Former living Buddha awaits musical turn at opening ceremony

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am

The dark hallway and battered door that lead to a dingy Hohhot hotel room belie the fanciful life of the man who lives there, surrounded by his precious instruments and hallowed images of Genghis Khan.

Chi Bulag has been a living Buddha, was once imprisoned by the Chinese government, toured the world playing his music and has raised a family in Japan. But most importantly, the 64-year-old is the world master of the horse-head fiddle, or morin khuur, the two-stringed instrument of the Mongol culture. Its name comes from the carved wooden horse head that adorns each instrument.

The short, broad-shouldered man with dyed black hair and twinkling eyes is tuning his morin khuur for what he says is his life's crowning achievement. Come August 8, Chi Bulag will take the stage at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and play his most famous song for an audience of millions.

At three, Chi Bulag was recognised as the fifth living Buddha by Moli Lamasery Temple, on the grasslands near the city now called Tongliao , but the Communist government removed him two years later.

'Life as a Buddha was a very different life, but this is my life now, to play this instrument,' he said. 'I had no choice. The government took me away from the temple, but I have no regrets over the course my life took. Who knows what I'll be doing after three or four reincarnations?'

So he followed the advice of his mother to listen to his heart and became a musician. But playing the free-spirited music of a minority ethnic group, which typically mimics the sound of the wind, running horses and rustling grass, led him afoul of officials and he ended up in jail for six months during the Cultural Revolution.

Once released, he returned to his music and slowly his popularity grew. He toured Africa, Europe and returned many times to Japan, where he found similar instruments and musical sounds as those he'd learned to love on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

He also found love, marrying a Japanese woman - his second wife after marrying a Chinese woman. Chi Bulag spent 24 years in Tokyo and raised two daughters before returning to Hohhot three years ago. And then he fell in love again, this time with a Mongol woman.

Chi Bulag will play a song he wrote when he was 18, a song named 10,000 Galloping Horses. Its pounding rhythm speaks of loyalty and perseverance, sentiments inspired by a horse race he saw on the grasslands. Initially, he planned to have 2,008 musicians on stage, but organisers limited him to about 80 and 40 dancers.

'When I found out I would play at the Olympics, I cried. In China's 5,000-year history, this is our first chance to host it,' Chi Bulag said. 'I want to show the world what Genghis Khan left for the Mongols and the world.'