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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(Some) Coplans (Soon) in China

QingdaoNightThis is Qingdao at night. Beer lovers, yes: Tsingtao. It was once controlled for a few years (was a “concession”) by Germans. It’s on the ocean, about between Shanghai and Beijing, in the prosperous province of Shandong. The air is good, for China.

In our 10 months back in the U.S., we felt a bit guilty calling this blog Coplans IN China. But now (visas in hand as of an hour ago) we can safety say half of our family is returning to China  for a bit more than a month (in July). Kenny and I will be living in Qingdao at China University of Petroleum (CUP) .

I will teach business students international communications. Kenny, my young translator, will be kindly provided with a Mandarin tutor, and he also hopes to improve his ping pong and pick-up basketball.

He also wants to do week-end visits to cities we missed: Hangzhou and Nanjing (and possibly also Suzhou; our visit was so brief it almost wasn’t).

Other goals: Reconnecting & reaffirming bonds with friends and colleagues, especially while passing through Beijing, to set up the basis for future collaborative teaching. And (for Kenny) to — during the last 5ish days — get to Wudang Shan, the holy mountain most powerfully pulling on him, where we never made it.

More news when we’ve got it.

Meanwhile here is a picture of Kenny last year this time, giving a farewell speech, in Mandarin, to my students at a reception organized by my then-supervisor who runs the MA program in communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the wonderful Qiao Mu.

MVI_8229

What Happened to the British Curriculum? Part 1

By Kenny

A warm up, in vain

So if you’re asking, “What happened to the British Curriculum?” well, what happened — I don’t know.

I know you’ve all been waiting months to hear what happened in Shanghai at the FOBISSEAA (Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia & Asia) Games. Well, this is what happened:

Day 1: We go to a 50-metre (c’mon, not meter, it’s British) swimming pool. I am in 3 events–50 m freestyle, the medley relay, and 100 m freestyle. When it was my turn to start the 50m, I was worried. We were not doing very well that day in swimming and my soul sisters — from the Seoul British School — were on the medal podium for every event. Do you remember the earlier British Curriculum post about a football tournament where I got shouldered in the chin & got a big black & blue mark? (I think he’s Scandinavian — no offense to my Scandinavian friends.) I was racing that guy! So I was hoping to get revenge on him.

I heard the gunshot. I was racing.

I took the lead. Then as I got to the midpoint, I was getting up my speed, but the guy without a soul, from Seoul, somehow had gotten ahead of me. It was a very close race for first. Just as we had 5 metres to go, we were centimeters apart. He touches, I slow down. I come in silver.

Me accepting silver


Hey, that’s actually not bad, though it’s only silver. Due to the fact that, at that time there was only one other boy on my team who had a gold medal.

After I got to accept the silver medal — standing higher than the guy from Dulwich COLLEGE Shanghai (not a college) — I felt great. I knew I’d be coming home with a medal, & be able to brag to my friends. And that my old enemy, from Dulwich COLLEGE Beijing (still not a college) came in last place.

Just as I got off the podium I heard my name called: “If there’s a Kenny Coplan, come to the judging panel immediately! Your team is waiting.”

I put my medal in my bag, I go meet with my team, we’re ready to start. We’re all having a secret thought: Our secret weapon was on our team, doing the butterfly. Brian. The guy swims twice a day, every day of the week. We wanted to do better than the BSB girls, who won a silver in the medley relay. I was under a bit of pressure since I was the last person to swim (the anchor) for our team.

As I heard the gun, my teammate started swimming backstroke. I was crossing my fingers for him. When I looked up, he was fighting hard for 5th place. The Soulless School from Seoul was 10m ahead. When he finished, my friend who’d already won 2 bronze medals in swimming, was up for breast stroke. He swam really fast & got us out of 5th, into 4th place. When he got to the other end of the pool, our secret weapon was ready. I’ve never seen anyone swim harder (other than in Olympic events). He got us into 3rd place, by only a meter. Then it was up to me to hold our 3rd place.

I started swimming, all the pressure being on me. My teammates watching. Dulwich COLLEGE Beijing (not a college) had gotten ahead of me. There were only 10 meters left. It was between him and me for 3rd place. We get to the flags. He touches less than 10 cm before I do. So we ended up placing 4th.

But luckily, there was still the 100m freestyle – the event I was most worried about. If you’re thinking, “Why would you be so worried?” well, here’s the answer: I’m not very good at 100m freestyle. I put myself all out on the first 50 m so I’m tired for the last 50 m. I was hoping to at least place 3rd.

So as I hear the gun, I push off. I start pacing myself. I go slowly. I hear my name being called. I hear people cheering for me. I get to the halfway point, I do a flip turn. I see 3 swimmers behind me. I’m happy that I’m in 3rd. I was really hoping I could hold this lead. I touch the board — I came in third. My expectations were met–almost a perfect day. Although there was a disappointment in the medley, I received the second highest number of medals for our school, BSB.

The swim meet was finally over.

Me and my friends in the FOBISSEAA Games parade

Day 1 afternoon:

It was time for the track and field meet. I would be participating in the U12 division discus and the U13 division shot-put. The afternoon started with the running events.

At first I was full of energy.  Out of the 18 running events the British School of Beijing participated in, we won 3 medals, 2 being silver both won by my friend and 1 bronze won by an anther friend. Now it was time for the field events. It started with four triple jump events. We won a bronze medal. Next was the high jump, like the triple jump four events; we won 2 bronze medals. Next was my event — the discus.

I got 2 practice throws. I threw 0ver 20 metres on both throws. I watched the other participants, it looked like I had thrown the farthest. But now it was the real deal. I was the first to throw. I threw, it went over 20 metres. I got applauded from my coach. I watched everyone else throw. I had thrown the farthest. Now it was time for my next throw. I threw, the discus went about 25 metres! I watched hoping no one would throw farther then me. Luckily, no one. And it was now my last throw. I threw, it was an okay throw. Then my coach came over to me & said, “Kenny, you have a good chance of winning this.”

Kenny accepting the gold.


After everyone had thrown, the referee had the paper with the results, he had called every player’s name except for me and 1 guy on the Seoul Train. The ref said, “The winner: KENNY COPLAN FROM THE BRITISH SCHOOL OF BEIJING.” I felt like running around and screaming but I didn’t.

The next event was the shot-put. Since I had come late, I was the only one that hadn’t thrown so I got 3 throws in a row. My first throw was 6 m, my second throw was 6.7m, my third throw was 7.3 m. My result was in: I had placed 5th in the U13 shot-put. Hey but not too bad for an U12 throwing in the U13. My coach Mr. Small (he’s not small) walked around with me looking a little disappointed. He met with my other coach that had coached me in discus. They talked to me. Mr. Small asked, “How did Kenny do in the discus?” He said, “Oh, Kenny? He only won the event.” I saw a smile on Mr. Small’s face. He shook my hand and said congratulations.

British School of Beijing Bears holding the 30 medals we won at FOBISSEA that day


I had won 3 medals that day and as a team we won 30 medals 8 of them being gold.

To be continued…

Water Wheel

By Ethan Coplan

In Shanghai I went inside this kind of weird thing that spun around on water that was hollow in the middle and on the sides were two holes big enough that you could fit in. You kind of ran inside it like a hamster. Me and Kenny went in one. When Kenny kept running, I would flip over on top of him.
And in Shanghai, I went up the Pearl Tower and I was the bravest, I stayed on the glass floor. It looked you were about to go crashing down like 80 floors. And I went up a tower the World Financial Center) that looked like a beer opener. It had a glass floor also but you saw part of the building under you, so it didn’t make it as scary as on the Pearl Tower.

Shanghai Pearl transmission tower


The Bund at night

The Bund is really cool. There was an island in the river with all the tall buildings. It kind of looked like the circle with the tall buildings was New YOrk, and where we were was London.

Chinese Jewish

It’s Yom Kippur in China.
Yesterday in Shanghai, we visited the Jewish Refugee Museum and synagogue, Ohel Moshe. During WW2, a few Chinese consular officials in Eastern Europe gave visas to 30,000 Jews fleeing Hitler, and Shanghai became their wartime home–when no other country would offer refuge. They set up a little Viennatown, complete with coffeehouse. (Ethan enjoyed a graphic novel about it, A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin, 2008; it’s also an animated film.)

While there, we bought a book about the legendary Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: a 1,000-year-old community that’s mostly disappeared. (Originally emigrants on the Silk Road from Turkey, escaping the Crusaders, they intermarried over the centuries.) It’s a big, old hardcover collection of Kaifeng-Jewish folk tales a Chinese anthropologist gathered from the elderly a generation ago.

So it’s Kol Nidre services. Kehilat Beijing, our synagogue. And the rabbi invites up to the bima 3 young Chinese Jews from Kaifeng to say a few words! They were recently back from a few years of religious training in Israel. We couldn’t believe it! They were swamped afterwards as total celebrities.

May you be inscribed in the book of life!!

Lambie Goes to Shanghai

Lambie (Ethan’s favorite puppet, formely Kenny’s favorite puppet but we won’t discuss that) has been enjoying China. During this national holiday week commemorating the founding of the Republic, she took the bullet train to Shanghai. It went pretty fast, about 200 m.p.h. We’re pretty sure it used maglev (magnetic levitation–almost no-friction, using less energy, which Ethan studied for a Bradford Science Fair project) but Lambie has some questions as to whether every bullet is maglev, or whether it’s using maglev all the time. Lambie is looking into it.
Lambie enjoyed two of China’s most famous gardens, built by Ming dynasty officials who retired to Shanghai and Suzhou, another city an hour away: the Yuyuan in old Shanghai, and the Lingering Garden in Suzhou. They were similar, full of mazes made of rock. Lambie climbed around and noted the balance of four elements: rocks, plants, buildings and water.

Later Ethan and Kenny and I will write more about Shanghai. (Some French Concession architecture was sort of Parisian and the new skyscrapers in Pudong have fanciful Jetson’s flourishes. Nearby water towns, like Venice, had so much commerce, as canals ferried wealth to the emperor, they were richer. To commemorate riches, the boys bought silk pajamas.)
Finally Lambie enjoyed hearing people sing national songs, in casual groups in Fuxing Park to celebrate the holiday.

She can’t sing, but she joined the little children doing arts and crafts.