featured Sichuan

Tibetan Dancing and Xianzi Instruments in Litang County, Sichuan

Batang is a small town in Litang County, which is in western Sichuan Province. I came here directly from Xingduqiao, on a long 8 hour bus drive from Kanding County (in July 2021). It was a stunning drive through beautiful mountain ranges in high altitude. It reminded me of when I lived in Colorado in 2014 and 2015. Bright blue skies and nothing but mountain views. Litang is well-known for many reasons – it has a very rich Tibetan cultural history, and now many people come here to buy stables and race horses.

At a rest stop this lady was charging to use the bathroom. 2 RMB for entrance.

Xianzi: Traditional Stringed Instrument in Litang

Another reason Batang in Litang is famous is because of the Xianzi, a stringed instrument played while singing and dancing. The xianzi is a stringed instrument has been part of Tibetan folk culture for centuries. It is somewhat similar to the traditional Chinese erhu 二胡, a two-stringed Chinese instrument. The xianzi is the Tibetan variation, or piwang.

Like the erhu, the xianzi has a long wooden neck and two strings, which are played with a bow. Below the neck is a sound box, which helps amplify the sound. It usually is a more high-pitched sound than that produced by the erhu.

The xianzi is an important part of Tibetan folk life. It can often be heard at festivals, weddings, and harvest celebrations and symbolizes recognizing the small things in life. The instrument can be found wherever there are Tibetan communities, including the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in southwestern China. We also met Wangjiaxi, a master of making Xianzi in Batang.

Traditional Litang Performances

While here I learned aobut the Xianzi and got to take part in some of these traditional performances. I put on the clothing and joined a dance!

Tibetan Opera

Afterwards I also watched a Tibetan opera. Tibetan opera is the most popular traditional opera of minority ethnic groups in China. It’s a comprehensive art combining folk song, dance, storytelling, chant, acrobatics and religious performance. The performance begins with a prayer ceremony, including the cleansing of the stage by hunters and blessings by the elder, and concludes with another blessing.

Rooted in Buddhist teachings, the stories told in Tibetan opera recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil and therefore serve a social teaching function for the community. This multifaceted representative of Tibetan art and cultural heritage also acts as a bridge among Tibetans in different parts of the country, promoting ethnic unity and pride. Usually an opera will take 3-7 days to perform, but we don’t have time to see all of that so we will just see two short performances.

The story of the opera goes like this:
“In the Ganzi area of Tibet, an old couple, gave birth to a daughter, named Lang Shawenbo. The girl was not only beautiful and gentle, but also intelligent, and had the voice of a lark. She was capable, and suitors from all over the place were politely declined. When the girl was 12 years old she was fancied by the local mountain official Zha Qing, and he wanted to marry Lang Sha and make her his her wife. For Seven years she became well loved because of her respect for the elderly and hard work. However her Sister-in-law Nimtso was very jealous, afraid that power would fall into the hands of her sister-in-law, and did her utmost to slander and sow discord. During the autumn harvest, The sister-in-law beat Lang, and falsely accuse her of seeing the monk. Langsha’s severe beating actually killed Lang. When Langsha died, she went to the afterlife. Since she had good karma in her life, she was brought back to life again. She returned to the official home and dedicated her life to Buddha and her beliefs after that.”

Traditional Tibetan Music in Litang

Batang really was a cool little town to visit to see more about the Tibetan music culture here in Ganzi. We also did a live-stream while we were here to show more of these performers LIVE. From here we headed onwards to Yading Nature Reserve, another gorgeous Sichuan site.

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