The Tanka Fishing People's Music of the Sea

By Nicki Johnson / HICN / Updated: 19:44,12-September-2021

Check out a fragment of a Tanka fishing song.

This summer, children at the Lingshui Xincun Fishing People Primary School spent their vacation joyfully singing Tanka (Danjia) fishing songs. Their teacher, Li Qiulan, is a local who grew up on board Tanka fishing boats. In 2020, she returned to her hometown of Xincun, where, since she loved the music so much, she decided to teach the children to sing traditional Tanka fishing songs at no charge. In her free time, she continues to learn more about these songs from the older villagers, researching and collecting the music in hopes that she can help the Tanka fishing songs and cultural traditions spread far and wide.

Tanka fishing boats. NEW HAINAN APP

Li Qiulan, who grew up singing the Tanka fishing songs, is a self-taught musician who learned to sing as soon as she learned to speak. She even learned to recognize a lot of characters through learning the songs! “The Tanka fishing songs are all about everyday life and work, for example, you can use the songs to tell people on other boats what kind of fish you have caught, or what happy news your family wants to share,” said Li. Listening to the fishing songs again after becoming an adult, she discovered that there was quite a bit of the Tanka people’s philosophy about life included in their lyrics.

The songs that the Tanka people sing as they go out to sea have become an important part of their lives. They sing as they sail to drum up energy, and sing as they mend their nets to help them concentrate. They sing during the off-season for enjoyment, and sing at gatherings of family and friends for fun. They even sing to express their sorrow at funerals. The music of the Tanka community are not only fishing songs, they are tightly woven into the fabric of every part of their lives.

“You could say that the Tanka fishing songs are the foundation of our culture, and no matter where we go, we keep them with us, so I keep on promoting Tanka fishing song culture,” said Li.

“As the Tanka fishing people move from the sea to the land, coming into contact with the modern culture of the city, many young Tanka people and children have lost the ability to speak the Tanka dialect, and can no longer sing the Tanka fishing songs. The musical heritage of the Tanka people is in danger of being lost forever.” Having kept a close eye on Tanka culture, Li is well aware of the declining numbers of people learning to sing the traditional Tanka fishing songs. That’s why she decided to do something to help more people learn about and appreciate them.  

During her free time, Li records Tanka music and puts it online. It makes her very happy to see that quite a few people are still interested in these old songs. The first time she uploaded the songs “Magic Water Blossom” and “My Tanka People”, they got over 10,000 views in just two days. After that encouragement, she decided to spend even more time teaching schoolchildren to sing traditional Tanka songs. Local school principal Wang Jinzhu feels the same, and quickly invited Li onto campus to teach the kids to sing Tanka fishing songs.

Local schoolchildren sing on board a fishing boat. NEW HAINAN APP

According to Wang Jinzhu, the Tanka Fishing songs will be taught in the primary school. Serving as a training center for Lingshui intangible cultural heritage including the Tanka fishing songs, the school will set up biweekly classes to teach Tanka music to interested students, and pass Tanka culture down to the next generation. 

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