"I want to keep this going," said Lei Peng, 27, who inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather. "When we play our music, I think of my grandfather. When we play, he lives."
Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family's music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.
"Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based," says Feng Jicai, a well-known author and scholar. "Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone."
That is happening at a stunning rate. In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.
For decades, leaving the land was voluntary, as people moved to the cities for jobs. In the past few years, the shift has accelerated as governments have pushed urbanization, often leaving villagers with no choice but to move.
China's top leadership has equated urbanization with modernization and economic growth. Local governments are also promoting it, seeing the sale of rural land rights as a way to compensate for a weak tax base. Evicting residents and selling long-term leases to developers has become a favored method for local governments to balance budgets and local officials to line their pockets. Numerous local officials are under investigation for corruption linked to rural land sales.
Destroying villages and their culture also reveals deeper biases. A common insult in China is to call someone a farmer, a word equated with backwardness and ignorance, while the most valued cultural traditions are elite practices like landscape painting, calligraphy and court music.
But in recent years, Chinese scholars have begun to recognize the countryside's vast cultural heritage. A mammoth government project has cataloged roughly 9,700 examples nationwide of "intangible cultural heritage," fragile traditions like songs, dances, rituals, martial arts, cuisines and theater. About 80 percent of them are rural.
In the past few years, for example, Mr. Feng has documented the destruction of 36 villages in Nanxian, a county on Tianjin's outskirts, home to a famous center of woodblock printing.
"You don't know if it will survive or not because when they're in their new homes they're scattered," he said. "The knowledge isn't concentrated anymore and isn't transmitted to a new generation."
That is the problem facing the musicians in Lei Family Bridge. The village lies on what used to be a great pilgrimage route from Beijing north to Mount Yaji and west to Mount Miaofeng, holy mountains that dominated religious life in the capital. Each year, temples on those mountains would have great feast days spread over two weeks. The faithful from Beijing would walk to the mountains, stopping at Lei Family Bridge for food, drink and entertainment.
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Groups like Mr. Lei's, known as pilgrimage societies, performed free for the pilgrims. Their music is based on stories about court and religious life from roughly 800 years ago and features a call-and-response style, with Mr. Lei singing key plotlines of the story and the other performers, decked out in colorful costumes, chanting back. The music is found in other villages, too, but each one has its own repertoire and local variations that musicologists have only begun to examine.
When the Communists took over in 1949, these pilgrimages were mostly banned, but were revived starting in the 1980s when the leadership relaxed control over society. The temples, mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, were rebuilt.
The performers, however, are declining in numbers and increasingly old. The universal allures of modern life — computers, movies, television — have siphoned young people away from traditional pursuits. But the physical fabric of the performers' lives has also been destroyed.
One recent afternoon, Mr. Lei walked through the village, now reduced to rubble and overgrown with wild grass and bushes. He started singing with his grandfather when he was 2. He now has an office job in the city's public transportation company and spends all his vacation time working on the troupe.
"This was our house," he said, gesturing to a small rise of rubble and overgrown weeds. "They all lived in the streets around here. We performed at the temple."
The temple is one of the few buildings still standing. (The Communist Party headquarters is another.) Built in the 18th century, the temple is made of wooden beams and tiled roofs, surrounded by a seven-foot wall. Its brightly painted colors have faded. The weather-beaten wood is cracking in the dry, windy Beijing air. Part of the roof has caved in, and the wall is crumbling.
(Read more: Chinese can't say neigh to feng shui in year of the horse)