Three Chinese with the double bass

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Three Chinese with the double bass is a children's song that has been widespread throughout the German-speaking area since the middle of the 20th century . The song can also be viewed as a musical and linguistic child's play : The nonsense text aims above all to provide it with as many vowels , diphthongs and umlauts as possible in the German language in a colorful sequence . The rules of the game require that all vowels must be exchanged for a single one when repeating the text.


The most common melody for the song nowadays is as follows (although minor, especially rhythmic deviations, for example in the treatment of the dotted quarter notes in the context of the folk song, are not uncommon):

Audio file / audio sample Audio sample ? / i The initial stanza

In German-speaking Switzerland and the neighboring German-speaking regions, especially western Austria , a different melody is still sung to this day, which used to be better known in Germany, but has now been almost completely displaced there:

Audio file / audio sample Audio sample ? / i “Swiss version” of the three Chinese

This melody not only manages with an even simpler harmony , it also works with an even narrower pitch range (ambitus): This is a fourth instead of the minor seventh in the “German” version. The accompanying - chords are only tonic and dominant .

Text and rules of the game

In the first stanza the text is presented in correct German, i.e. without an exchange of vowels:

Three Chinese people with the double bass
were sitting in the street and talking to each other.
The police came and asked, 'What is that?'
Three Chinese with the double bass.

This “original” opening stanza is followed by eight “variations” . The rule of the game is to replace all vowels in these subsequent stanzas with a single one, in the order A, E, I, O, U, Ä, Ö, Ü. There are also more complicated variants in use that also use the diphthongs . Anyone who makes a "mistake" (ie forgets to replace a vowel according to the rule) has to repeat a stanza or the entire song or is eliminated, depending on the agreement.

Maybe someone calls out the word “nochmal!” Between the stanzas with a vowel exchange (ie nachmal, nechmel etc.) to indicate the corresponding vowel.

According to this rule, the second stanza must be sung to the following text:

Dra Chanasan mat dam Kantrabass
sat on af dar Straßa and araid on sach was.
Then there came Palaza, asks 'What is that?'
Dra Chanasan mat dam cantra bass.

Story of the song

As with many pieces of music of this kind, reliable sources about the exact origin and the author (s) of the text and melody are as good as inaccessible: GEMA lists the song as "the original, copyright-free folk tune ".

The Three Chinese , however, is a relatively recent folk song, and even its direct precursors cannot be traced further than to the time shortly before the First World War . What is striking is the remarkably sparse research situation for a living and widespread phenomenon of everyday culture.

Origin of text and melody


The available sources suggest an origin from the northeast of the former German-speaking area. In today's version of the song, three Chinese are the protagonists ; a pre-form of this text variant is first detectable in 1922 in Estonia (where at that time there was still a culturally influential minority of Baltic Germans ).

In the period before the Second World War, the majority of the tangible versions of the lyrics were spoken by Japanese (for rhythmic reasons mostly in the older minor form Japanese ). This variant of the text can be traced for the first time in Pomerania in 1909, and in 1913 an edition with the text Three Japanese with a bass appeared in Berlin . The number could vary depending on the region, for example an early version with ten from Silesia and one with twenty Japanese from the Büren district from the interwar period.

In some parts of Switzerland the text with the Japanese is still known today, and a particularly original variant from Ticino , which supplements the familiar stanza with a final yodel , leaves Asians sitting on the street not with, but without a double bass. However, this could be traced back to one of the oldest readings in which there is still no mention of a musical instrument: Here it says without a passport , which would give the entire text a certain sense. Whether it is the "original" text or a well-meaning correction by an anonymous hand must remain speculation.

The precise specification of the instrument designation also seems to have come into general use only after 1930: It could play a role here that the word double bass fits rhythmically and metrically more elegantly into the structure of the text than the monosyllabic bass. For example, the song book Der Kilometerstein in the edition published by Gustav Schulten ( Potsdam , 1934) still contains the “bass”, the Mainz edition from 1941 by Ludwig Voggenreiter already writes “double bass”.

In a way that is characteristic of folk songs, the traditional versions hardly ever agree completely. This is hardly surprising, especially with a play song whose idea is the variation of the text. Almost every single word in the Three Chinese text has been changed at some point. It can mean “playing”, “standing”, “walking in the street” while “tapping” or “singing”, and finally the small scene can also take place during a walk “through the forest”.

It was not until around 1970 that most of the children's books of useful songs have offered the text and melody version as shown in the first sheet music example. This is in large part due to the growing and unifying influence of the mass media , in this case above all radio and television , which spread the hit version of the song recorded in 1968 by the vocal trio Medium-Terzett throughout the German-speaking area.


The two melodies presented at the beginning are essentially traceable since the song has been handed down, and phrases from both versions have been mixed up in some cases. The Pomeranian and Estonian variants are similar to the “Swiss” model, while further west there seemed to be a tendency towards the version presented above as the “German” variant. Generally, however, can say that almost all of its history, but also harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated melodic part than is practiced today: for example, sang earlier in certain places still triad - arpeggios from, demanded larger interval leaps or more in more complex chords out.

How the gradual simplification of the melodic material came about cannot be proven in detail. The narrow pitch range in use today (in both versions essentially the fifth space typical for text-oriented “spoken songs”) fits in with the popularity of the song as a language game, as it is used in the educational field (e.g. in kindergarten and preschool ).

Origin and development of the game idea

The connection of the song with the game idea of ​​the vowel exchange did not exist from the beginning. An early edition (G. Winter, Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz. Leipzig 1913), Ein Japanese mit dem Bass, is designed as a circle game (the children sing standing or sitting in a circle) and does not change the text. A rule handed down by Karl Wehrhan for such a circle game on the text "A Chinese with the bass, bass, bass" reads:

“A child walks around the circle and, on each tour, posts a child who goes to the center of the circle. If there is a certain number of children in it, they all hop around at the end. "

As a numbers game

When the text was varied, the vowels were not always the “parameters” to be changed, but there were also variations that made the song a numbers game. The already mentioned Pomeranian version of 1909 lets the number of "musicians" in each verse increase continuously, so two Japanese with the bass ..., three Japanese ... and so on. Counting down from a given number, for example ten or twenty, was also practiced in the manner of the children's poem by the “ ten little negroes ”.

Vowel exchange

The game idea, which is based on the exchange of the vowels of the text, has been verifiable in writing since 1934 at the latest, again in the aforementioned Potsdam edition of the song book Der Kilometerstein. The Chinese Han Sen , who was born in Berlin in 1925 and emigrated from Germany in 1933, refers in his autobiography to his knowledge of the song, which underpins the fact that the version of the song that is still common today was already common, at least in Berlin in the early 1930s, including the rules of the game with vowel exchange .

The fact that the children's song became widely known within a short period of time during the “ Golden Twenties ” fits the cultural context of this epoch, a heyday of German pop hits . Most of his artists - including the Comedian Harmonists  - repeatedly performed songs with nonsense texts, which to this day are often said to be related to Dadaism . Very often the real punchline of such songs is the amazing combination of words that hardly make sense in context, but sound amusing.

Acculturation and Criticism

It is not unlikely that the vowel exchange was originally stimulated by musical language games, as they have long been used among children in Romance-speaking countries. In Spain there is the song La mar estaba serena (also: salada ), which uses the principle of vowel exchange in exactly the way described for the three Chinese . In Italy , the originally patriotic song Garibaldi fu ferito became a nursery rhyme with changed lyrics and a new melody, which also exchanges the vowels in its variation stanzas. A comparable song comes from France with a rather complicated nonsense text, the first line of which is Buvons un coup, ma serpette est perdue . English- speaking children in preschool often learn the song I like to eat apples and bananas , in which, however, mostly only the vowels of the most important words in the text are exchanged.

In Scandinavia, "translations" of the German nursery rhyme have been spreading since the middle of the last century: In the Danish and Norwegian versions, tre små kinesere , i.e. three little Chinese, sit on Højbro Square in Copenhagen and play a double bass, while a Swedish one Variant introduces another musical instrument, namely the clarinet .

The song also found its way to Israel via emigrants and refugees from the German-speaking area ; the Hebrew version of the text (שניים סינים עם כינור גדול, Shenayim sinim in kinor gadol ) is based on the German template. The fact that only two (this is the meaning of shenayim ) Chinese are involved in Israel is obviously due to the fact that the Hebrew numeral for three , שלושה ( shelosha ), is difficult to adapt to the meter in this case. For similar reasons we find the archaic word formation kinor gadol ("big violin "), which is reminiscent of the bass violin common in southern German-speaking countries or the Hungarian nagybőgő . In modern Hebrew, however, as in most languages, קונטרבס ( contrabas ) is the common name for the instrument. Since the game idea works just as well in Hebrew as it does in German, Israeli children also learn to distinguish the vowels of their mother tongue using the song. Since the 1970s, the Shenayim sinim have been recorded by various artists on record or CD.

The musical and playful idea on which the song is based has recently been adapted by children of Turkish origin in the German-speaking region, with the original melodic material being partly retained, but in other cases being redesigned quite freely. Since the Turkish language, in contrast to German, knows the phenomenon of vowel harmony , not only the "task" is shifted, but also the playful possibilities, sometimes considerably. In languages ​​like Turkish, the semantic function of the vowels is much more pronounced than in German. While the German text of the three Chinese is always recognizable despite the vowel exchange and its meaning, however insignificant it may be, does not change, the Turkish children also experiment with possibilities of shifting the meaning.

Criticism of racism

On the other hand, the lyrics of the song have recently been repeatedly accused of racism, because it alleges that the Chinese are culturally distant and show them with discriminatory behavior. In May 2016, the planned performance of a children's choir with this song on the ORF show Kärnten Today was not approved by the program's editor because of the “politically incorrect” text.

Further spread


In order to draw attention to the meaning of the vowels for the pronunciation of the words, texts, nursery rhymes or spoken verses, without vowels or with swapped vowels , are used in German lessons at the primary level . Three Chinese with the double bass is suitable for articulation exercises with language play, because the children usually like to sing it. The song is then played through with all vowels and twosomes. The isolation of the vowels shows the students the fundamental difference between vowels and consonants, which is why the three Chinese can be found on CDs for lessons, in reading, language and school music books, as well as in didactic works for German lessons.

Literature, film, visual arts

The general popularity of the children's song is echoed in various areas of contemporary culture. The children's book author Luis Murschetz published a small volume in 1997 in which he introduces all the verse verses and imaginatively illustrates what the three "heroes" might have told each other. Han Sen's autobiography has already been referred to, and a 1999 film comedy also refers to the song. A 1998 crime novel by Lisa Pei, which also has the Chinese song in the title, has no connection with the film. The book uses the nursery rhyme as a crucial functional element of its plot: first it is used to increase tension, then it provides both the protagonist and the readers with a reference to the killer: a pedagogue playing double bass.

In Hans Traxler's collection of picture stories, People of Yesterday, there is a parody with the title Anton Dvořak with the double bass . Robert Gernhardt , who, like Traxler, belonged to the New Frankfurt School , on the other hand, takes up the influence of Ernst Jandl's “experimental lyric” ( ottos mops ) in the vocal poem Annas Gans : In both nonsensical poems the sonic similarity to the Three Chinese is unmistakable, hence becoming all three texts are often combined in German lessons .

The clarity and simultaneous absurdity of the lyrics also inspired contemporary visual arts. In a work from 1992 named after the children's song, the Cologne artist Rune Mields addresses, among other things, the contrast between the respectful tradition of Chinese culture (for example calligraphy ) and the anarchic, childlike joy in playing the song.

In the mosaic booklet from May 1991, the three heroes of the comic , the Abrafaxe , meet three Chinese with double bass sitting at the roadside during their stay in 13th century China . When the police came to them after the three heroes, they asked: “What's that supposed to mean?” In the narrative text, there is even a clear reference to the children's song.

Contemporary music

The Chinese electronic composer and sound installer Yueyang Wang , who lives in Germany , contrasted this with one of her works ("3 Chinese with the double bass, for live performance and sound-light installation", 2005) in a humorous way with a delicate facet of the three Chinese apart. Even if a racist implication of the nonsense text cannot be convincingly proven on the basis of the available sources, the scene described in the song leaves room for speculation about German xenophobia. By "staging" this in a very modern musical guise and with a strongly parodic note - she quotes not the German, but a Chinese children's song - these subliminal tendencies are nevertheless made visible and audible.

It was inevitable that predominantly commercially oriented areas of popular culture also seized the piece. As already mentioned, the medium-terzett vocal trio popular in the 1960s and 70s recorded a version in 1968 that would become one of the ensemble's greatest successes.

A reinterpretation with daily political echoes has been created since 1980 in connection with the protests of opponents of nuclear power against the Gorleben transport cask storage facility . The original and well-known text of the children's song was by the participants in the Wendland frequent sit-ins rewritten in a manner according to the situation ( "Twenty thousand with the turn of pass / sat on the road ...").

Two decades later, German hip-hop bands such as Fettes Brot (“Drei Hamburger mit 'nem Monsterbass…” in Da draussen auf Fettes Brot für die Welt, 2000), Fischmob ( Police Osterei, 1998; it's about three policemen) and creme de la creme ("Three Chinese with a bag of grass", 2004).

Their parodistically quoting handling of the nursery rhyme finally found its way back into the social mainstream : An advertising campaign by the dairy company Müllermilch has been using a contemporary adaptation of the song since 2005, which Mia-Sophie Wellenbrink performs under the title Fruchtalarm . This campaign cannot claim to be outspokenly original, as another food manufacturer, namely Maggi , also advertised with the Three Chinese : There was at least some cultural reference here, since in this case it was about an instant soup with an Asian flavor.

In his piano cycle "Pianino poetico", the German composer Johannes X. Schachtner took up the song for a last movement (Dri Chanasan mat dam contrabuss). The alienated melody appears a total of five times in the course of the movement, with different intervals (fifth, fourth, third, seconds) prevailing, so that the impression of vowel exchange arises.


Web links

Commons : Three Chinese people with the double bass  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. after Weber-Kellermann, No. 169, p. 214, transposed, typical rhythmic variation shown.
  2. Instead of asking , interjections are also used that already belong to literal speech, for example “ei”, “na” or “ja”.
  3. According to the communication in the GEMA documentation from May 12, 2006
  4. The music-historical representations are based on communications from the German Folk Song Archive at the University of Freiburg on May 18 and 31, 2006. The archive numbers listed below refer to the DVA collections.
  5. DVA No. A 11093, written down by a third grader at the Pantenius School in Dorpat
  6. DVA No. A 146178, recorded by the teacher Horn in Bublitz, today Bobolice
  7. DVA No. A 50717, recorded in 1928 by F. Scholz, railway chief secretary in Gleiwitz , for the Silesian Society for Folklore
  8. DVA No. A 211866, from the Pagendarm Collection
  9. DVA No. A 215712, recorded by Dr. Emily Gerstner in Bosco / Gurin
  10. Rolf Wilhelm Breinich (ed.): Yearbook of folksong research. E. Schmidt, Berlin 16.1971, 167, p. 127. ISSN  0075-2789
  11. DVA No. F 6633
  12. DVA No. A 87590 and Vg 3080, both recorded in Berlin and Bischofswerda in 1913 , are typical examples
  13. No. 3259 from: Karl Wehrhan: Frankfurter Kinderleben in Sitte und Custom, children's songs and children's games. Heinrich Staadt, Wiesbaden 1929, p. 250.
  14. Han Sen: A Chinese man with the double bass. Claassen Verlag, Munich 2001. ISBN 3-546-00277-6
  15. Ulla Schnellen, Irmgard Merkt : The world turns. An intercultural songbook. Edited by the Kultur Kooperative Ruhr, Dortmund 1991, p. 69. ISBN 3-9802619-3-X
  16. ^ Note from the DVA, 2006
  17. The thing with the double bass. Badische Zeitung, August 11, 2011.
  18. ^ Discrimination in Berlin's schools. No more barking dogs. taz, November 3, 2013.
  19. "Ching Chang Chong"? - “No, thank you!” June 6, 2016, accessed on July 19, 2020 (German).
  20. When "3 Chinese" cause a stir. Kleine Zeitung, May 22, 2016.
  21. Delicate lullabies. The press, May 23, 2016.
  22. ^ Siegfried Buck (ed.): Building blocks German. Reading book. 2nd school year Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main 1984. ISBN 3-425-02817-0 ; Siegfried Buck: Building Blocks Primer. Comments and master copies. Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main 2003, p. 30 (and on the accompanying CD) ISBN 3-425-11980-X ; Petra Wagner: Building blocks. Language book. 2nd school year. Comments and master copies. Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main 2003 .; Reinhard Horn: class hits. Kontakt-Musikverl., Lippstadt 2004, p. 173. ISBN 3-89617-091-0 ; Reinhard Horn: class hits. CD 4, track 19.
  23. Hans Traxler: People from Yesterday. Diogenes, Zurich 1981, p. 10ff. ISBN 3-257-00304-8
  24. Music forum. Schott, Mainz 3.2005, April-June, p. 56. ISBN 3-89617-092-9
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on June 15, 2006 in this version .