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  • Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China by Levi S. Gibbs
  • Ying Diao (bio)
Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China. Levi S. Gibbs. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. Music and performing arts of Asia and the Pacific. viii + 271 pp., map, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 9780824869908 (hardcover), $65.00.

In this book, Gibbs introduces the reader to the life and performances of Wang Xiangrong 王向荣 (b. 1952), a high-profile folk "song king" from China's western Shaanxi Province, showing how since the late 1970s, through success in music competitions at all levels, Wang has risen from a rural itinerant singer to one with regional and national fame, transforming local traditions and himself into representations mediating between places, peoples, and periods of time. Taking a biographical account as its basis, Gibbs seeks to show "how one iconic singer has adapted and mediated between different audiences on a micro level in speech and song in specific events and connect[ed] the insights gained to other singers in China and around the world" (2). In particular, he sheds light on the role of Wang's singing and songs as intermediaries between "the rural and urban, local and national, folk and elite, and traditional and modern" (2). Methodologically, Gibbs's research derives much of its strength from extensive fieldwork, including participant observation, performance documentation, and in-depth interviews between 2006 and 2012. The ethnographic study is effectively supplemented by various Chinese- and English-language primary and secondary sources, ranging from folk-song anthologies, folklore literature, and publications in Chinese music studies to online sources. Gibbs's intimate knowledge of and great respect for Wang and the folk-song traditions he has studied for several years are evident in his writing.

The main text is divided into seven chapters, which are preceded by an introduction laying out the core argument and followed by an epilogue comparing itinerant singers from other countries. Chapter 1 situates Wang's life against a larger history of song traditions, from legendary song gods and goddesses of the past to contemporary folk singers, thus showing the exemplary nature of Wang's stories. There is an informative table (32–33) that illustrates the career trajectories of twelve other well-known folk singers from different areas of China, particularly on the contest/gala route many of them shared. In Chapter 2, Gibbs details Wang's childhood education through songs of varied genres (60–103), which, as the author suggests, inspired Wang to form his future models for adapting to divergent listeners and performance occasions. Chapter 3 turns to Wang's professional career with the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe. Gibbs uses an analytic of "stageification" (wutaihua) to demonstrate how the localized genres that Wang learned in his home village were transformed into region-representing pieces for stage performances, a theoretical framework that in some ways parallels Thomas Turino's concept of [End Page 142] a participatory and presentational music-making continuum (Turino 2008, 23–65). Chapter 4, "Culture Paves the Way," describes Wang and the Yulin Troupe's involvement in an exchange of performances between the United States and China. It would be interesting to see more behind-the-scenes materials for a better understanding of how such cultural encounters affected Wang and his repertoire.

Next, Gibbs presents how Wang and other singers adapted their performances in a variety of other contexts under the tensions of "mediating between rural and urban" (162). This chapter is especially fine as it explores the issues surrounding the adaptation of those erotic songs known as sour tunes (suanqu) for public settings by skillfully weaving together multifaceted details, in particular the historical evidence of the moral views toward folk songs based on interviews with two eminent song collectors working in Shaanxi in the 1950s (162–65); accurate, vivid translations of several bawdy songs (160, 169); and the interview transcripts reflecting Wang's insightful comments (170, 172). The book wraps up with two chapters on slightly different aspects of the general topic regarding how Wang merged subjectivities in his songs so that his audiences could relate to them. There are interesting discussions of how the concept of what is...


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