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Maestro brings ancient Chinese sounds to London

Updated: 2023-10-05 13:59 ( China Daily )
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Pipa and guqin virtuoso Cheng Yu. [Photo provided to China Daily]

During the afternoon of the second Saturday of every second month the musician Cheng Yu dresses in traditional Chinese attire and takes a guqin and pipa to a special gathering she started in London 20 years ago.

Cheng is a virtuoso of the two instruments who trained at Xi'an Conservatory of Music in the 1980s before playing the pipa with the China National Traditional Orchestra. She later studied for master's and doctoral degrees in ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in the 1990s.

She has been active ever since in educating people and performing Chinese music in the United Kingdom.

To Cheng, sharing and promoting Chinese traditional instruments and music to Westerners brings her the utmost joy and fulfillment.

"This is something that I enjoy doing. It enables them to appreciate a culture that is very unique and different from theirs."

The gathering Cheng initiated, called yaji, is a tradition among Chinese literati that goes back more than 1,000 years, to when ancient scholars and artists first got together to drink tea, write poems, appreciate art and enjoy music.

The bimonthly yaji in London is now organized by the London Youlan Qin Society and focuses on traditional Chinese music, with attendees playing various pieces of music on Chinese instruments, including the guqin, pipa and flute, and with musicians sharing their understanding of the music.

The guqin, or qin, a seven-stringed Chinese zither, is one of China's oldest instruments, with a history dating back about 3,000 years. Twenty years ago UNESCO proclaimed China's ancient guqin music a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Over the years the yaji gatherings in London have drawn professional musicians, scholars, office workers and amateur appreciators of Chinese culture, among others, with attendees coming from all over the UK, and sometimes from elsewhere in Europe.

Cheng and the Silk Breeze ensemble perform her composition Dream Butterfly on a five-stringed pipa at East London's Rich Mix Theatre in August 2021. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"In 2003 I established the London Youlan Qin Society and invited a guqin master, Gong Yi from Shanghai, to teach classes and give concerts in London, and since then we have been holding yaji on various themes," Cheng said. "It's like an informal salon in the West that provides a forum for guqin and Chinese music lovers to perform, and discuss music as well as its associated philosophical and cultural aspects."

In July the society marked its 20th anniversary with the 124th yaji gathering in the Djam Lecture Theatre at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Charlie Thomas, who traveled from Birmingham to London for the gathering, as he had five times before, said: "It's not just Chinese people who come. I met a German lady who also liked guqin, and I started talking with her. People here are so welcoming, and they have different backgrounds but share similar interests in guqin."

Thomas has studied guqin with Cheng for about a year.

"Compared with violin, the sound of the guqin is very meditative and more calming," he said, adding that playing the instrument helped him calm down and solved a sleeping problem he had.

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