Across China: 79-year-old teacher strikes chord with "left-behind" children through music

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by Xinhua writers Zhang Ge, Liu Fangzhou

CHANGSHA, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) -- On a breezy afternoon, the serene countryside of Jiantouzhou Village in central China's Hunan Province resonated with the harmonious melodies of an extraordinary instrumental ensemble.

Children as young as five to late teens take part in this activity, led by their 79-year-old instructor, Li Shuyou. Over the years, this elderly teacher has enlightened the lives of over 200 young individuals, many of whom were initially unfamiliar with musical notation or the intricacies of folk melodies. They are now learning to master traditional Chinese musical instruments such as the pipa, erhu, liuqin and sanxian, under Li's guidance.

Previously the chief composer of a local opera troupe, Li has mastery over ten diverse traditional Chinese instruments.

Even after retirement, Li has remained unwavering in his dedication to music, shifting his focus towards nurturing the next generation of musicians. According to him, the influence of modern culture limits the evolution of traditional folk instruments significantly. "Although I am retired, I still play instruments in my spare time, and I can let young people know more about folk music and make more people fall in love with it," Li said.

Under Li's tutelage, several of his students flourished into professional musicians, their talents finely honed through his expert guidance, and they secured coveted positions in prestigious music universities across China.

As the years passed and Li entered the later stages of life, he contemplated reconnecting with his roots. In 2015, at the age of 71, he moved back to Jiantouzhou.

Shortly after Li's return to the village, he was drawn to the "left-behind" children whose parents work far away and have left them to live with their grandparents at a very young age. Many of these children were engrossed in the digital world, as their attention was monopolized by mobile phones and video games, leaving little room for human interaction.

Moreover, witnessing the unsupervised activities of such children, including instances of them swimming alone in potentially dangerous waters, made Li even more worried and prompted him to take action.

Contemplating his role in improving these children's lives, Li thought to himself, "What can I do for these kids?" Inspired by his deep love for music, he devised a thoughtful plan to extend his helping hand. Li resolved to share his musical expertise with these youngsters, and thus, established the "Shuyou Music Workshop" as a free platform for his mission.

Initially, parents sent their children to the workshop due to its nurturing environment and the fact that classes were provided free of charge.

As time passed, word about the music classes began to spread throughout the village. Gradually, the workshop's reputation soared, and parents, even those residing across the river and beyond the county, warmed up to the idea of enrolling their children.

"Li's teaching extended beyond musical theory," said a student named Ding Jiewen. "While explaining the music to us, he would frequently provide vivid examples from daily life."

When delving into compositions inspired by nature, Li would vividly describe how certain tunes could mirror the soothing sounds of rain, the gentle rustle of the wind, or the joyful chorus of birdsong. Li recognized the profound connection that rural children could forge between traditional melodies and the natural world.

"Now, I consider traditional music to be the hippest, because it is timeless," Ding said, adding that the more she learns about music, the more she can interpret the cultural underpinnings of classic compositions in her own way.

"Teaching music to kids is more than just spreading knowledge," Li said. He doesn't just focus on the children's artistic development but also addresses instances of disobedience he observes in their daily lives. For Li, music serves as a bridge to connect with these young minds.

The impact of music on these children was multifaceted. Some found solace in it, using it as a remedy for loneliness, while others gained newfound confidence through mastering musical instruments. A few even aspired to become teachers themselves, hoping to share the warmth of music with more people.

Li believes that not every kid attending his public classes needs to be a professional musician or step onto a stage. "My deepest hope is simple, for these young souls to grow up happily," Li said, adding that the most rewarding outcome for him is when he sees these youngsters discover their passion for music and exude a positive outlook on life.

Approaching 80 in a few months, Li's determination remains unshakable. When asked about his plans for the future, he said: "I will persist until I can't teach anymore."

Li's motivation stems from his aspiration to involve more individuals in the realm of rural education and to bring about positive changes by broadening educational prospects in rural areas. "I'm hoping that more 'left-behind' children in the countryside will be cared for through our music workshop." Enditem

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