Reflective Note on my Research on Chaozhou Xianshi Music: Music, Palate, and the Chaozhou “Aftertaste”

Casper Yuen Hei Chan


I took my very first sip of the famously strong Chaozhou gongfucha[1] 工夫茶 at my great-uncle’s place when I was around 7 or 8, and it was a short but memorable experience. I was told by elder members of my family to bear with the bitterness, and wait for the sweet “aftertaste” (called huigan回甘 in Chinese) that comes after it a bit later. I was not informed, however, of the method to amplify that subtle sweetness that appears in the back of the mouth cavity, at least to an extent that I would have been able to detect it and enjoy it. After a few sips, I gave up and only remembered this tea as an overly strong beverage that I would not drink too often.


It was during the first half of 2016, my last year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a music student that I had a chance to re-discover that sweetness in the tea, in an unexpected way: I conducted fieldwork on a local Chaozhou music group[2] for more than half a year, as part of my final-year research project, studying the core genre of the Chaozhou musical culture – xianshi (弦詩, lit. “string-poem”). During my experience with the music group, I had not only been able to taste the tea again, but I also had an epiphany when I immersed myself in the xianshi music as a participant-observer: I found an inexplicable link between the music and the tea.


I was certainly not the first to draw parallels between Chaozhou music and tea. Mercedes Dujunco, having specialized in Chaozhou music and done extensive fieldwork, postulated a “cyclicity” that exists in both the gongfuchapractice and xianshi music (Dujunco, 1994). In the tea ceremony, as she described, the teacups are placed in a circle, and tea is poured from the teapot to fill up the cups one by one, going full circle until the cups are full and ready. After musicians take their sip and finish that round, a second round of tea is prepared, and the cups are picked up by musicians again – some are for their second round, some are joining in for their first. After each round, the tea grows darker in color and more intense in flavor. The way the teacups are laid out, the tea poured, and the way the tea grow stronger each time, all suggest the idea of “cyclicity” – a repeating pattern in circles, an idea that Dujunco also found in the music. In xianshi music, the different sections of a piece are each repeated for one or two times, manipulating the melodies to increase the speed and vigor each time, just as how the tea ceremony has multiple rounds, and the tea intensifies in each round. The common feature, “cyclicity”, found in both the tea and the music, is the “iconicity of style”, as used by Steven Feld (1988) and quoted by Dujunco.


Knowing this, I immediately recalled my experience with the music group that I was studying with, as there seemed to be another dimension of “iconicity” in gongfucha and xianshi. The cue was not at all obvious: I was constantly reminded by the members of the group of the importance of yunwei (韻味), or “ethnic flavor”, in playing the music, and how I should add appropriate extra notes to the melody to bring out that abstract “flavor”. The way they stressed this point only made me wonder – do gustatory sensations have anything to do with the music at all? Why is “flavor” always brought into discussion when music is played? It was then I had the epiphany. The experience on my palate when drinking tea bears striking similarities to the music I listen to. In other words, there is an extra dimension of “iconicity”, which is, the relationship between music and taste.


The unyieldingly piercing sound of the erxian (二弦, lit. “two strings”), the leading two-string fiddle in every xianshi ensemble, is what marks this genre a unique one among the vast number of musical cultures in China. This very feature, the piercing timbre of the instrument, is the “bitterness” I had been looking for: it scares off unprepared first-time listeners, at least in the beginning. However, a patient and open-minded listener would find the sound bearable, and even addicting, after a few minutes of playing. As an avid listener myself, I certainly felt this way. The piercing quality of the erxian gradually wears off as the piece of music progresses, and the sound of erxian magically blends into the mixture of plucking and bowing sounds from the other supporting instruments like the guzheng (古箏plucked zither), the pipa (琵琶plucked lute), the yangqin (揚琴hammered dulcimer), and the maohu (冇胡bowed fiddle), and so on. The sonic pleasure that one receives at this point is analogous to the subtly sweet “aftertaste” that accumulates at the back of the mouth cavity after a short period of enduring the unyielding “bitterness”. I could have said, when I first realized this similarity during the famous piece hanyaxishui (寒鴉戲水, “Fish Hawks Dabbling in the Water”), “this music is just like gongfucha!”


The process of mutating from bitterness to sweetness seems to appear not only in the timbre of the erxian, but also in the larger structure of a xianshi piece. Most xianshi pieces start with a very slow pace, elongating every note on the way, echoing the prevalent “sadness” in the genre. As the music progresses, melodies become more and more compressed, adding more and more vigor. The seemingly drawn-out beginning is already left behind, welcoming excitement and even ecstasy toward the end of the piece. The mood at this point of the piece effectively washes away the sadness, or “bitterness”, that once permeated the music.

When I was drinking my fourth cup of gongfucha, the music had already got rid of the bitterness. At that moment, I kept pondering this magical relationship between two seemingly separate sensations: the auditory and the gustatory. I was indeed informed by the members that the gastronomical culture of Chaozhou is an integral part of their life, and they do treat their gongfucha seriously. The link between the two equally important parts of their life, music and tea, is not obvious, nor can easily be scientifically proven. It had, however, a great impact on my perception of the Chaozhou culture in general.


Being a Chaozhounese myself, I knew virtually nothing about the culture before conducting research: I could not speak the language, I seldom ate in the Chaozhou style, and I did not have any idea about the complicated procedures of an authentic gongfucha ceremony. I did know, however, that Chaozhou people have had a bitter history: migrating southwards from the Chaoshan region throughout the 20th century, they faced cultural conflicts and discrimination, particularly in Hong Kong. For some of the immigrants, the “bitterness” has been washed away and “sweetness” did ensue: they became successful merchants, and a group of such people are the members of the music group that I studied with. As history continues to move forward, nevertheless, whatever bitterness or sweetness the Chaozhou people had in the past, the society tends to forget about those flavors altogether, as the xianshi genre, among a few others, slowly withers amidst the rapid social change. Without having strong nostalgia for this music culture, I still patiently listened to, and emotionally sympathized with, the lamenting of the elder members over the decadence of Chaozhou culture.


It is then perhaps appropriate to call for attention and enthusiasm for the musical genre that is still practiced quite frequently in Hong Kong, at least in a few isolated groups of people. The bittersweet nature of both the tea and the music, whether a particularly fruitful approach to studying the culture or not, is still an incredibly intriguing feature that captivates one’s mind, and certainly opens up interesting discussions on Chaozhou music and culture, or even on music and culture in general.



DuJunco, Mercedes M. “Tugging at the Native’s Heartstrings: Nostalgia and the Post-Mao ‘Revival’ of the Xian Shi YueString Ensemble Music of Chaozhou, South China.” PhD diss, University of Washington, 1994.

Feld, Steven. “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-up-over Sounding’: Getting into the Kaluli Groove.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988): 74-113.

[1] Gongfucha, or kung fu tea, is the name of a Chinese tea ceremony practiced mostly in the Chaoshan region of Guangdong province and the Fujian province, as well as in related diasporas abroad. It is also the name people use to call the tea drunk in such ceremonies. Gongfucha is the name in Mandarin Chinese. The tea ceremony has nothing to do with martial arts (the meaning the term kungfu usually signifies): gongfu here is a homophone that means “skill” or “finesse”, pertaining to the art of tea making.

[2] The group I studied with is the music division of the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Merchants Mutual Assistance Society (HKCCMMAS), which has weekly gatherings at their base in Sai Ying Pun.



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