Traditional Chinese instruments gaining in popularity in China

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/17 18:38:39

Promotional material for Our Shining Days Photo: IC

Children learn to play traditional Chinese folk instruments. Photo: IC

Eleven-year-old Ru Wenying first began learning how to play guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, during first grade.

For the past five years, every Tuesday night after school, Ru heads to her guzheng teacher's home for a 45-minute class. She also practices at home for about half an hour to 40 minutes, four times a week. 

Fourteen-year-old Tan Yuan's time learning the erhu, a two-stringed spike fiddle, over the past five years has been pretty much the same.

Ru and Tan are just two examples of the rising number of young Chinese who have developed an interest in traditional Chinese instruments.

According to a 2015 report by China Folk Music newspaper, there were more than 1 million students under the age of 18 studying the guzheng, while young players of the erhu, yangqin (a hammered dulcimer) and dizi (bamboo flute) reached 600,000, 500,000 and 400,000 respectively.

The report also cited a survey from the Hangzhou-based Morning Daily, which showed that sales of Chinese folk instruments has risen by 20 percent annually, while the number of students at art institutions rose by 15 percent annually in the city of Hangzhou over the years. 

"The number of people learning traditional Chinese instrument is rising every year," netizen Gezibu, a guzheng player, posted in a forum on Chinese question-and-answer site zhihu.com in July, citing that the number of guzheng students at his music college accounts for 30 percent of all music students. 

This rising interest seems linked to China's growing pride in its own homegrown culture.

"Our generation - those born in the 1980s and 1990s - when we were children, learning Western instruments was more popular, because people thought that studying imported culture from the West was a better way to shine," Nie Yunlei, a player of the Chinese reed instrument known as the sheng, told the Global Times.

"But now people's minds have changed and they take more pride in mastering some traditional Chinese instruments."

Recent Chinese comedy film Our Shining Days, about an underdog high school traditional Chinese music club that ends up gaining the recognition of their peers, reveals how attitudes have been changing in recent years. 

Popular culture

Born in Shijiazhuang, North China's Hebei Province, Nie began studying Chinese instruments at a young age since they were closely tied to the family business: playing traditional music at weddings and funerals.

Nie, now 38, has worked at well-known singer Gong Linna's studio for 16 years, and is now the leader of her traditional Chinese music troupe. His time working with Gong has given him a unique insight into the challenges that traditional Chinese music has faced over the years. 

"The central government in paying more attention to and giving more support to traditional culture, of which two of the major mediums are Chinese opera and traditional music instruments," Nie said.

Ever since 2011, when China's Ministry of Culture established its Chinese Folk Music Development and Support Project, 6 million yuan ($900,000) in financial grants has been given to support musicians and projects.

Popular culture is also playing a part in the rise of traditional music.

As more and more TV dramas, films and video games begin using traditional music, people are becoming increasingly aware of the charisma of traditional music.

For example, when popular fantasy TV drama To the Sky Kingdom aired earlier this year, the theme song "Liangliang," which involves Chinese instruments such as the guzheng and pipa, or Chinese lute, became a huge hit.

And according to a report from the Hangzhou-based Daily Business, quite a few people take courses at art institutions just to learn to play songs from popular films and TV dramas. After To the Sky Kingdom aired, student enrollment at local institutions in Hangzhou rose by 10 percent.

Room for improvement

However, there is still much that needs to be done when it comes to keeping folk music alive.

Tang Bin, a guqin (a seven-stringed zither) player in Shanghai, told the Global Times that while the guqin wasn't a very well-known instrument a decade ago, the situation is much better now. Yet, compared with the popularity of Western instruments like the piano, the guzheng and guqin get far less attention, while other lesser-known Chinese instruments are further left out in the cold. 

While curiosity has led a large number of people to develop an interest in Chinese folk instruments, only a small number of people persist in learning these instruments over the long term. Tang said he currently has about 25 students, but only about 10 come regularly.

Nie has a five-year-old daughter who is currently learning to play the cello.

Nie said he plans to have his daughter study some Chinese instruments when she grows up.

"There is more variety when it comes to Western instruments," Nie said, explaining why he is starting his daughter on the cello.

"For example, they make cellos for 5-year-old and 8-year-old kids, as well as adults, but most Chinese musical instruments are only designed to be played by adults, which makes them difficult for children to handle."


Newspaper headline: Reviving the past



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