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Ruan Maestro Feng Mantian
   2014-05-07 16:35:38    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Li

Feng Mantian and his ruan. [Photo: newsplusradio.cn]




World music is a term usually referring to non-western traditional music. This particular genre is not only culturally exotic, but also popular among the public. However, over the years, only a handful of Chinese musicians have been recognized among this genre.

But musician Feng Mantian has been resolute in his quest to bring his songs into the family of world music, along with his ruan , a traditional Chinese instrument.

On April 29th, Feng performed at the prestigious "Meet in Beijing" arts festival and audiences were full of praise for his show.

Written by Li Shiyu, this story is narrated by Wang Lei.


The music you are listening to wasn't created using the lute, the mandolin or any other string instrument you may be familiar with; instead, it is the sound of the ruan, an old Chinese chordophone. With a circular body, fretted neck and four strings, the ruan looks like another traditional Chinese instrument known to many; the pipa .

However, compared to the popular pipa, the ruan is less well-known. Having first originated 2,000 years ago, the instrument has been silent for the past hundred years. In Chinese orchestras, it is usually used to accompany other instruments.

Therefore, when a 15-year-old Feng Mantian joined the China National Orchestra in 1978 and was assigned to play the ruan, he was not very happy. Instead, he was joyfully embracing a more stylish genre: rock n' roll. Wearing his hair long and playing the guitar, he joined one of China's first rock bands: the White Angel.

But, as time went on, the budding musician started to feel frustrated.

"In the 1990s, we all believed that he who played guitar like the foreigners was the best performer. When your playing style has become more and more 'western', even some Chinese musicians could perform some music as good as those foreign artists; but still, it's not good enough. It doesn't feel right. Although the guitar is an international instrument, westerners have much more to say on this. So when I felt lost, I began to learn from the ancient Chinese musicians."

Instead of following the traditional playing technique and melody, Feng decided to create something new.

"I bought a lot of instruments worldwide. Through the ruan, I want to present the character of all the plucked instruments throughout the world, including the music of our minority groups. "

In order to present the most elegant tone of the ruan, Feng even re-designed the instrument. After countless failed attempts, he finally reformed the ruan to provide a louder volume and a broader range.

Fiddling with strings, Feng is able to fuse east and west. Under his finger-tips, Bossa nova and the blues blend naturally with this traditional oriental instrument.

After 20-year of exploration, Feng's work not only represents the tempo and rhythm of western music, but also embodies traditional Chinese flavors.

In 2010, Feng was invited to perform in Hamburg, Germany, receiving much applause from the audiences. This year, he attended the talent show "Amazing Chinese" and won the competition.

During the 2014 "Meet in Beijing" Arts Festival, Feng staged a glittering performance for his debut concert. Leading his quintet, which was founded in 2013, Feng and his band wove the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments, the ruan and flute, with those of a modern drum set, piano and keyboard. On stage, reformed pieces from ancient Chinese musical pieces and folk-songs took listeners into the wondrous realm of world music. Immersed in the silvery sounds of the ruan and melodious tune, you may be drawn to the idyllic old Beijing city in the early 20th century; jiving with the rhythmic beat of rock n'roll, audiences could find the usual rustic folk song from Shaanxi Province turning into something worldly.

The impassioned and sensual performance captivated audiences with growing fascination. When the concert was over, many lingered inside the hall and shouted for encore.

"As a member of the young generation, we don't know much about national music. But this show helps us improve our awareness towards our national culture. One day, I will take my child to experience this national art."

"I think the performance is brilliant. It evokes my love for our culture. From our generation to the next generation, we should re-evaluate our Chinese cultural treasures. If we could incorporate this kind of art into our education system, that would be even better. "

"It's really good; I thought national music is boring and dull; you can't find passion from it. Even though I am old, this show makes me feel passionate--the show is so creative. If they perform again, we are going to see them whenever we can. "

After the show was over, Feng said many people started to ask him about the ruan and had expressed their interest in learning how to play this little-known instrument.

"For youngsters, music must be fun and fashionable. As long as they learn the rudimental skills, they will realize that the ruan carries with it a rich history. Gradually, they will be led into the world of traditional music. "

In September, Feng's band, the Mantian Quintet, is going to attend the OzAsia Festival in Australia as one of the representatives of world music in China.


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