A little bit of folk...

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-27 19:23:01

Feng Mantian plays the traditional ruan. Photo: Courtesy of Feng Mantian

Closing your eyes and listening to Feng Mantian perform popular Chinese rock'n'roll songs, it's hard to imagine his husky voice comes from a man wearing traditional clothing while the lively rhythmic music comes from a traditional banjo-like instrument known as a ruan.

When he first appeared on the stage of competitive talent show Amazing Chinese earlier this year, Feng amazed audiences throughout China by combining elements of traditional Chinese music with modern popular music. For many in the audience, the show was probably the first time they had laid eyes on this traditional instrument, usually a supporting instrument of traditional Chinese orchestras, while others had most likely never even heard of the ruan before.

The 50-year-old Feng has spent the past 30 years of his life working to preserve the ruan in his own unique way, a feat which has earned him the respect of many. After winning the champion spot on Amazing Chinese, Jet Li, one of the show's judges, burst into tears saying, "In the 1980s, there were a bunch of people with dreams [of music]... over the next 30 years, in order to earn our fortunes we went into business, we went to work. However, now I see there are people who have stuck by their musical instruments all these years. When it comes to culture and dreams, I'm deeply touched that we have Chinese like you."

Return to tradition

The 1980s were both a starting point and a booming period for rock'n'roll music in the Chinese mainland as a group of pioneering young people, including Cui Jian and rock band Tang Dynasty, devoted themselves to this genre.  

In 1987, Feng, renowned singer Zang Tianshuo, Tang Dynasty's Liu Yijun and Cheng Jin formed the band Bai Tianshi (White Angel). With long hair and passionate guitar performances Feng described his younger self as a little "crazy."

As a child, Feng studied traditional music and played the ruan with his father. Later when he discovered the instrument could also be used to create sounds similar to a guitar, he began experimenting with integrating traditional musical elements into rock music. This seemed contradictory to many, as most people tended to judge rock music as being "the closer to Western rock the better." 

This experimentation may, in part, stem from his lack of confidence when it comes to playing the guitar. "Sometimes when I encounter Western performers, I'm not confident no matter how well I play the guitar. This is because we don't have a say when it comes to this instrument, it's not ours," said Feng.

 "When I first turned from national music to rock, I felt it was novel. When I couldn't go any further in rock, I turned back and began searching among the culture of our ancestors for things that could act as the backbone of something new," he said.

Ancient obsession

Preserving the art of the ruan has not been easy. Unlike other ancient instruments such as the guqin, guzheng and pipa, which are all well known and regarded as national treasures in China, the ruan, which originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is greatly under-appreciated.

After he chose the ruan as his musical weapon of choice, he began searching for makers of the instrument throughout China. To his disappointment, those that knew how to make the instrument were farmers who didn't know how to play the ruan themselves, as such the instruments they made didn't have the timbre that Feng wanted. With no other recourse, Feng decided to learn how to make ruan himself. The ruan he played when he first walked on to the stage of Amazing Chinese was one of these self-made instruments.

"The reason that I went on Amazing Chinese was quite simple. I was fed up with people asking me what type of instrument I was playing, especially when the people asking were Chinese," he revealed.

Now more people not only know about the ruan, they have also come to realize that traditional music can also be "modern."

On stage, Feng grabbed audiences' attention with his ruan-performed rock song. Interest piqued, audiences were willing to listen to his peaceful rendition of more quiet and romantic songs during his later performances, such as Tsai Chin's "Your Eyes" and Lo Ta-yu's "Xiangchou Siyun," the latter of which won him the championship.

"I add modern elements to satisfy the need for music in contemporary society. Our cultural essence can only be preserved when young people love it."

Cultural treasure

Feng recalled a time when he talked to a US music critic who was researching Western music's influence on Chinese pop music. At the time the critic told him that there was no influence to speak of, as Chinese pop music had merely copied Western music in its entirety with only the language being different. "Like a dish that takes a different shape, but still tastes the same," Feng recalls the critic saying.

However, after hearing Feng's performance with the ruan, he described Feng's music as "a totally Chinese dish, that adds a little bit of the pepper we all like."

In Feng's hands the ruan becomes a multifunctional instrument that seems to be able to transform into any other instrument whenever he wants. From the jumping beat of US rock music played by guitar, to the sound of the Kazak ethnic group's stringed instrument the dongbula and other traditional Chinese plucked instruments such as the guqin, guzheng and sanxian, it seem the ruan is capable of completely imitating their sound.

Feng explained that wherever he goes, he always buys local plucked instruments so he can learn their characteristics and add them to his ruan repertoire. He feels that out of all the instruments out there, only the ruan is capable of this flexibility.

A Chinese cultural treasure, he said that the ruan is an instrument that should not be ignored. "I think I might stick around as long as possible, just so I can continue to preserving and passing on the ruan," he concluded.

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