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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Nanyin

10 Things is a series of three short animated videos, each focusing on a lesser known traditional artform – Dikir Barat, Kavadi Attam and Nanyin. In the second part of this series, we share 10 things about Nanyin. The video features the work of illustrator Joy Ho and animator Jawn, as well as music and sound courtesy of Siong Leng Musical Association.

The accompanying text below, prepared by Lyn Lee, includes more facts for an in-depth look at the form.

  1. Nanyin originated from Fujian China

Nanyin, also known as “music of the south”, originated from Fujian in the southern part of China since the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220). It is practiced mainly by the Hokkiens, the Chinese dialect group in the south-eastern part of Fujian province in China and Taiwan.

  1. Nanyin is on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Nanyin was inscribed in 2009 and is now considered a ‘living fossil’.

  1. There are 4 main instruments and 5 percussion instruments of Nanyin

The music consists primarily of musical suites for an ensemble of four main traditional instruments, which are the pipa, sanxian, dongxiao and erxian and accompanied by five percussion instruments, which are paiban, shuangling, sibao, jiaoluo, and xiangzhang.

  1. Nanyin arrived Singapore 200 years ago

In the late 1800s when immigrants started migrating to Singapore for work, the number of Fujian immigrants that sailed to Singapore reached a total of 24,981 people. As job opportunities improved, the number of Fujian immigrants in Singapore increased up to seven times, tallying up the total number to 181,287 by the year 1921. Since then, the one and only ‘Fujian Nanyin’ was passed on, enjoyed and performed by the people.

  1. Traditional Nanyin Score
Gong Chi Pu 工尺谱 [Traditional Nanyin Score. Photo: Siong Leng Musical Association

Present in scores are (from right to left; top to bottom), the title of the piece, a main melody also known as QuPai 曲牌, the key signature, lyrics and musical notations. Scholarly material on the musicology of Nanyin have suggested that a way of knowing the “supposed” dynamics or an expression of Nanyin would be the interpretations of the poems in the score. However, to achieve this, one would need to have strong language skills of Mandarin and the Minnan dialect and must have done a comprehensive study of its poems.

  1. Contemporary Nanyin scores

Other than the traditional Nanyin scores available worldwide, late Cultural Medallion award recipient, Mr. Teng Mah Seng had written over 300 Nanyin songs. The differences between the traditional and his contemporary scores are the following:

 – Traditional scores are as long as 45 minutes while Mr. Teng had condensed his pieces to 5 minutes for easy listening as he noticed that his audiences had a much shorter attention span.

– The poems are more relatable in the current society, with his pieces speaking about the struggles of life, nature of human beings and his personal life experiences when he first came to Singapore.

 – Traditional pieces however, were more elaborative and poetic as the poems can take up to 3 sentences to express the complexity of emotions. This element of Nanyin was not as prominently emphasised in Mr Teng’s pieces.

This has created heated debates on whether his works reflect the traditionality of Nanyin. While Mr. Teng’s works were written in the tunes of Traditional Nanyin, his poems may not reflect as such. Therefore, musicians may find Mr Teng’s pieces uncomfortable to perform, deeming his works to be contemporary over traditional.

Contemporary Nanyin has now evolved, with musicians incorporating instruments from other genres and cultures. This is also now known as ‘fusion’.

  1. Structure of a Traditional Nanyin Performance

The structure of a Nanyin performance has been retained for many years. In any Nanyin performance, the first piece usually termed as ‘Zhi’ suite must be performed. A ‘zhi’ suite as an introductory piece indicates that a Nanyin performance has just started. This suite will need to be performed by 10 or 11 musicians: 4 primary Nanyin instruments, 5 percussion instruments, 1 ‘Ai Zhi’- Nanyin Suona and 1 ‘Dizi’- horizontal Chinese flute. This piece range from 10 to 18 minutes.

After the Zhi Suite, vocal pieces: ‘Qu’  will constitute the bulk of the performance. The musicians include 4 primary instruments and 1 vocalist. When musicians decide to end the performance, an instrumental piece will be performed.

An instrumental piece: ‘Pu’ includes 4 primary instruments and 1 paiban player. This signifies the end of a Nanyin performance. 

  1. Lack of documentation

Unlike other genres of music like classical or Chinese orchestral music, Nanyin has no documentations of any composers and lyricists of its genre. The interpretations of the songs and pieces are passed on through a master-disciple system. Songs can be performed according to the styles of the performer, which have created years of debate on how certain pieces should be performed.

  1. The evolution of Nanyin

Based on the stories that have been passed down the years, Nanyin was a form of music performed along the streets. Musicians were buskers, who were eventually spotted by an official from the imperial palace. Nanyin became a form of imperial music and for a long time, it was music that could only be enjoyed by the royalty.

In the temples of China, there were statues of gods/people holding the instruments of Nanyin. However, there has not been a clear documentation of the time periods when these statues were built. This has led to the assumption that Nanyin was also a form of temple worship or part of a ritual of the Chinese.

Today in China, Nanyin has been brought to schools and attracted the attention of many people. As one of the few music that was available then, it allows seniors to reminisce their younger days and students to learn more about their culture and roots.

With the help of the practice in Singapore, Nanyin has travelled the world, showcasing this ancient artform through contemporary means. The influences of the Singapore culture in Nanyin has created a debate on the significance of Nanyin as a traditional art form. The education of Nanyin is now spread to schools through workshops, lectures and masterclasses.

  1. Countries practicing Nanyin

Nanyin can be found in countries that practice the Minnan dialect. Some of these countries are Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Philippines and Hong Kong.

  1. Nanyin Myths
Traditional Nanyin setting. Photo: Siong Leng Musical Association

Theories on the several surviving artefacts used for Nanyin have underpinned Nanyin’s development since it was found.

The frequent sightings of an oriental umbrella and palace lantern used during a Nanyin performance raised questions amongst many people. It is also very common to see musicians resting their feet atop golden lion footrests.

In the year 1713, Nanyin musicians were summoned to the capital to perform for Emperor Kangxi on his 60th birthday. Amongst those preparing for the celebration was government official Li, who upon knowing that Nanyin had a peaceful and rustic charm, went in search of skilled Nanyin musicians to bring to the Emperor. In an attempt to see the true depth of their talents, the Emperor separated the five musicians so that they could not see each other whilst playing. To his surprise, the musicians continued playing in perfect harmony.

After a period of time in the capital, the musicians grew to miss their hometown. Their pleas to return home were not heard and it was then that they decided to perform the piece “A Hundred Birds Returning Home”. The Emperor sensed their homesickness and decided to bestow upon them an oriental umbrella with the title of “Wu Shao Fang Xian, Yu Qian Qing Ke” (“御前清客,五少芳贤”) as well as a silver silk palace lantern so they could return home in glory. The tale of the musicians performing Nanyin for the Emperor spread far and wide and this is how the palace lantern and oriental umbrella came to be an integral part of every Nanyin performance.

The habit of using a golden lion footrest was also derived from their time in the palace. It was said that as the height of the palace chairs were higher than normal, the musicians had to perform with their feet in a tiptoeing position. When Emperor Kangxi saw their struggle, he bestowed golden lions for them to rest their feet on. This sitting position – with feet perched on golden lion footrests, has carried forward till today.

  1. Nanyin was awarded a prize in 1983 on the international stage for the very first time

In 1983, late Cultural Medallion award recipient, Mr. Teng Mah Seng who was then the Chairman of Siong Leng Musical Association, led his team of Nanyin artists in the participation of the 37th Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. They had won third prize in the folk solo category with Mr. Teng’s work “Reminiscence”, and forth prize in the folk ensemble category with the traditional Nanyin piece “Trotting Horse”.

  1. First ever Nanyin symposium, 1987

With Mr. Teng Mah Seng’s contributions to the Nanyin scene with his ideologies and newly composed Nanyin scores, he held the very first Nanyin symposium in Singapore, inviting professionals from Asia to hold music exchanges and conversations of the ancient artform. Today, Nanyin symposiums are held yearly by different associations around the world.

  1. Nanyin and its sustainability in Singapore
Photo: Siong Leng Musical Association

Nanyin is strongly practised by artists of Siong Leng Musical Association, a non-profit arts organisation with the mission to preserve, promote and develop Nanyin. The team have revolutionised Nanyin by contemporising its traditional styles over the years, fusing newer genres of music to it. Another example would be incorporating western genres like pop and jazz, and incorporating other traditional instruments to Nanyin.    

  1. Where can Nanyin be found in Singapore

Nanyin is currently practiced by three organisations in Singapore. Siong Leng Musical Association is the representative of Nanyin in Singapore. As a National Arts Council’s major grant holder, the company has consistently been selected to perform locally and internationally. Siong Leng has worked with Nanyin masters from China who have passed down their knowledge through masterclasses and practical lessons. Artists of Siong Leng have to undergo an audition process and are required to perform in an annual exam for the continuation of their artist contracts. The Artists of Siong Leng are all currently youths, aged from 10 to 35.

The other organisation is Singapore Traditional Southern Fujian Music Society, with the majority of its members being older. This organisation functions as a society as their members perform the music as a form of hobby with their friends and family.

Lastly, there is the Sheng Hong Arts Institute. As a subsidiary of Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple, most of their activities centre around Chinese arts, featuring Nanyin as one of their main art activities. Their students’ age range from children to seniors.

Resource List


10 Things is part of a series by ArtsEquator supported by the National Arts Council. To read other parts in the series, click here.

With a classical western music background, Lyn Lee is well-versed in violin (Grade 8), piano and percussion. She joined Siong Leng Musical Association in 2010 where she has participated in productions such as ASEAN Fair (Indonesia) , ASEAN Cultural Heritage Festival (Vietnam), Singapore en France Festival (France), International Youth Nanyin Symposium I and II, Musicians of the Imperial Court, 3rd Maritime Silk Road International Arts Festival (China) and Soul Journey which has toured 8 cities around the world. In 2011, Lyn was trained in Nanyin pipa, sanxian and vocals by master Cai Wei Biao with the support of National Arts Council’s Capability Development Grant. As the Arts Manager of Siong Leng Musical Association, she is responsible for artists’ development and sponsorships.

After attaining the National Arts Council’s arts scholarship in 2017, Lyn graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts with a Masters in Arts pedagogy and practice in 2018 with her paper on ‘Traditional Nanyin in Singapore: An Ethnographic approach to the Learning Processes of Nanyin in Singapore’. She aims to develop Nanyin as a traditional art form by integrating current arts pedagogy into her discipline, to nurture future generations of emerging artists.

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