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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Perils Of China: Errant Erhu and Killer Karaoke    

By Garreth Humphris
4408 Views | 18 Comments | 5/25/2013 5:31:06 PM

You may have been reading in the last few weeks of the perils of coming to China...from mysterious flu-like symptoms flying in the sky to floating pigs and even the 'nutritious' air pollution in the major cities.

But one thing much more insidious than all these risks is the unknown effects to humans of inadvertent exposure to contaminants that pass as ’high art’ in China... Just like passive smoking, it might be possible to endure years of exposure without so much of a hint of difficulty...but, stay around too long and the benign becomes malignant and the damage is done.

The one most dangerous is peddled by children, the dreaded Erhu! A musical instrument when, in the hands of a Master, has a hauntingly beautiful tone and temperament - if you have not seen one, it looks a little like a jam-jar fiddle, and played with a fiddler's bow...but it isn't really anything like that...

It is a two-stringed instrument and the bow is actually attached to the instrument all the time-wedged between both strings... The soundbox is a small hexagon shaped prism, about the size of a grapefruit and the stings are attached to a long slender neck, a wedge-shaped tuning peg for each string. It is believed to have evolved from an instrument played by the Xi people's in the 10th century and it’s current form is recorded in carvings, silk tapestries and drawings dating back a thousand years.

The cool thing about the traditional instruments is that they are covered in the hide of python...and if you close your eyes and listen to the music is is almost as if a spiralling snake is winding it's way toward you.

The stings are played using the bow, that vibrates either one or both depending on the placement of the bow-end. The melody is achieved by pushing the strings together at the neck, but not agains a fingerboard, just the fingers-so there is some amazing variation in sounds...and in effect, the two-stringed instrument becomes a single string.

If you want to see the Erhu in action (along with some pretty and talented ladies!) check out YouTube or YouKu for 12 Girls Band (女子十二乐坊; Nǚzǐ shí'èr Yùefǎng, sometimes abbreviated to 女樂 or 女乐), an all female Chinese musical group with 13 members!

So, you can see it is a delicate instrument requiring deft hands, great ear for subtle changes in tone and resonance and a dedication almost fanatical to master! So why do they give it to children?

Case in point: I have, in the apartment a few storeys above my home, a young neighbour who has been punishing himself and his Erhu teacher every Saturday morning for the past 3 years! And in that time he had progressed from gentle 'sawing' of the instrument to savage ’sawing' of the instrument! I have to feel sorry for the kid - obviously his fingers would be more adaptable to Video game-key punching rather than an ancient musical artifact.

But it brings about a question, what happens to these great cultural traditions once the masters disappear - can they be re-invented or re-attuned so that they don't go the same way as other cultural relics? - if the hope for the future lies with the boy in apartment 10-04 then we might get some sort of punk-rock Erhu! Maybe it’s a good thing!

The next difficulty you face is the resident crooners in your midst... in the building across from me, Mr Chen has installed a couple of hundred thousand RMB worth of high-end HiFi equipment, complete with flashing lights and spring-loaded floor... on high reverb and way too much volume, he ekes out renditions of Theresa Teng’s ’The Moon Represents My Heart’ (月亮代表我的心) on a daily basis... not to be outdone by her husband, Mrs Chen chimes in with newer renditions of Karen Mok’s ’He doesn't love me (他不爱我)’... obviously Mr Chen is an old-time romantic and Mrs Chen is a bit more pragmatic! A few more mangled classics and then the crescendo is a soaring joint rendition of ’Whatever (无所谓)' a lost-love ballad that unfortunately sounds like 2 cats in heat! And they do this same show every day, from 2pm to 3pm...I guess we can count our small mercies that they are not night-owls!

So, if you can handle the heat, pollution, smells and sheer number of people - be sure to come to China! But invest in a good set of earplugs when you do!

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2013-05-25 21:38:20 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

As singing is more common I think karoke is the bigger danger, but there is nothing worse than bad erhu. In any case, as you say, one really does need to stock up on earplugs before coming over.

#2013-05-26 14:15:41 by anonymous6347 @anonymous6347

我是很讨厌看‘女子12乐仿;的节目,当然’萝卜青菜各有所爱”,曾有报导说,女子十二乐坊的横空出世,是中国民族音乐通过市场化包装运作走向国际的有益尝试,有助于让更多人更快地认识并了解中国民乐。“不过这种打着中国民乐旗号的时尚流行组合是否真的能恒久流传,还是个疑问。不少外国观众看了乐坊演奏后,也觉得看她们表演不如听,甚至有观众会问:‘这是真正的中国音乐吗?’作为音乐艺术的演奏者,人人都应该尊重真正的音乐艺术,把它当作神圣的事业来完成。可是像女子十二乐坊这样靠商业化包装‘上位’的民乐队,她们成名后的表演状态却令人大感失望。”

 还有的媒体透露了个惊人内幕:她们在现场演出时,所发出的乐器演奏声并非来自于她们的亲手弹奏,而是来自幕后早已准备好的音乐磁带或CD。她们成名后的表现越来越凸显出高度商业化包装传统艺术的缺陷。”

  假唱曾毁了不少歌手,假演奏也会毁掉很多民乐团,这是令人痛恨的行为。艺术的本质就在于崇尚真,女子十二乐坊的作假行为是对艺术的不尊重,也是对观众的不尊重。无独有偶,著名的二胡大师、上海民族乐团演奏员、中国音乐家协会副主席、上海音乐家协会副主席闵惠芬也认为,十二乐坊靠包装赢得市场的方式不值得推广,别人说她们站着拉二胡很新鲜,这不过是炒冷饭。瞎子阿炳当年为了谋生,就是在街边站着拉二胡,有时一天边走边拉几十里;我们当年节庆活动上街游行,也是走着拉,不仅二胡,吹拉弹唱,哪一样乐器不是这样?在演奏《翻身道情》时,自拉自唱,还能够唱高声部,拉低声部,这没什么好稀罕的。其二,美女上阵、前卫打扮、蹦蹦跳跳,是对民乐创新很肤浅的理解,这种形式根本不值得去评论。十二乐坊在海外有市场,但她们并不是高水准民乐的代表,在行家眼里是要被耻笑的,因为不受人们的欢迎,所以女子12乐仿自然不会有市场。

#2013-05-26 14:50:54 by papaya1972 @papaya1972

Have you ever try to talk to your neighbours about the 'music pollution"?
That would be even more interesting. They might pay some attention to it after you mention it to them. :)
and it also gives you a good chance to practice your skill in communicating with Chinese.

#2013-05-26 21:24:14 by panda2009 @panda2009

"The cool thing about the traditional instruments is that they are covered in the hide of python...and if you close your eyes and listen to the music is is almost as if a spiralling snake is winding it's way toward you. "

Thanks for Gareth's mind the delicate for our Erhu music. I have to tell you, your sense just meshes our a idiom:"yu yin rao liang(余音绕梁)"----The tune lingers in the house. The most famouse Erhu work is "Moonlight on the Second Spring". After he was deprived of sight, Ah Bing described the beautiful scenery within his heart in music. "Moonlight on the Second Spring" he created has become a classic performed by many orchestras. The dear ones, are Ah Bing League splendid Two Reflecting Founts's melody.

And good poems just like good music awesome but also leaves a lasting impression on the readers. And what's more, the tragedy style of these art works happens to fit the aesthetic of Chinese national psychology. Ah Bing's great Erhu works reflects the common humanity beyond his own fate and misfortune.

#2013-05-27 12:21:32 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Garreth, this reminds me so much of another karaoke type experience that I have frequently gone through with my dearest Chinese friend. The man is the first fellow I ever met in China, is a highly respected VP in a successful state owned company and is truly a great friend and a very nice and respected man.

But every time we go anywhere in his car, which is frequent, and no matter who is present, he loves to play a tape and then sing along at the top of his voice. And he is an incredibly bad singer. Sometimes I find it so discomforting because I know the people with us must be shocked and/or laughing inside, and I feel so bad for him. And yet, it is also a sign of greatness in a way that he can do this and not care a fig what people might think.

An hour of this can be almost unbearable, but I love him even more for it just the same. Nobody in the West that I know would ever dream of taking such a risk of losing "face", but many Chinese do it frequently. And I envy them the self confidence they have to do so.

Great blog! I really enjoyed it.

#2013-05-27 12:59:01 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@anonymous6347

While I respect your 'art' as a deep impression of music, you would probably also agree that art needs an audience to be appreciated - as in the Daoist idea of bamboo falling in the forest - does it make a sound? In fact, it only makes a sound when there is an audience to hear it! Otherwise it is silent!

Similarity, a Kunqu artist singing in their home or a lonely creator of a forgotten art form would lament the fact that their 'art' may be dying with them.

While I don't disagree that the 'popularisation' of an art through commercialisation can be a little crass to the purists - if indeed it does raise interests in the art form and allows others to discover the deeper history and beauty of an art form that they never knew existed, then maybe it is not necessarily a bad thing!

For art to flourish, traditionally it has found favour and patronage from the rich - you could argue that there is little difference in the commercialisation of the art in times of old and now!
I am sure that the 'new artist' of former generations attracted the scorn from the purist of the time....but has become a 'much loved innovator' of the audiences of the future!

But yes, I also appreciate that there is a rich tradition in all art forms that needs to be respected and acknowledged!

#2013-05-27 13:53:04 by anonymous6366 @anonymous6366

呵呵,,,现在再也看不见这12个屌丝在舞台上的瑟了。

#2013-05-27 15:15:16 by canadianmike @canadianmike

Garreth - I'm not sure why but as I read your article, I couldn't help but think that this is an excellent example of Sadism. For those without access to Wikipedia, the definition of this well-known condition is:
"The derivation of pleasure as a result of inflicting pain, cruelty, degradation, or humiliation, or, watching such behaviors inflicted on others."
I just can't for the life of me figure out who's deriving the pleasure here. Is it the kid as he hammers out tune after stinging tune on that maniacal little device for everyone's "enjoyment"? Or perhaps it's the parents inflicting misery on a global (well, building-wide anyways) scale by revealing the true lack of skill the child possesses? Perhaps, in a complex plan of true horror the likes of which mankind has never seen, it is the music teacher who is using the unwitting child to coax the feline death knell from that contraption, all the while charging the parents in a “pay-as-you-go” torture spree? How deliciously evil! I must contact him and arrange some piano lessons…
That KTV couple bothers me just as much as they bother you, too. I can only imagine an OCD disorder compelling them to follow a strict timeframe of show-tune torment each afternoon, resulting in who knows what kind of sonic crescendo climax. That brings me to another condition called Sadomasochism, which I will NOT get into at this particular juncture in time. Needless to say, at least only two people are suffering instead of four.

#2013-05-27 16:44:20 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@canadianmike
Most people think of sadomasochism when they think of me!

#2013-05-27 16:50:43 by anonymous6373 @anonymous6373

其实很多中国人也不喜欢2胡。年轻的就更不喜欢了,现在恐怕只有快80岁以上的才喜欢它,。

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