Research Projects

Folksongs and Myth of the Bulang ethnic group in Xishuangbanna (Yunnan, China)

Yu Kan La and Ai Wen Lun from Manxi village (Yunnan, China). Photo by Zhang Hai.

Bulang ethnic group

The Bulang ethnic group (Bulang zu) are distributed in the mountainous areas along the middle and lower reaches of the Lancang River (Mekong) in the west and southwest of Yunnan Province. They mainly live in the mountainous areas of Bada, Liangding, Daluo and Bulang Mountain in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. 36,000 Bulang live in Xishuangbanna, representing 3.67% of the population, and are mainly distributed in Menghai county; in particular, more than 60% of Bulang people live on Bulangshan (Bulang Mountain), a mountain that has become renowned for its Pu’er tea.

Map of Bulang in Yunnan Province (Southwest China)

The Bulang, like the De’ang and the Wa, are considered to be descendants of an older ethnic group, who lived in the Lancang River valley in ancient times, known in Chinese historical records as the “Pu” or “Pu man”. Because of their isolation in mountain areas, this minority group has preserved their culture and traditions for a long time.

The Bulang language spoken in Xishuangbanna is a Palaungic branch of the Mon-Khmer language family. Some Bulang people can speak Dai language. The isolation of Bulang communities and the consequent proliferation of different dialects makes mutual linguistic understanding very difficult and complex, which is why they use Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) as a lingua franca to communicate between people coming from different mountainous regions.

A common cultural of the Bulang living in different villages is that songs continue to play an important role in their present-day lives as well as an important way of passing on the traditional culture. In fact, Bulang people do not have a written language, since their culture is characterized by oral tradition, but they have a rich oral literature based on myths and legends. From the tenth century, Bulang communities have converted to Theravada Buddhism under the influence of Dai who ruled the area for centuries before the Han moved in. Since Bulang and Dai share the same religion, both need to learn the Dai script of the Buddhist temples, as well as the Dai oral literature, and the Buddhist sutras written in Dai.

Bulang traditional music

Bulang music, in general, can be divided into two broad categories according to their use and function: folk music (suo), played in private houses, and ritual music (zai zhong) performed in Buddhist temples. According to the musical form, Bulang traditional music includes basically three domains: folk songs (suo), dance songs (zai beng) with a response of a chorus accompanied by percussions (called in Chinese guge; gu: drum; ge: song, chant) while dancing in circle in the temple, male and female duet in call and response pattern (se pai zai or zai se pai), and the religious sacrificial songs (zai zhong) performed in the temple. In Bulang language, “zai” means singing and folk songs are the most relevant of the Bulang musical forms and repertoires. Bulang folk songs consist of songs which are not accompanied by any musical instruments, such as zhuai, zai, sen, tong ma, or songs, like the suo, accompanied by a four-string plucked lute (ding qin, commonly called ding), a guitar-like wooden lute with two double strings (usually tuned Bb and Eb).

ding lute

The ding is peculiar of the Bulang musical culture but it is similar in shape to the chiben used by the Lisu, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who inhabit mountainous regions along the border of Myanmar in Yunnan Province.

The singing form is generally one person solo, two people duet (a man and a woman) alternating each other or singing together (in homophonic style), and occasionally two choirs (men and women) in antiphonal form.

Bulang folksongs in Manxi village

The dialects of the Bulang settlements are quite different, so the classification methods or names of the songs are also slightly different from a village to another. This article will introduce the classification method of Manxi village (Daluo Town, Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province). In Manxi village, we have interviewed and filmed the performances of three Bulang traditional musicians esteemed by the local community as renowned local tradition-bearers, cultural heirs, and who became our key partners during our fieldwork: Ai Sai Zhan, Ai Wen Lun and Yu Kan La.

Yu Kan La (singer)     Ai Sai Zhan (ding player)    Ai Wen Lun (singer and ding player)

Bulang songs are monodic, and generally based on pentatonic scales. The vocal style is characterized by a narrow melodic range within an octave. Folksongs are sung by one or two singers in a duet (male and female) in monodic style. The traditional repertoire of the Bulang people is mostly folk tales and myths and legends, but the repertoire of the Manxi’s musicians includes also wedding songs (zhuai), welcoming songs or songs to praise the guest (zai), songs of loss (zai mi), Spring festival songs (zai beng),children’s folk rhymes (zai muli muran), tree-felling songs (zai wa), worship songs (zai mu), duet love songs (se pai zai and suo) and ritual songs to Buddha (zai zhong).

The ritual song called zai is in responsorial form (solo-chorus) with the accompaniment of percussions and it is performed only in the temple during the Anju Buddhist festival. The ritual songs performed in the temple are characterized by the response of a homophonic chorus playing drums and cymbals and dancing in circles.

Zai beng ritual song in the Buddhist temple of Manxi village, Xishuangbanna.

Bulang music and mythology

There are many myths that explain the features of different animals, and the relationship that they have with Bulang people. Music and myth are tightly connected in Bulang musical culture too, although most of the mythological and epic songs have gradually disappeared with the death of the old singers. According to a legend told by Ai Sai Zhan, in ancient times, the ancestor of the Bulang clans, Zao Suo, wanted to find a rhino hidden (shēng) in the jungle to ride and thereby acquire distinguished status. He went to the Bulang people to ask for help (zhuāi) finding the rhino. He looked for (suǒ) a boy (zǎi) who was able to tie it (tóng mǎ). Some of the recurring terms in this short epic story correspond to the names of the five musical genres of the Bulang according to the classification method used by their own ethnic group:

Zhuāi (拽): “help”

Zǎi  (宰): “boy”, “son”

Suǒ (索): “seek”, “looking for “

Shēng (笙): “hide”

Tóng mǎ (同玛): “tie”

Bulang music system taxonomy


Zhuāi (拽)

Zǎi (宰)

Suǒ (索)

Shēng (笙)

Tóngmǎ (同玛)

Bulang children with Ai Wen Lun. Photo by Zhang Hai.

“BULANG MUSIC. From the Mountains to the Stars”. A documentary film by Leonardo D’Amico. Shot by Leonardo D’Amico and Zhang Hai in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Provice, Soutwest China in 2017.