by Xinhua writers Ji Shaoting, Guo Yan
ALTAY, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Sept. 26 (Xinhua) -- A group of Chinese who consider themselves to be descendants of Genghis Khan have dedicated themselves to preserving the chuer, an ancient flute that comes from the very mountains they call home.
The group of Chinese Tunivians, an ethnic group originating from Mongolia, live near Kanas Lake, a body of water located near the Altay Mountains in northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The area's picturesque mountains and rivers have served to inspire chuer players in history, with many describing the flute's sound as mimicking sounds in nature.
"The way my dad played sounded like the mountains and water here, especially the song 'Altay Mountains.' It was so beautiful that you could almost see the outline of the mountains," said Mengkeyi, a budding chuer player who was inspired to take up the instrument after the death of his father Erdeshi.
The chuer is a lightweight wind instrument made out of lovage, a perennial plant that is plentiful in the area. It has only three holes, but produces a variety of sounds, depending on players' skills.
The flutes are created in accordance with sizes of players' hands; therefore, no two chuers or chuer players sound or play alike, Mengkeyi's younger brother Daxi said.
"The plants used to make chuer only grow here. Each autumn, we go to the mountains to find suitable lovage stalks. The ones that grow in the mountains are better than those growing at their base. Thin ones are better than thick ones. Roughly one out of every 10 stalks can turn a good chuer," Mengkeyi said.
The instrument is incredibly difficult to learn to play.
"Many people cannot make any sound with the chuer. I was one of them. I made no sound at all for my first three days of training," said Daxi, who was interviewing local elderly for a purpose of collecting information about the instrument to pass on to others.
"Playing the chuer is truly a difficult job. Our father started learning at nine years old but could not make any sound until he was 13. I wasn't able to make any sound until I was a teenager, too. Many quit after seeing it impossible," Mengkeyi said.
As difficult as it is to learn, the brothers and fellow players are dedicated to maintaining the legacy, as it is tied to not only their culture, but also livelihood.
"We used to live on hunting. Animals would stop and listen to the chuer, offering us time to get them," Daxi said. Although the family no longer depend on hunting for food, the skins they take from foxes, wolves and minks are used to decorate a guest room for visitors.
"The instrument comes from, describes and attracts nature," Daxi said.
Songs written for the chuer are not preserved on any score, but are passed on from one generation to another, each adding a unique flavor to the tune.
"I can play my father's songs 'Altay Mountain' and 'Kanas Lake Water,' although a bit differently," Mengkeyi said.
The father Erdeshi became a living part of the country's intangible cultural heritage by learning to play 18 songs on the chuer, the most of any player. But his sons did not learn many of the songs.
"I can play five of them. Others can only be learned from recordings and memories. But my father's songs are carved in my mind," Mengkeyi said. He tried to write his own songs, and completed two thus far. "It's too difficult. I have to write them little by little," he said.
However, Mengkeyi has little worry about the instrument's future.
"Many people come here to learn how to play. Some are professional musicians, others are local residents," Mengkeyi said.
"My 4-year-old son is very interested in the chuer. I will teach him one day," he said.
A local villager named Dielike has spent the last four years under Mengkeyi's tutoring, learning to play two songs.
"It is quite difficult. I am very talented, but still find it hard. I'm not good enough yet," Dielike said.
Dielike has been content to entertain tourists by presenting local music and dance, but he is looking to expand his reach. He has established a band Marmot that he hopes to bring ethnic music out of villages.
"I plans to travel to Beijing this winter and introduce my band at a few TV shows," he said. "I want to bring this music out of the valley and into the rest of the world."