Mountain Songs and Folk Songs


Hakka mountain songs and folk songs play a unique role in traditional performing arts and social culture. During their migrations, Hakka people had always chosen to settle near mountains. Since farming has also been their primary means of livelihood, when they were trailblazing in mountains or working on the farm, their life was always closely related to nature. Mountain songs were created in mountains and open fields. They were improvisations by Hakka forebears while tilling the land or just having fun at leisure. They are mostly depictions of life and praises of love; the emotions of happiness, anger, sorrow and joy are completely expressed in these creations. To sing them, the voice has to be loud and penetrating to express primitive and unrestrained emotions. At the same time, it must also have its particular charm to match the characteristics of the language.

Mountain songs could have been hooraying or sighing in monotone. Later, melodies were developed for entertainment while people were doing labor work like picking tea, carrying loads or tilling. They may also have been rhythms for people working in the hills to greet or cheer up each other. Thereafter, to attract the attention of friends and company or the opposite sex, they became teases and love songs. Or, while talking over a far distance with a friend in the hills, the simple rhythms evolved into more complete melodic tunes. All these have contributed to the formation of mountain songs.

Mountain song are usually performed in solo or coupled singing. When done in solo, it is for releasing emotional feelings. Coupled singing, on the other hand, originated outdoors. While sowing, planting seedlings, weeding or harvesting in the hills or on an open field and noticing other people also working at a distance, one sang out loud to greet them. Once the other people replied, both sides asked names, chitchatted, and then ended up perhaps cheering or making fun of or teasing each other. In short, conversation was achieved with singing.

The nine tones and eighteen tunes of mountain and folk songs were originally meant for the singing in the three-role tea-picking opera. The “nine” and “eighteen” are figurative to indicate variety, not that there are exactly nine tones and eighteen tunes. The “tone” means “accent”, referring to a singing system built up with a specific language to match with the drama. The singing in the three-role tea-picking opera is based on old mountain songs with the “four-county” accent. It includes two main sub-systems, i.e. the “mountain song tone system” and the “tea-picking tone system”, and other folk tunes. The “mountain song tone system” includes melodies such as “Old Tone Mountain Song”, “Going up the Hill to Pick Tea”(mountain song tone), “Dongshi Tone Mountain songs”, “Chen Shiyun”, “Giving the Gold Hairpin”, “The New Year’s Day Morning”, etc. The “tea-picking tone system” includes melodies like “Picking Tea in December”, “Seeing Sanlang Off”, “Not Letting Him Go”, “Wine Selling”, “Old Way of Tea-picking”, “New Way of Tea-picking” and “Urging Sanlang to Sell Tea”, etc.

Tune means folk tune, a song originated in the city and became popular all over the country. The original version was sung in the official language but as it spread widely, dialects were adopted too. The lyrics to folk tunes were initially fixed, created by professional musicians and got passed around the country. Civilian singers included singing artisans, traveling musicians, street artists and people from various walks of life performing at marketplaces, temple festivals, streets and drinking places and restaurants. From the folk songs, these people absorbed various elements of arts and culture in cities and integrated them with opera singing and achieved noticeable artistic improvements. Popular Hakka folk tunes include “December Legends”, “Seeking Divination”, “Missing”, “Pumpkin Seeds”, “On the Ferry”, “Peach Blossoms”, “Can’t Sleep”, “Cutting Flowers”, “Dressing Table”, “Moon Festival” and Watching the Moonlight”, etc.

Since the words to mountain songs and folk tunes belong to oral folk literature. Literacy was not a must for learning. Any person interested could easily put in his or her own lyrics. They were normally easy to sing, to understand, to read and to remember. This is exactly the reason why they became deeply rooted and served as a most basic form of entertainment for Hakka folks.