He enjoyed the songs of early morning when the hua mei showed off for the sun. He loved the songs of late afternoon when the winds tickled the branches and rocked the song thrush’s cage as it hung over his garden of tender greens in the Chinese village of Shui Dian. When the tawny bird sang the moon to sleep, the sound stirred the sweetest of dreams.

 A man pauses from weeding to listen to the songbird he carried to his garden in the Shui Dian village.If language were not our barrier, the man in the garden would have told me those stories. Instead, he lifted the velvet cover from the bamboo cage and coaxed his songbird to sing me love songs on a cold November day.In Zhang Ao, a woman pauses from her work day to listen to her songbird.For as long as the grandmother and the other villagers could remember, songbirds had serenaded their lives – lyrical elixirs sweet enough to wash the bitter from a bad day. Usually, the men cared for the songbirds by taking them on long walks in the sunshine so they could absorb nature’s sounds and expand their playlists. The young people were always trying to fill the village with mechanical sounds pumping from stereos and cell phones.

It only made the birds sing louder.A heavy equipment operator in Shui Dian sings to his songbirds during a break by the stream. I found a man sitting by a stream with his songbirds one day. He had stopped reshaping a creek bed and lifted his birds from the cab of his front-end loader. He kept the birds covered while they rode on the seat next to him so they didn’t grow frightened.Sad songAcross southwestern China, I stumbled upon many tender moments of men and their songbirds. I had read a story in the New York Times about how immigrants maintain the tradition in a bird park among the city’s high rises. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/nyregion/thecity/15bird.html?_r=0)

In Beijing, I’d seen clusters of old men trading songbirds at a market. My translator told of prices escalating up to $2,000 for winners of songbird competitions. Here in the rural villages, the birds were more likely to be bartered for rice or vegetables.A tobacco seller at the old Kaili market spins his songbird's cage as he awaits customers.Wandering through the stilt-house villages of some of China’s most remote lands, I followed the sound of songbirds. I remembered how important it is to listen to a country when you want to understand it. I followed songs to a back alley where a tobacco seller was singing to his bird while waiting for customers and to a tiny room where a man overwhelmed by the commotion of a village wedding had come to sit quietly by his cage of fledglings.TweetLike stools stacked in the corner of every home, the songbirds of China are part of a support system that delivers function and beauty.Stool pigeonFor a songbird can make an old man laugh as he split reeds for baskets.A man whistles with his songbird as he splits reeds in the village of Bengli, China.

A songbird can calm nerves  on a day when a boy races his horse for the first time at the festival.Festival dateWhen three old friends want to sit and watch the children play, a songbird can make conversation unnecessary.In the Zhang Ao village, treasured pets fill the square with song.

A songbird can sing so beautifully at the Tasting New Rice Festival in Gaoding that many men will offer to buy it. The man who brought it will blink back tears and decide his heart needs the bird more than the money.At the Tasting New Rice Festival in Gaoding, a man carries his songbird across a harvested field.

For the equipment operator, the songbirds offered an excuse to sit a little longer and  meditate by the stream while his feathered friends splashed in the cool water. A heavy equipment operator watches his songbirds enjoy the cool water of a stream in the  Shui Dian village.

Everyone in Zhang Ao can hear progress pounding from the construction projects across the new road, so the villagers are buying more birds to hang from the bamboo poles stretched across their balconies. The ancient anthems of their songbirds remind them this is still their home. In Shui Dian, a villager checks on his songbirds before heading to the rice field.

“Remember in your heart this proverb,” my translator had said on one of my last days in China. “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

Caged melody

Meet me: Sheilah Bright, a sucker for a story. I've been a journalist for 39 years after first publishing at age 14. Do the math. No, don't. My work has appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. I spent 18 years writing advertising for People and TIME magazine. When I'm not traveling abroad, I bounce along the backroads of Oklahoma searching for some golden story nuggets as a contributing editor for This Land Press and Oklahoma Today.

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