Dubai: When Yehui Feng started learning guzheng – a traditional Chinese instrument, at the age of seven, she never imagined herself winning second place in an international contest in the UAE, both in 2022 and 2023.
The teenager, 15 years of age now, said, “Nearly all contestants participated with modern and popular instruments such as piano, violin, cello, and saxophone. I wasn’t sure if guzheng would stand a chance among these instruments – it’s lesser known.”
She also didn’t think that her performances would spark interest in her culture from a multinational audience, but it did.
“I’m often surrounded by people after performing in public, they are curious about the instrument I’m playing with, and then, they ask about me and my culture.”
Chinese author Xiuping Wang wrote in her book ‘A Compendium of Chinese National Musical Instruments’, that the structure of guzheng consists of many parts including but not limited to panels, strings, string nails, tuning boxes, side panels, and sound outlets. The main body of guzheng is a rectangular wooden box, normally made from Paulownia wood. One string has one tone, arranged according to the pentatonic scale.
The high-pitched strings of the guzheng are closest to the player, and the low-pitched strings are the outermost – nowadays, guzheng usually has 21, 25, or 26 strings.
What got Feng into guzheng in the first place
While pleasantly surprised by the sort of recognition her audience extends towards her performances, Feng didn’t choose to study guzheng at the age of seven - her mother made the choice for her.
Instead of studying in the UAE, Feng was sent back to Shanghai, China, for early education, at the age of 3. Her mother’ s sister took the young girl under her wing. Feng’s mother Ping Feng – a UAE resident based in Dubai for over 20 years, wanted her child to first build a strong connect to her own culture and then planned to bring her back to the UAE, when it was time for her to attend middle school. She came back to the UAE at the age of 11, in 2019.
“It was important for her to learn about her own language and culture at an early age - it helped her to feel grounded in a cosmopolitan environment in the UAE later. To understand other cultures better, she needed to find her own roots first,” Ping said.
And what better way to find one’s root than through a traditional instrument with over 2000 years of history?
Learning Chinese culture is one reason, but Ping also had her personal motivations. She said that she was often exposed to classical Chinese music during her university days back in her 20s, in Huzhou city, China. She vividly remembers how artistically beautiful the sound of guzheng was and how she would immerse herself in it for hours, thrilled by it. It was a joyful time full of spring blossoms, marked by the soothing sound of guzheng. Even now, Ping can’t help revisiting that fond memory of hers when she hears the notes of a guzheng.
She wanted her daughter to experience that happiness from guzheng music.
So, eight years ago, when Feng was still in China, Ping advised her to start guzheng classes in her spare time. “I wanted her to get to know it first, if she liked it, she could choose to pursue it as a hobby,” Ping recalled. Although Feng was too young to appreciate the instrument properly, being an obedient daughter, she continued with the classes. “I just remember that the sound was pleasant, and that I was very excited to get my first guzheng.”
It was not until a few years later, when Feng passed level eight (with the highest level being level ten) for amateur players, that she slowly developed love and attachment to this traditional art from. “When I became more skillful in playing, I started to ‘enter the zone’ often – different songs that I played would take me to different imaginary places. My emotions were taken on a ride by the subtle yet passionate melody of guzheng music.”
However, it was an unpopular choice
Despite the gradual love that Feng developed for guzheng, she was the ‘odd’ kid at her music school in China – not many others were learning traditional Chinese instruments. “At the time – in fact, even till now, modern musical instruments such as piano and violin are the norm in China. Traditional Chinese instruments are not as popular.”
The lack of interest in traditional instruments is not unique to China. According to Feng, she observed that out of the hundreds of multicultural contestants in the contest she participated in the UAE – ‘Young Musicians of the Gulf’, in 2022, only she and two others played traditional instruments – they brought traditional Emirati instruments to the mix. The rest played instruments that were commonly seen in her music school in China – piano, violin, cello….
Although these contestants all reside in the Gulf region, they come from different countries, and each of these countries has their own version of traditional instruments – be it oud, tambourine, sitar, tabla, or Dan Bau. However, again, not many of them were seen in the contest.
“It was a pity,” both Feng and her mother said, “…traditional music should be heard more.”
Unexpected solicitude over guzheng in the UAE
While feeling bad about the rare appearance of traditional instruments at such a largescale international musical event, Feng was happy with the second place she won, with her guzheng.
“It came as a surprise. I didn’t even think I would get to top ten – mainly because I was worried that as such an uncommon instrument, such as guzheng music would not resonate with anyone. However, the fact that I won the second place, states the potential of guzheng, thus the potential of traditional instruments. It also tells us that music is borderless – the judges and audiences were not from China, but they gave me a big round of applause after my performance, expressing their affirmation to the music.”
In the four years Feng has been in the UAE, her guzheng and she have drawn attention – firstly within the Chinese community, and then beyond. She is frequently invited by individuals and organisations to perform at events and occasions.
“Looking back now, I’m grateful that I chose guzheng over modern instruments, because it has a distinctive look and produces an appealing sound, thus alluring people to watch wherever I perform in the UAE. Besides, people’s curiosity about it and admiration of the music it produces, may compel them to do some research on my culture, which makes me happy – it serves the purpose of cultural dissemination, too,” Feng said with a smile.
Additionally, Feng and her guzheng even inspired some kids within her community to start learning traditional instruments in the UAE. “Many parents brought their kids to me and asked me about my experience with guzheng, and traditional instruments in general.
“My plan is to organise a Chinese orchestra with different traditional instruments such as erhu, pipa, yangqin, and suona, in the UAE - now I can only find erhu and guzheng players here, but this may change in the future, given the positive responses I got from these kids and their parents.”
Connect the traditional with the modern, the national with the global
Feng wants to include modern instruments in her orchestra, too. She said that for traditional instruments to thrive, they have to keep up with the modern music scene. “Nowadays, I try to incorporate foreign songs into my play - it has gained wide recognition among my audience. After all, who doesn’t like to see their nostalgic songs being played by a foreign instrument?”
Feng was not the only example of drawing international attention with a guzheng. Five years ago, a Chinese girl appeared on the bustling streets of Paris with a guzheng, and played a Chinese song with it. Someone in the audience filmed her performance and uploaded it on the internet. From there, she quickly became an internet sensation, which encouraged her to start her own YouTube channel (@jingxuanGuzheng), to show her street performances to the world. Today, she has over 850K international subscribers to her channel and some of her videos have over 15 million views.
Her name is Jingxuan Peng, born in 1995 in Hunan province, currently studying in France. She majored in guzheng at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. According to the comment sections under her videos, her guzheng performances have ‘comforted …’ and ‘calmed minds’ worldwide. Many praised the sound of it and showed their gratitude towards the positive impact it casts on their emotional wellbeing. Other than Chinese songs, Peng also plays worldwide trendy songs, such as ‘see you again’ and ‘someone like you’.
“What belongs to one nation, belongs to the world, too,” both Jingxuan Peng and Yehui Feng said. Feng is inspired by her guzheng experiences in the UAE, to carry on communicating her culture to the world through a traditional instrument, hoping to inspire more people to pick up their traditions and brighten others’ day via music, where needed.
Note: This article was first published in May 2023.