Residents of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are currently enjoying a new two-day official holiday the local government has offered in the hope that it will encourage them to participate in an annual ethnic minority singing festival.
On March 3 of the lunar calendar, crowds traditionally gather to sing in the antiphonal (call-and-answer) style, with the occasion held as an important one for locals to find love and make new friends. Historically, it has been observed by more than 27 million people of Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong and Mulao ethnicity in Guangxi, or half the region's total population.
However, the 1,300-year-old custom has lost its allure in the modern era, prompting government actions to help it survive and regain popularity.
With March 3 of the lunar calendar falling on Wednesday, the day was a major test of whether the "March 3 Festival" could be re-popularized.
FIGHT TO SAVE A TRADITION
Before dawn on Wednesday, the first day of the new holiday, Deng Zhiting from Dakeng Village of Guangxi's Fangchenggang City got up to take part in a government-organized singing get-together that was attended by thousands of Zhuang and Yao people.
The 72-year-old dressed in the traditional costume of the Yao ethnic group and carried a flute-like instrument made of leaves from pineapple and bamboo trees.
But the high-spirited elderly man frowned after finding that there were few young faces among the crowd. "What a lean time for our group's folk songs. Look, we don't have young people to inherit the treasure," he said.
Deng mastered folk songs at the age of 12 and later won the heart of his wife with his golden voice. Nevertheless, today in Dakeng, home to 600 Yao people, none of those below 35 can sing folk songs, according to Deng, whose children and grandchildren know nothing about the art.
He blamed the trend on an exodus of young people resulting from China's urbanization drive. "Some who left their hometowns for urban jobs long ago can't even speak the Yao language anymore, let alone sing local songs," he complained.
Also, ballads that require audiences to understand historical stories and customs have scared off the young generation, who grew up with pop culture, said Liang Kejian, a senior folk artist in Guangxi.
Among his peers, 20-something Pan Longhai is an exception in that he has chosen to pursue a career as a professional folk song singer.
Folk songs of the Zhuang ethnic group are highly significant in terms of recording the 4,000-year history of the Zhuang civilization, said Pan. "They constitute an important part of our group's soul and roots."
The new holiday has to some extent eased the worries of people like Deng, who fear folk songs could soon fade into history. "Now the 'March 3 Festival' has become an official holiday. I see hope," he said.
The government decision gives people of ethnic minorities more time and chances to have a glimpse into their ancient culture, said Nong Guanpin, honorary chairman of the Guangxi Folk Literature and Art Society. "I hope that can help stimulate the interests of the public."
But Pan warned that festivities alone are not a panacea against the death of folk songs. He suggested the government should improve public cultural facilities, while supporting NGOs in this field and promoting cultural education.
In fact, local officials have already started work to bring traditional arts to school classrooms. In Wuming County, a major birthplace of Zhuang culture, folk songs and the group's distinctive dancing have been included in primary school curricula.
Another means local folk singers have hit upon to promote their art is to blend modern elements of rock and roll, electric music and symphony into traditional tunes.
Pan believes such fusion can help inject new life to folk songs, but warned that the nature of the traditional art must be preserved.
"It's okay to sing a Zhuang folk song in a rock and roll way. But if the basic melody is altered, it can't be called a folk song any longer," he said.