Howard's Blog

From Miao to Mao to Nie Er!

  • May 7, 2012

Last week I was so overcome by our excursion to the Miao village (the alert proof readers among you may have noticed the typo “Maio” in the title of last week’s post. Big mea culpa!) that I completely neglected to tell you about our experience the day before, a fabulous, fascinating day trip to the Western Hills, on the outskirts of Kunming

I’ll get to that shortly, But first, a few post-scripts re our Miao friends. First, these remarkable singing mountain farmers are devout Christians. I haven’t been able to determine what denomination they seem closest to; they themselves (i.e. their pastor) seem unaware of those kinds of distinctions. They do recognize themselves as Protestant, and it’s clear from their hymns and their style of worship that they’re fervent evangelicals. The day we were there, I slipped back into the sanctuary a couple of times even after we had heard the choir sing (the service continued while we were having our lunch) just to enjoy the congregational hymn singing. There was a song leader wearing a baseball cap who would make some brief comments prior to the singing of the hymn.

Watching Mom singing from the Miao hymnal

The hymn itself would be followed by a minute or so of total silence, everyone seated with bowed heads. Their faith is obviously very important to them and a central part of their lives, in fact so much so that one might well expect the government to look somewhat askance at this open Christian piety. However, there appears to be no interference from the authorities whatsoever. One of the reasons may surprise you. I learned that during Mao Zedong’s legendary Long March (1934-35), the Miao people, knowing the remote mountain routes better than most, helped Mao and his communist followers in their battle against Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang. (That battle, incidentally, was put on the back burner in 1937 when Japan launched a massive invasion of China. For the time being, Mao and Chiang had a common enemy. However, the Communist-Kuomintang rivalry resumed with the end of WW II and in 1949 resulted in Mao’s victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.) It would appear that Mao and his communist successors never forgot the help they had received from the Miao folks during the 1930s, and so these mountain dwellers continue to be able to worship freely. Funny how the usual labels and definitions and parameters just don’t fit here!

Last week I had a different interpreter at the university (Olivia, my trusty assistant, is temporarily tied up with other duties in the Foreign Affairs office). This one is doing graduate work in piano at YAU and speaks a bit of English. I asked her whether she has an English name, and she replied, “You can call me Bobo!” So Bobo it is. I hope it won’t be long until she meets some guy called Bubba! Anyway, she told me that she and several other pianists travel to the selfsame Miao village from time to time to give piano recitals. Of course I wanted to know what rep they play for their Miao audience. I was told the last recital a couple of weeks ago featured one of the French Suites and a couple of Inventions by Bach, Papillons by Schumann and Suite Bergamasque by Debussy! And how did the villagers enjoy the recital? Well, Bobo explained, they didn’t seem to understand the music too well (no kidding!), but they were all there (kids and adults) and they sat quietly and listened to all of it. I can only imagine that one of these times it will be John Cage and Elliott Carter with some Second Viennese School bonbons thrown in as easy-listening encores!

I think that pretty much wraps up what I wanted to tell you about the Miao. They do seem to occupy an all but unique position among the 55 minorities in China, not least because of their reputation for singing.

Now let me back up one day from that memorable Miao experience. On Saturday, April 28, we decided it was time to visit the Western Hills, on the shores of Dian Chi, a large (50 kms wide and about 300 kms long)  and horribly polluted lake. The hills, with their imposing 2500 metre-high ridge, are about 20 kms west of Kunming. Andrew, one of my conducting students and a graduate student in composition, has a cute little Chinese car, and was thrilled to be our guide for the day.

Andrew with Maggie and Howard

This beautiful park is known especially for the Huating Temple, originally a country retreat for Gao Zhishen, Kunming’s 11th century ruler. It became a Buddhist monastery in the 14th century. The entire large complex is gorgeous, utterly calm and restful.

Part of the Huating Temple complex


Ceiling in the Huating Temple

Guardian inside the temple entrance hall. If you behave, he won't hurt you!

Incense burner near the Huating Temple. I love the aroma!

500 Arhats in the Huating Temple

An Arhat (literally, “one who is worthy”) is a perfected person, one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana. (I’m working on it, but I still have a way to go!)

Huating Temple

We were lucky because this particular day happened to be the birthday of Buddha’s son, and so there were special ceremonies and processions. I successfully resisted the urge to sing Happy Birthday!

Buddhist monks celebrating the birthday of Buddha's son.

Having left the serenity of the Temple, we continued our stroll through the park, and stumbled upon another unexpected treat, a shrine and museum in honor of Nie Er, the composer of the Chinese national anthem. (The orchestra I will be conducting later this month was recently renamed the Kunming Nie Er Symphony Orchestra). He was an exceptional instrumentalist (violin, erhu) and, most important, totally committed to Mao Zedong and the communist movement. For his own safety, he was sent to Japan where he drowned in a swimming accident in 1935 at the tender age of 23 (even younger than Pergolesi who packed it in at 26). Nie Er was born in 1912, so this year is his centenary, and a great deal of attention is being devoted to his memory.

Statue of Nie Er, Chinese composer

Memorabilia in the Nie Er Museum

A group of Chinese tourists being regaled about the importance of Nie Er.

By this time, we had strolled a considerable distance and welcomed the opportunity to take the open cable car pretty much to the very top of that 2500 metre-high ridge I mentioned earlier. The summit affords a commanding view of the haze which blankets Kunming much of the time!

Cable car - Western Hills, Kunming

You get off the cable car and then begin a perilous hike of a km or so which takes you to the Dragon Gate, a narrow balcony and ornamental grotto on a sheer cliff overlooking the lake. This has been here since about 1320!

Dragon Gate, dating from the 14th century

Dragon Gate

Dragon Gate

All the while Andrew is giving us all kinds of interesting factoids about what we’re seeing. He’s very happy to be able to take his teachers (he’s in Maggie’s English class and he’s studying conducting with me) on this trip. (He calls me “Master”! I love it!!).

And so this particular adventure ends, but not before Andrew insists on taking us out for dinner. Our repeated offer to pick up the tab falls on deaf ears! We enjoy another multi-course meal served in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. Andrew deposits us outside our apartment, and we climb the stairs to our lovely retreat, aware that yet again we have experienced so much, we have more processing to do, so much to absorb, so much to write about!

All that happened just over a week ago. In this amazing world, a week is an eternity which goes by in a flash. During the past days, I’ve been immersing myself in the music which I’ll start rehearsing with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra 2 weeks from today. Tuesdays and Thursdays are always packed with teaching and rehearsals. This Thursday evening I’ve agreed to take an extra Mozart Requiem rehearsal with the 170 voice Higher Vocational College Choir. Oh yes, the other news is that on Thursday I was formally invited to conduct the concert performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, the date of which will be “sometime between the 10th and the 15th of June”. I’ve been coaching and rehearsing the soloists and chorus and have been loving every minute! However, until now I was given to understand that Prof. Chen, the ebullient, irrepressible president of Wenhua College (one of the adjunct colleges of Yunnan Arts University) would be conducing the actual performance. So this invitation came as good news. When Lillian (the dynamo who has organized the whole Verdi venture and who took us to the Miao village) told the singers on Thursday that I would be conducting the performance, there was a roar of approval! Felt good!

Tonight I’m going out for a beer with Lu Hao Yin, the “Dean of Public Relations” of the Kunming Symphony Orchestra. Joining us will be Yereth Jansen, one of the driving forces of…that’s the website that is de rigueur reading for every foreigner in these parts. I believe the agenda for tonight’s meeting is promoting the May 25 concert, although I have a hunch the orchestra has some other ideas up its corporate sleeve as well. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m sitting here at my desk looking out over the street 5 floors below, and it’s raining! We are thrilled! It’s so very dry here;  this will rinse the dust off everything. And of course the farmers will be ecstatic.

Now, back to my score study!





















1 Comment on From Miao to Mao to Nie Er!

  • tyoderne says:
    May 7, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Hi, Howard and Maggie,

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading both of your blogs. You certainly know how to “buy the time” to the fullest.

    Great stuff!



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