'Liusanjie of New Generation' Sings for New Era

ByXie Lin and Kai Ge April 8, 2024

Songs performed by Liusanjie ("Third Sister Liu"), a legendary folk singer, have been among the memories of several generations of Chinese. Chen Chunyan, a national, firstclass performer, and who is an ethnic Yao woman, has been dubbed "Liusanjie of the new generation." Through her songs, Chen has helped promote the colorful ethnic cultures in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to the world. As head of Nanning Mass Art Center (in Nanning, capital of Guangxi), she has led a team of volunteers in organizing various cultural and arts activities.

Singing, as a Career 

Both of Chen's parents are from Guilin, a city in Guangxi. Her father is a police officer, and her mother works in a hospital. "When I was a kid, both of my parents were busy, and their workplaces were far from my home. Often, I had to take care of myself after school. I got used to solving problems on my own," says Chen. 

She remembers how her parents had hoped she would become either a police officer or a doctor after she grew up. 

The attractive, natural scenery in Guangxi nurtures beautiful folk songs. "When I was a little girl, I often listened to folk songs, and I enjoyed singing along with the songs," Chen says. She began learning to sing when she was 9. "Although my parents didn't want me to be a singer, they gave great support to me," she says. 

While Chen was a student at Guangxi Arts University, two of her teachers, Ma Aiqun and Gong Xiaoping, helped her lay the solid foundation she would need to have a professional singing career. 

In 2001, Chen, then 20, won first prize at a youth singing competition in Guangxi. After her win, she received a recommendation to continue her music education at China Conservatory of Music (in Beijing). "There, I realized my weak points, and I spent most of my time learning and practicing," she says. 

In 2002, Chen made her professional debut during the opening gala of Nanning International Folk Song Arts Festival. Her performance impressed the audience. "Since then, I have been pursuing my dream of being a good singer. I have participated in the annual event for 17 years, and I have gained performing experience during the events," Chen says. She has delivered her "sweet voice" to international audiences through those performances. 

Chen initially took her time searching for songs, as she wanted only songs that would match her voice perfectly. Gradually, she realized it was more important to use her skills to perform all types of songs. "There's no such song that matches a singer's singing style and voice perfectly. A good singer knows how to choose the suitable way of singing when he/she has a song to perform. He/she must have good basic skills, and the ability to control his/her voice. He/she must also have the ability to understand the purpose of a song's writer. A good singer injects sincere emotions into a song, so the song can touch listeners' hearts," Chen says. 

In 2006, Chen performed the lead role in the remake of the musical, Liusanjie. As such, she was dubbed "Liusanjie of new generation." 

In 2008, Chen performed Ye Le Tian during a folk-song gala. She had never performed a song of that style before. Nevertheless, her skillful, beautiful singing was recognized by the audience. 

During Guangxi Week of Expo 2010 Shanghai, recordings of some folk songs were played to help promote the ethnic cultures of Guangxi to the world. Chen's new song, Piao Piao Yao, was among the songs. The song has since become the favorite background music of many people in Guangxi when they perform their morning exercises. 

Chen in 2010 sang about the beauty of Guangxi during the Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television. 

Chen has received several awards for her outstanding singing skills, including second prize during the fifth national ethnic minority singing competition (in 2004), and the gold prize during the 13th West China folk-song contest (in 2015). 

Chen has been invited to perform abroad. "As a Chinese, I feel honored to perform and promote ethnic cultures. When I stand on international stages, I have a deeper understanding of the saying, 'Ethnic cultures belong to the world'." During performances overseas, Chen and singers from other countries, all of whom speak different languages, communicate with each other –– through music. 

"Singing is the career I chose, so I will stick to it. I will always challenge myself, and I will make breakthroughs," Chen says. 

Bringing Happiness to the People

Chen has visited many regions of China as she has collected materials to use while creating new works, and she has drawn inspiration from ordinary people's lives. In 2014, she began working at Nanning Mass Art Center. She and her colleagues researched the condition of the cultural market in Nanning, and they collected folk-art works and organized the creation of art works. 

"I had never done such work before, but I was willing to start from scratch. When I had problems, I wasn't too shy to ask for my colleagues' advice. I'm straightforward, and I will overcome all difficulties to achieve my goals," Chen says.

She quickly adapted to her work at the center, and her managerial ability eventually improved. 

In 2017, Chen and her colleagues organized an activity aimed at popularizing the arts. She and her colleagues offered singing-skills lessons to residents in Nanning, and they provided platforms for amateur choirs to perform. 

Chen is now chief director of a large folk-song performance project in Nanning. The project occasionally organizes performances, of various themes. Outstanding artists, from home and abroad, are invited to perform the folk songs of various ethnic groups during the performances. The project has become a famous brand of cultural activity for the masses in Nanning. 

As a volunteer, Chen often teaches rural residents to sing, especially as part of the art-popularization activity organized by the mass art center. As farmers need to work during the day, Chen and her colleagues offer the training to them in the evening. The classes sometimes finish at 11 p.m. 

"Rural people are eager to learn about the arts. We can feel this from the expressions on their faces when we teach them. We have gained a strong sense of fulfilment by teaching them, and the feeling is different from what we gain from performing on the stage. I have made friends with many farmers, and they like talking to me. I enjoy being needed by the people," says Chen. 

The activities organized by Chen and the team of volunteers have helped promote the ethnic cultures, and have helped enrich people's spiritual lives. 

Chen is now a member of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. She is also director of Guangxi Musicians Association and a member of Guangxi Youth Federation. 

In 2011, Chen became the image ambassador of Guangxi's first art troupe for promoting fire control. "We hope our activities will make Nanning's residents more aware of safety in their lives," she says. 

In 2022, Chen was appointed Guangxi's ambassador for culture and tourism. Given her outstanding performance, she has been named an exemplary individual of Guangxi, and a March 8th Red-Banner Holder of Guangxi.

In 2023, Chen was elected a delegate to the 13th National Women's Congress of China. "Singing for the people, and bringing happiness to the people are the values of my work. I will fulfill my mission as an artist in the new era. I will inherit and promote traditional ethnic arts, and I will create more works for the people through innovative approaches," says Chen.


Photos from Interviewee

(Women of China English Monthly March 2024)


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