Following from Mario’s previous letter, the couple has arrived in Beijing and is settling in. When Mario heard some traditional music drifting in from some of the national parks in the area, he decided to investigate..
… I tracked down music to a lush green park opposite Tongzhous’s Jiukeshu Subway Station on a cloudy weekday afternoon, around 3pm, not expecting much. To my amazement, the park was full of people and music and colour and life. I noticed single gentleman and ladies, as well as couples, of all ages. Couples were gracefully dancing to a mix of traditional Chinese and ballroom music, with perfect rhythm and grace. At the end of each song some would change partners. They were clearly having a lot of fun.
Further along a group of women were practising square dancing which incorporates traditional Chinese and modern dance. Ms Zan, who’s 78, was recently quoted online saying: “I’m really happy when I’m here.” She says, “every day I come and dance and have fun, so I feel really young, and I love this activity from deep down in my heart.” Recently a video of a young boy leading a square dancing group went viral online. Dancers get to make new friends and exchange gossip while also exercising. These social as well as health benefits have grown square dancers to over a 100 million practitioners. It’s also strongly rooted in heritage, as exercise as a dance can be traced back to Ancient China.
In a separate corner or the park a husband had brought his wife to sing Karaoke, which has become interwoven into China’s social scene. I was wondering what all the KTV signs meant which are very visible throughout the city – these turned out to be Karaoke Bars. The Japanese word “Karaoke” translated means “empty orchestra”. Fast internet has made the KTV Karaoke Bars mobile with anyone being able to upload their performances to social media, some becoming superstars overnight. One Karaoke app called Everybody Sing Along has 460 million users. This made me think of how famous a certain Dominee in Swellendam could be with his brilliant guitar and singing skills…
A bit farther away, a group of gentlemen were deep in discussion and laughter. There were no smart phones, the only technology in sight their electric scooters. What I would have given to understand Chinese at that moment!
All this activity was made possible by a canopy of trees, as the temperature outside was 33 degrees Celcius. Every suburb we have been to has a forest park. Even the express ways are lined by kilometres of trees.
The temples and shrines are surrounded by forests. Its quite apparent that the dream is for Beijing to exist within a forest, under its canopy. Mao Zedong issued the call of “greening the country” 60 years ago. In Beijing, green space currently covers approximately 40 percent of the city compared to 3.2 percent in 1949.
I was just about to leave the park when a piercing, woeful sound drew me to its far corner. The instrument that drew me is called an Erhu. It is a kind of violin with two strings, originating from a Mongolian tribe called Xi. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (1949), manufacturing of the Erhu and musical education underwent unprecedented development. The Erhu has become one of the most popular instruments in China. In the past, well-educated, elite members of society were expected to master the four arts called qin (a type of string musical instrument), qi (a kind of chess game), shu (calligraphy), and hua (painting). Confucius was a master of the qin. He used it for “enriching the heart and elevating the human spirit” to feel the relationship between mankind and the universe. I certainly did.
One of the greatest Chinese music composers was a blind street musician called Abing who lived in poverty and, like Confuscious, probably died thinking he was not successful. His musical talent and profound knowledge on traditional music all went unnoticed largely because he was critical of the government of his time. During the last 2 year of his life, in 1950, two musicologists went to his home town Wuxi with a recording machine to record his music. Less than a handful of pieces were recorded out of 100’s of his compositions as he had stopped playing music and was frail and ill. It was one of Abing’s woeful compositions that drew me back to the remote area of the park. It is his handful of compositions that are echoed throughout China every single day. Maybe Abing is reminding everyone of the deep tragedy that befalls humanity when we ignore what’s most valuable in life – our history and the ancient lessons of the past.
Beijing greetings! Mario Michael Segal