Updated 1 month 4 days ago

Microcampus. To an outsider, it hardly sounds like anything. But that simple word, Microcampus, contains a truly special opportunity for Shanghai American School eight graders. On November 23, 2013, sixteen of us came to Xizhou, Yunnan, to study a topic of special interest to us. For me, that topic was Xizhou funeral music. Reactions to this decision ranged from 'Are you kidding me', to 'Only you would choose something like that'. Obviously, not the most enthusiastic thing ever. I chose this topic for two reasons: because I loved music, and because I needed to try something new.

To learn about funeral music, one must find musicians. My two primary sources were Mr. Li and Mr. Li, two relatives from the only family in Xizhou who could play the suona, the primary instrument of Xizhou funeral music. Though I never heard one mention the other, they were both extremely helpful in continuing my research. If it were not for them, my Inquiry Project would never have even gotten off the ground.

I wanted to learn everything I could about funeral music: the instrumentation, who the musicians were, where and when the music was played, and the importance of funeral music in the lives of the Xizhou people. Over the course of 28 days, I talked to musicians and observed funerals, in order to learn as much as I could. After watching the emotional breakdown of a woman during her brother's funeral, I realized that my Inquiry topic must be expanded. Not only would I observe the music, but I would also observe the sounds of a funeral. In the end, it all came down to this statement: In order to understand Xizhou funeral music, one must experience the in house sounds, the procession sounds, and the sound of the burial process.

A quick note: Xizhou funerals are traditionally divided into three segments. The in-house vigil, which also functions as a visitation time, the funeral procession, and the actual burial. Each comes with its own unique sounds and music.  

The Imovie I have created can be viewed above. I hope that by watching it, you may be able to experience the music of Xizhou funerals yourself. Click here if the above video does not play: https://youtu.be/2VnkbCFriLA

Myy Inquiry project has taught me things I do not think I'll ever be able to forget. That opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, but she is always willing to come by. That embarassing comments from strangers are nothing but small potholes on the road to discovery. That one needs to bring a camera and enough memory space wherever they go, even if they think it won't be needed.  That sometimes, sprinting down the streets of a small village gets you weird looks, but other people always follow. And that biking to the foot of the mountain is far more tiring than any hike up Cangshan would ever be. 

When we first arrived at Xizhou, I had my doubts about my Inquiry topic. The chances of viewing a funeral would be slim, and who in the village had ever heard a strange out-of-town girl ask 'I'm learning about funeral music, can you help?' I was tempted to change my topic into something else: an attempt to combine traditional Dongjing music with the far more popular pop music of the modern era. This was a project that Xiaotang and Shane had asked me to help them with, and I was genuinely interested. But in the end, I decided that funeral music was still my topic of interest, and that I wanted to stick with it. 

Finding resources was definitely the hardest part of my research. After almost a month of searching, I still only found two men named Mr. Li, who came from the only suona playing family in the entire village. Luckily, both of them were extremely helpful with my research, and I was later able to watch one of them play at an actual funeral. Despite all of this, the biggest moment of my research was when I discovered that a funeral was going on. Not just a procession, but one that had only started hours before I had discovered it. How many people studying Xizhou funerals can say that they watched an entire funeral from start to finish? (Probably just one.) I was tentative to just sit there and watch the entire thing just unfold before my eyes, but I gradually became comfortable, and the family became familiar with my presence. 

Funeral music had previously been an unexplored topic here at Microcampus. Though other students researching funerals had mentioned it in passing, I was the first to focus on it. During my stay here at Xizhou, I've been able to hear, less than 3 feet away from me, an actual funeral band play as they let the rest of the procession forward. I've met the musicians, I've watched the funerals, I've heard the music, loud and clear. It has truly been an enlightening experience.

My research forced me to interact with people in ways I hadn't really done before. Though I had interviewed people before, walking into people's homes to talk to them about their occupations as musicians was quite odd. I had a more indirect interaction with the family of Mrs. Yang, who's funeral I attended. I talked to some of the men in the family, but in general, I was merely a spectator. The men who manned the registration booth at the foot of the mountains became familiar with my frequent visits to the graveyard, odd as they may be. Though few of my interactions were especially close, I feel like I became a known entity within the community, and my relationships were sustained as amiable aquiantanceships.

This experience was a lesson in bravery. Going up to strangers to talk with them, standing my ground even when I felt awkward watching a funeral. I can hardly say that I am more brave, but I have learned to suck it up and keep on going, because otherwise I would have gotten nowhere. 

Some advice to my past self: always, always, always, back up your (our?) work on a seperate device. When I lost my phone I lost some of my most important materials, and a re-creation can never do the original justice. 

Other people might want to continue this vein of research, and what I think would be an interesting experience would be learning how to play funeral music yourself. Not just listening to professionals play, but to be able to create and make that music with your own hands. How cool would that be?

Some final acknowledgements: Thanks to the Li family, for being wonderful musicians and even better people, the Yang's, who so graciously accepted my presence at their funeral, Mr. Tafel, a willing tag-along for a horse cart joyride up to the graveyard, and Amy K, who, despite complaining, still ran after a funeral procession with me, even if our laundry had to be neglected in the process. Without all of you, this experience would not be the panic-ridden, absolutely exhilerating ride that it was. So thank you all.

I'm a former Microcampus student from the Extreme Team Group. Xizhou has been an indescribable experience, and one that I'll never regret choosing.