In Fang Haoran's profession you can forget the eyes, for it is the mouth, teeth, lips, tongue and throat that have it. Fang is one of very few full-time performers of kouji, whose exponents earn their keep by imitating sounds in nature such as those of animals, wind and thunder, as well as those of human actions such as sawing wood or fluffing cotton.
The vocal mimicry that Fang, 31, performs have their roots in China's agricultural civilization that goes back thousands of years and is recognized as an item of national intangible cultural heritage. Those antecedents may seem to make this art little more than a relic, but Fang and others who perform it are determined to ensure it remains relevant and interesting to the dwellers of the 21st century.
The skill is mentioned in historical documents at least 2,100 years old when someone in the entourage of the ancient politician Lord Mengchang mimicked the crowing of a cock that was said to make roosters in the area crow too, to distract the gatekeepers of Hangu Pass, an ancient choke point in what is today Henan province, allowing his lord to get through and return home.
No later than the Song Dynasty (960-1279) kouji was thriving. Many young people today learned about it from a high school text by the 17th-century writer and official Lin Sihuan, describing a vocal mimicry performer presenting how a couple reacted to their two sons' crying and screaming, with dogs and mice vaguely heard, followed by a fire as a result of which many people shouted for help.
The audience, the text said, were startled upon hearing the sound. They were relieved when a modesty screen was removed to reveal that a single performer, with aid of a table, a chair, a fan and a wooden block, had been the one delivering the alarming soundscape.
In 2018 Fang resumed the scene in its entirety after five years' exploration. There were also the sounds of rebuke and snoring, bowls being smashed, wind and the crackle of fire. He also managed to find several old abaci made decades ago to simulate the sound of one splashing in water, brought to life with the help of vocal mimicry techniques.
Fang was born in rural Chun'an county, Zhejiang province. As a child he discovered that when he quacked, ducks in the stream running in front of home followed him, and his interest in imitating animal sounds was thus born.
He came to Beijing in 2008 and the following year started learning kouji with a master of the art, Niu Yuliang.
One key to successfully performing kouji is to produce sound while inhaling so it is not influenced by one's natural voice. Being able to put on a performance of several hours requires a huge amount of rehearsal, he says.
Fang grew up in Jiangnan, which means regions around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and he was aware that the agreeable climate and landform had enabled diverse species to live there, and they provided him with abundant inspiration to recreate their sounds.
As with many ancient folk art forms, very few performers can make a living from kouji, he says. He once questioned the value of passing on kouji to younger generations, he says, because common elements of pastoral life, such as hens laying eggs or pigs grunting, no longer resonated with young urban-dwelling audiences. In fact, most of his fellow apprentices came from the countryside.
Over the past years he also mimicked sound effects from movies including Avatar, The Transformers and the Fast and Furious series, in these instances it is not human sound but the sounds of helicopters, canons and brakes among others that were needed. He also took on more ambitious challenges such as reproducing ancient battleground scenes.
In an effort to popularize kouji he has appeared on variety shows, and before the outbreak of COVID-19 he had toured some Southeastern Asian and European countries.
He also managed to work with the "beatboxer" Zhang Ze in December to give a piece of music where the two forms somehow ran counter to each other but at the same time became integrated. Unlike beatboxing, which mainly creates vocal percussion for hip-hop music, traditional kouji performances usually tell stories or present a life scene, and people often judge a work on how vivid it is.
At first, Fang and Niu did not see eye-to-eye on these modern additions, the sophisticated master being particularly dubious when Fang resorted to using amplification devices to create modern sounds. Niu held that they should be able to perform without the use of external aids.
Fang argued that using such devices did not mean kouji performers had thrown tradition to the wind, but that young people were applying traditional techniques to create things in accordance with current fashions that closely reflect modern lifestyles. It was only when Niu realized that audiences accepted this modern twist on tradition that he began to feel reassured.
Fang, realizing that it was becoming difficult to come up with new sounds in cities that excited him, turned to observing and reproducing what he says are the sounds of animal feelings and emotions, something that he says cannot be done electronically.
He owns a cat and has come to the conclusion that they have a richer range of expression than dogs. When cats are happy－or unhappy－to be held in someone's arms, when they are hungry, cozy or feel reproached, they make different sounds, he says.
He has imagined the potential of kouji in helping humans communicate and interact with animals. For example, once on hearing a crow in the distance, he tried to simulate another one wounded and calling for help, and the crow came looking for its peer.
He has also helped design voices for characters of mobile phone games including Honor of Kings, or Arena of Valor as its international version is called. Some of them include features of both animals and humans, while for others he has to create the voice and expressions based on details provided to him of their characteristics.
To be fully appreciated kouji needs to transcend vivid depictions and be relevant in daily life or valued for its artistic input, he says.
One recent instance of the latter was A Bite, A Whistle, A Chapter, on which he worked with iFanr, a digital portal of technology and consumer content in Guangzhou. The three-minute recording presents countryside on a fine, warm day whose peace is broken by a thunderstorm, but to which serenity eventually returns.
Fang produced 36 sound effects with kouji skills, 13 simulating birds, some of them in his hometown. The dog sounds differ in breed, size, distance and location, and there are also dogs fighting, the whine of mosquitoes and the sound of the xun, a traditional Chinese instrument.
The work is available on Apple Music, with Spatial Audio technology support provided by Dolby Atmos, which aims to make the sound omnidirectional. This means, for example, that the listener will perceive birds to be tweeting or flapping wings above them, nearby or far away.
In essence kouji is a skill that draws from nature and creates the sense of space with sound to make audiences feel immersed. With the help of the innovative audio technology, the work overcomes the limitations of kouji performers, whose shows are usually one-dimensional, and provides the immersive experience audiences have been looking for.
He Zongcheng, iFanr's chief content officer, says the work is part of a project to digitalize the quintessence of Chinese culture of high artistic value while suitable to be presented in a digital way.
However, Fang and He recognize that while Spatial Audio technology does wonders for voice reproduction even as it finely presents the best examples of both ancient acoustic artistry and digitalization－the latter being a common method for preserving intangible cultural heritage－there is more to it than just keeping a record. Creating new sounds and experiences and improving the artistry is also important.
As a young cultural inheritor, Fang says he will carry on exploring new possibilities of kouji in an era of digital and social media.
"To turn the beauty of nature into art, the artists' thoughts and design are indispensable," he says, adding that these days he is more focused on expressing himself through his work. "I'm lucky enough to have a career that is tied up with my passion, and I want to touch more hearts with sound."
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