the west and emphasizes scientific articulation and vibration effects. In ancient China there wasn't any vocal theory, so people might think that there were vocal masters only in the west. In reality, this is not the case. There were quite a few outstanding vocal masters in ancient China.
The Tang Dynasty was the zenith of traditional Chinese culture. There were many well-known singers in Chang An, the Tang capital. Xu Yongxin was one of them. According to the book "Miscellaneous Records of Yuefu" written by Duan Anjie in the Tang Dynasty, Xu Yongxin had been good at singing and dancing since childhood. Once in the Chong Yang Festival, she sang at the top of the mountain, and people dozens of miles away could hear her. She became famous thereafter. Xu was chosen to become a singer in the Royal Court. Even today in her hometown, there are folk stories about her. The mountaintop she sang from is known as "Beauty Peak."
One year, Emperor Tang Xuanzong held a banquet for his subjects in the Qinzheng Mansion. Ten thousand people attended. It was so noisy that the music from the stage couldn't be heard. This noise angered Emperor Tang. He was about to return to his palace when Eunuch Gao Lishi came up with a good idea: invite Xu Yongxin to sing a song, so everyone would be quiet. Sure enough, when Xu sang, the noisy people immediately quieted down. Xu's voice shot up high into the sky. "The whole crowd was as quiet as if there was nobody there." Her singing touched everybody. "Happy people became more courageous, and sad people became less worried."
We all know that ordinary people sing with their original voices. Compared with the Bel Canto singing method, original voices are weak and of lower quality; they need to be amplified to be heard in a crowd.
The methods that professional singers adopt allow those seated even at the far end of the theater to hear the singer's unamplified voice. When Xu Yongxin sang at the top of the mountain, people could hear her many miles away. When she sang in Qinzheng Mansion, over ten thousand people could hear her. She must have mastered superb singing techniques.
The range of Xu's voice was very broad, even broader than most musical instruments. One time Emperor Tang had Li Mo and Xu Yongxin compete. Li Mo was a flute virtuoso and could play dozens of different tones. When the flute tones reached their highest, singers normally couldn't follow. But when Li accompanied Xu, Xu sang at successively higher tones. She sang dozens of songs, and Li Mo's flute could not rise higher in tone than Xu's voice. At last Li Mo's flute shattered. It was recorded in The Anecdotes of the Tianbao and Kaiyuan Periods, that "no musical instruments sounded better than Xu's singing." Even Emperor Tang, who was a connoisseur, highly praised Xu's singing: "This lady's singing is worth thousands of gold pieces."
Xu Yongxin was a vocal master, and there were also other vocal masters in the Tang Dynasty as well. They included Li Guinian, who was a well known singer in the Royal Court, and Nian Nu, who was a famous singer in the Tianbao Period.
How did these outstanding vocalists sound? We are not able to know today. But one thing is certain: their vocal techniques were superb. "The Miscellaneous Records of Yuefu" mentioned the importance of using Qi in singing. It said: "The singer must adjust Qi before singing." It also pointed out that "Qi should come from the lower abdomen." Modern vocalists interprete it as that the breath should come from the Dantian.
Ancient people had the saying: "Qi is the source of voice and is the leading element for a good sound." The "Guwu Records" by Wang Dehui and Xu Ranzheng in the Qing Dynasty say, "Singing a song should grasp the four tones well. The essential step is the cultivation of Qi." Ancient people emphasized Qi in singing. The Qi they were talking about not only referred to breath but also to broader factors. They usually referred to the energy of the human body and that between heaven and earth as Qi. The "strength" and "Qi" used in singing were complementary. Ancient people combined cultivation of the heart, breath, and mind with singing. So Qi from the Dantian was not just breath. This point is supported by the fact that many modern opera singers also practice Qigong. We could say that ancient Chinese vocal arts were closely related to traditional Chinese cultivation and was analogous to Western vocal theories but had its own unique ethnic and cultural elements.
Other outstanding vocalists in the Tang Dynasty included Zhang Honghong, He Man, Kang Kunlun, Duan Shanben, He Huaizhi, Li Guaner, Cao Gang, Wei Chiqing, and Wang Manu. Of course, other Dynasties had excellent vocalists, too. Because the Tang Dynasty was the summit of Chinese civilization, it had many outstanding vocalists.
In modern times, especially in the last fifty years, the art of Chinese singing has been greatly damaged. This is a grave misfortune, but to our delight, the Global Chinese Vocal Competition and the global tour by the Divine Performing Arts will make more people aware of, appreciate, and participate in the traditional Chinese vocal arts. A new height for traditional Chinese vocal arts is on the horizon.