Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guitars come to China

When did the guitar come to China?   Western missionaries may have brought lutes, vihuelas and other guitar-like instruments to parts of China already by the 16th century, but their memoirs mention only the keyboard instruments and bowed string ensembles.  There's a record in the Vatican archives that papal legates to the Kangxi emperor brought two guitars by the maker Pietro Franchi to Beijing in 1720.

It was probably only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that the guitar began to be known more widely in China's coastal cities.  By the 1920s and 1930s, the instrument was all the rage in Shanghai and Hong Kong, cosmopolitan cities with broad western and Asian connections.  Famous stars appeared with guitars in movies made in Shanghai's film studios.  Models posed with Western stringed instruments. Ling Long, a magazine for sophisticated "modern girls," ran several portraits in the mid-1930s of fashionably dressed young ladies playing or holding guitars, ukuleles or mandolins.  In one, a woman with bobbed hair and a qipao dress with modish diagonal stripes mimes playing guitar in a garden.  The caption reads, "Miss Xu, in this tranquil place, play a song for us!"  In another, a girl labeled "healthy and beautiful" lounges in a bathing suit, cradling a ukulele her lap.  In a third, a girl in revealing tank top and short shorts lies on her back, one knee raised, her loose hair provocatively splayed on the courtyard floor behind her.  "Only she," the caption sighs, "can fully express such natural beauty."  The head of a mandolin rests against her breast while her slender fingers toy with the tuning pegs. 

These western stringed instruments made it possible (in a manner to which Chinese instruments are less suited) for young Chinese to accompany themselves singing popular songs of the day, and to do so in parks and other outdoor settings (as the piano does not).  But clearly these instruments meant more than that.  The guitar in China in this era was associated with youth and freedom—as in many other places.  But in China it bore an added sense of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, because the guitar was—and would remain for decades—classed as a foreign instrument. 

One of modern China's most famous song-writers, Nie Er 聶耳 (composer of China's national anthem) was a guitarist.  He used the guitar to great effect in his 1935 hit play, "Song of Returning Spring."   A girl strums guitar and sings "Plum Girl's Song" 梅娘曲 about her boyfriend who has lost his memory after being wounded fighting the Japanese.  She reminisces in the song about how they once played guitar and romanced in a garden in Southeast Asia—so again, the guitar is associated with foreign parts, as well as young love.  The song became a big hit among Chinese inside and outside of China, and could be considered a milestone in the use of guitar in Chinese popular music. 

Another early and prominent appearance is in the well-known New Year's song, "Gongxi gongxi," 恭喜恭喜 by Chen Gexin (under the pen name Qing Yu) and performed by Yao Li  姚莉 and her brother Yao Man.  The song, written in Shanghai in1945, commemorates the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII).  It has a gypsy sound to it, reminiscent of Russian or French café music.  Though this sound would not have been alien to listeners in 1940s Shanghai, it was nonetheless a cosmopolitan sound, not a specifically Chinese one.   The cross-cultural layerings of this emotive song are perhaps one reason why singers China Forbes and Timothy Yuji Nishimoto covered it—in Chinese—with Pink Martini in 2010.  [My thanks to Andrew Jones for the references to Nie Er and "Gongxi gongxi."]  Here's the Yao Li and Yao Man version:

These foreign associations would get the guitar in trouble as China's political vicissitudes led to anti-western isolationism during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.   Oddly enough, given the millions of young Red Guards then roaming the country and challenging authority, and the revolutionary romanticism of those years, they were not playing guitars.  In fact, the guitar was condemned as Western and decadent, associated in China with "hooligans" (liumang 流氓).  Anthems to Mao were not accompanied on a six-string.  Popular instruments of the day included the accordion, harmonica, and autoharps.  And it was permitted to play the what was called a "balalaika"—a three-stringed banjo-like instrument (Russian balalaikas are in fact triangular).  These were functionally little different from simple guitars, but round in shape rather than waisted, with backs decorated with such Maoisms as "never forget class struggle!"  Now these instruments are coveted pieces of Cultural Revolution memorabilia. 

As the Cultural Revolution wound down in the late 1970s, the guitar returned, as much as icon as musical instrument.   One emblematic figure of that era was the "false foreign devil"—the newest avatar of the liumang hooligan.  He wore long hair, tight or bell-bottom pants, sunglasses (often with the tag still dangling) and carried a guitar.   The philosopher Zhao Yuesheng describes his first encounter with the type in 1978 or 1979:

"I opened the gate and entered the yard [of a friend's old courtyard home in Beijing] and saw a guy standing under the big tree.  He was tall—close to six feet—with broad shoulders, a narrow waist and long legs.  On close inspection he looked like a wild tartar (huren 胡人)  with his fair complexion, prominent brows, deep-set eyes, broad forehead, square face, and high-bridged nose.  His long hair swept his shoulders, and the tight trousers left the rounds of his buttocks clearly visible.  Today, we'd call this "sexy."  In the opinion of the time, it was "hooligan."  His left hand leaned against the trunk of the walnut tree; from his right shoulder hung a big guitar, its coppery finish already worn off."

Zhao, used to seeing people dressed in standard loose-fitting workers' and soldiers' clothes, was startled by the man's get-up, which reminded him of Hong Kong or Taiwanese style.  They went inside the house, which belonged to a young woman of their mutual acquaintance.  Zhao was curious to hear this young man, named Tang-ke, play guitar and sing—something Zhao had only read about in novels, but had never heard before.  Though Tang-ke was obviously courting the woman, Zhao was the one most affected when the guitarist softly strummed chords and sang, in a rough but melodic voice, a love song called "Blue Streetlight."  Compared to the strident martial anthems to Mao Zedong that Zhao had grown up with, this song was drenched in "consumptive sentimentality, and so --'capitalist'"![1]

[Excerpted, with minor modifications and with the addition of photos and links, from my chapter "Shredding for the Motherland:  The Guitar in China."  In Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah, eds.  Chinese Characters.  University of California Press, 2012. ]

[1] Zhao Yuesheng 赵越胜,A Stirrup cup for the past  (Li ge qing jiu yi jiu shi  骊歌清酒忆旧时).  New YorkOxford University Press, 2010, pp. 178-179.