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Boatmen on song
2021-04-03 
Wu Xiulan displays how to pull a boat while singing the Chuanjiang work song. [Photo by Deng Rui/China Daily]

"Fish love the Yangtze River while young sisters love the plum blossom falling from the sky, hey, hey, hey..."

The boatmen and trackers know the lyrics well as they sing them to ease the arduous workload along the rivers in Southwest China's Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality.

The sound of the songs and the chants see Wu Xiulan and her singing team attracting admiring listeners when they perform the work songs in the square in Yinzhuyuan Community, the Liangjiang New Area of Chongqing municipality.

Wu and her team frequently perform or rehearse in their community to keep the traditional culture alive.

Wu, 79, is the only woman inheritor of the Chuanjiang boatmen work songs and chants. They have been listed as an intangible national cultural heritage. Chuanjiang River is a section of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

"When I sing the songs and perform on stage, it is my happiest time," said Wu, who can easily sing dozens of such work songs and chants at will. She knows all the words off by heart.

But Wu said she now regrets that she has not yet sought an heir.

Wu said she has taught and trained a number of students but she failed to find a qualified one to take up the mantle.

"There are many people who want to learn the work songs, but few can persist in the learning required and also sing the songs well," she said in an interview.

"My biggest wish is that someone can inherit the original Chuanjiang work songs and chants, as I do not want to take them to the coffin," Wu said.

Born into a boatman's family in 1942, Wu was gifted with a good voice and learned to sing the work songs without a teacher when she was a child. At that time she often followed the boatmen and trackers to sing.

"My father used to ask me to help sing the work songs on board at that time," she said.

"When the boat reached the dangerous shoals, the boatmen and trackers would sing fast-paced songs to calm their nerves and boost their morale as they rode out the danger. And soothing songs would be sung by the boatmen to allow themselves to relax after negotiating the rapids," she said.

According to the flow and behavior of water, the name and tone of the work songs are different and the content of the lyrics can be freely created, said Wu.

Wu said Chuanjiang work songs were usually led by a boatman and sung by all the trackers and boatmen on board.

Wu (left) and a boatman are on a boat in July, 2008, few days before the Beijing Olympic Games. [Photo by Zhong Guilin/For China Daily]

First female singer

Wu began officially singing the work songs when she was only 15, and she quickly became a well-known leader of the work songs among locals in just two years.

All the leaders of the Chuanjiang work songs used to be men before Wu became the first woman leader.

Wu said what has impressed her most was that her grain boat once attracted many onlookers along the river banks who would stop to watch and listen when all the 13 women crew members on board were singing.

This was about 1958-59 and Wu was the leader of the work songs. "There were only a few women singers in those days," said Wu.

The trackers and the Chuanjiang work songs began to fade out when motorboats gradually replaced traditional wooden vessels in the 1970s, said Wu.

Wu though soon became a well-known figure. She met a retired high school teacher Chen Xudong who worked as a historical and cultural adviser to a local community in 2001. Chen was surprised that Wu could sing the Chuanjiang work songs and chants so well.

Chen then introduced Wu to Tao Peng, a performing artist who also comes from a boatman's family and soon the Chuanjiang work songs were being performed on stage.

Trackers pull a boat on the riverfront in Anju Ancient Town, Chongqing in 2001. [Photo provided to China Daily]

With the help of Tao, Wu then began to frequently perform and sing the Chuanjiang work songs on CCTV and local television stations starting in 2003.

In 2006, Chuanjiang work songs were in the first list of intangible cultural heritage.

And in 2008, Wu was invited to Beijing to participate in monthlong exhibitions to demonstrate to foreign and domestic visitors the charm of the folk songs of the Sichuan and Chongqing regions.

Wu was now instantly recognizable to millions of Chinese.

In 2009, Wu was awarded the title of inheritor of the project of Chuanjiang boatmen work songs and began to pass on her knowledge and teach students.

The students were not always young. Wu said she once had seven students aged up to 70 and one of the students was a music teacher from Sichuan University.

And she has also established in 2008 a singing team of the Chuanjiang work songs, consisting of more than 10 residents aged from 50 to 60, to perform and rehearse in their community.

Wu met her husband Zhang Zhigao who was also a capable work song singer in the late 1950s. They had four children.

Wu lives alone in a house on the bank of the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze River in its upper reaches. Her husband, who was 12 years her senior, died in 2014.

Wu said she often can not help going out of her house to sing the work songs when she sees the boats operating near her house.

Zhang Suzhen, 66, said she joined Wu's singing team because the Chuanjiang work songs sound so uplifting.

"But I cannot sing well, it is too hard, and I can only help," said Zhang who is also born in a boatman's family.

Zhang has been performing with Wu for more than eight years. And their team performs in the community once a week, she said.

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