Mountain Songs and Folk Songs

Hakka mountain songs and folk songs play a unique role in the traditional Hakka performing arts and social culture. During their migrations, the Hakka have always chosen to settle near mountains. Since farming was also their primary means of livelihood, their lives were closely interlinked with nature, whether they were trailblazing in mountains or working on the farm. As the name implies, mountain songs were created in mountains and open fields, improvised by Hakka forebears while tilling the land or during their leisure time. They are mostly depictions of life and praises of love; the emotions of happiness, anger, sorrow and joy are faithfully expressed in these creations. Vocals to these songs are loud and penetrating to express primitive and unrestrained emotions. At the same time, they must be sung with charm to match the characteristics of the language.

Mountain songs first expressed celebration or melancholy in monotone. Later, melodies were developed for entertainment during physical labor like picking tea, carrying loads or tilling. They may also have been used as greetings or for good cheer for those working in the hills. Flirtatious or love songs were developed to attract the attention of friends and the opposite sex. Over time, the simple rhythms evolved into more complete melodic tunes, contributing to the formation of mountain songs.

Mountain song are usually performed solo or in duets. Solo songs are often for expressing strong emotions. Duets, on the other hand, originated outdoors, with people singing in greeting to others working at sowing, planting seedlings, weeding or harvesting in the hills or on an open field. Once the other person replied, both sides would exchange names, chitchat, and cheerfully 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 originally referred to the vocal performance in the three-role tea-picking opera. The nine and eighteen are figurative to indicate variety, not to denote the exact number of tones and 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,” and “The New Year’s Day Morning. 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.

Tunes refers to folk tunes, or song originating in the city and popularized 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, created by professional musicians, were initially fixed but changed as they were 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. These people would absorb various elements of arts and culture from folk songs and integrate them with operatic elements with 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.

Since the words to mountain songs and folk tunes belong to oral folk literature, literacy was not necessary to potential singers. Any person interested in mountain songs and folk tunes could easily swap in his or her own lyrics. They were normally easy to sing, to understand, to read and to remember. This is exactly the reason they have become deeply rooted in Hakka culture and served as a most basic form of entertainment for Hakka folks.