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15 July 2015

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Lishui Boatmen Haozi (Labor Songs)

Li County is located in the north of Hunan province, to the west of Dongting Lake. It is an important county in the northwest part of Hunan province, as it is a transportation hub called Jiuli Gate. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, it became a key trading port terminal, being the center for the entrance and exit of goods and materials for the whole northwest region of Hunan province. Due to the special geographical environment, long-distance transportation here is reliant on the water ways. Labor men along the Lihe River, Cenghe River and other rivers earn their living by carrying goods. There are hundreds of boats and thousands of boatmen. On each huge wooden boat, there are no less than twenty boatmen. While these boatmen are towing the boat against the current, they together sing a kind of local folk song in order to lighten the spirit and unify their actions. This kind of folk song is known as the Lishui boatmen haozi.

Lishui boatmen haozi aims to reflect the hard life of the boatmen and their working situation. Without specialized scripts, fixed lines, and teachers, it is handed down orally from generation to generation. It is sung by whoever at any place any time extemporaneously, and it is easy to understand and is full of heroic artistic charm. Its lines can be divided into seven-characters and five-characters. It is led by one and accompanied by many, powerful and magnificent. In addition, there are special pieces for the owners of the boats or the passers-by. For example, "Clouds are coming over the mountain, and towing the boat is like passing the over-bridge. The muddy roads are hard to walk on and sweats are falling heavily like rain" and "Breeze is blowing at the bend of the river and love brother is sending a message for bringing their shoes". It can be divided into Upstream Tunes (Shanghe Qiang) and Downstream Tunes (Xiahe Qiang), and the former is usually sung between Shimen and Sangzhi. Generally the hills here are high and the water here is whitewater, the river is narrow, there are more rocks, and boats can hardly pass through. As such haozi sung by the boatmen is powerful and resounding, quick in rhythm and more in auxiliary words, showing the braveness of the boatmen. And the content of such haozi is mainly about paddle swing and its counting.

Lishui boatmen haozi started, developed and declined right along with the business of wooden boat based transportation. Since the reform and opening up, the transportation industry has witnessed very fast development, and motor cars and trains have taken place of the water transportation in the Lishui River areas. As such over ninety percent of the boatmen stopped towing and took up other business. Meanwhile older boatmen are gradually passing away, so the once world-famous Lishui boatmen haozi is facing the risk of extinction.