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Taoist music in spotlight

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Post time: 2009-04-27 14:21:29
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A flute broke the solemn silence.

With the flute sound growing, a group of different Chinese classical musical instruments, such as xiao (a vertical bamboo flute), zheng (a flat stringed instrument with 13 strings), sheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) and serial bells were performed.

A symphony of sounds mingled in a luxuriant style, and a high and floating melody was always to be heard in the centre.

It was a rehearsal by the Chinese Mainland Taoist Orchestra before its visit to Taiwan between July 17 and August 4. During the period, the orchestra is scheduled to hold joint concerts with its counterparts across the Taiwan Straits.

Without knowing the religious background of the performance, one may misunderstand it as an ancient royal court concert.

"The secular style performance is just a result of Taoism's close combination with Chinese everyday life. There is no other religion in China closer to the people's life than Taoism," said Liu Hong, art director of the mainland Taoism orchestra and a former professor of folk music.

Long tradition

Taoist music was born in the early years of Taoism.

As an indigenous religion developed locally in China, Taoism is a combination of the worship of ghosts, adoration of becoming gods, and the non-interference thought of Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (or Laozi, living in 6th century BC).

In his Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu thought non-interference was the highest principle of government, which could make the governed choose their own happiness and a natural harmony.

Absorbing the ideas of Lao-tzu, early Taoists in Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) argued that if one abstained from big material pursuits, worshipped various gods, and continued to cultivate his spirit and body, he or she could become a god enjoying everlasting happiness and immortality.

To achieve this goal, one must practise Taoism both inside and outside one's physical existence. Inner practice involves physical and breathing exercises, concentrated contemplation, and the taking of elixirs. External practice involves doing good deeds and helping others.

Taoist music appeared when Taoism began to form an organic religion in late East Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). It was considered part of the religious rituals.

During Jin (AD 265-420) and North Wei (AD 386-534) dynasties, Taoism began to absorb the delicate and systematic theories of Buddhism being introduced into China in Han Dynasty.

Meanwhile, Taoism was adopted by the Xianbei ethnic minority rulers of North Wei as a royal religion and received privileged treatment.

From that point on, Taoist music began to absorb royal court music and the situation Taoism being appreciated by royal families lasted until Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) established by Mongol rulers.

Taoism's penetration in the grassroots of society took place everyday since its very beginning.

Ge Zhaoguang, professor of intellectual history at Beijing-based Tsinghua University, said that as a polytheistic religion, China's Taoism has been closely connected with folk faiths.

Various gods, legendary figures and historical heroes were directly shifted to become target of Taoism worship, including Guan Yu, a brave and honest general in Han Dynasty, Wenchang, a legendary figure who was appreciated by intellectuals, and Zhao Gongming, a legendary figure who was exulted in Taoism and became the god of treasure.

"In the process, Taoist music has absorbed nearly all functions of people's everyday life, from marriage, funeral, promotion celebration to friends gathering," Zhang Jiyu, deputy-director of the Taoism Orchestra, told China Daily. Zhang is also vice-chairman of China Taoism Association.

Perhaps due to Taoism's close ties to people's daily life, Lu Xun (1881-1936), the great Chinese critic and thinker, said in 1918 that China's cultural roots were mainly in Taoism. Ten years later, he further concluded: "Average Chinese people may not respect priests, monks, and nuns, but not Taoists. Understanding this, people can understand most parts of the (secular characteristics of) Chinese culture."

"In Taoist music, sometimes you can find parts of Chinese traditional operas and sometimes even Buddhist music style," Liu said.

In the past 100 years, many Taoist works became well known traditional Chinese folk music, with "Erquan Yingyue" (Moon Reflected in the Second Spring) becoming the most famous.

The composer Hua Yanjun (1893-1950), with a nickname Blind Abing, was a love child of the chairing Taoist of a Taoism Temple in Wuxi. Inheriting his father's position as the chairing Taoist and excellent musical skill, Hua developed bad habits of opium addiction and frequenting prostitutes in his youth and was debilitated by syphilis, which ruined both his eyesight and temple position.

In his 50s, when Hua was weak and sick, he could not help expressing his sorrow, regret and expectation to a new life. Sitting beside the famous Spring Erquan, Hua composed the mournful, euphemistical, desolate and sentimental Erquan Yingyue.

Zhang Kongshan, a Taoist living in Sichuan Province's Qingchengshan in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), developed a traditional Taoist music "Flowing Water." The music was so touching and popular that it was taken to outer space by the US space shuttle in 1980s as a symbol from human being.

Revitalizing the music

In the late 1950s, efforts were made to collect and preserve Taoist music as part of keeping traditional Chinese culture.

However, the disastrous "cultural revolution" (1966-76) broke the process and even many collected works were lost.

In the mid 1980s, a large-scale effort to collect and revitalize Taoist music was launched by the government departments and China Taoism Association.

Most Taoist musical works were handed down from teachers to their best pupils and few written or audio records had been left, said Zhang.

The first thing was to look for these old Taoists, many of whom were forced to leave their temples during the "cultural revolution."

"Some aged Taoists could not take care of themselves, but when they heard of the work of collecting traditional Taoist music, they became so excited and insisted on playing their favourite music," Zhang recalled.

Liu joined the work of revitalizing Taoist music in late 1980s when he taught and studied folk music in Wuhan Conservatory of Music.

"At first I worked detached from the work of collecting ancient (Taoist) music. But soon I was deeply touched by the rich contents, graceful tones and varying forms of Taoist music and the devotion of Taoist music players," Liu said.

After many traditional Taoist music works were collected, the work of cultivating new generations of players became more challenging. Most Taoists did not have basic musical knowledge and training and their ages have commonly been older than the best years of learning music.

Zhang said in order to overcome these difficulties, young Taoists with musical talents in temples nationwide were looked for.

"They might not understand musical scores, but when looking at their prayers and exercise, you can find which one has better potential and devotion to learn our religious music," Zhang said.

Playing Taoist music became part of the daily spiritual exercise for the selected Taoists. Some people were so devoted to the career that they exercised with their instruments both day and night.

By mid 1990s, Taoist musical groups of different sizes had been resumed in many famous Taoist temples, such as Beijing's Baiyunguan and the temples in Jiangxi Province's Longhushan, Hubei Province's Wudangshan and Shandong Province's Laoshan.

The restoration of Taoist music bands have given believers and tourists precious chances to enjoy the essence of Taoism, Zhang said.

Exchange across the Straits

According to Zhang, Taiwan's Taoism has shown a boom in recent years. Statistics show that among the island's 15,000 temples, more than 6,000 belong to Taoism.

Taoist believers in Taiwan and Hong Kong admired the original Taoism thoughts in the mainland. They are keen to learn and taste the orthodoxy of this religious culture and spirits of the mainland's Taoism. Many of them visit mainland Taoist temples each year, Zhang said.

Zhang himself has been invited to exchange ideas and give lectures in Taiwan four times.

He said: "Each time I went to Taiwan, I received warm-hearted receptions by many ordinary Taoists and made deep theoretical exchanges."

Liu said for a mass religion, theoretical exchange of Taoism is not enough to bring comforts and enjoyments to common believers.

"In this respect, Taoist music can play an important role," Liu told China Daily.

The Chinese Mainland Taoism Orchestra gave its first performance in Taipei yesterday. It will then travel to Tainan with scheduled concert on July 26, and then to Taichung for performance on August 3. Their counterparts in Taiwan will also join the performance.

To impress local audiences and Taoist believers, the orchestra of more than 100 performers from five noted local orchestras, also brings performances of Taoist kung fu and qigong, both a result of the body exercise of Taoists in their long time religious practice.

It is reported by Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV that many Taiwanese, believing Taoism or not, have been eagerly anticipating the performance.

"In fact, what we bring to Taiwan is not only a religious music, It is also a kind of traditional Chinese culture fuelling national affection and identity," Liu said.

From ChinaDaily.com.cn

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