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

Meet “King” Li Gen Fan.

King Li is around fifty and squarely built. His face is reddened by the subtropical sun. Li is a community leader among the Bai ethnic minority group in the folded green mountains of Yunnan Province. He’s a friendly man, but reserved. He’s soft-spoken—shy even. Until he starts singing.

“This one is called ‘You Are My Heart, You Are My Liver,’” says Li, a traditional “king of song” in the village of Shilong. Li explains that the liver, being a vital organ like the heart, is deemed by the Bai an abode of love.

Li plants his feet a yard apart. He cocks his hands by his sides like a gunslinger. He stares blankly in concentration. He inhales a gigantic breath. And from his mouth booms a melody of masculine yearning so loud and fierce that even among those who don’t understand the Bai language, it can rattle the heart (and liver). Then, for demonstration purposes, Li suddenly switches singing roles. Starting softly, his voice swells into a high, trembling, feminine rejection: “No thanks. I don’t like you, but I’ll sing to you anyway.”

The Bai communicate their every emotion with improvised music, Li says.

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

Thus, the Bai’s collection of songs is vast and complex, encyclopedic. Their folk music spans every imaginable form of human activity.

At a Buddhist temple in the forested hills near the village, an annual singing festival called Shibaoshan Gehui is held every July, after the rice harvest. It features singing competitions between men and women: playful call-and-response duets.

Beyond flirting, Bai songs also honor the gods of the group’s religion, called Benzhuism. (Each village has its own ancestor deities, which can include elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and animism.) There are songs to remember long-ago historical events. There are funeral songs. And there are songs that lighten the toils of rural life.

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

He proceeds to belt out a dazzling medley of work lyrics: a hoeing song for farming, a song for carrying cakes of dried tea, and a fishing tune that rolls off the tongue with the 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!”

Bai singing traditions were made famous across China by a classic film called Five Golden Flowers. It is a 1959 musical about the virtues of true love and socialist construction. The film features an idealized Bai world of colorful traditional clothes and the peoples’ singing and dancing. The movie has helped turn the heartland of roughly two million Bais into one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. Their land is a scenic swath of Yunnan that includes a big lake, sky-scraping mountains, and villages with cobbled lanes. Until COVID-19 dented the travel industry, millions of national and international visitors vacationed in the region, often enjoying Bai musical performances. Indeed, the Shibaoshan Gehui festival now features a sound stage, amplifiers, 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 ambassadors 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 tries to do her part in remembering.

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

“Let me try it again,” Yang huffs, squinting down at her finger placement 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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