Ming + Bauhaus: Tan Dun’s Water Heavens

zhu(Zhujiajiao village. Credit: Alexandru Velcea)

Composer Tan Dun: Raised in rural Hunan, rusticated by the Cultural Revolution. Joined a traveling Peking Opera as a teen. Eventually, Columbia fellowship and prominence in atonal music. Today he’s avant-garde and massively popular (Grammy; Oscar for “Crouching Tiger” score). We heard an astonishing Tan Dun piece recently by the Shanghai String Quartet. Wildly varied and dramatic, noisy shamanistic ritual cries and bangs from the sounds of his childhood. Last week, his”Water Heavens,” for strings, vocals and water, opened at a new venue–called Water Heavens, too–built for him.

It incorporates monks’ normal evening chants (at a monastery on the opposite riverbank) and musicians splashing in the canal water. It’s in ‘water village’ Zhujiajiao (photo above), one of the canal- and riverside towns on the outskirts of near Shanghai, along the Qingpu River’s path to the sea–insanely beautiful, well-preserved, highly touristed, miraculously intact.

The space began as a Ming-era house. Add a “lower story reminiscent of an industrial space fashioned after German Bauhaus style… The stage is partly submerged in water, and as musicians rock their bodies and move their feet while they play, the sound of splashing water becomes part of the performance” (Shanghai Daily.com ). The river itself flows into, through, and out of the hall, which becomes another instrument.

water palace

Credit: Tandun.com

“The combination of the Chinese Ming house and German Bauhaus styles, as well as the contrasting sounds of water, iron and other natural elements, completes my architectural music wonderland,” Tan told Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Qian.

Tan Dun’s major works include operas (“Marco Polo,””Nine Songs” –with 50 original ceramic instruments created for the piece), the Beijing Olympics ceremonies music, and a symphony for the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong using tomb bells cast about 2,500 years ago. Theatrical, often watery, combining Western canonical and Henanese folk. The sounds of nature, a Taoist influence. China’s reanimation of extinguished religious life is subtle (hiking holy mountains for “exercise”; secret often Korean Christian missionary potlucks, popular among youth) but it’s there.

“My ultimate goal for Water Heavens,” he said of the piece, which has scheduled an open-ended run, “is to create a space where music can be seen and the architecture can be heard.”

(The architects were from Japan’s Isozaki Studio, with offices in Beijing and Barcelona.)

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Resident in NJ: Shanghai Quartet

shanghai quartet

Dazzled by a Shanghai Quartet concert, A Night in Ancient and New China — more about what that means in a sec. Proud it’s our “quartet-in-residence” at Montclair State, the university down the block. (“Resident” artists in Beijing and Shanghai too…OK, we’ll share.)

shanghai quartet the men

Their playing gets called “pitiless,” “ferocious,” “charged,” “aggressive.” We heard the intense premiere of a new “Raise the Red Lantern“(1991)  film score (trailer here; it’s got everything: historic setting, sex and violence, Gong Li) revised by the composer Zhao Jiping’s son. (The father also scored “Farewell My Concubine.”) That was China new. Ancient: traditional folk pieces featuring pippa (lute) virtuoso Wu Man, pictured at top — two members knew her, as children in a Beijing music boarding school. She played Kazakh folk tunes, apparently popular in the ’60s; ancient Central Asian nomads are believed to be the original source of the pippa. You hear hoof beats, feel the openness of the steppe, as in Mongolian folk music (China’s bluegrass — having its moment when we lived in Beijing).

The Shanghai Quartet cross genres and geographies. My favorite piece was a shamanistic Tan Dun composition, “Ghost Opera (Chamber Version)” — more on Tan (his latest work puts musicians knee-deep in an ancient canal) soon. Meantime, have a listen or a watch:

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The Scholar’s Stone: Miniature Worlds


scholars rock from met collection

山形靈璧石  (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).

The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.

China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.


I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”

The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”




scholars stone noguchi museum.jpg

Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”

scholars stone reclining figure


Angel in America

The Year of the Monkey begins in 11 days. I’ve been thinking about Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Our kids study U.S. social history, reform and rights struggles, but not yet the Chinese-American story. America detained 500,000 immigrants on Angel Island, about half from China, 1910 to 1940, during the Chinese Exclusion Act . Some were solo children under 10. They were interrogated, inspected, often deported. A woman detainee without her husband saw her baby die, and was refused release to attend the baby’s funeral. A graphic novel tells these stories: Angel Island: The Chinese-American Experience, recently released by Stanford (buy one).

Detainees who’d fled famine and the fury of armies local and foreign (sound familiar?) carved hundreds of poems on Angel Island barrack walls. A park ranger discovered them in 1970.

angel island image

This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.


The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?


In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.


America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do

(Credit: Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991)

You can hear the Angel Island poems read (via KQED), and visit the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Happy Year of the Monkey.



The End of China’s One-Child Policy

fanshisan1Since China announced the end of its one-child policy last week (replaced by two), I’ve been thinking about Fan Shisan’s 2 of Us exhibit we saw at Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio, Three Shadows. (Ai is known as an opponent of the one-child policy, though not as closely identified with it as dissident Chen Guangcheng. The blind lawyer suffered beatings, as did his wife, for defending women involuntarily sterilized; his dramatic nighttime escape from house arrest – to shelter with the U.S. government  – was an international incident, with then-Secretary Hillary Clinton getting Chen out.)

fanshisan3Photographer Fan Shisan’s double exposures highlight the kids’ aloneness, pairing them with themselves. Fan calls China’s 100 million only-children “the loneliest generation in history…Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, they are the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” My students often considered first cousins to be siblings because they were so close; likewise, the feelings were intense for school and college dorm roommates.

paint men onechild-policy your responsibility(This billboard, in a village in Hebei, tells men that having only one child is their responsibility.)

I had one memorable student with four siblings, whose parents paid heavy fines. She wrote an essay about sister love, using e.e. cummings’ poem to convey her feelings. She gave the poem to her sister and brother-in-law for a wedding gift:

“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)
I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you”

Lijun ends her essay: “I hope the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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Love Song to a Chinese Cough Syrup

herb insert picThere’s a way to feel better if you have a cough and sore throat: Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a loquat syrup full of flowers, leaves, roots and bulbs. It works by the spoon, or in hot water as tea. Chinese Robitussin, if you will, but so much better. Pei Pa Koa is so popular in China (and 20 countries of Asia), the stacked boxes in mid-winter at Kam Man, nearby Chinese mega-supermarket in E. Hanover, NJ, is practically floor-to-ceiling. I buy in triplicate.

The TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) formula, commercially bottled in the ’40s in Hong Kong, dates back 500 years to the reign of Emperor Kangxi (fourth ruler of the Qing dynasty). filial piety pictureThe logo shows a child serving it to an elderly, bedridden parent. (The legend, or back story: A child, ancestor of the company’s founders, went looking to cure his mother’s cough, and so impressed a doctor with his tender filial piety, the doctor gave up his secret formula.) I’m not calling domination by an oppressively close family a good relationship. But I find the emblem sweet.

Active ingredient is either the bulb (korm) of the fritillaria flower–says Kam Man pharmacist and the Internet — or elm bark, say the National Institutes of Health. I’m not taking sides. Other herbs: loquat leaf extract (beautiful photos of these leaves, fruits, and root extracts in this blog post by a TCM student), adenophora root, poria mushroom, citrus peel, root of platycodon (–that’s campanula, Chinese bell flower–I’ve grown this lovely, small, late-summer flower), pinellia tuber, trichosanths seed, polygala root, licorice root, ginger rhizome, schizandra fruit, and peppermint. These herbs are traditionally associated with clearing up phlegm, alleviating cough, and soothing sore throat.*

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

The National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine calls Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa “a pleasant tasting natural herbal based liquid especially formulated for relief of minor discomfort and to protect irritated areas in sore mouth and sore throat. Contains No Alcohol, artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Active ingredient: Elm Bark. In a sucrose syrup and honey base of herbal extracts consisting of loquat leaf, fritillary, balloon flower root, snakegourd seed, sand root, senega root, tuckahoe, licorice root, ginger root, five flavored seed, and peppermint.

The package insert illustrates each one with great botanical drawings. The flowers seem to be dancing. Which is how I feel after finishing my mug.

How we love you, Pei Pa Koa.

*Institute of Traditional Medicine: “Some of the alkaloids have been isolated and used for pharmacology testing, revealing antitussive effects, smooth muscle relaxation, and reduction of blood pressure. There are also diterpenes in the bulb, and these may have antitussive effects as well.”

Hillary Clinton/Empress Wu

empress-wuI’m sure this comparison has been made before but I can’t help thinking, if I were Joe Biden, I would hire a taster to avoid poisoning. Empress Wu – grandmother and mother of emperors; empress during the splendor of the Tang dynasty – was the only female emperor in four thousand years of Chinese imperial rule. One of her claims to fame/notoriety, beyond her gender (claim enough): She poisoned people.

I feel sexist saying this (or anything, against Hillary), but I perceive her as being transparently power-obsessed, in a way that’s frightening. Even if sometimes used benignly.