Monday, December 15, 2008

Pipa player from the walls of a Qizil cave temple

In many ways, this image sums up what I am trying to do with this blog (and in the book I'm working on). The pipa is a short-necked bowl lute. Instruments by this name entered China from northern and central Eurasia starting perhaps as early as the late 3rd century BC (there's a story that workers commanded by China's first emperor to build the Great Wall learned to play a round lute by this name from the nomads whose lands the wall was cutting off). The pear-shaped pipa came east via Central Asia, ultimately from Persia and India, in a couple waves following the fall of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century AD. It was closely associated with Buddhism: the young Siddhartha, when still a spoiled prince in his father's palace, is said to have chilled out while listening to bands of lutes, harps, flutes and drums; several major sutras describe heavenly bands in which lutes feature prominently. Thus associated with the growing Silk Road religion, the pipa grew in popularity as would the guitar a millennium or so later, reaching a peak of popularity in China in the Tang period (7th through 10th century), and thereafter showing up in Korea and Japan. Tang dynasty elites loved the pipa and Central Asian music, and sponsored pipa-ists and western musical ensembles to perform at their ceremonies and parties. Tang poets linked the pipa in their writings with courtesans and dancing girls from the far west. (The instrument today is still somewhat feminized in China, with mainly girls learning to play it.) This was in contrast to the older qin zither, favored by dour Confucian scholars who plunked away on the fretless thing while sitting alone in their studios worrying about the Buddhists and partying poets.

Over the same centuries, versions of this pear-shaped lute were spreading from Persia throughout Arabia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, north Africa and generally around the Mediterranean. Known in Arabic as al-`ūd, hence "oud," this instrument was the foremost exponent of mugham classical music in the Islamic world. When the Umayyad Caliphate conquered Iberia, the Arabs brought the instrument to Spain (Al-Andalus), whence Europe got the "lute" (picking up the "l" from the Arabic definite article al.) It was a famous oud player who opened Spain' first music conservatory.

Anyway—not to be longwinded here again—the oud / lute spread around the Arab empire along with Islam. The pipa lute spread around the Tang empire along with Buddhism. We thus find the short-necked bowl lute, with similar design features (the bent headstock, the bowl constucted of multiple staves) from one end of Eurasia to the other as a legacy of this early medieval high point of what might be called "proto-globalization"—when empires forged connections across the old world.

The particular image here captures many elements of this early episode of globalization. It comes from the center of Eurasia: Kucha in modern day Xinjiang, where the Qizil caves are located, was one of the Silk Road stages followed by Buddhism on its way east. Nearby monastic colleges translated Buddhist writings into Chinese and other languages. But Kucheans were also the top composers and performers of music along the eastern Silk Road, in hot demand in Tang China. The dress and fleshy visage of the pipa-player in this painting reflect Indian influence, as does much Buddhist art from the Tang period. More than that, in the drapery of his toga we see Hellenic influence, the legacy of Alexander's 4th century BCE conquests in Afghanistan which left their mark on subsequent Buddhist art. Exotic, yes, but look at his playing technique: while ouds / pipas were often played with a large plectrum, here he uses a finger style familiar to any classical guitarist today. Note the long nails! And he seems to have his pinky planted on the soundboard, though that's a no-no for pipa players and classical guitarists alike. . . .

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