This excerpt is taken from author Zhang Mei’s autobiographical travelogue and cookbook ‘Travels through Dali with a Leg of Ham’. It is republished here with permission granted by Penguin Books China and photos courtesy of Elizabeth Phung.

There’s a saying about the children of Stone Dragon Village: Those who can walk,dance; and those who can talk, sing. About 100 kilometres from Shundang, in a high mountain valley beside an oval lake, Stone Dragon Village is home to roughly 1000 Bai people. I had been told there was a Bai folksong expert in the village, so I arranged to stop by on our way to Shaxi.

Chief Li, the head of Stone Dragon Village, receives us in a concrete yard belonging to the local government office. Tea is served: the usual scattering of leaves in a paper cup and hot water from a thermos. A bland atmosphere of bureaucracy pervades the place, which seems to extend to Li himself, a short, slight man in his fifties wearing the semi-formal attire of a government official – a grey suit with no tie. Stone Dragon Village, he explains seriously in a soft, muffled voice, is a place of song. The musical tradition runs deep.

His claims, including the one that he himself is known as the ‘Folk Music King’,
seem a little silly in this official setting.

And then a transformation takes place.

Three dancing girls emerge from a small office, two of them in traditional dress wielding ba wang bian (霸王鞭), bamboo staffs as long as golf clubs and inset with bells. A young male singer comes outside, dark-skinned and heavy-set, oily black hair parted to the right, carrying a three-stringed guitar slung low on his hip. His name is also Li, so for ease of identification I shall call him ‘Elvis’. Elvis picks out a driving rhythm as the girls twirl seductively and clack the ba wang bian against their feet, shoulders, hips and the ground. This is a dance that I have seen many times before, but I had no idea that it originated from Stone Dragon Village.

Elvis starts to sing in a glassy tenor with a rough edge, maintaining a rhythm a shade slower than that of a resting heartbeat, occasionally tossing his head to clear the tousled hair from his eyes. Utterly in the moment, he possesses swagger and sex appeal that is quite unexpected given the surroundings. In another context he could be a stage performer of real gravitas – a rock star. A few tourists drift in from the street to watch. A dog scratches about in the dirt nearby.

Soon Elvis is joined by a woman, her shrill soprano cutting through the late afternoon air. As they sing together in the local Bai dialect, Li leans in and whispers the words in Mandarin for my benefit. The lyrics are sensual and provocative, about longing and lust, wantonness and excitement. It’s captivating. Elvis’s three unamplified strings keep rhythm and add a mournful melody in between verses.

There are many types of Bai tunes, Chief Li explains: nursery rhymes, love songs, working songs, songs to commemorate historical legends, songs for funerals and songs for weddings. Practically any occasion can call for a song.

‘Of all the different forms of Bai folks songs,’ says Li, ‘it’s love songs that are sung the most.’ With a grin, he points out that even today, men sometimes attempt to woo women with song. ‘They follow the women on their way to the fields, walking behind them and singing as they go.’

As the village head, Chief Li also uses song as a vehicle for delivering official news and government information sent all the way from Beijing. ‘It helps the villagers take notice if we sing the information to them,’ he explains.

In a sparse office beside us, a man memorises Chinese characters hand-written on a sheet of purple funerary paper. It has been folded, fan-like, to create rows of narrow columns that contain the characters in vertical lines. Li wrote the lyrics, and this man is learning them so he can sing at a funeral later this evening. The poem has been written specially for the occasion, laying out the virtues of the deceased man. After the recital, the paper will be burned. The same ritual probably also took place for the funeral back in Shundang.

Now, would we like to hear Chief Li sing?

He steps away for a moment, then re-emerges from his office, his jacket replaced with a colourful, folksy waistcoat. But his transformation goes far beyond apparel. As Li takes the guitar and sings a song about love, his vocal chords let loose, revealing a rich, gravelly voice imbued with sadness, wisdom and romance. The façade of government formality disappears.

He sings another song, ‘The Mud Fish’. The lyrics are from the perspective of a fish that is about to be eaten, but in reality it’s a lament about the lot of the humble farmer. The pain is audible in Li’s voice and visible in his eyes. He might be just a little fish, Chief Li sings, but at least his bones will scratch the throats of his masters on the way down.

Li’s voice is mesmerising. To look at this quiet man in his shirt and waistcoat, you’d never guess he is a repository of musical knowledge, of love songs, of flirtatious and salacious ballads, of odes, tragedies and comedic word play.

Li was identified in 1999 as a folk singing talent cultivated by the provincial government, he tells me after the performance. He himself has subsequently found and nurtured a female singer – the ‘Folk Song Queen’ to his King – and they perform together with a troupe at weddings and, in the case of this evening, funerals.

Did Chief Li woo his own wife through songs?

‘No,’ he admits, ‘I was betrothed before birth. My marriage to my wife was arranged while both our mothers were pregnant, as used to be custom in Stone Dragon Village.’ Li goes on, ‘In the countryside you have to respect these customs. When I was growing up, even if I liked other girls, I could never date them because I knew I had a wife waiting for me.’

Now he spends most of his time performing, whether for local events or for the small but growing number of tourists finding their way to Stone Dragon Village.

Folk traditions are not as strong as they once were, Li tells me. When he was a boy he didn’t have TV or even electricity to keep him occupied, unlike kids today. Without TV, video games, and the Internet, music was his entertainment.

In fact, a big part of Li’s work is promoting the folk singing culture of his people. But it’s not easy persuading children to learn the songs and musicianship of yesteryear. The provincial government gave him funds to convert an old office into classrooms for local kids to learn singing and dancing. At first it didn’t work. ‘No one came,’ Li says mournfully. But all was not lost. Once he offered children a small stipend to show up, they started attending. Soon he had over 120 pupils and was turning more away.

Elvis steps up to sing a few more songs as the daylight fades. He is all smiles and
swagger. After he finishes, I ask him what the Chinese name is for his folk guitar.
He tells me it’s called a san xian (三弦), or three strings, and then explains solemnly that I shouldn’t think of it as a musical instrument. ‘What is it, then?’ I dutifully ask.

‘A love rifle,’ he says with a wink.