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Traditional Chinese Music: Old Songs From Old Times

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I heard the squeaking of a Chinese fiddle and the screeching of a female Chinese voice as I walked through the streets of an old neighborhood in Taizhou. Though people have been living here for millenia, this community just had its hundred year anniversary. The houses were arranged in hutong style and everything was constructed of old, grey bricks. Though a massive “revitalization” project was in the works, which essentially meant relocating the people, knocking the old buildings down, and rebuilding replicas of them which look nice enough to harbor shops and attract tourists. At the edge of this old community, beyond the reach of the current development initiative, I heard the music.

I walked towards it and found a little old lady standing in the doorway of a traditional style home. I peered inside and saw a middle aged woman standing in front of three men seated in chairs with instruments staring intently at sheet music. They were rehearsing a traditional song from another era of this country’s history.

traditional-chinese-singing

A 40 something year old woman in a blue coat walked up to the door and greeted me in a low, almost meek voice. Her eyes seemed to linger off in the distance over my shoulder. If there was anybody else around I would have question whether or not she was talking to me. Her hands were crossed in front of her comfortably. Everything about her seemed to carry a melancholic weight, or perhaps it was just mellowness. She pushed a slight smile across her face, and spoke slowly and languidly. She asked me where I was from, then invited me inside.

I entered the little room, which had nothing in it but a small kitchen, musicians, and an elderly woman clutching a thermos of green tea. The lady who was singling finished her song, and the woman in the blue coat stepped up to sing next. She took a deep breath, and the song began.

traditinal-chinese-music-rehersal

I could not have predicted the sound that came out. It was high-pitched, rolling, churning, powerful — the polar opposite of the demeanor she previously exuded. I must have been visibly surprised, because she gave a quick smile with her eyes as she momentarily glanced in my direction. It was my impression that my presence made this rehearsal into an impromptu performance.

There were two old men playing types of huqins — Chinese two string fiddles — and they screeched out their notes in unison. Another man sat in the corner keeping beat with a set of wooden blocks. They concentrated on the sheet music with the intensity of someone who doesn’t know what’s going to come next.

The song they played seemed infinitely sad, it had the demeanor of the woman singing it, the “just about long gone” feel community it resonated through. I could not understand the words, but it was easy to take an ephemeral feeling from it. It seemed to be the kind of old song that old people sing to remind themselves again that the world they grew up in actually once existed, a cerebral and emotional rebuttal against the bulldozers, the changes — the kind of fogy music that now dies with grandparents rather than being passed on to another generation.

chinese-sheet-music

A song can be a museum of emotion that can be enacted in stark contrast to linear time and linear mentalities. Music is a benchmark of times that are always fading away. In this era, the arts are among the only things left in this ancient country bent headlong into the future, and they are fading away as quickly as the communities they’re played in.

The rumble of the backhoes, the roaring of cranes, and the shouting of work crews could be heard on the other side of the neighborhood, but for now the music was louder.

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Filed under: Art and Music, Changing China, China, Disappearing Traditions

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 70 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3040 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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