Understanding the traditional songs of China’s Lisu people

Lisu People in Nujiang
Artists & Researchers
Supported by

Nestled within the remote, magnificent mountains of China’s Yunnan province are the Lisu, an ethnic minority group. They live along the Nu River, one of the most biologically diverse hotspots in the world, and align their daily activities to nature’s constant, unpredictable changes. Yet as their contact with the modern world has increased, their way of life is shifting. For The Witness, writer and filmmaker Hongyu Chen is focusing on traditional singing, a vital way for the Lisu to narrate their personal and community histories — from the death of a loved one to collective memories of migration. Baishi, or mountain songs, are often performed at family gatherings or festivals, whereas youyi, or love songs, explore themes of courtship, love, and daily happenings. While songs were historically passed down from the elderly, many young people either do not understand the songs or are moving away, threatening the songs’ existence. Chen and her team aim to classify the songs, record interviews, videos, and sound, and observe the social and environmental contexts within which the songs are performed. Overall, the team hopes to understand the Lisu’s knowledge and experience of their environment and compare their traditional songs to how they are changing today.