- Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China by Levi S. Gibbs
Researchers of the performing arts in China today cannot help but encounter celebrated "folk artists" (minjian yiren), frequently celebrated on national media and given designations such as "great masters" (dashi), "cultural transmitters" (wenhua chuanchengren), and "folk song kings and queens" (gewang and gehou) (see Du 2015; Jones 2016; Rees 2012, 2016; Wong 2009; and others). In Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China, Levi Gibbs follows the life and career of one such folk artist, Wang Xiangrong, the well-known "folk song king" of Northern Shaanxi.
Wang Xiangrong has achieved national fame on a greater scale than most other small-town folk singers in China today. Gibbs writes how Wang [End Page 38] Xiangrong's voice has been heard thousands of time on the concert stage, on widely distributed television programs, and on film and documentary soundtracks. He serves a role beyond that of an ordinary cultural transmitter, but also as a folk star and national icon. Gibbs' book traces Wang's rise to folk stardom and the meanings that his song performances have for a variety of Chinese (and even foreign) audiences. Perhaps even more significantly, Gibbs illuminates the performance career of Wang Xiangrong to understand rapid changes that have taken place in twentieth- and twenty-first-century China.
Like many singers, Wang Xiangrong began as a rural and semi-itinerant folk singer who was later recruited into a communist arts troupe in the 1950s. He experienced stigma for the textual content of his songs early in his career, but eventually became a bridge between rural and cosmopolitan Chinese audiences and came to be celebrated as a distinguished representative of northern Shaanxi (Shaanbei) music culture.
This study benefits from what clearly seems to be a close personal relationship between the author and Wang Xiangrong. Gibbs had the privilege of accompanying Wang to a wide variety of performance settings over the course of several years' time and collected valuable stories and statements from the singer that enrich the narrative and analysis of the volume greatly. Gibbs offers thorough and careful textual analysis of the lyrical content of Wang's songs as well as background information about these songs and how they changed lyrically over time. Gibbs devotes two chapters in this volume to indepth analysis of iconic songs from Wang Xiangrong's repertoire, "East is Red" (chapter 3) and "The Infinite Bends of the Yellow River" (chapter 7), and the textual variations and versions of these songs that Wang has performed over the course of his career. These two chapters offer a treasure trove of information on these well-known songs, their origins, and how they developed from small local tunes to national tunes and the changes in significance that happened along the way. These two chapters also speak to Wang's flexibility in adapting his song performances to changing audience needs over space and time.
Gibbs, furthermore, spends time exploring the varied interpretations of the frequent erotic content in Shaanbei folk songs, which has often been censured as these songs travel from local rural to elite urban spaces (chapter 5). Gibbs shows how Wang himself as well as the collectors who documented and arranged Wang's songs engaged in a process of filtration and revision to make songs worthy for urban audiences. Chapter 6 emerges from this discussion and addresses the ambiguous status that Wang maintains as both an insider (hailing from a Northern Shaanxi village) and outsider (having traveled away and changed in the process), alternating frequently between a positionality of seeming familiar and seeming exotic. Gibbs writes that Wang has accrued a [End Page 39] kind of "traveled local authenticity" that is the result of having to adapt his songs to different places, people, times, and political environments (183).
In both chapter 4 and chapter 7, Gibbs addresses Wang's shifting status as a representative of different places and temporal modes. Wang...