The more national, the more international

One of my American friends took me to an instrument store in Xujiahui (downtown Shanghai) a few days ago and I was amazed by the Guzheng (a 21 -stringed plucked traditional Chinese instrument) they sell in the store. The Guzheng I have seen is made from wood but they are selling the electronic ones with pink and blue panels.

It immediately reminds me of the band called Beautiful Energy which is consisted of 12 pretty Chinese girls playing Chinese instruments. They have changed the way how we play our instruments and people define it as the new style of traditional music after they made a name for themselves in the US and Japan.

What makes it new? Firstly, they get rid of the antique wood instruments and play the ones out of recognition. Secondly, electronic effects are wildly used in the music which totally kills the special tones of traditional Chinese instruments. Some tones are even created by computer. Thirdly, these 12 girls swing and dance with the beat which is contrary to the sprits of peace and calmness of the “old” style.

Some people say every girl in Beautiful Energy is excellent instrument player with glorious education background. But I think they are just the products made from star-forming factory. Audiences like to see them dancing and wearing sexy outfits. All the skills and artistic accomplishment don’t count that much any more. Is this what we are purchasing?

As a professional pipa (Chinese lute) player and teacher, I worship Chinese traditional music and I hope I can make more people both home and abroad know about our music through my own efforts. Our traditional music should be reserved and developed with its own style and characteristics, instead of the new modern style, which has completely twisted and changed the aesthetical standard of how people see traditional music.

When the new style just established, people considered it as the succession and development of the “old” one. However, with this kind of performing style becoming mature, more down sides came up, such as finger-synching and exposed dress. This is absolutely not what we have expected. New Chinese traditional music has turned Chinese music into being vulgar and commercial. It breaks the tradition and essence to meet audience’s needs, which is not the highest state the traditional music desires to reach.

The new style adapts western music elements and adds electronic elements into Chinese traditional music which in my eyes seems neither fish nor flesh. The more national, the more global. Chinese instruments are charming and mysterious to westerners. I don’t think most of them would appreciate this new style. They want to hear and see something they haven’t experienced in the west. My Belgian client once told me that she didn’t like the idea of Chinese instrument playing western music at all because it fails to outstand Chinese instrument’s characteristics.

I was invited to play pipa in a documentary shot by a French TV station the other day. The idea was to introduce Shanghai to French audience and I was asked to wear Qipao and play a typical Chinese song. The performance was a great success because I showed the quality and spirit of traditional Chinese music. The director wouldn’t prefer a pipa player wearing low cut and mini skirt, let alone playing pipa like guitar.

I understand that nowadays people have become more blundering and have request for higher level of art. But it doesn’t necessarily mean traditional Chinese music has to put down self-esteem to meet the ordinary taste. We should definitely keep its traits and meanwhile look for a way to create more great works.

3 thoughts on “The more national, the more international

  1. Good piece, but I think you’re making too much of an equivalence between electronic/modern/stylish and western. We have our own traditional, non-electronic or showy music as well, even though it’s not currently the most popular music. I can understand the worry about electronic and fashionable, trendy music supplanting more traditional styles, which is something the west has been through, and in the end I think will have a similar outcome – the fragmentation of music into different niches (indeed, it seems that this has already happened). The electronic version will become it’s own strand, even if some people think of it as replacing the more traditional music, it will never be able to, and I think once the novelty of it wears off, this will be more apparent.

    I guess another concern is people viewing this as the face of Chinese culture, which I can see as a problem, but I think it’s one that’s hard to overcome. As an American, I’m usually confronted with the point of view that American culture is McDonald’s, Gossip Girl, and Michael Jackson. It just seems to be the case that the most easily consumable, “junk-food” part of any culture will be how it will be viewed by a lot of people.

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