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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

Vocal mimicry: noises of nature from the human mouth

By Weiwei Guan, Luyang Wang

December 7

Vocal mimicry, or “Kouji” in Chinese, is an art form that mimicks different noisesusing the mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, throat, and cheeks. It has a history of 2,300 years in China.

Vocal mimicry, or “Kouji” in Chinese, is an art form that mimicks different noisesusing the mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, throat, and cheeks. It has a history of 2,300 years in China.

Vocal mimicry, or “Kouji” in Chinese, is an art form that mimicks different noisesusing the mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, throat, and cheeks. It has a history of 2,300 years in China.

Kouji tries to imitate the sounds people hear in daily life. In primitive society, it was used as a hunting tool. Hunters would imitate the roars of tigers or wolves to bring the animals out so they could catch them. Ancient people also dug traps and covered them, then mimicked the sound of pigs. A tiger eager to prey on the “pig” when hearing its grunts and squeals walks into the trap and gets caught.

80-year-old Niu Yuliang is an inheritor of the national intangible cultural heritage.
[Photo: China.org.cn]

In a society full of high-tech products, Kouji artists can mimic sounds of planes, cannons, and tanks using just their mouths and a microphone. In the performance “Surprise attack on Pearl Harbor”, for example, an artist can create the whole scene using just their mouth and a microphone.

Niu Yuliang, an 80-year-old Kouji master from Beijing  has devoted himself to Kouji for more than six decades. He has given performances to many foreign heads of state during their visits to China and performed to more than 60 countries and regions. He has made this art known by people all over the world and determined to kept it alive in China according to his master’s will.

A group photo taken in 1987 when former US president George H.W. Bush was visiting China. (Niu Yuliang, fifth from right, back row) [Photo provided to China.org.cn]

“Never stop practicing, even in the hardest weather.” Niu Yuliang holds that if you want to be a truly skilled performer of Kouji, you have to be able to perform in both the extreme cold of winter and the scorching heat of summer. “I truly had those experiences after the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976. I needed to perform eight shows everyday to comfort the survivors. I persisted in achieving this at a temperature of 38°C.”

“The master teaches the trade, but the apprentice’s skill is self-made.” That’s what Niu Yuliang’s master told him when he was accepted as an apprentice. He has always adhered to his master’s teachings and now has more than 100 apprentices. He also spent 32 years to complete the first Kouji book in China which was published in 2014.

In 2011, Kouji was inscribed as an item of China’s national intangible cultural heritage.

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