Liu Sanjie - A Fearless Folk Song Singer
Liu Sanjie (played by Wang Wanqiu) in the movie
Liu Sanjie (The Third Sister of the Liu Family) is a legend of the Zhuang people. Zhuang is one of the 56 ethnic groups in China and, with a population of 15 million, is second only to the Han people, who account for more than 91 percent of the nation's total population of 1.3 billion. The story of Liu Sanjie became known throughout the country thanks to an eponymic movie, produced in color in 1961. An instant hit, the movie also helped spread the legend to the entire Southeast Asia.
The Zhuang people believe that the legendary Liu Sanjie actually existed. The Middle Jian Village on the Lower Jian River at the foot of the Lower Jian Mountain in the Yizhou Town of Guangxi Autonomous Region professes to be her birthplace. Her original name is said to be Liu Shanhua. Since she was the third child of her family, she was given the nickname of "Liu Sanjie," meaning "Sister No. 3 of the Liu Family." An incarnation of a lark, as the Zhuang people so believe, Sanjie started speaking eloquently when she was only one. At the age of three, she already had a melodious voice. In her teens, she was regarded as the top singer of folk songs—songs in an antiphonal style, typical of the ethnic people in South China. Coveting her beauty and talent, a local tyrant named Mo Huairen wanted to have her as his concubine. Rejected, the angry Mo plotted to murder her. With the help of her boy friend and fellow villagers, she managed to escape. The two lovers traveled as they sang, and eventually found their ultimate freedom by turning themselves into a pair of larks.
Today, the people of Yizhou Town claim that they still possess some of her relics, such as a shoulder pole in the crevice of a cliff, a spot she frequented to do her laundry, and a site where she purportedly beat the local despot and his hired singers in a dramatic song contest.
The legend of Liu Sanjie was originally an oral tradition and later found itself in romance, drama scripts, and county annals in Guangxi. Studies show that the legend is not exclusively of the Zhuang people. Its spread turns out to be more ethnically and geographically diversified. For, similar stories can be found among the Miao, Yao, Buyi, Mulao and Han ethnic populations in Guangdong, Hunan, Yuannan and Guizhou provinces as well.
A melodious song breaks the silence of a serene morning on a green river. The song comes from a young girl on a fishing boat. She is Liu Sanjie or The Third Sister of the Liu Family. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her brother Liu Er, honest but meek. Sanjie is a girl of beauty, intelligence, and courage. She is well-known for using her singing talent to celebrate freedom and honesty while castigating abuse and injustice. Therefore she is cherished by the common people but hated by those lording over them. She has just been involved in a singing duel with a local despot where she and her brother lived miles away. The despot suffered an heart attack and died during the confrontation where Sanjie relentlessly chastised him for his villainy. Blaming his death on Sanjie, the tyrant's family bribed the local authorities in the hope of having her pay for his life. Sanjie and her brother Liu Er are now on their way to their grandma’s home to seek refuge.
The time she and her brother set foot on their grandmother's village, Liu Sanjie encounters a bully looting a hunter. The bully is Mo Fu, a henchman of a local tyrant named Mo Huairen. She also witnesses a young man trying to reason with the henchman. When challenged to a physical fight, the young man simply threw him to the ground. Liu Sanjie learned that the young man's name is Li Xiaoniu and felt drawn to him. As Liu Sanjie and the others are amused at the embarrassed and exasperate henchman, there comes Mo Huiren's butler Mo Jincai. Branding his fist at the hunter, Mo Jincai fumes: “Since every single blade of the grass and every single twig of the trees on this mountain belong to my master Mo Huairen, he certainly owns whatever you catch! If you dare to challenge my authority, I will have him bar you from hunting at all!” Liu Sanjie can no longer restrain her indignation and begins to chastise the bullies with her song:
Since nature is the Creator's offspring,
Animals and fowls are everyone's belonging;
Those who love fish spread your nets,
Those who like pheasants draw your bows.
Both the henchmen and the butler have but to leave the scene frustrated and humiliated.
As Liu Sanjie settles down at her grandma's home, her reputation of repelling two bullies with a single song starts to spread far and wide. People come flocking to see her and sing happily together with her. Sanjie works diligently with her brother while enjoying singing antiphonally with their villagers in the tea plantations. Challenged by a group of young women to a friendly singing contest, Liu Sanjie begins,
"Sing to your heart's content,
Row till your muscles relent,
Barge poles in your hands, oars in mine,
I'll race you anywhere to the finish line."
The girls giggle and respond with a query:
"What crop has seeds on the top?
What crop has seeds at the waist?
What crop has seeds in pairs?
What crop has seeds harvested by caning?"
Without hesitation, Sanjie gives the answer:
"Sorghum has seeds on the top,
Corn has seeds at the waist,
Beans have pods in pairs,
Sesame's seeds are harvested by caning."
The girls continued test of intellect:
"What has a mouth but speaks not?
What has no mouth but speaks a lot?
What has feet but walks not?
What without feet travels a lot?"
Liu Sanjie's answer was prompt:
"Idols have mouths but speak not,
Drums have no mouths but sound a lot,
The rich have feet but they hate to walk ,
Boats have no feet but travel a lot."
The girls admire Liu Sanjie' quick thinking but still won't quit:
"What does summersaults on the water?
What raises a high tower on the water?
What extends an umbrella on the water?
What live in conjugal bliss on the water?"
Not deterred by the seemingly difficult questions, Liu Sanjie replies readily:
"Ducks do summersaults on the water,
Boats raise decks of tower on the water,
Lotus leaves extend umbrellas on the water,
Mandarin ducks live in conjugal bliss on the water."
A post-modern rendition of Liu Sanjie in Guangxi
The girls' fun is interrupted abruptly by the arrival of Mo Jincai, carrying a poster that says "Real Estate of the Mo Family!" Planting it in the fields, he arrogantly proclaimed, "You all listen carefully: this mountain has a new owner from now on! My Master Mo Huairen is going to use these tea plantations as his ancestral burial ground. Get out of here and never return!" The tea growers are enraged at Mo Huairen's blatant robbery. With Sanjie in the lead, they are not to give in. Condemning the plunderous act, Liu Sanjie sings:
This hillside was originally desolate,
Beasts and serpents ran hand in hand,
With their labor of blood and sweat,
The tea growers turned it into a fertile land.
It has become their source of income,
Because of the tea shrubs they plant,
Each leave bears witness to their hardship,
To take their land, you're simply a cormorant!”
“How dare you call my master names! You'll pay for your insolence!” Mo Jincai threatened. Not to be intimidated, Liu Sanjie went on tauntingly,
“With good reasons I dare to curse the emperor,
I fear the least your master the brazen plunderer!”
As the emboldened tea growers inch up towards the butler, he recoils. As he reteats, he threatens that his master will deal with Liu Sanjie soon.
Learning his butler's mortifying encounter with Liu Sanjie, Mo Huairen flies into a rage: “Now that she dares to stand up to me, she's certainly a dead person!”