An unexpected encounter with a Taoist monk leads to music preservation
If a poll was conducted among Chinese musicologists and the general music public in China asking to name the most well-known Chinese tune in the twentieth century, chances are it would be Moon Reflected in the Second Spring (Erquan Yinyue) followed by Yellow River Piano Concerto (Huanghe Gangqin Xiezouqu) and the Jiangsu folk song Jasmine (Molihua).
How did Erquan Yinyue become the household name it is today? Many Chinese would have little idea who recorded this piece or how it became a permanent fixture on the Chinese music scene post 1949, but most would instantly recognize the melody.
Blind Taoist monk and itinerant musician, Hua Yanjun, better known as Abing, wrote Erquan Yinyue. Abing was born in Dongting, Wuxi, in southern Jiangsu province in 1893. He passed away in 1950, just over one year after the founding of the People's Republic.
Wuxi was originally a mining settlement rich in tin deposits, but by the early eastern Han dynasty (25-220), resources were depleted and the settlement was renamed Wuxi, literally meaning, 'no tin.' It is a city that has historically produced rice, fish and silk in abundance. When Sui Dynasty (589-618) Emperor Yang built the Grand Canal in Wuxi, it became a major port for the grain barges from Zhejiang Province.
Abing's music elevated to icon status within China's music conservatories after his death, occupying a special place alongside the works of other musicians such as Nie Er, China's national anthem composer who tragically drowned at a Japanese beach resort at the tender age of twenty-five, and Xian Xinghai who composed the famous Yellow River Cantata.
That we are able to hear Abing's music at all is due entirely to a fieldwork trip conducted in August 1950, (four months before Abing died) by China's most famous musicologists, Mr Yang Yinliu (1899-1984) and his cousin Miss Cao Anhe (1905-).
Yang and Cao were also born in Wuxi. Much of Yang's childhood was spent learning musical instruments from Taoist monks including Abing. This marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Yang and a shared love for Taoist music and Taoist musicians.
Yang was also exposed to American missionaries, the most important and influential being Louise Strong Hammond, a member of the American Protestant Episcopal Mission who arrived in Wuxi in September 1913. Yang became a Christian in his early twenties and joined the congregation of the United Christian Hymnal Committee in the early 1930s, where he worked on the editorial board, arranging, composing and translating hymns. Cao's and Yang's life were closely entwined, and they shared a long professional life together before Yang passed away in 1984. Cao was an accomplished pipa player and musicologist in her own right. She never married and turned one hundred earlier this year. Unfortunately, she can no longer look after herself and remains bedridden and under the care of a housekeeper.
Yang and Cao were both aware that Abing had succumbed to blindness in his mid-thirties and had eked out an existence as a beggar musician for decades, but when they saw him again in Wuxi in August 1950, they were quite shocked to discover that he had not one musical instrument in his possession. This prompted Yang and Cao to record a number of Abing's works while he was still alive. An erhu was procured from a local music store and a pipa from Cao's own collection. Abing practiced for several days before Yang and Cao recorded six solo pieces on a bulky Webster Chicago wire recorder. Six recordings were made: Three for a four string plucked lute (pipa), and three for a two-string spiked fiddle. The recordings were conducted in a school classroom and in Cao's home. However, there was only enough wire to record six pieces. As it turned out, these recordings were indeed fortuitous, as Abing died in December that year. These recordings saved Abing from fading into total obscurity.
These six pieces have become staple repertoire for conservatory-trained erhu and pipa musicians since the early 1950s. Of all these pieces, Moon Reflected in the Second Spring has appeared in numerous arrangements performed by both Chinese and foreign instrumentalists. The piece is best known performed as a solo on the erhu or with an accompanying instrument such as the yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) or with a traditional Chinese music ensemble. Famous recordings of the piece have include a string quartet performed by the Shanghai Women's Quartet, an arrangement for solo erhu and traditional Chinese musical instrument by the late mainland Chinese conductor Peng Xiuwen, and an arrangement for a Western string ensemble composed by Wu Zuqiang and conducted by the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa, who was born in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning in 1935, was apparently so moved by the piece that when he heard it for the first time he fell to the floor on his knees and wept.
Yang and Cao's fieldwork trip in the summer of 1950 left behind recordings of living musical traditions that most of us will never hear. Instead, a recording session that took place in school classroom and Cao's home, yielded some of the most enduring of Chinese instrumental tunes today. They are melodies that will continue to resonate among Chinese and foreign musical audiences for a long time to come.