Where the Language of Love—and Everything Else—Is Song

Where the Language of Love—and Everything Else—Is Song

In southwestern China, the Bai ethnic minority group uses improvised singing as an everyday form of communication. Now shared in festivals and performances, the songs tell stories of Bai culture; religion, farming, historical events, and interpersonal dynamics.


1, 5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Storytelling, Geography, Anthropology

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


The "reserved" Bai minority group in southwestern China relies on music to connect.

Meet “King” Li Gen Fan.

King Li is around fifty years old. His face is red from spending time in the sun. Li is a community leader among the Bai, an ethnic minority group in the green mountains of Yunnan Province. He’s a friendly man, but soft-spoken. He seems shy until he starts singing.

“This one is called ‘You Are My Heart, You Are My Liver,’” says Li. He is a traditional “king of song” in the village of Shilong. Li explains that the Bai believe love lives in the liver because it is a powerful organ like the heart.

Li plants his feet. He puts his hands by his sides like a gunslinger. He stares forward as he concentrates. He inhales a gigantic breath, and a melody of longing booms from his mouth. It is so loud and fierce that it can rattle the heart (and liver) even of people who don’t understand the Bai language. Then, for demonstration purposes, Li suddenly switches singing roles. His voice starts soft, then becomes higher and more feminine. He sings softly, and then his voice swells into a high, feminine answer. “No thanks. I don’t like you, but I’ll sing to you anyway.”

The Bai communicate their every emotion through music, Li says.

“When we’re too embarrassed to say something in normal life, we sing it to each other,” he explains. He says that his culture is shy and reserved. “We can only say what’s on our mind when we’re singing.”

The Bai’s collection of songs is vast and complex. Their folk music spans every form of human activity.

Every year in July, after the rice harvest, a singing festival is held at a Buddhist temple. The festival is called Shibaoshan Gehui. It features singing competitions between men and women with playful call-and-response duets.

Beyond flirting, Bai songs also honor the gods of the group’s religion. Their religion is called Benzhuism. (Each village has its own ancestor gods, which can include elements of various religions.) There are songs to remember historical events, funeral songs, and songs that lighten the challenges of rural life.

“We sing while doing many different types of jobs,” Li says.

He starts to sing an assortment of work lyrics: a hoeing song for farming, a song for carrying cakes of dried tea, and a fishing tune with the same rhythm of rowing a boat.

There is even a song demanding silence.

“It’s our 'angry song,'” Li says. He bellows it. It ends with a snap:

“You do not listen to my words!”

“I don’t want to speak to you anymore!”

A film called Five Golden Flowers made Bai singing traditions famous across China. It is a 1959 musical about true love. The film shows a Bai world where people sing and dance in colorful traditional dress. The movie has helped turn the home of the Bai into one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. Their land is a scenic area of Yunnan that has a big lake, sky-scraping mountains, and villages with cobbled lanes. Until COVID-19 slowed travel, millions of visitors vacationed in the region, often enjoying Bai musical performances. Indeed, the Shibaoshan Gehui festival now features a sound stage, sound equipment, mainstream pop singers, and cash prizes.

“It’s changed, become more commercial,” King Li admits. He and his wife, a “singing queen” of his village, serve as representatives of Bai culture. “But we still try to preserve our singing. It’s not easy today because our young people are moving to cities. They are distracted by popular music and video games.”

In a nearby Bai village called Qing'Anli, a middle-aged farmer named Yang Shao Xian does her part to remember Bai music.

When outsiders appear at a neighbor’s farmhouse, Yang quickly puts on a bright Bai outfit with its white hat representing clouds. She grabs her three-stringed instrument and offers to sing. She stumbles over the lyrics. She restarts over and over.

“Let me try it again,” Yang huffs, squinting down at her fingers on the strings, dismissing all praise. “It’s important.”

View the original dispatch to see and hear Li Gen Fan provide a singing tour of his village.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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