The next time you're in Shaanxi....

LaoQiang.jpgDo whatever you can to hear the Lao Qiang -- 老腔, "Old Tunes" -- musical performance held in the small city at the foot of China's most famous mountain-climbing tourist site, Hua Shan (roughly, "Mt. China" sorry, right character- 华 - wrong etymology).

Most forms of traditional Chinese singing, Beijing opera and the like, are easier for Westerners to "admire" than to "enjoy." When I learned that I'd be spending a couple of hours hearing songs from a 2000-year-old tradition, I was preparing myself for a bout of "admiration." In fact, it was tremendously enjoyable, and I was sorry only that the program (flyer to the left) had to come to an end.

The lore of Lao Qiang is that these are songs from old-time rivermen, which have been passed down through the eons by a select few families. Heirs of those families are the current stars of the performing troupe -- notably the Wang family, whose head is the older performer in the first photo below, and the Zhang family, whose Zhang Ximin is the riveting, hard-to-take-your-eyes-off lead singer and string player -- the dark haired man in the second photo. According to the program, these performers spend their days as regular farmers, and practice and perform at night. Who knows about that; but as performers they're great.

Wang Zhenzhong (王振中) above; Zhang Ximin (张喜民) below.

The troupe:

If the music has a Western equivalent, I would say it is something like "Muleskinner blues." Lusty, rhythmic, loud, fun. More on the topic here, here, and here in English, here, here, and here in Chinese. Of course the brief clips don't really do it justice. See it yourself.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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