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In The Study of Ethnomusicology, Bruno Nettl discusses the difficulty of determining the nature of the relationship between strikingly similar tunes. Unless one had witnessed the living process that led to such similarity, Nettl observes that "it is difficult for a scholar coming along after the fact to distinguish something created as a variant from something which is the result of imitation." (1983:105).
It may be pointed out, in a qualification of this statement, that imitation oftentimes leads to variation. Moreover, in a particular case where melodic variation based on a complex modal system is the norm and the process by which the repertoire is expanded, whether one tune is a variant of another is not the question. Instead, it is perhaps more relevant to ask how the existing modal entities themselves were generated.
Such is the case with the Chaozhou xianshi music of South China. Xianshi is a string ensemble music tradition indigenous to the Chaozhou region, formally known as the Shantou Metropolitan Region, located in eastern Guangdong province. It belongs to the category of Chinese folk ensemble music known as sizhu ("silk and bamboo"), which is typically performed indoors for the musicians' own private entertainment and makes use of a group of soft-sounding string and wind instruments and a few small percussion. But unlike other Chinese regional sizhu ensembles, the xianshi ensemble almost always consists only of plucked and bowed string instruments. The characteristic string instruments (see glossary) are the erxian or touxian, tihu, big and small yehu (all two-stringed bowed lutes), pipa, big and small sanxian, qinqin, ruan, meihuaqin (all plucked lutes), zheng (horizontal board zither with bridges) and yangqin (hammered dulcimer). The percussion instruments consist of a hand-held wooden clapper (muban), a pair of hollow wooden blocks (daban and fuban,) and a small drum (zhegu).
Aside from having its own distinctive instrumentation, system of notation, tuning, temperament, musical structure, and techniques of melodic development, xianshi music has a highly developed system of modes which I will refer to in this paper as diaoti or modal entities for reasons which will be more fully explained later (cf. Su and Chen 1989). Most of the Chinese-language writings on Chaozhou xianshi discuss its modal basis in four or five diaoti (e.g., Chen Wei 1986, Ye 1983).
But fieldwork conducted by myself in Chaozhou from 1989 to 1991 and, intermittently, from 1992 until the present has revealed modal practices which have resulted in three other diaoti within the last twenty years or so. The relatively recent emergence of these diaoti has led to new variants of many of the individual melodies or qupai in the repertoire.
In this article, I will discuss the Chaozhou modal system and modal practice with respect to xianshi music. In the process, I hope to provide a picture of the central role of modality and the broader conceptualization of mode in this music tradition in comparison to the general and persistent use and understanding of the concept in traditional Chinese music theory. Towards the end, I will discuss the musical process by which what I perceive to be a new diaoti and a new variant of the tune "Lady of the Green Willow" (Liu Qing Niang) were generated on one occasion during follow-up fieldwork in Chenghai county in Chaozhou in 1992.1
next: 1. Chaozhou Modal Theory