Folksongs In Yellow Earth

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Performances of folksongs ranging from the elites to the peasants give insight into individuals’ lives and experiences. In both Michael Nylan’s chapter on the Odes and in Chen Kaige’s 1984 film, Yellow Earth, the importance of the rhetoric of folksongs is emphasized as a body of knowledge and teachings that represents the culture’s accepted norms, ranging from themes of knowledge, pleasure, and human integration. The combination of lyrics with music was believed to be a “spontaneous expression of public sentiment” used by rulers to gauge the “welfare of the common people” (Nylan 79). Therefore, the significance of the Odes collection as an accurate reflection of historical events and emotions parallels with the role of folksongs used to convey the impoverished sentiments of the villagers of a feudal Shanbei in Yellow Earth. While Yellow Earth masks the roles of folksongs under the guise of traumatic experiences, these folksongs are used to promote individual and social empowerment, working in tandem with the functions of the more sophisticated folksongs in the Odes.
Yellow Earth opens with a scene of the young Cuiqiao witnessing the ultimate paralysis of a woman’s autonomy, an arranged marriage. Living in a feudal and patriarchal society in which arranged marriages are commonplace, Cuiqiao’s position as a girl is automatically disempowering. As the film elaborates this celebratory, feasting occasion, there is a man who sings about both the feast and the marriage. As Michael Nylan states, “The Odes anthology itself repeatedly draws our attention to the human desire for social engagement and the sense of mutual well-being engendered when that engagement is adept and loving” (100). Therefore, the performance of this particular folks...

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...ly convey the shared experiences of unhappiness and helplessness. Cuiqiao’s performances of folksongs are often paralleled with visuals of the desolation of the land or the ambiguity of her singing. Much like the function of the Odes as a “didactic instrument,” while Cuiqiao is never depicted actually singing, the ambiguity creates a more relatable folksong that can move the masses and encourage a virtuous change (Nylan 75). The function of both the Odes and Cuiqiao’s folksongs work as expressions of intense emotions, which are interpreted in order to understand “human capacities and aspirations and how to motivate them” (Nylan 75). While the workings of the feudal system eventually prove too intolerable, the ending of Cuiqiao’s story is her final act of autonomy in search of personal liberation, empowered by the performance and promises of the Communist’s folksong.

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