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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

What's an Extra Vowel Among Friends?

Putting groups from both Shaanxi province (the Zhang Family Band) and Shanxi province (the Li Daoist Band) on the same program sounds like either a strange coincidence or a deliberate attempt to confuse Westerners. In fact, the similar name highlights one of the problems in rendering the Chinese language in Roman letters. Under conventional pinyin, now the standard Romanization system in Chinese, the word for both neighboring provinces should be spelled “Shanxi,” though pronounced with different tones (the “Shanxi” with one “a” is high, “Shaanxi” with two “a’s” is flat and low). To indicate the difference without using tone markings, Shaanxi got the extra “a” (making it the only Chinese province that doesn’t follow strict pinyin).

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A demonstration of the difference in pronunciation between Shanxi province and Shaanxi province.

Ironically enough, both the Zhang Family Band and the Li Daoist Band spoke in different local dialects (as opposed to the Dong singers the night before, who speak a different language entirely). Though still recognized as Chinese, the performance languages of the Zhangs and Lis were unintelligible even to those Chinese speakers who understand only conventional Mandarin. This probably had some bearing on why there were no translations provided at the event.

Posted by Ken Smith

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Chinese Translation (Traditional Characters)
Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)