Chou Wen-chung

My Early Years in China

By Professor Chou Wen-chung (continued)

3. Early Explorations in Music

While in Qingdao, I first discovered the meaning of music in life when I heard our household help enjoying their free time by playing instruments, singing, and drinking. I also became fascinated with harmonium pedals, which I played with at first as a car accelerator, and then discovered their dynamic effects. In Shanghai, from c. 1927/28 to 1929/30, I was bedridden for one whole year, suffering from nephritis; and under the care of a famous Chinese doctor, Lu Zhongan, after western [sic] medicine failed to cure me. My memory of that year remains very “dark” and full of fear of ghosts. It was a year lost.

However, it was in Wuhan that I discovered the violin when my older brothers and I bought a child-size violin as a toy. My oldest brother, Wen-tsing, immediately began taking lessons and recruited me as his “student”! My career was thus launched. In Nanjing, I studied at the Jingling Middle School, 1934-37, which was the training school for the Jingling Womens’ College, an American missionary school. The curriculum included Chinese and western [sic] courses taught both in Chinese and English, but with no religious demands on students. There were excellent, even over-qualified, faculty members, particularly those teaching traditional Chinese literature, language and history. The lesson I remembered best was when a teacher lectured us on why China would imminently lose its independence and cultural legacy, and the class began to weep. He then suddenly raised the question, “but how would this be possible if China had children like you!” and, as I recall, he exclaimed something like “You are the ones who can prevent it! It’s your duty!”

By the time we moved to Nanjing, c. 1932, I played the erhu, studied the violin and taught myself a medley of instruments, such as mandolin, harmonica and musical saw. My brothers were also experimenting with various musical instruments. Wen-tsing was more conventional, taking violin lessons while preparing to study science and engineering in college. (Ultimately, he was acknowledged posthumously as a “pioneer” of the U.S. space program.) My second brother, Wen-ho, was the most musical and artistic (see Section 6). He experimented with and taught himself to play an amazing number of instruments — Chinese and western [sic]. He played in the school band, and both [sic] western and Chinese orchestras. Meanwhile, he continued to experiment with more instruments. He bought a mandolin from a pawnshop one day and began to play it. Apparently, trying to match him, I also began to play the mandolin. But, I tried to strike out on my own by fooling around with a musical saw (a real rip saw) and developed a taste for controlled pitch deviation. I devoted more time to teaching myself how to play the harmonica, becoming pretty advanced, and began to improvise melodies.

4. Ambiance of Traditional Music During My Childhood

As for traditional music, what I was able to learn early in life came less through formal study than being immersed in the prevailing ambiance of traditional heritage. For example, we studied tai-chi and shao-lin (kungfu) as a matter of routine.

The ambiance of traditional “popular” music was quite vibrant during my childhood. It was common to hear various genres of music — those rediscovered today and considered so precious that they are often taught in a clinical fashion without the original ambiance that brought them to life. Hearing Peking opera sung or staged at home festivities was not unusual. Having relatives or friends who performed as “amateur artists” (piaoyu) was also commonplace. Singing kunqu at parties was particularly common, and one could hardly avoid the sound of one or another style of narrative music (shuochang). But then, serious classical music, such as yayue or qin (court or zither) music was unavailable, because court musicians had been banished. The qin players were considered corrupt and were not rehabilitated until about 1936 when I first heard them on the radio, which shocked me and had a life-long impact.

Unfortunately, I never heard yayue while in China. So, much later, when the Korean Classical Music Institute’s ensemble demonstrated for me, and when the Japanese Imperial Household musicians played for me privately, I was overwhelmed despite my awareness of the differences of these practices.

The type of ensemble music, heard in its original ambiance, that made the deepest impression on me during my childhood was Buddhist music performed at important ceremonies. I still remember a weeklong (or even longer) funeral for my grandmother — a centuries-old practice, with chanting, percussion music, gorgeous priests’ robes, processions, smoke, and fires (burning paper money, etc.), given at the Qingliang Shi (the temple of purity and coolness) known for the beauty of its gardens. (My family had been a donor to the temple for generations, and my father’s calligraphy, carved in wood, still hangs over one of the gates.) Apparently, it was an impressive event even then, as recently, while visiting my ancestral home, an old resident still marveled at the splendor of the event.

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