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.)

If you like the blog, click on “Sign me up” (at right) for email notice when there’s something new.

 

 

 

 

Kenny’s Wudang Shan Album

kenny climbing stairs to golden peak

Kenny and Tingting

Kenny and Tingting

kenny by the quiet temple

It was “Karate Kid” (the Jackie Chan remake) that first made Kenny want to see Wudang Shan, the legendary birthplace of taiqi, in Hubei.

Truthfully, a recent watch of the movie suggests they actually shot parts of the Wudang Shan scene (where Jackie & Jaden Smith climb the mountain & he drinks holy water), at Hua Shan on the other side of the country, at Huang Shan maybe, and even some aerial shots over Guilin very far in another province! (Basically, a roundup of picturesque China!)

Golden Peak

Golden Peak

Be that as it may…he really wanted to see it, and I agreed. We took a 22-hour train ride there (new direct route, no need to stop in Wuhan) from our summer teaching base, Qingdao.

Incense burner projecting over cliff - (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

Incense burner projecting over cliff – (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

The Taoist holy mountain exercised a powerful effect. The legends of the immortals, who used medicine, meditation and mountain power to find life everlasting. Hiking through misty valleys to the rocky outcrops where they gained immortality, where now temples stand (small and large, built by the Ming emperors — unlike the Qing, who preferred to underwrite & practice Tibetan Buddhism).

Southern Cliff Palace

Southern Cliff Palace

The astonishing Ming palaces (Taoist word for temples & monasteries), which have been very , so it appeared to amateurs, tastefully, properly restored, or just shored up well, preserving their wood carving, stone work, amazing architecture, paintings.

"Holy Water"

“Holy Water”

More on all that later. Here is Kenny’s album. Studying tai qi with Master Gu at his school, WuDang Wellness Academy, and hiking around the many holy peaks. These are his selections for his favorites.

kenny doing tai qi

kenny in mist near golden peak

kenny near golden peak

kenny on misty stairs

kenny on steps to southern cliff palace

kenny sitting at temple

kenny with golden peak behind

kenny with others at golden peak

Southern Cliff Palace

southern cliff palace landscape

with master gu at the training grounde

chinese national interesting place It is, indeed, as the sign says, a “Chinese national interesting place.”

Laoshan: the Taoist Holy Mountain and the Beer

lao shan seasidekeny in temple gate
Laoshan is a Taoist holy mountain near Qingdao (the business & economics department was generous and sent us in a car with Kenny’s tutor and a lovely 15-year-old boy who hangs with Kenny) Guidebook says it has 72 temples. We saw three — on the coast and up on the misty, rocky peak.

Sea fairies

Sea fairies

The air is clean and wet. The landscape is pine and some bamboo forest ( native?). The mountain’s history goes back 16 centuries, but mostly to the 110s when a Taoist sect was established here, and monks lived in caves.

Laoshan cave

Laoshan cave

There are several peaks, not too high (a few thousand feet) — we summitted one (with the help of a chairlift!).  As always, with Chinese holy mountains, you ascend and descend via staircases. This one was surrounded by streams (used to chill drinks being sold trailside) and cultivated flowers. I noticed wild foxtail lily. Also plenty of tiger lilies.

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

The Taoist pantheon is still beyond me. But I noticed the elements of nature — so powerful in Taoism — appear as decorative borders on the gods’ robes in the shrines: rainbows, the waves of the sea, clouds, mountains. A few worshippers — not many.
hollyhocks at temple
A sign in the parking lot: “Feudal superstitious activity” is explicitly banned. These kind of old Communist signs don’t have any real relationship to the China we know; though — to be sure — if you were gunning for a big job and you were known to avidly practice a “feudal” faith, I’m sure this would impede your career prospects.

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

Laoshan holy mountain's rocky coast

Laoshan holy mountain’s rocky coast

The coastline is a whole new Chinese landscape to us. Korea isn’t far — a cheap ferry. Wish we had time! Qingdao’s a popular resort, with a golf course and lots of fancy villas where — I don’t know — the rich, Party members, both, take holidays.

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

But it’s not only the elite that enjoy the resort: (see blow) — even Taoist dogs get a terrific place to live at one of Laoshan’s temples.
taoist dog house

lao shan stairs
I’d heard wealthy businessmen have begun funding restoration of some of the old temples (Taoist and Buddhist). I thought this suggested a risign interest in heritage and preservation. Kenny’s tutor said that in his opinion, it was an attempt by people who had ill-gotten gains to cleanse their consciences of their many sins.

dragon detail

laoshan taoist god of the sea and rainbow

lao shan trailside tea house

lao shan above the lake
Taoism is associated strongly with herbalism (originally, alchemy) and we saw some extraordinary herbalists along the trail. Not only the usual array of mushrooms, grasses and fungus buttons, but in this case, sealife: dried snakes, anemones, seahorses.

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

lao shan herbalist seahorses

lao shan herbalist dried lizard
Laoshan’s clear mountain streams were originally used in Tsingtao beer. Laoshan is a holy mountain– & a beer label. Laoshan Beer  was acquired recently by Tsingtao. We completed the day with a toast. Possibly Kenny’s favorite part.Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Beer is, of course, a central theme in this stay in Qingdao/Tsingtao, China’s beer city. Personally, I liked the Qingdao better. The Laoshan was drier and crisp — good. But named after a holy mountain? You’re expecting an almost godly experience in a glass. Not so much.

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

We did the hike on July 7, which our wise 15-year-old noted marked the day Japan invaded China about 70 years ago. The anger even now is still fresh at the table when they talked about the war — young people, as if it was only yesterday.

Mountain Climbing, the National (Secular) Prayer?

Ribbons asking for blessings

Hua Shang (Flower Mountain, about 7,000′), sacred to Taoists, is said to house 72 hermit caves. We climbed it (it’s about 13 hours from Beijing). Taoist holy mountains are pilgrimage spots, something I’ve been trying to understand.

Hermits once lived here (carving stone beds, stone tables), giving cave-temples names like ‘the Cave for Having Audience with the Origin.’

Taoism is connected to mountains. (Taoist alchemists loved mountain herbs — still for sale in baggies in the gift shop). “Buddhist monasteries lie below while Taoists monasteries lie above” is a saying I’ve read. Ancients built altars to calm their local mountain god. Climber-pilgrims bravely approached that power, for its help or forgiveness or enlightenment.

Start up the path on China’s 5 sacred Taoist mountains, & I’ve read that the rock inscription says, “You now enter the first mountain under heaven” : This is the world.

Stairs and railings


Before stairs, the trek up Hua Shan’s knife-edge ridges was dangerous. People climbed (some still do) at night, to watch the sunrise; there are still fatalities from falls.

Caves weren’t just for shelter; they’re the mountain’s “heart” concentrating the earth’s chi energy.

Mid-mountain sits a monastery. Many once held dragon gods made of gold, used in prayers (now in museums). The Summit has a temple as well. For a few lucky immortals, the summit is where the climber-pilgrim attains the Tao.


Ascending is a symbolic ascension. The ancients gave summits names like, “Precipice for Abandonning the Body.” The summit was for offerings, rituals, self-purification, contemplation. Up there, the mountain symbolizes heaven, no longer earth.
(The monks also had fun, as suggested by other place names: the “Cliff for Evading Imperial Commands.” The “Chess Players’ Terrace and Pavillion.”)


I read an account from 1989 of living communities of monks rebuilding Hua Shan’s many holy structures, most of which were burned down during the Cultural Revolution.

There’s still a working abbey at the bottom. But the structures on the trek (simple hotels, not monasteries; noodle shacks not prayer halls — a few temples with souvenir stands alongside) are “just” for the domestic tourist trade. People are having a nice tough climb.

But the sheer numbers of visitor? The devotion (especially of older folks)? The seeming national obsession with climbing the 5 sacred mountains? Something much more deeply rooted is going on here.