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Song of the Phoenix: Decline of suona culture signals fading power of tradition amid urbanization

By Wang Lulu | 2016-07-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A poster for the film Song of the Phoenix


Chinese director Wu Tianming’s posthumously released film Song of the Phoenix shares its title with a well-known folk tune and refers to a Chinese idiom that literally means “a hundred birds sing a paean to the phoenix.” In old times, the phrase meant that people submit themselves to the rule of a sage emperor. Later, it came to mean that virtuous people are worthy of public respect and that the common people must obey moral authority.

The art-house film tells the story of two folk artists who play the suona, a kind of double-reed horn. You Tianming, a teen from a rural village in Northwest China, is chosen by suona master Jiao Sanye to succeed him as the leader of the suona troupe and keep the art alive. As a grown man, You finds that this traditional art form has become drowned in the rising tide of China’s urbanization. Suona troupes are increasingly replaced by modern bands consisting of a saxophonist, guitarist, keyboardist and a singer in a tacky short skirt. Gradually, You’s troupe loses members as they seek new lives in cities.

The film reveals that the primary function of the suona is not to entertain but to signify the morality of a recently deceased person. Two pieces are played at the funeral of a person of low repute. Four pieces are played for a person of average virtue, and a truly virtuous person warrants eight pieces. And the tune Song of the Phoenix is only to be played at the funeral of a highly respected person who has won recognition from all village members.

However, with the transformations in rural society brought by agricultural modernization, rural urbanization and the migration of rural people, suona music is losing its role as a symbol of moral standing.

Status weakened
In traditional Chinese ethics, moral standing outweighs economic status. This undercurrent of thought can be seen in expressions describing the relationship between justice and interests, such as “valuing justice above material gains,” “advocating justice but shunning benefit” and “using justice to restrain the desire for benefit.” In traditional society, a person’s virtue and conduct matter more when assessing individual worth than his or her economic contributions.

The self-supporting and self-sufficient mode of production in traditional rural society brought into being an ethical community ruled by moral authorities based on the moral evaluation system. The relationship between the master and the apprentices shown in the film is such an example. As a master, Jiao Sanye has the authority to discipline and punish his apprentices.

However, the boom in the market economy and the expansion of capitalist logic are increasingly shifting the emphasis to the profit motive. Wealth is starting to take precedence when defining one’s status. As capital floods into rural areas on a large scale, the infiltration of its accompanying ideas has weakened the status of moral evaluation while strengthening the role of economic evaluation.


Traditional standards changed
In a traditional village, people live together as a community, sharing the same lifestyle and methods of production. In close-knit communities people interact with their neighbors. In terms of moral judgment and evaluation, experience is passed on from the older generation to the younger. Naturally, the same standards are adopted by all villagers. And this is why moral authorities can obtain unanimous recognition. Common people elect the person worthy of respect based on the same standard. Thus, the elected person gains authority by virtue of moral integrity and individual charisma.

In the film, Jiao Sanye and his suona troupe are respected not just because of their superb skills but because they have the right to decide whether to play the Song of the Phoenix at the funeral of the departed, which is a symbol of supreme morality. Jiao persists in making the judgment according to a person’s virtue and conduct, which is why he is honored as a respected master rather than just an artist.

Nevertheless, the standard of moral evaluation has been greatly affected by the spread of the market economy in rural areas. Changes in lifestyles and the migration of rural people to cities have given rise to diversified values, making it hard to maintain a unified set of standards and an authoritative identity. The formation and continuation of moral authority has been undermined. As the film shows, suona music has lost its symbolic prestige and become background music that is easily ignored at weddings or funerals. As a result, suona artists have lost their status as masters and are treated as ordinary workers by the market.

It should be noted that moral education in traditional rural society is based on blood and geographical relationships. From an early age, the young learn from their elders, endowing parents and masters with indisputable authority.

Marketization in rural areas has made interpersonal relationships more rational and expanded individual independence, complicating the social environment for people in the countryside and altering their perceptions, emotions, will and behavior. As a result, traditional moral education is disappearing along with the erosion of patriarchal authority. Jiao Sanye can no longer count on his authority as a master to keep his troupe together because the members are being drawn to cities by the prospect of more money.


Preservation needed
The film underscored the importance of suona music to the people of the central Shaanxi plain, sparking heated debate after its release. However, inspiring sympathy might not be sufficient to save suona culture. Given that the logic of the market makes suona music unprofitable, it is necessary to adapt to lifestyle changes in order to preserve this cultural symbol of morality.

From a historical perspective, regions differ from one another in terms of economic development models, production and lifestyles. Moral outlook is also shaped by geography, and the suona is a unique cultural symbol for the central Shaanxi plain. But in the context of accelerated urbanization, the uniformity of market logic is increasingly eroding regional peculiarities in terms of production, lifestyles and ethics.

From an ethical perspective, the great changes in ethical relations and moral life that have taken place in rural society cause conflicts between traditional ethics and modern concepts. The resulting disintegration of the ethical community, decline of ethical culture and dilemma of moral evaluation have thrown into bewilderment those who still live in rural areas. Thus, there is widespread nostalgia for a bygone era.

Villages are still home to the majority of Chinese farmers. The unique moral perceptions and related cultural symbols, closely tied to nostalgia for tradition, still play an important role in rural governance during the period of transition from rural to urban life. Therefore, it is essential to be fully aware of regional differences and include the moral legacy into the strategy of building beautiful Chinese villages, which is also an effective approach to reestablishing moral evaluation and authority in villages.


Wang Lulu is from the School of Public Administration at Nanjing Normal University.