Introducing Ancient Chinese Culture to a Wider Audience

Wu Man (left) playing the pipa with the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band. – Courtesy photo

By May S. Ruiz

The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest known to humankind. Its vibrant cultural heritage dates back thousands of years, and the country’s rich and diverse musical tradition forms a vital part of that heritage. Traditional music – with its essential instruments including the pipa, guqin, ruan, xiao and zheng – is deeply ingrained in people’s daily lives and intersects with other art forms and traditions like drama, storytelling, and shadow puppetry.

The New World certainly has much to learn from this ancient civilization. This is why Wu Man, a pipa virtuoso who is regarded as the foremost ambassador of Chinese music and culture, has made it her calling to ensure that the early Chinese traditions are not merely preserved but kept alive and relevant. She has spent most of her life travelling the globe acquainting modern audiences with the pipa whose history goes back over two millennia.

We in the San Gabriel Valley will have the opportunity to hear and see Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band on March 5 at 7:30 pm when they perform at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. This is one of three California stops (UC Santa Barbara on March 8 and Hertz Hall in Berkeley on March 11) as part of their North American tour encompassing a dozen appearances in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nebraska, Washington DC, New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts.

For many of us who aren’t familiar with the pipa and the shadow puppet, this show will give us a glimpse of and an appreciation of these musical and performance art forms. Wu Man is eager to share her vast knowledge and experience about them.

Wu Man explains, “Pipa is a pear-shaped, lute-like, string-plucked instrument which was introduced to China 2,000 years ago from Central Asia or the Persian area. It is related to the middle eastern instrument called ‘ud,’ and is in the same string family as the European lute, the American banjo, and the Indian sitar.”

“The pipa has a long history with the Chinese people. Music for the pipa was developed during the Tang Dynasty. In many paintings and statues you will always see the beautiful goddess holding the instrument,” continues Wu Man. “While it is an ancient instrument, it has survived to the modern days. The instrument I’m using today is one from the 19th century, which is bigger than the 16th century pipa which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”

To introduce the pipa to the public and gain a wider audience for it, Wu Man has been teaming up with internationally recognized artists and performers. One of her early collaborations was with the Kronos Quartet in the early 1990s. They premiered their first project called ‘Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997. Their partnership endures to this day and she participated in the Quartet’s 40th anniversary celebration concerts at Cal Performances in Berkeley, CA and at Carnegie Hall, and was Artist-in-Residence with the Quartet in February 2016.

Wu Man was also a founding artist of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia with the Silk Road Ensemble (SRE). She is a featured artist in the documentary ‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,’ as well as on the film’s 2017 Grammy Award-winning companion recording, ‘Sing Me home,’ which includes her original composition ‘Green’ (Vincent’s Tune) performed with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. She has recorded six albums with the group. Her recent performances with SRE include a 2016 tour to summer festivals such as Tanglewood, Wolf Trap, Blossom, Ravinia, and Hollywood Bowl; as well as with Mark Morris Dance in Berkeley and Seattle, and a tour of Asia.

Wu Man with the Silk Road Ensemble. – Courtesy photo / Max Whittaker

Locally, Wu Man was the Inaugural Artist-in-Residence at The Huntington in 2014 for which she composed a piece called ‘Three Sharing.’ She recalls, “It was meant as a celebration of the relationships among Asian countries. I played the pipa with two of my friends, one playing the Japanese flute shakuhachi and the other the Korean drum janggo. It was such a fun collaboration, we each contributed something to the music.”

Depending on whom you ask, there is the assertion that China has attained world dominance. Even if this weren’t entirely true, we can definitely say that it has a presence on the world stage and people are paying more attention to China.

Wu Man reflects on this, “I have noticed changes since I came to this country 20-some years ago when it seemed that no one knew anything about Asia and Chinese culture. In the past, my audience has been mostly older Chinese who knew about the pipa growing up. Today we are attracting people of different cultures who are open-minded and are willing to know more about China and its ancient musical instruments.

After a performance people usually come up to tell me the pipa sounds like a guitar or a banjo. Every once in a while I hear remarks like ‘it’s like listening to a harp or a ukulele.’ They’ll bring up the various plucked instruments. I observe a greater appreciation for it now.”

It’s also important for Wu Man to educate young Chinese people about their ancient roots. She says, “The younger generation is exposed daily to western culture and music through the Internet and social media. While it’s great that they are embracing others’ way of life, there is the likelihood of them forgetting their ancestry. That’s why tied in with my concert performances, I visit classrooms – all the way from elementary to college level – to talk about Chinese history, music and specifically, the pipa.

Even my performances for adults are usually concerts/informational talks because not everyone knows Chinese ancient musical instruments. So my goal is to make this as familiar as the guitar. It’s such a beautiful instrument and it would be a shame if people didn’t know about it. It has a very rich history and it’s really pretty cool. It’s gratifying for me that recently people have been seeing the pipa in a much better light – they see its many potentials.”

Wu Man tours extensively and has practically visited every continent. She says, “I see different audiences and I get different reactions. Californians are more familiar with Asian culture and they are more receptive to my music. I get a vastly atypical reaction in Japan – the  audience is so quiet I can hear myself breathe. Normally there would be the little noises during a concert like someone moving his chair. But over there the silence is almost reverential. It’s only after the performance I would get a wild applause and hear them exclaim, ‘Wow, that was truly amazing.’ That’s always a wonderful feeling for a performer.”

Wu Man with her pipa. – Courtesy photo / Kuan Di Studio

A few years ago Wu Man traveled to China’s remote regions to unearth the country’s ancient musical traditions that are in danger of being lost, and explored the customs of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, which was then known as the Zhang Family Band. It comprises farmers from Shaanxi Province’s Huayin County in a rural village at the foot of Mount Hua in northwest China.

For more than 300 years the Huayin Puppet Band has toured the countryside bringing its rugged shadow puppet plays that recall the mythical heroes and gods of the oral folk culture of Shaanxi, often evoking famous battles of the Tang dynasty (618-907), to temples, fairs and rituals.

These shadow puppet plays are accompanied  by ‘old tune’ (laoqiang) traditional music with guttural and high-pitched singing with a rough, mad spirit; percussion, including clappers, cymbals, and gongs; stringed instruments including the yueqin (moon lute) and fiddle; the shawm, a double-reed instrument similar to the oboe; and a natural trumpet.

The shadow puppetry tradition that exists in the village first appeared during the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) and has been passed down from generation to generation. For many years the shadow puppetry was part of the Zhang family household only, and not until recently has it had been passed down to performers outside the family.

Wu Man is excited to bring the Huayin Shadow Puppet to The Huntington. This is only the second time she has performed with them in the United States since their first visit in 2009 as the Zhang Family Band.

“The Huayin Shadow Puppet music is very dramatic and earthy, it’s almost like Chinese gypsy music,” declares Wu Man. “Our audience will see that Chinese traditional music isn’t limited to the pipa, ruan, and zheng. I’ve been wanting to share this for a long time.”

In our digital era we tend to move past one new thing speedily to go to the next, lest we get left behind. It would be refreshing to stop hurrying for once and appreciate Wu Man’s effort to bridge the past and present.

For even as we enjoy a world of technological advances we could still learn a thing or two about the simple pleasures in life from those who occupied this earth thousands of years before our time.

February 26, 2018

About Author

May S. Ruiz May S. Ruiz was born in the Philippines. Her mother, a school teacher, and her father, the press liaison officer for American Embassy in Manila, instilled in their children the importance of getting a good education. Appreciation for books and the arts, and experiencing various cultures have been her lifelong pursuits. After college she immigrated to the U.S., where she met her husband. They have a daughter who has the same passion for learning and literature, and being a responsible global citizen.

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