Red Chamber

[aesop_chapter title=”The Group” subtitle=”China to Canada and Back” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=””]

Dream of the Red Chamber (simplified Chinese: 红楼梦; traditional Chinese: 紅樓夢; pinyin: Hóng Lóu Mèng), also called The Story of the Stone (simplified Chinese: 石头记; traditional Chinese: 石頭記; pinyin: Shítóu jì), composed by Cao Xueqin, is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. It was written sometime in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature and is generally acknowledged to be the pinnacle of Chinese fiction. “Redology” is the field of study devoted exclusively to this work.

[aesop_character img=”” name=”Guilian Liu” caption=”The pipa player in the group, Guilian is one of the best at the instrument in the world, and was, as a child, featured in the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart” align=”right” width=”30%”]

So reads the Wikipedia article describing the book for which this group was named. That, of course, isn’t the only thing bringing focus to this name: red, as a color, serves to highlight the Communist regime under which all of these women were born and raised.

The group itself was formed after their departure from China, after circumstance brought them together in Vancouver, B.C.: a popular city with the musicians who emigrate from China, according to Mei Han, the group’s spokeswoman.

[aesop_character img=”” name=”Geling Jiang” caption=”A talented multi-instrumentalist, Jiang is an active musician who has toured in the United States, Japan, and Singapore. After moving to Canada, she has remained active, working with multiple cross-cultural projects.” align=”left” width=”30%”]

It was she who had the idea that would create this remarkable orchestra: a string ensemble, composed of traditional Chinese instruments. The twist? The ensemble would pull only from plucked string instruments, highlighting the wide range of sounds that a limited set of musicians could make.

The idea was clearly a good one: the group tours internationally, hopping from coast to coast in the United States as part of a single concert series, and has two CDs available for purchase. They work well together: all are musically talented, and Mei Han serves as a wonderful spokeswoman, arranging concerts and translating the more complex questions asked of the members during their classroom sessions.

[aesop_chapter title=”The Digression” subtitle=”Mao’s Cultural Revolution” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=””]


[aesop_character img=”” name=”Mei Han” caption=”The leader of the group, Mei Han is a virtuoso on the zheng, and recently earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology.
In this photo, she shows a classroom full of students the artificial nails that she tapes to her fingers in order to play the instrument.” align=”left” width=”30%”]


It began in 1966 and reigned for ten years before the death of Chairman Mao brought it to an end: the Cultural Revolution. What a wonderful ideal it was: bringing together the youth of a young country in order to preserve the new ideals of the Communist government against the overbearing weight of thousands of years of stagnant tradition.

Unfortunately, as with so many things that sounded good on paper, the execution was a horror: the government called for a violent class struggle, tearing down the bourgeois at the ends of the youth-led Red Guard. The cult of personality surrounding Mao grew to epic proportions, and the upper echelons of the Communist Party were swept clean of those deemed “traitors” to the cause.

For those living in China, not occupying the seats of power that were trembling to their roots, the situation was even worse. Millions of people were persecuted for seeming violations, with millions more being forced out of their homes as part of the “Down to the Countryside” movement.


Artists and musicians were a specific target for this. According to Chairman Mao, the purity of the Communist Party resided in the fact that it was something new, unfettered by the traditions that had dragged pre-Communist China down, made it ripe for defeat at the hands of the West. Practicing music that dated back thousands of years was a clear sign of belief in tradition, something that all were expected to question at least and disrespect at best.

For Mei Han, it was personal: her father, at the time a retired schoolteacher, was dragged from his sickbed into the street, where his former students “spit on him and beat him.” Somehow, through her description of the travesty, Mei Han remained calm.

Less than a year later, she revealed, he passed away. The experience frightened her: “I don’t want to grow up,” she recalls saying to her mother.


“In the next revolution, which side will I be on?”

[aesop_parallax img=”” parallaxbg=”on” caption=”Mei Han tunes her zheng” captionposition=”bottom-left” lightbox=”off” floater=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]

Fortunately, the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976, with the passing of Chairman Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four. In the time since, the restrictions imposed by the Communist government have lessened – though they have not vanished entirely. Instrument manufacturing has begun to boom once more, and recent numbers put the number of players learning Mei Han’s own zheng at something approaching 20 million – nearly all of whom are young women. The age of traditional music hiding in the shadows is over.

[aesop_chapter title=”The Concert” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=””]

[aesop_character img=”” name=”Zhimin Yu” caption=”Yu is a ruan virtuoso, a principle player at the Chinese National Broadcast Orchestra – with whom she toured several countries – and is a gifted composer in her own right.” align=”right” width=”30%”]

The concert began with no prelude, the musicians walking on stage in an ensemble matching their name: red. The first was a composition by one of their own, Zhimin Yu, a piece taking full advantage of the contemporary playing styles of their respective instruments.

The introductory matter came after, a short interlude between each song being used to provide the audience with context – be it the names of the performers or the stories behind each of the pieces.

The most remarkable thing about the variety of the pieces they played was, in fact, the variety: some, like “Qing Beiyu” felt deeply Chinese, the rich history of the country clearly present in the sounds being produced by the instruments. These were especially strange in the setting – from where I sat, I couldn’t see the musicians, only the sprawl of the pipe organ above and behind them, something that immediately brings to mind the churches and cathedrals of Christian Europe.

Other pieces,”Dao Chuilian,” for example, sounded far more modern: the plucking of the pipa played at a spectacular speed created a feeling like nothing so much as bluegrass: cousins in the lute family suddenly displaying just how closely they’re related.

One moment that caught my attention especially was in “High Mountain, Flowing Water” – Mei Han’s arrangement of a traditional piece – was when Guilian moved from the rapid-fire notes to which my ear had grown attenuated to a rhythmic plucking of a single string. For a moment, I was unable to identify the sound – was it a surprise element of percussion, a wooden idiophone I hadn’t seen earlier? Or, a moment’s further listening confusing me further, was it an electronic metronome, a synthetic chirp putting out a preternaturally-even beat?

No: it was a display of what makes a true instrumental expert: rhythm, perfectly controlled, and the talent to do not only those flamboyant displays of skill but also those things which even an apprentice can do – the simple made sublime.

[aesop_parallax img=”” parallaxbg=”on” caption=”Mei Han’s zheng” captionposition=”bottom-left” lightbox=”off” floater=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]

Now, I shall step aside from a discussion of the music to instead discuss the context. Music is more than just what it sounds like: it is the context in which it occurs.

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” width=”40%” align=”right” size=”1″ quote=”While Western civilization was muddling around trying to put together a coherent system of notation, Chinese civilization had invented not only a system of written music but also the first known system of solmization – all by 433 BCE.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

A concert like this makes something interesting of that: the pieces draw from thousands of years of musical repertoire, pulling together a mind-bogglingly vast history into a single evening of music. Let me state that again, in order to drive home the point: while Western civilization was muddling around trying to put together a coherent system of notation, Chinese civilization had invented not only a system of written music but also the first known system of solmization – all by 433 BCE.

And that vast musical history is, to the Western listener, all too often a closed book, hidden at the back of a bookshelf that has never been offered more than a passing glance. Little thought is given to this repertoire beyond that it makes a scene in a film seem more “exotic.” And that is a tragedy: it is a varied and interesting thing. However, it does contrast with the concert setting: folk tunes from down the street seem out of place in a silent concert hall: taking them halfway around the world before putting them in that concert hall make the juxtaposition that much more intense.

From piece to piece, too, the juxtapositioning brought about by trying to include the majority of this vast musical history is clear: “Madly Riding,” an energetic duel between two voices, is followed by the hypnotic “Datun Jelut.” Though the second piece speeds up in places, the overall feel is still a rhythm reminiscent of the human heartbeat, and it has a calming – if not slightly soporific – effect on the listener.

Finally, let us look at the performers: all women, all natives of the country from which their music is sourced. Beyond that, all of them are highly educated, with conservatory education a minimum, a doctorate in music marking the maximum. All have emigrated from their home country, with the criteria on which the group was formed meaning that all of them wound up in Vancouver, B.C. That focus on how they came together in mind, I must say that looking at this group as if it is a representative sample is hardly possible.

That said, let us look at another number, mentioned earlier: nearly 20 million people in China now play the zheng, and something akin to 99% of them are female. A bias that heavily is hardly by accident: however, the factors that create that bias are, to me, an unknown.

Finally, a quick look at their second-to-last piece: “A Dream of Africa.” It’s a fascinating piece of world music fusion, taking its inspiration, as stated in the name, from Africa. But the piece was written for a Chinese string ensemble, and the writing was done in Canada. It’s a piece that would have been borderline impossible until recently, when the world economy became a single global whole and the radio, the telephone, and then the internet tied us all closer together than it was ever possible to be before.

The concert, and the ensemble itself, are a testament to the strength both of change and of staying the same: the span of music traditions in this concert wrapped around the world, and twisted through time, bringing together the disparate peoples of the world and the familiar sounds of bygone eras.

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”Sources
‘Cultural Revolution poster’ from the Wikimedia Project.
Biographical information presented regarding each musician was gathered from a mixture of the concert program, the group’s own website, and conversations with the musicians during the ‘Meet the Musicians’ session.
All other photography is my own work.
Historical references are sourced mostly through Wikipedia – as this was not a research paper into those subjects, I didn’t feel the need to delve into scholarly sources.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]