Appreciation of Chinese Traditional Music from a Western Perspective
In these days of increasing communication between our two perspectives, and the enormous social implications of these exchanges, music has become the most important ambassador between our cultures. Music holds the keys to the most effective cultural exchange and mutual understanding, since it truly is the universal language. It can help us to overcome our bias and dislike for one another, and replace them with feelings of beauty and appreciation readily available through the experience of listening. Understanding music’s functions within both cultures, its background philosophy, its theory, and its meaning as a representative outside of its native culture, has become an essential area of cross-cultural study for musicians and language learners on both sides of the Pacific.
A Goddess of Mercy becomes a Goddess of Fortune
I wandered into a Buddhist Temple in the famous water town Zhujiajiao in the Qingpu district of Shanghai municipality. People were charged admission to the main temple grounds, a fee of 10Y, but in the annex worshippers got a freebe. Before paying the fee, one could kneel on a padded bench before a glass-encased Laughing Buddha (Maitreya Buddha) covered in gold paint, with a mischievous-looking Haibao peeking around the corner of the case. The little blue mascot for the Shanghai World Expo and the golden Buddha are emblems of the same aspiration among the Chinese: conspicuous wealth and a global showcase of modernization.
Zhu Xi’s Canonization of the Life Cycle of the Village in “Family Rituals” (家礼 Jia Li)
In the 10th Century, the famous philosopher, Zhu Xi, undertook the task of gathering the rites and rituals of passage, and recorded them for future generations. Little did he know that this book would capture more than just the customs of the day; the “Jia Li” went on to become a classic in its own right, and would dictate almost a thousand more years of custom in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It was mainly the adherence to its code of conduct that defined the particular lifestyle of “Neo-Confucianism”.
The New Faith of the Chinese Elite
In the past, the peasants looked to the fate of the fortune-inscribed stick to communicate the will of Buddha; now, the Chinese businessman looks to another inscribed stick to divine the sacred will of the Party. It is the classic scene from the Joy Luck Club; white tiles, clicking and clacking together, as the women gossip about their families, cementing the bonds of a lifetime friendship that would tie the fates of generations together. This ritual has replaced the similar ritual that used to obsess the more religious generations of China – the fortune telling joss sticks and the mysterious predictions of the Book of Changes. No one believes in these superstitions anymore, but they certainly believe in the use and necessity of playing Mahjong with the leaders!
What do the Chinese people want out of life? Many have tried to determine this, but no pattern has immediately appeared from the mass of contemporary literature or from the key phrases in the public forum that sufficiently defines the Chinese desire for a lifestyle direction in Chinese terms, apart from those without context, like “Modern” and “Contemporary”, which are derived more from China looking at other nations than looking at itself. The concept itself seems so abstract that many on the outside have been daunted by the possibility of finding it, but the tendency towards high abstraction is a characteristic of the Chinese people as a whole, and something to be admired rather than scorned. Like the figures in a painting, which suggest nature but retain their unnatural proportions, or like the meaning of a Chinese character, which is only a suggestion of a previous hieroglyph, so the abstractions of the Chinese dream cannot take form by compiling lists of contemporary manifestations. It is a compound idea that can only be grasped by those who can hold the qualities of Chinese philosophy on one hand, and balance the realities of an economically charged and internationalized China on the other. It is far subtler and more rewarding for those who find the silken strands of the Chinese cultural pact between man and nature pulled through two thousand years of literature, and tangled in the free-form bonsai trees of great philosophers’ thoughts, like strings that lead to the tales of shattered kites. When these strands are followed to the end, they lead to their source in an otherworldly paradise in an immortal’s peach garden.
© 2013 Guanxi Master