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Sound of Sorrow

Chinadaily.com.cn Update:2010-03-03 17:53:45 click:5682
font size: L M S | Print Out

 

 

The cuoqin dates back 4,000 years but would have largely been forgotten today except for the efforts of one man.

Video: Zhang Zixuan

Editor: Huang Lan

 

Related story :

 Sound of sorrow

Cuoqin player Zhao Xingtang often plays the ancient violin in front of his grandfather's photo, seeking inspiration and blessings. Zhang Zixuan/China daily

The cuoqin dates back 4,000 years but would have largely been forgotten today except for the efforts of one man. Zhang Zixuan reports

Zhao Xingtang will never forget the mournful music his grandfather played when his grandmother died in 1956.

Locked away in a dark room, he played the cuoqin and sang a dirge about a widower crying for his deceased wife. Everyone was moved to tears.

The cuoqin is like an ancient violin, played with a bow made of broomcorn straw, and shaped like a guzheng (a Chinese plucked zither).

Sound of sorrow

Records of its existence stretch back to inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells some 4,000 years ago and it appeared at least 1,500 years earlier than stringed instruments in the West.

Though most people don't know anything about the instrument today, Zhao, 64, has been trying to popularize it in Qingzhou, Shandong province.

Zhao's grandfather Zhao Caiyun learned to make and play the cuoqin from his grandfather. Zhao Caiyun used to perform on the instrument in the Tianqiao area of south Beijing in the 1930s, where itinerant street performers eked out a living.

"My grandfather could sing while playing, play while walking," Zhao says. "He memorized more than 100 songs and played them all the time."

Zhao says there was another particularly memorable performance, in 1955, when a 100-year-old sago cycas blossomed unexpectedly in a park - which was considered auspicious and attracted thousands of visitors.

"Grandfather was so happy that he took me to the park, and played cuoqin beside the plant to celebrate," Zhao says.

"People seemed more curious about the instrument than the blossom. That's how the cuoqin gained fame in the area."

In 1960, the 14-year-old Zhao went to Northeast China searching for a better life. He was unable to visit his grandfather again before he died, so he now commemorates him by playing the cuoqin.

Zhao has turned a room in his siheyuan (courtyard house) into a mourning hall for his grandfather. He often plays cuoqin or meditates in front of the old man's photo, seeking inspiration and blessings.

The cuoqin played an important role in Zhao's life when he had a stroke in 2006 and the right half of his body was paralyzed.

Zhao tried to play the cuoqin and says this eventually helped him fully recover.

"I could hear my father practicing at 5 am every morning," says Zhao's son, Zhao Jianzhong.

"The Cuoqin gave me faith," Zhao senior says.

The stroke made him realize the urgency of preserving the instrument and since then he has taught his children and grandchildren to play and make the cuoqin.

"I've learnt a few songs, but I need more practice," says Zhao's son. The 35-year-old also helped his father to apply for a patent and founded a company to promote cuoqin.

The old man made a smaller cuoqin for his 8-year-old granddaughter, who has learned some basic skills.

"She has yet to understood its significance, but one day she will," Zhao says. Sound of sorrow

Thanks to Zhao's efforts, the cuoqin was included in the provincial-level Intangible Cultural Heritage, in Shandong, last September.

Though he hasn't received any financial support, Zhao is gratified by the honor. He is now preparing to apply for the instrument to have national-level status.

In the 1980s, Zhao and several friends founded the "Peasant Household" folk music band. Members aged from 64 to 77 played the cuoqin, erhu fiddle, three-stringed sanxian and some percussion instruments.

The band often performs cuoqin songs on Yunmen Hill, in Qingzhou, and in 2008 the China Conservatory of Music invited it to play a concert in Beijing and give a seminar on the instrument.

"Zhao is a quiet person but when he rehearses with us, he can be very chatty," says Gao Yuekui, 77, who plays the erhu.

Caressing the first cuoqin he made decades ago, Zhao tells his band members: "When the weather gets warmer, let's put on our costumes and perform on Yunmen Hill again."

 

 Sound of sorrow

Zhao Xingtang teaches his 8-year-old granddaughter how to play the cuoqin. Zhang Zixuan/China daily








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