- Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China by Levi S. Gibbs
This book is an in-depth ethnography of the life and performances of the "Folk Song King of Western China," Wang Xiangrong. By combining a "singer-centered approach" with "historical research" (p. 4), Gibbs illustrates how "song kings" and "queens," the terms for iconic Chinese folksingers, connect people, places, and pasts and how their performances become sites for public conversations between the rural and urban, local and global, low and high, and traditional and modern. Gibbs' book is based on extensive fieldwork with Wang Xiangrong and other singers in Northern Shaanxi Province, particularly from 2011 to 2012. He traveled [End Page 363] with Wang and recorded his performances within various contexts, including weddings, business openings, school anniversaries, Christmas concerts, and Chinese New Year galas. Gibbs pays special attention to how Wang speaks to different audiences, from the local to the global, and before, during, and after his performances.
Wang Xiangrong was born in Marugeda, a small mountain village in Fugu County, Shaanxi Province, in 1952. He was exposed to rich folk song traditions at an early age, and he learned many songs from his talented mother and local folk musicians. He was forced to leave school in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began, and his family arranged his marriage when he was 16. He taught music and other subjects at elementary schools for several years, but he was criticized for spending too much time collecting folk songs while ignoring his required political thought work. After leaving his teaching position in 1975, Wang joined a specialized work team in his local commune (gongshe) and started to perform on stage. After he obtained fame in his commune, he joined traveling troupes that went to Inner Mongolia to perform errentai, a local folk operatic genre. Beginning in 1977, Wang achieved success in various local, regional, and national song contexts. Wang's career reached its first peak when he performed "Xiongmei ganji" (Brother and Sister Go to the Market) with his collaborator for Deng Xiaoping and other national leaders in 1980. In 1983, Wang joined the Yulin minjian yishutuan (Yulin Folk Arts Troupe) and became a professional folksinger. He adapted songs from Northern Shaanxi and beyond, connected them with broader contexts and narratives, and transformed them into representative pieces for national and even global audiences. Gibbs shows that as Wang and other song kings and queens moved between places and fused different traditions together, they provided audiences with opportunities to reflect on themselves, their place, their past, and their future and to negotiate their identities in a changing modern society.
In the book's introduction, Gibbs provides his theoretical frameworks (inspired by Victor Turner, Arnold Van Gennep, and other theorists) and emphasizes how Wang's performance intends to "bridge the popular and elite, insider and outsider, here and there, and familiar and exotic" (p. 6). In particular, Gibbs expands his overarching frameworks into different themes: "singers as mediums," "songs as public conversations," "negotiating place-based identities," and "singers as storytellers." He argues that Wang and other song kings and queens bring different viewpoints into conversation with one another, allowing audiences to negotiate with "temporal and geographical others" that help define their own senses of self and group in a changing world (p. 18).
In chapter 1, Gibbs draws on the life stories of different folk singers from the past to the present in order to illustrate how song kings and queens overcome social conflicts and changes when traveling and crossing boundaries. These social encounters provide models for listeners of Wang's songs to reflect on the meaning of singing, the meaning of being a singer, and even the meaning of life. In chapter 2, Gibbs draws on detailed textual analysis of Wang's songs—particularly drinking songs, spirit-medium tunes, and love songs—to explore how folksingers mediate between realms and engage audiences into public conversations...