To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 70-year-old Lou Zhuangdong is displaying 70 of his jinghu, a Chinese fiddle, at Shanghai Great World.
The exhibition that runs through October 27 is part of the 21st China Shanghai International Arts Festival.
The jinghu is a traditional stringed instrument in the huqin family, with a cylindrical soundbox covered in snakeskin. The instrument is a principal melodic instrument in Peking Opera.
The smallest of the huqin family of instruments traces its roots to the Qianlong Period (1735-1796) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It especially thrived in the middle years of the Republic of China (1912-1949).
“Peking Opera, which is the quintessence of Chinese culture, can’t be separated from jinghu,” said Lou. “The instrument that we can easily overlook actually has an irreplaceable role to play.”
Lou said he hopes the exhibition of his collection will help acquaint visitors with the instrument and its importance in traditional music.
The exhibition is divided into five sections. They include a display of jinghu played by renowned musicians, those made by well-known artisans and some made of rare materials.
Spanning around two centuries, Lou’s collection traces the history of the instrument.
Upon entering the exhibition hall on the second floor of Shanghai Great World, visitors first see a jinghu played by Xu Lanyuan. Xu was an accompanist for Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), a renowned Peking Opera artist.
The highlight of the exhibition is a group of four jinghu played by “four masters” of the instrument in the late Qing Dynasty: Mei Yutian, Sun Zuochen, Lu Yanting and Wang Yunting.
“I spent more than 20 years collecting the four jinghu,” said Lou. “This congregation of instruments played by these four musicians is found nowhere else in China.”
Many of the instruments in Lou’s collections were donated to him by their original owners, who regarded the instruments as family members and wanted to find a good home for them.
For example, the two jinghu played by Lu and Wang, which were collected by Zhang Xianfang while living abroad, were sent to Lou after a decades-long friendship.
Mei Yutian’s legacy instrument was given to Lou by violinist Liu Hexun. Lou first came across this treasure at an exhibition held near Shanghai Grand Theater. Obsessed by the jinghu, Lou sought to acquire it for several years, and his devotion to the musical instrument touched Liu.
“Playing and collecting jinghu is my lifelong career,” said Lou.
Growing up in Shanghai, Lou was deeply influenced by his father, who established a piaofang on Yandang Road. Piaofang refers to a place where fans of Peking Opera gather and organize activities.
Lou learned to play the jinghu when he was only 6 or 7 years old. His mother bought his first instrument in 1967. Earning only 10 yuan (US$1.40) a month at the time, she had to borrow money to buy the 18 yuan secondhand jinghu.
“My father taught me how to play it,” said Lou. “That started my long relationship with jinghu.”
Near the end of his exhibition is a pair of jinghu. One, made at the famous studio Zhulan Xuan in Beijing, was left to him by his father. The other is the original jinghu bought by his mother.
“Unforgettable,” said Lou.
Unlike other members of the huqin family, the jinghu is mainly made of bamboo, which gives the instrument a key frequency similar to that of the human voice.
According to Lou, bamboo from Minhou in Fujian Province makes the best jinghu.
Compared with antique jinghu, modern versions are slightly bigger and create a gentler, lower pitch.
Visitors to the exhibition might be confused by signs of scorching on the bamboo necks of jinghu. They are, in fact, a means of distinguishing antique instruments from modern ones. The scorching indicates the old method of firing bamboo poles to straighten them. Today, modern craftsmen use electrical heat.
“Jinghu, beyond a musical instrument, bears the wisdom of our ancestors,” said Lou.
He has set aside a room in his home specifically for his collection. To take good care of his melodic gems, he keeps the room at the ideal room temperature and humidity.
“He often handles or plays the jinghu alone in the room,” Lou’s wife said.
During our interview, several groups of students visited the exhibition. After viewing the jinghu, they wrote their impressions in a guestbook.
“Since the opening of the exhibition in September, there have been four or five guestbooks,” said Lou. “When I come to the exhibition, I read their messages. Guarding the history and story of the jinghu culture will be my work until my dying breath.”
Apart from China Shanghai International Arts Festival and Shanghai Great World, the exhibition is supported by the Shanghai Culture and Art Archives and Power Station of Art.
Date: Through October 27 (closed on Wednesday), 8am-5pm
Venue: Shanghai Great World
Address: 1 Xizang Rd S.