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    How a Choir of Miao Farmers Became a Viral Hit

    The Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmer Choir has found success online, but viral fame comes with its own risks.

    This May, the Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmers Choir officially celebrated its 20th anniversary. Based in the predominantly A-Hmao Miao village of the same name, not far from the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, the big day passed quietly: Due to pandemic restrictions, members were unable to organize a major event.

    That anniversary date is perhaps not as big a deal to choir members as it might seem. Chorus singing has been a part of Miao culture for countless generations, and the choir itself is a relatively recent offshoot of a village church-based singing group with roots dating back almost a century.

    The A-Hmao in Xiaoshuijing are overwhelmingly Christian — the result of a concerted proselytizing campaign in the early 20th century. The A-Hmao script, which members of the Xiaoshuijing choir still use to learn lyrics today, was invented by English missionary Samuel Pollard in collaboration with the Miao intellectual Yang Yage and others in 1905. Beginning around 1920, A-Hmao Christians like Han Jie and Wang Youdao organized religious events in Fumin County, where Xiaoshuijing is located. The village erected its “Church of Love” in 1925.

    From the start, the church choir’s repertoire was a fusion of traditional Miao song and classic Western religious music. Its immediate importance in the local community makes a certain amount of sense: Music has historically been a crucial medium for the Miao people — a way for them to connect with their ancestry and impart their shared history. The choir was a natural way for the Miao people of Xiaoshuijing Village to at once express their newfound religious beliefs and connect with their traditional culture.

    For decades, the choir’s traditions were passed down from one generation to the next. Members might practice several times a week, with older singers singing songs line-by-line and younger members repeating them back until they knew the words, pitch, and rhythm by heart.

    In 2002, the village formed the Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmers Choir as an offshoot of the church choir, one with a less religious focus. Its more than 50 members are all local farmers, but their skill soon attracted global attention. The choir has been featured in mainstream Chinese media outlets, performed on stage at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, and even toured internationally.

    Outside Xiaoshuijing, their appeal is tightly linked to their identity as farmers: They troop on stage dressed in traditional A-Hmao Miao clothing, only to surprise audiences with angelic renditions of religious or popular music, from “Hallelujah” to “Mamma Mia.”

    The group’s leader, Zhang Xiaoming, recalls international audiences describing the choir as “amazing.” In 2018, the Joint Chairman of the Review Committee for the Isaac Stein International Violin Competition was quoted in Chinese media as saying of the Xiaoshuijing Choir: “These farmers who toil the earth by day and sing at night remind us that music is a universal language that transcends all boundaries.”

    Ironically, most of the farmers who comprise the Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmers Choir speak only their native tongue. They learned the pop standards they now perform the same way the older generation learned their hymns, through phonetic transcriptions in the Pollard script or Chinese characters, most of them produced by older women in the village, and rigorous rehearsal.

    Like so much else, however, the COVID-19 pandemic put the choir’s rise on hold. Unable to travel, members have instead sought to reach audiences through social media. The transition was rocky at first — an early attempt to use WeChat was eventually abandoned — but the choir has seemingly found a home on short-video and livestreaming platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin. Kuaishou, with its more countryside-centric brand, has proven particularly receptive to the group, which has almost 700,000 followers on the platform. These new fans are drawn in, not just by the choral performances, but also the videos the group posts of members working on their farms and going about their daily lives in the village.

    If social media has allowed the Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmers Choir to foster and maintain ties with the public even during the pandemic, the cultural appropriation and fusion so common in online spaces also poses new challenges to the group’s longstanding traditions. The group is hardly alone in this: In some Miao areas, residents increasingly perform traditional Miao dances to the thumping beats of Chinese square-dancing music popular online. Music with sacred or religious significance, including funeral music or songs for brides on their wedding day, is ignored in favor of more uplifting tunes that get better engagement on social media.

    The nature of social media obliges performers to be entertaining above all else, an attitude that clashes with the Xiaoshuijing choir’s roots. Ultimately, short-video apps are not a substitute for live performance. In the meantime, however, the choir continues on, working the land, rehearsing, and meeting every Sunday to sing the hymns that started it all.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao. 

    (Header image: The Xiaoshuijing Miao Farmers Choir gives a performance. From @天籁小水井 on Kuaishou)