Eighty-year-old Zhang Zhengming could have been a professional musician or a music professor, had he accepted the invitations which came his way in the early 1950s.
Octogenarian Zhang Zhengming is founder of the Xianxia Society of Chinese Music in Shanghai.
As the newly-founded People's Republic of China was trying to establish a system for the performance and education of traditional Chinese music, many folk musicians turned professional, including some friends Zhang used to play with in music clubs in Shanghai.
But, Zhang chose to remain an engineer, which offered him a much higher salary at that time.
He never gave up his love for music and has continued throughout his life to play Jiangnan Sizhu, or the Silk and Bamboo music of Jiangnan.
Jiangnan, literally meaning "south of the Yangtze River," commonly denotes the area along the south bank of the lower Yangtze valley, encompassing parts of Zhejiang Province, the city of Shanghai and parts of Jiangsu Province.
"Silk and Bamboo" refers to the ancient organ logical system in which instruments were classified according to the materials producing their sounds. "Silk" instruments have silk strings, while "bamboo" instruments are mostly bamboo flutes.
Though small percussion instruments, such as clappers or bells are sometimes employed, Silk and Bamboo music never uses loud percussion instruments. A music of relatively low volume that is usually played indoors, Silk and Bamboo is found in many areas in China, with that from the Jiangnan region one of the most popular.
Like many Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo musicians, Zhang played in music clubs in Shanghai during the 1940s, a golden era for the genre. According to the Collection of Traditional Chinese Folk Instrumental Music, there were 201 clubs featuring Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music in the city at that time.
Zhang mostly played in the "Yunhe Society of Chinese Music," a club founded in 1927 by his teacher Chen Yonglu, a master of Silk and Bamboo. Like most of the other clubs, musicians at Yunhe played mainly for their own enjoyment and entertainment. From time to time Zhang and his friends played at ceremonies such as weddings, with often their only reward a good meal.
"Playing Silk and Bamboo music has always been a source of great pleasure in my life," said Zhang.
Unfortunately, it declined in Shanghai after the 1950s. One of the reasons was that almost all the great musicians were recruited to professional troupes or conservatories. This resulted in a great weakening of the folk clubs, which had been the mainstay of the genre. Such was also the situation of the Yunhe club, which finally closed in 1962 due to lack of active players.
It was left to a few master musicians like Zhang who remained in folk groups, to keep the Silk and Bamboo music alive in Shanghai.
In 1979, after he retired, Zhang founded the Xianxia Society of Chinese Music. Though its venue has changed several times, the group has continued to play. A few years ago they settled in a neighborhood committee building in Tianshan Road, in Shanghai.
Every Sunday afternoon, some 20 musicians gather to play their favorite Silk and Bamboo works. Their renditions have also been drawing a regular audience, people like 84-year-old Zhu Weijiong who said that the music eased his mind and made him sleep well at night.
This probably has to do with the style of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music, which is characterized by "small, gentle, detailed, and elegant" sounds.
The regular instruments of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music are the dizi (bamboo flute), the xiao (end-blown bamboo flute), the sheng (free-reed mouth organ), the erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument), the pipa (four-stringed lute), the sanxian (three-stringed lute), and the yangqin (hammered zither).
Most players of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music can play more than one instrument, and they often play different instruments at different sessions. For example, Zhang is best at playing the erhu and the yangqin.
For the performers of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music, the most attractive part of this genre is its variety within a fixed framework. The number of musicians in a band may vary from two to 20. While the structure of each piece of music is fixed, the details are often improvised. And the extent of improvisation often depends on the familiarity of the musicians with each other.
If a performer just follows the score, the result may sound good but will not be regarded as outstanding, for the key to great Jiangnan music lies in the ornamentation a performer adds according to his personal technique and taste. The musicians are also expected to observe the principal of simple/sparse and complex/dense while playing together. This incorporates rhythmic contrast among the instrumental parts.
A member of the Xianxia club, 67-year-old Ye Zutong said that every one in the group enjoys playing, and it is not uncommon for three or four hours to slip by unnoticed when they get together.
Because of Zhang's expertise, Xianxia is one of the best groups among Shanghai's Silk and Bamboo clubs nowadays, in great part due to Zhang's brilliance. Their repertoire is made up of some 60 pieces, including the traditional "eight great pieces" of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music, works adapted from folk songs or local operas, and original works.
Zhang's composition Morning in the Springtime of Jiangnan (Jiangnan Chunzao) and a re-arrangement of Beautiful Garden (Jin Huayuan) fully displays his understanding and mastery of Jiangnan music.
Beautiful Garden is a rather plain work in the traditional Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo repertoire. Using the technique of "slowing and ornamenting" and long bowing, Zhang emphasizes the comparison of different parts. He also adds an allegro postlude to the piece, something new to the form.
Morning in the Springtime of Jiangnan was composed by Zhang for the Xianxia club. The latter part of the work contains new material, while the beginning integrates elements from several well-known tunes from the Jiangnan area, such as Moon Reflected in the Second Spring (Erquan Yingyue) and Song of Happiness (Huanle Ge).
The second passage of the work is set in triple time, somewhat unusual in traditional Chinese music. And at the end the bamboo flute plays the melody of the traditional piece Bridge. In this way, the work sounds both familiar and new to the listener.
However, like Zhang himself, Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music seems to have entered its autumn-winter period. The youngest member of the Xianxia club Wang Jiaji is 48, but he is unusual, as most of its members are over 60, with the average age a ripe old 68 years.
Li Peisheng, a 65-year-old erhu player, says the traditional form of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music does not fit the contemporary urban lifestyle. For example, Bridge, one of the "eight great pieces," lasts 25 to 28 minutes, far too long to hold the attention of today's young people.
Li has a son and a daughter, but neither of them is interested in Silk and Bamboo music. "I personally like reformed styles of traditional music, like that of the 12 Girls' Band, but it is hard for most players to accept such new things," he said.
Nowadays there are about 40 groups of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music in Shanghai, mostly formed by the elderly. Apart from enjoying their music sessions, these amateur musicians perform occasionally at community activities. In addition, performances of Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music are given at a few tourist sites, such as the Huxinting teahouse in the Yuyuan Garden.
"We all grew up in Shanghai with Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music," said Ye. "And we hope this indigenous musical form will live on in the city."
(China Daily April 15, 2005)