Marco Polo in China, May 2008  
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Marco Polo 2008 China Tour
John Thompson and Fa Schola: Music from the Time of Marco Polo1
"Olympic Year Program", Central Conservatory, Beijing   

What sort of music might Marco Polo (1254-1324) have heard during his travels in China at the end of the 13th century? Or back in Venice after he returned there? Since the early 20th century musicologists have been reconstructing Western music from that period and musicians have been playing it in what are called "historically informed performances". The only non-Western music instrument with a written tradition detailed enough to allow historically informed performances of music from that period is the Chinese silk-string zither (qin or guqin, "old qin"). A center for qin activities in the 13th century was the Southern Song dynasty capital in Hangzhou; and it just so happens that Polo claims to have visited Hangzhou around 1280, just after the Mongol army conquered it. Historical records tell of the famous qin players who lived in Hangzhou at that time, creating new music and preserving ancient tunes.

Mainly through my work with a qin handbook whose title translates as Handbook of Spiritual and Marvelous Mysteries I have reconstructed and play much of this music; the early Western music group Fa Schola plays music Polo might have heard after he returned to Venice around 1300. Since 2005 we have combined our efforts, presenting Music from the Time of Marco Polo several times in Europe and America. In May 2008 we brought our "Olympic Year version" of the program to China, with performances scheduled for Beijing and Hangzhou.

              At the NCPA, Beijing
When I tell Chinese people I play the qin their immediate response is almost always the same: "the qin is a very difficult instrument". It is rarely performed in concert halls; it not uncommonly appears in opera and films, but almost invariably the music is very much altered or not played on a qin at all. The qin has a very quiet sound: the melodies can be very beautiful, but its profound effect comes from playing them in a way that bring out the rich overtones its silk strings can produce. This beauty can be readily appreciated when the music is played for oneself or a small group in a quiet room, or when played in a modern concert hall with great acoustics and/or a superior sound system. When I am able to play for people in such environments, almost invariably people marvel at the beauty of the music. Unfortunately, however, such environments are rarely available.

We were originally invited to China by Yu Zhigang of the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Prof. Yu is one of the few Chinese specialists on early Western music and he has started an Early European Music Centre at the Conservatory. Since its inception the Conservatory has emphasized 19th century Western music and that aesthetic as applied to 20th century music. This attitude, when applied to "traditional Chinese music", emphasizes its reform and "modernization". Prof. Yu, though, is quite interested in the concepts of "historically informed performance", hence our invitation. While there we met, and were much assisted by, two of his students. August Guan, a conductor, is directing an early music ensemble at the Conservatory. And Jia Shubing, just completing his degree with a focus on musical interaction between Jesuits and Chinese during the Qing dynasty, is leaving to work on his Ph.D. at Bristol University in England. Jia Shubing was particularly interesting, as I am now working on some new program concepts such as Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci.

Our first Beijing appearances, though, were to be part of a series of performances at Chaoyang Park the weekend of May 10th and 11th. Fa Schola is from Estonia, and the Estonian government had arranged for us to take part in this event, which was organized by a European entity such as the EEC (we never quite found that out). In any case, at the beginning of May the Chinese government cancelled all outdoor music events scheduled before the Olympics. We had mixed feelings about this: we enjoy performing, but had serious reservations about how well such delicate music might come across in what sounded as though it would be quite a bustling environment.

The three Beijing performances organized by Dr. Yu took place the following week in more appropriate venues: the Central Conservatory (see picture above), Peking University (Beida) and the new National Center for the Performing Arts (for "Friends of the NCPA"). Our favorite performances were the ones at Beida. In the program we mostly play separately but we also play several melodies together. After all the performances many people came up to us, asking questions about our instruments and how we made them play together. Many of them bought our CD, especially at Beida, where we actually sold out. And at Beida they seemed genuinely fascinated by the concepts of historically informed performance of early music.
  At Wang Peng's studio south of Beijing    
One thing I always try to do when I come to Beijing is visit the qin maker Wang Peng. He is the only qin maker I know who has instruments for sale with silk strings on them, and instruments he says are designed specifically for silk strings. He now has a new factory south of Beijing, where he and his assistants make about 20 instruments a month. Most of them have the nylon-wrapped metal strings invented during the Cultural Revolution. Almost all players in China use them today: they are cheaper, stronger, louder and less tempermental. However, they have very little of the color that was the essence of traditional qin music. The difference in sound is not always apparent in the venues commonly used today: less-than-quiet rooms with bad acoustics, this balanced by poor-to-middling amplification systms that cannot bring out delicate colors.

Fortunately, some Chinese players are now going back to silk strings, and it was encouraging to hear from Wang Peng that he has set aside a room in his factory to make silk strings, hopefully starting next year. While thinking about this I enjoyed very much playing in his quiet tearoom (see image). It has a large clear window that mutes the sound of the waterfall in the lovely rock garden behind it.

Prof. Wang Bu of the Music School of Hangzhou Normal University had arranged two performance for us in Hangzhou, one at his school, the other at the Hangzhou Grand Theatre. However, on May 19th, the day of the first scheduled performance, we found out that all performances in China were to be cancelled for three days due to a mourning period declared in honor of the victims of the earthquakes in Sichuan. Nevertheless, our experience in Hangzhou was quite special.
  Bai Yunli: Qin and lute     
First, I saw my artist friend Bai Yunli and his wife Li Ruzheng. There is a strong connection between the literati arts of qin and painting, and my website has a number of examples by Bai depicting scenes connected to various qin melodies. His latest work is in the style of paintings by the famous 16th century painter Qiu Ying, showing a qin and ruan player together in the countryside: here at my request he has substituted a Renaissance lute for the ruan, in anticipation of a future East-West program I have planned. The gut strings of a Renaissance lute give it a sound whose volume is quite comparable to that of the qin; and the book that originally got me interested in the qin is R. H. van Gulik's Lore of the Chinese Lute. Van Gulik calls the qin a lute because, although the translation is organologically incorrect, he says its rôle in Chinese society most closely paralleled that of the Renaissance lute during the Renaissance in Europe.

    View from
gravesite of Lin Bu (gravestone is inset)
Since the last time I had come to Hangzhou I had learned the melody Moon Atop a Plum Tree from qin tablature published in 1525. The preface to the melody connects it to the famous Song dynasty poet Lin Bu, referred to here as Lin Heqing. Lin Heqing is said to have spent 20 years on Gushan (Solitary Mountain), the only natural island in Hangzhou's West Lake, and we visited what is said to be his grave on the north side of the island. It is a peaceful spot, though at mid-day we could hear the traffic as it passed along the lakeside across the way. The descriptions of Lin Bu on the island had made it seem quite deserted, but apparently at the time there was at least one imperial palace on the island. Now the south side is home to a provincial museum, several shops and restaurants; in the hills are small buildings used by various artisans. My wife Suzanne and I thought how pleasant it would be to live nearby and be able to come there early in the morning to play qin.
  Playing qin at the Fan Shi Pu'er teahouse   
Unplanned was our visit to the Fan Shi Pu'er teahouse on Laodong Street, not far from the lake. As we were walking by in the rain I noticed a qin hanging on a wall of the shop. We went in and I asked about the qin, which belonged to the owner, not then present. I then proceeded to play it while we drank pu-er tea served graciously by the lady of the shop, Zhou Haiyan. My European friends enjoyed what to me is an archetypal Chinese experience. The Chinese in the shop seemed to enjoy the break from their routine. And after an hour or so when we left they insisted on giving us some tea for the road.

After Hangzhou Suzanne and I went to Qingdao, while Fa Schola went to Taiyuan. Their leader, Raho Langsepp, was scouting for a wind and percussion group he might wish to invite back to his Tartu Early Music Festival. I wished to visit some friends from Qingdao I had met the previous year at a qin conference in Suzhou. Two years earlier my friend from New York and Taiwan Yuan Jung-Ping had started at Qingdao University the first formal qin program in China since the Cultural Revolution to teach qin with silk strings. Several members of the Qingdao Qin Sociey were so enthusiastic about my playing that we decided that the combination of friends, fresh Qingdao beer and seafood, tea and the nearby Laoshan mountains was too tempting to resist.
  At Taiqing Gong temple in Laoshan       
          By Hualou Gong in Laoshan
Three days in Qingdao were definitely not enough. We spent most of the time with local friends - Shi Jiquan, Sui Jian, Tian Bin, and (after she returned from her honeymoon) Wang Ruikun. We spent one day in the Laoshan Mountains east of the city, visiting qin players and other friends. At the famous Taiqing Gong temple we visited a disciple of Yuan Jungping who has been living there for several years. A courtyard in the residential area of the temple proved an excellent place to play qin. From there we went around the mountains and, after a seafood lunch, climbed up to a terrace by the Hualou Gong temple. Here resides a Daoist nun who has also studied with Jung-Ping. We exchanged melodies and then were on our way.
  Discussing qin at Qianxi Mingcha teahouse 
On Friday night my friends arranged for me to give a benefit performance at the Qianxi Mingcha teahouse at the east end of town. Almost 60 people came and, I was told, almost 7000 RMB raised to be given to the Red Cross. This was a very special experience. With qin everywhere associated, quite naturally, with tea, I was left to wonder why there are no qin melodies with themes specifically related to tea.

Back in Beijing there was just time to visit a few friends and attend a meeting of the Beida Qin Society, which took place in a pavilion by a lake on the campus. There is an increasingly high level of play among young people. Some of them are actually using silk strings, though more say they would like to but have not yet been able to. Silk is at the essence of the qin tradition, and I have no doubt that in the future it will make a comeback.

Only then will I feel comfortable playing with metal strings, which do have their advantages.


1. See program details. (又看中文

For full-size images, click on the photographs. Many publicity photographs are in the "pubpics" directory

Chinese names of some of the people and places mentioned here: 余志剛,王鵬,賈抒冰,關博洋,王晡,白雲立,李儒正,周海燕,袁中平,施繼泉,隋堅,田斌,王睿坤。凡世普洱,千禧茗茶。

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