Cheng Yu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am

THE BREAD LINE My childhood was a mixture of sweet, sour and bitter experiences. I was barely five years old when I was sent from Beijing with my parents and sister to Gansu province during the Cultural Revolution. We all lived in one room with no electricity or heating and in the winter temperatures were as low as minus 20 degrees [Celsius]. I remember carrying a bag of mantou [steamed bread] and climbing two moun- tains to go to the only school in the county. It took six hours and my feet would be blister-ed and bleeding. That bag of mantou was a whole week's food: in the winter it froze like an ice block and in the summer it rotted. Life was really tough there compared with being in Beijing.

DADDY DEAREST I think my father realised his music dream was shattered and he wanted to pass his ambition on to me, so he made a small, rough-looking pipa, which he gave to me as a birthday present when I was seven and taught me to play. He was very strict at the beginning and I did not enjoy the learning process. However, I gradually fell in love with the pipa. It may have been roughly made but it was most precious to me. I used to hide it under my bed.

The Cultural Revolution affected my father greatly and effectively ruined his musical career. He was the leading principal in the China National Orchestra in Beijing but he was punished for being on the wrong side of the revolution and was forced to work feeding cows and pigs. People were struggling to get enough to eat; they didn't have the energy for creative ambitions.

IN THE MOVIES When I was a music student in China I performed on [the soundtrack of] Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor but I didn't think much about it at the time as it was just part of my work. I only realised how big the movie was when it won several Oscars. Before that I played [music for] other Chinese movies such as Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum, directed by Zhang Yimou. [More recently] I was involved in the music creation and recording for the film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and I have worked on other Hollywood films based on Chinese themes, including Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights, Around the World in 80 Days and The Forbidden Kingdom.

My group, the Silk String Quartet, was formed in 2006 and is currently recording the music for Shanghai, starring John Cusack, Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat. We are also going to work on the music for a Harry Potter-style Chinese BBC TV series titled Bo and the Spirit World later in the year.

FAB FOUR Apart from myself on the pipa, the other three members of the group are Sun Zhuo (the 21-stringed guzheng), Wang Xiao (the fiddle-like erhu) and Zhou Jinyan (yangqin; a type of dulcimer). We've all had similar Chinese-Western musical educations and got together with the aim of stretching our creative muscles. This is kind of new as we traditionally don't have string quartets as such [in Chinese music].

We have performed at many music events and festivals including the Chinese New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London; The First Emperor's Terracotta Army Exhibition at the British Museum; Monkey: Journey to The West at the Royal Opera House in London, and with the London Symphony Orchestra and Lang Lang.

BAND ON THE RUN Chinese music in the West is still under-represented compared to Afro-Caribbean, Latin and Indian music but the Beijing Olympics helped promote worldwide interest in our music and culture. For the quartet, [last year] was our best so far for performances and we were overwhelmed with demands [to play].

STRINGS ATTACHED I have long been involved in a project to resurrect the lost five-string pipa of the Tang period [AD618-AD907]. It is as significant as the four-stringed pipa and both were leading instruments in the court orchestra; the latter survived and thrived but the former was mysteriously 'lost' around the eighth or ninth century. When I was little, I was attracted to a beautiful picture of the five-stringed pipa and I thought that one day I'd like to bring it back to life. When I finished my PhD at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, I was fortunate enough to be awarded three scholarships for a creative project, which enabled me to travel to Japan, Korea and China. In 2005, I premiered a concert with a set of newly commissioned music for this lost instrument, first in London, then Seoul and Taipei. I'm currently working on a book about it.

My intention was not to make a replica, a copy or a museum piece but to create a performance instrument for the 21st century. The Chinese government recognised my efforts and gave me patent rights for the new five-string pipa and the construction method.


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Cheng Yu

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