An Interview with Liu Xiaojin, Founder of the Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival Posted on 12 Nov 20:59

The 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival will be held in Kunming Nov 28 - Dec 2, bringing together over 200 rarely seen traditional performers to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures. With the festival nearly upon us, Tea Horse decided to sit down with Yuansheng founder Liu Xiaojin 刘晓津 and learn more about the activities of the Yuansheng Foundation, and what to expect from the festival.

Tea Horse: What inspired you to found Yuansheng? When did it get started?

Liu Xiao Jin: The Yuansheng Foudation 源生坊 was formed to continue the work of its predecessor, a rural folk arts school called the Yunnan Ethnic Minority Institute 云南民族文化传习馆, founded by the classical composer Tian Feng 田丰. Even by the late 80’s Tian Feng realized that entire categories of folk music and dance were being lost with the passing of old masters who never had to opportunity to teach their art to younger generations. Thus he founded the Minority lnstitute in 1994, using private funding to provide stipends to teachers and students from the Yi, Hani, Naxi, Tibetan ethnic groups.

I first became involved in the school in 1997 because I was shooting a documentary film about Tian Feng and his work. I documented the progress of the school through 7 years of shooting, eventually releasing the completed film the Chronicle of the Minority Institute 传习馆春秋. Later, the school ran into legal and financial problems and had to shut down in 2000, and Tian Feng died shortly thereafter. At that point, I founded Yuansheng to continue his work, but in a different format. Rather than run a school with a single campus, I used donor funding, initially from the Ford Foundation, to pay traditional master artists to run classes in the villages where they live. Starting with the dozen artists that taught at the Minority Institute, we slowly expanded to our current roster of over 200 artists.

TH: Tell us about your artists support program? What do the artists do in exchange for support?

LXJ: We fund our artists with a stipend so they can run classes in their home villages, often divided by age groups. We work with our artists to develop a curriculum so we can assess student progress, and provide cash rewards to students who  succeed in mastering the most critical components of the tradition, whether it be music or dance. Our sponsored artists also participate in performance tours, and in the Yuansheng Festival, which gives them recognition beyond their home villages. 

TH: Has the program been effective at preserving traditional arts?

LXJ: All of these elements of the program were developed to address particular problems that were interfering with the successful transmission of these arts. It is not just a matter of supporting artists, they also need respect, and they need to exist within a community that values their art. For example, the artists themselves asked us to find performance opportunities for them outside their communities, which gives them a sense of being respected as artists, and provides a sense of pride in their traditions. The local communities also take pride in their traditional artists when they see how well they are received by the outside world. This in turn attracts more young people to study the tradition and take an interest in their culture. We are pleased that young people have now successfully mastered dozens of traditions that were once in danger of dying out.

TH: What can the audience expect from this year’s Yuansheng Festival in Kunming? How is it different than other ethnic minority performances the audience might have seen?

LXJ: First of all, there is simply no other way to see these diverse traditions in one single place, over the span of a few days. It has taken us over twenty years to develop this roster of artists. They are not performers you would simply run into if you went travelling in Yunnan. Secondly, the Yuansheng Festival represents the most traditional music and dance from the most remote mountain villages. We only support artists who were taught in the traditional manner, and who have not absorbed or introduced modern influences into their work. Audiences should expect music and dance that transports them hundreds of years back in time, if not thousands. They will witness ritual music, love and courting songs, work songs, and community dances that were part of the fabric of ethnic minority societies before the modern era. Thirdly, we require our artists to wear clothing that is true to the roots of their cultures. Many of their costumes are hand-produced heirlooms that you are unlikely to see outside of museums. That alone would be worth the price of admission!

The ethnic song and dance troupes you normally find in China have made alterations to the music, the dance, and the costumes, all in hopes of attracting contemporary audiences. Often they have commercialized traditional culture in a way that destroys the inherent beauty of these traditions. We prefer to let the distinctive beauty of traditional culture speak for itself. It is a quiet beauty, but it is there, if people are willing to listen.

TH: With your focus on the most unadulterated traditional arts, how do you feel about evolution, artistic innovation, and absorption of outside influences within these traditions?
LXJ: This is what we fear the most. There is already so much of this happening, so we choose to stand on the other side of things, and fight for the preservation of the most traditional art forms. As long as artists are clear about their influences, it shouldn’t be a problem if they borrow from or adapt ancient artistic traditions, but that is not what generally happens. Instead many things are presented as traditional when in fact they are not. This leads to the dilution and eventual destruction of humanity's artistic heritage. At Yuansheng we try to counter this trend by identifying and supporting artist and tradition bearers who have minimal influence from modern cultural forms. 

Tickets for the 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival can be purchased through the Kunming Theater ticket office: 0871-63169950
A full English schedule of events will be available soon on the Tea Horse Blog. For a Chinese schedule of events, and future updates, please subscribe to the Yuansheng Weixin account: 云南源生坊民族文化发展中心
Please enjoy the pictures below (courtesy of Yuansheng Foundation) from the 2015 Yuansheng Festival for a taste of what this unique event brings to Kunming:

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.