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Spotlight on Wu Man and the Chinese Pipa

Wu Man
Chinese musician, Wu Man, is recognized as the world's premier pipa virtuoso and a leading ambassador of Chinese music. San Diego based, Chinese-born musician Wu Man has carved out a career creating and fostering projects that give this ancient instrument a new role in today's music world. She has not only introduced the instrument to new audiences, but has also commissioned and premiered over a hundred new orchestral works for the pipa. A Grammy Award-nominated artist, her adventurous musical spirit has also led to her becoming a respected expert on the history and preservation of Chinese musical traditions, as reflected in her recorded and live performances and multi-cultural collaborations.

Having been brought up in the Pudong School of pipa playing, one of the most prestigious classical styles of Imperial China, Wu Man is now recognized as an outstanding exponent of the traditional repertoire as well as a leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music by today's most prominent composers such as Tan Dun, Philip Glass and the late Lou Harrison.

Wu Man's first exposure to western classical music came in 1979 when she saw Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform in Beijing. Wu Man moved to the U.S. in 1990 and was selected as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is the first artist from China to perform at the White House.

Recently we had a chance to interview pipa master Wu Man to gain her perspective on her career, performing in America, and Chinese classical music.

[Editor's note: The interview was conducted in Chinese and translated into English for this article. "Parobs" denotes The San Diego Participant Observer.]

[Parobs] We heard that you came to America because studying abroad was very popular in that era, is that true?

[Wu Man] Yes, it was in the early 1990s, just a few years after the Chinese mainland's reform and opening-up policy had launched, people, especially the youth, were feeling curious about foreign countries. Studying abroad was very popular and common in that era.

[Parobs] Why did you choose America instead of other foreign countries?

[Wu Man] I and other young students representing Chinese young artists visited 12 foreign cities in 1985. The experience provided me with an opportunity to get familiar with American society and culture. I found American society open to every kind of culture in the world and people here are more likely to embrace exotic cultures, which encouraged me to study here.

[Parobs] You brought 7 Chinese traditional instruments with you when you came to America, including guqin1 and liuqin2, what made you focus on playing the pipa?

[Wu Man] I took liuqin and guqin without much thought simply because I studied them when I was very young and had a deep love for these instruments. Also I was unsure which instrument would be most popular in America. I brought all these instruments because if pipa was not attractive to Americans, then I could try liuqin, and if liuqin did not capture people's attention the guqin would be my next choice. I believed that there must be at least one traditional Chinese instrument that would appeal to American audiences. I was a pipa major in my studies so it was natural for me to choose to play pipa first. Luckily I found many Americans appreciated my pipa performances.

[Parobs] Compared to the situation two decades ago when you had just arrived in America, do Chinese folk music artists now have more chances to perform?

[Wu Man] Changes have happened since I first came to America more than 20 years ago. Thanks to globalization, people from different countries must now learn more about each other's background and culture, or they will be disadvantaged in this highly globalized world they are living in. Traditional music is a significant part of a country's culture. Now Chinese traditional folk music has become recognized worldwide, I have been invited to perform in many countries.

[Parobs] What kinds of challenges related to your career did you encounter in America?

[Wu Man] Well, there were different challenges at different times. When I first came, nobody in America knew what pipa was which made it hard to gain traction for pipa music. I decided to do my career incrementally; playing locally was the first stage, then I performed for schools and then bigger venues with larger audiences. Gaining recognition is a long endeavor.

Difficulties still exist as pipa is still an unknown instrument to many people, but my biggest challenge now is to balance a very full performance schedule that takes me all over the world and having personal time to spend with my son.

[Parobs] In order to make pipa music more attractive for western people, you have melded pipa music with other music styles, such as classic and jazz. However, some people do not consider this fusion to be real pipa music. What do you think about this sort of criticism?

[Wu Man] Actually I still play traditional pipa pieces in a traditional way in all of my performances. To some degree, tradition is the heart and spirit of pipa music, so traditional pipa pieces will never be discarded. But innovation is necessary and unavoidable since only 20 pipa music pieces were handed down from ancient Chinese culture. I think enlarging the range of pipa music will contribute to a better understanding of pipa in western countries.

This kind of innovation won't harm traditional pipa music's inheritance. Take piano, for example. Piano is originally an European instrument, however, thousands of people outside of Europe are studying and playing the piano now, and many new piano pieces are being composed by adding non-European cultural elements. But piano is still considered a traditional European instrument, not an Asian or Latino instrument. And piano pieces, with exotic elements in them, are still piano pieces, not guitar or violin pieces. Real traditions aren't hurt by innovation. I think we should be open to innovation and it will actually give us a better understanding of our own traditional culture.

Pipa with labels

All about the Chinese Pipa

The pipa (pinyin: pípa, 琵琶) is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument belonging to the plucked category of instruments. The term pipa consists of two Chinese characters symbolizing two playing techniques (called "Tan" and "Tiao"), while their pronunciations "pi" and "pa" are imitations of the sounds produced. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. Much like other string instruments, bass strings are on the top and treble strings on the bottom. The bass strings are wound steel over a core of steel and nylon and the highest treble string is unwound. Pipa have unusual frets for a string instrument. The lowest frets are triangular in shape (the "ledges" in the picture) and the upper frets are tall strips made of wood.

The playing technique consists of the right hand fingers plucking the strings and the left hand fingers pressing on the strings in a variety of ways to create melodies, ornaments and special effects. The fingers pluck the strings in both directions (in contrast, guitar players pluck upwards and strum in both directions). The frets are very high, which allows the strings to be pushed, twisted and pressed. There are over 60 different techniques that have been developed through the centuries.

There is considerable confusion and disagreement about the origin of pipa. This may be due to the fact that the word pipa was used in ancient texts to describe a variety of plucked chordophones from the Qin to the Tang Dynasty, as well as the differing accounts given in these ancient texts. Traditional Chinese narrative prefers the story of the Chinese princess who was sent to marry a barbarian king during the Han Dynasty, and the pipa was created so she could play music on horseback to soothe her longings. However, some researchers believe the pear-shaped pipa is likely to have been introduced to China from Central Asia, Gandhara or India.

The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa; these include the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa.
Pipa History

Pipa through the Ages

Styles of Pipa Playing

There are a number of different traditions with different styles of playing pipa in various regions of China, some of which developed into schools. In the narrative traditions, in which pipa is used as an accompaniment to narrative singing, there are the Suzhou tanci (苏州弹词), Sichuan qingyin (四川清音) and Northern quyi (北方曲艺) genres.

There were originally two major schools of pipa during the Qing Dynasty - the Northern (Zhili, 直隶派) and Southern (Zhejiang, 浙江派) schools, and from these emerged the five main schools associated with the solo tradition. Each school is associated with one or more collections of pipa music and named after its place of origin:
Wuxi (无锡派) - Associated with the Hua Collection by Hua Qiuping, who studied with Wang Junxi (王钧锡) of the Northern school and Chen Mufu (陈牧夫) of the Southern school, and may be considered a synthesis of these two schools of the Qing Dynasty. As the first published collection, the Hua Collection had considerable influence on later pipa players.
② Pudong (浦东派) - Associated with the Ju Collection (鞠氏谱) which is based on an 18th-century handwritten manuscript, Xianxu Youyin (闲叙幽音), by Ju Shilin.
③ Pinghu (平湖派) - Associated with the Li Collection (李氏谱), first published in 1895 and compiled by Li Fangyuan who came from a family of many generations of pipa players.
④ Chongming (崇明派) - Associated with Old Melodies of Yingzhou (瀛洲古调) compiled by Shen Zhaozhou (沈肇州, 1859-1930) in 1916.
⑤ Shanghai (汪派) - The Shanghai or Wang school (named after Wang Yuting (汪昱庭) who created this style of playing) may be considered a synthesis of the other four schools, especially the Pudong and Pinghu schools. Wang did not publish his notation book in his lifetime, although handwritten copies were passed on to his students.

Each school has it own style, performance aesthetics and notation system, and may differ in playing techniques. Each school has its own repertoire of compositions but some compositions are performed by many schools and in such cases, the composition will be performed in the distinctive style of the individual schools.
In more recent times, many pipa players, especially the younger ones, no longer identify themselves with any specific school. Modern notation systems and new compositions as well as recordings are now widely available. It is no longer crucial for a pipa player to learn from the master of any particular school to know how to play a score.

The Pipa in Chinese Literature

The pipa has a long history in China as evidenced by its mention in ancient Chinese literature. In a 3rd-century description by Fu Xuan, Ode to Pipa, the instrument is associated with the Wusun and Xiongnu cultures of the northern frontier, and Princesses Liu Xijun and Wang Zhaojun. Wang Zhaojun is frequently referenced in later literary works and in music compositions such as Zhaojun's Lament (昭君怨), and in paintings where she was often depicted holding the instrument.

The pipa is also mentioned frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry. It is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone in poems dedicated to well-known players describing their performances. A famous poem by Bai Juyi, Song Of A Pipa Player (琵琶行), describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River. Here is a passage from the poem:

大弦嘈嘈如急雨,The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
小弦切切如私语,The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
嘈嘈切切错杂弹,Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
大珠小珠落玉盘。As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

During the Song Dynasty, many of the literati and poets wrote Ci verses, a form of poetry meant to be sung and accompanied by instruments such as pipa. During the Yuan Dynasty, the playwright Gao Ming wrote a play for the nanxi opera called Story Of The Pipa, a tale about an abandoned wife who sets out to find her husband and survives by playing the pipa. It is one of the most enduring works in Chinese theater, and one that became a model for Ming Dynasty drama being the favorite opera of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.

Popular Pipa Compositions

• Ambushed from Ten Sides (十面埋伏)—This composition describes the decisive battle in 202 B.C. at Gaixia (southeast of today's Linbi County, Anhui Province, China) between the armies of Chu and Han. This piece gives an overall view of the battle, while "The King Doffs His Armor" focusing on Xiang Yu and his defeat. Ambushed from Ten Sides provides a vivid depiction, in the form of musical narrative, of the fierce and stirring scenes of the battle and the desolate and solemn scenes of the defeated Xiang Yu, and ends with the triumph of the victor.
• Moonlit River in Spring (春江花月夜)
• White Snow in Spring Sunlight (阳春白雪)
• Dragon Boat (龙船)
• Dance of the Yi People (彝族舞曲)—The Yi are one of the 56 ethnic groups in China
• Waves Washing the Sand (大浪淘沙)
• Lady Wang Zhaojun Goes Beyond the Frontier (昭君出塞)—Zhaojun was known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. She was sent by Emperor Yuan to marry the Xiongnu Chanyu in order to establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty through marriage.
• The Warlord Removes his Armour (霸王卸甲)
• Green Waist (绿腰)
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