Cast in Stones

FOR THE PAST six weeks a team of Chinese-Americans have tried to train the spotlight back on Shanghai, after Sars blacked out what was to be an unprecedented summer of cultural activity in the city.

Next week an all-star cast of Chinese artists will descend on the city with a raft of concerts to show the world that Shanghai is alive and well. Held over a week at three venues, 'Inspired By China's Roots' will feature the pianist Lang Lang; the principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet, Tan Yuan Yuan, and Metropolitan Opera star Tian Hao Jiang. Joining these big-name contemporary artists will be shamans and folk artists from Hunan and Yunnan provinces in a festival whose focus is to fuse the ancient cultures of Chinese folk tradition with the innovations of modern art.

'It all happened at breathtaking speed,' explains festival director Shirley Young. When the World Health Organisation gave the all-clear in June. 'We decided that there should be something to let the world know Shanghai is open for business again.'

Booking big names was not a problem. Young is one of the founding members of the Committee of 100 - a high-profile society of Chinese-American 'leaders' in arts, science and business, founded by the likes of architect I.M. Pei and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

'We had the idea of these Chinese-American international artists being inspired by the Chinese cultural legacy to create something new and to bring it forward,' says Young in her strong New York accent. 'There has been criticism that in spite of all the beautiful theatres we have in China, everybody is doing the traditional stuff. What's new coming out of China?'

Tan Dun was the first artist to be approached. Originally booked to stage his sprawling opera, Tea, at the end of this month with the Netherlands Opera - a project that has been years in the making and was postponed until next year due to the outbreak - the artist swiftly agreed to return with the China premiere of a different show, The Map: Concerto For Cello, Video And Orchestra, which opened to great critical acclaim in Boston in February and enjoyed a successful run at New York's Carnegie Hall.

'It's very emotional and also a very personal journey,' says Tan. The project began in 1981, when Tan was still a student at the Beijing Conservatory and went to Hunan to research traditional folk songs. Along the way he came across a 'stone man' in Tujia village, who drew upon an ancient tradition of stone drumming. 'In eight positions, according to the I-Ching and with the shamanistic vocalisation, he talked to the wind, clouds and leaves; he talked to the next life and the past one. At that moment I felt he was a map.'

Tan says he told the man he would one day return and study with him. It took him 19 years to fulfil the promise. In 1999, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to craft a personal piece drawing on his own heritage, in association with Yo-Yo Ma. Tan returned to the village and was told that the musician had died, taking the musical tradition with him. 'No one seemed to be able to play the stone music any more. I felt so sad and disappointed.'

Tan formed the concept of a map, to locate the 'spiritual energy and music' of this man.

'The idea is trying to find the new concept, the new technology, to save those cultural survivors. Then what I want to propose is like a Bartok or Stravinsky, it's like the old masters, always trying to meet the primitive traditions,' he says. 'Of course, the way we are doing it now is different from the masters before, we are dealing with a very global cultural situation. We are living in a very diverse communication era with the internet and DVDs. So of course, all those formats become my activity, part of my invention.'

The Map is a multi-media show, featuring video footage of the villagers filmed by Tan and music inspired by the folk traditions. Tan conducts and plays the stones himself, with Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen filling the chair that Yo-Yo Ma occupied with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Lang Lang will perform the China premiere of Tan's Eight Memories In Watercolour on September 3 in a solo show at the Shanghai Grand Theatre.

Huang Doudou, the artistic director and principal dancer of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, also joins the programme with an experimental piece Rong (Merging) that stars himself alongside Tan Yuan Yuan and 20 dancers from Shanghai. Huang will meld classical ballet with traditional Chinese dance.

'Every school of Chinese dance insists on sticking to its own styles and rules. But for me, I am young, there is no such thing as rules in my book,' the 26-year-old Huang explains.

'God gave us our heads, hands and feet and we should use them to express our feelings as we like, rather than follow a particular style.'

Beyond the three major concerts at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, satellite events take over Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Conservatory throughout the week. International artists will work with thousands of children in masterclasses, demonstrations and lectures. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, a fascinating exhibition from the Nature Conservancy - the world's largest environmental organisation - will bring the realities of ethnic tribal life to the Shanghai public.

The Conservancy has a large operation in northwest Yunnan, one of the world's most bio-diverse hot spots. In association with the scientific research to help protect this area, conservationist Ann McBride Norton has been leading the Photovoice project, where hundreds of villagers are given simple cameras, and a roll of film each month of the year. The photographs offer valuable information about the cultural traditions that can help sustain the environment.

Where Tan Dun failed to save the stone tradition, the Nature Conservancy stumbled across the last three shamanic priests of the Dongbas tradition - the shaman priests of the Naxi people. Answering the pleas from the priests to find students and pass on the teachings through the last hieroglyphic language left on Earth, the Conservancy managed to save the tradition. Several of these priests will travel to Shanghai for performances at the Shanghai Museum.

'You have these international megastars who have gone outside China and are now coming back and using traditional culture to influence and to build into their musical traditions. We're doing the same by taking cultural information to help inform environmental protection,' says Norton.

'Everyone involved in this project is really feeling that traditional culture can inform our modern world. The theme here is very, very consistent.' [email protected] Inspired By China's Roots, Aug 29 to Sep 5. Inquiries:, e-mail [email protected]. VIP patron packages are available.