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Pipa on the Silk Road

A famous pipa player revives long lost melodies after leaving the mainland and discovers what it means to be a musician.

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Wu Man has made a name for herself as one of the living pipa maestros of our time, and even though she left her birthplace of China years ago, her music continues to retain a more authentic, traditional Chinese character than many of the country’s own performers today.

Growing up, Wu’s love affair with the traditional instrument began in her hometown of Hangzhou, where she first began playing, and she would eventually attend the Central Conservatory of Music Middle School in Beijing.

In the 1980s, after China had opened its borders to foreigners, the Central Conservatory of Music (CCM) hosted a special open class with American violinist Isaac Stern, known for his mastery of the instrument as well as discovery of young talent such as Yo-Yo Ma.

The auditorium was packed; teachers and students from CCM and other art schools crowded outside the hall. Wu, still a high school student, was among those without a seat, though her excitement to hear from the music icon couldn’t be dampened.

Master Stern didn’t directly comment on the performances of the violin students on the stage; instead, he asked them questions that would forever alter Wu’s life path.

He asked, “Why do you want to be a musician? When you played, did you feel the audience in the last row in the hall? What did you want to express to them?”

“I started learning the pipa at 9 years old,” Wu says, “but I had never considered these questions. I only thought about going to school, taking exams, and looking for a job after graduating.”

“Mr. Stern’s questions made me feel that Western and Chinese musicians are very different. So I wanted to go abroad.”

When Wu made the decision to go abroad, she says, none of her friends and family understood her choice, questioning what she, a traditional Chinese musical instrument player, would do outside of China. The doubts didn’t deter Wu. Once she graduated with a Master’s degree from the Central Conservatory of Music, she decided to give up a career of performing and teaching at the school. Instead, she followed her heart and left to explore music in the United States.

“I was mainly curious and wanted to know what a musician is,” she says.

The openness and creativity of New York helped Wu cultivate her authentic Chinese style and sound. Photography by Kuandi Studio

The quintessential Chinese feeling

After arriving in New York, Wu said she was like a sponge, absorbing different music styles and forms. She learned about freelancing and that musicians didn’t have to belong to an institution or school. “They can be independent and do their own art,” she says.

The openness and tolerance of New Yorkers allowed Wu and her pipa to find a home among them. She explored other music and art forms, coming into contact with artists from all over the world: Central Asia, Africa, Japan, and South Korea.

“By understanding their music, I could better understand what makes the pipa unique in contrast to other traditional ethnic instruments. I could better appreciate the pipa’s unique qualities when compared to other plucked instruments, such as guitars and banjos,” she says.

The pipa is one of the most representative instruments of Chinese folk music. Its length of three feet five inches represents the three realms—heaven, earth, and the underworld—and the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, while the pipa’s four strings represent the four seasons.

“Pipa is a foreign musical instrument. It passed to China from Persia. It can be high-pitched and high-spirited as well as graceful and beautiful. It is dramatic and highly expressive. At the same time, it is also very hard to play,” says Wu.

While Wu’s mastery of the pipa places her at the top of her craft today, what really defines her style is an authentic Chinese sound and feel. Her music’s cultural authenticity is like the rhythm of an ink painting, the aftertaste of good tea, or the warm feel of fine porcelain. The Chinese heritage in her music can be felt, lingering between each note, resonating.

“When I am playing ‘A Moonlit Night on the Spring River,’ my performance is completely different from when I was a student,” she says. “I want people who are listening to feel ancient buildings, pavilions, bridges, and flowing water. The piece I played is with a silver sound of water, a sense of moderation, the quintessential Chinese feeling.”

Wu Man is one of today’s living pipa maestros. Photography by Call The Shots Photography

Reviving ancient Tang Dynasty melodies

Twenty widely known ancient pipa melodies hark back primarily to the Qing Dynasty. In 2010, Wu recorded an album called Infinite Light, containing 14 pipa melodies from the Tang Dynasty—China’s Golden Age. This album—the first with pipa songs from this era—was recorded in collaboration with a professor at the University of Arkansas.

“They were melodies made when the pipa was first passed to China,” Wu says. “Some of them were found in the Dunhuang Caves and are very precious.”

Before meeting Wu, the professor had been studying ancient music scores of the Tang Dynasty for many years. These scores used tablature, a form of musical notation that marks the fingerings rather than note pitch. Since he couldn’t play the pipa, he never knew how the ancient melodies actually sounded. Once he met Wu, they began the process of resurrecting these long lost compositions.

For eight years, they worked together, facing many challenges. The ancient music notation is very simple but lacks specific descriptions, such as the length of each note and the playing technique. Additionally, the design of the pipa has also been improved throughout history, slightly altering the sound.

“The pipa has been continually changing since ancient times. There were only four beams in the neck of the pipa at the beginning, but now there are 22,” she says.

Wu practiced the pieces over and over again, trying to unlock the intended melodies. “Although the process of studying the ancient music scores was not easy, in the end, we made it, and recorded this album. It’s very exciting,” she says.

When Wu first travelled overseas 30 years ago, she never could have expected to revive ancient music from the Tang Dynasty while working in North America. Other unprecedented opportunities arose during her stay abroad, such as performing onstage with the famous Chinese American musician Yo-Yo Ma.

Wu Man and the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. © Taeuck Kang

She and Ma and other musicians formed an ensemble called the “Silk Road Project,” which spanned 20 years, uniting artists from all over the world for joint activities such as music teaching and recitals, using music as a medium to promote cultural exchanges.

“We didn’t expect to do this project for 20 years. At the beginning, it was just music exchanges. Later, it became more deeply about culture,” Wu says. “Music is a language that crosses borders. You will find the commonality of human nature in music, which makes you look at problems from a broader and more comprehensive perspective and respect all civilizations and cultures in the world.”

Wu will continue to step onto the stage, proffering the gift of her music to audiences around the world. In this stressful environment of the pandemic, she hopes the sound will bring society some much-needed peace and healing; a timely reminder of why, in ancient Chinese wisdom, the word “medicine” was synonymous with the word “music.”

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