Southern Winds Sigh Gently Again
Taiwan Review

Chen Mei-o, a classical musician and maverick, has breathed life into an ancient form of music known as nankuan, guarding it from extinction and carrying its traditions to distant lands.

On an autumn afternoon, a roomy basement in downtown Taipei fills with the strains of an ancient form of music known as nankuan, or "southern winds." In the midst of the swirl sit several members of the Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble, kicking up the soothing melodies in preparation for a premiere of a major work scheduled for a performance in France in 2005.

This scene is just a stop in the long history of nankuan music, which originated in China and has been kindled by generations of artists, most recently Chen Mei-o, founder and director of the troupe. "I think we've been chosen to pass down the ancient art from our ancestors to future generations," she says.

As the guardian of an ancient treasure, the 50-year-old musician is as interested in the history of the art as its melodies, and research into its origins has led her to some independent conclusions. She deduced, for example, that nankuan music is independent of the liyuan opera, which flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-903)--a view heretical to the many scholars who concluded that the genre stemmed solely from that art form. "My arguments are not necessarily accepted by other researchers," she says, "but anyway, they have failed to come up with evidence that can counter my theory."

That independent streak in some ways reflects her own path into the currents of nankuan history. Brought up in a family with her father being a noted player of yuechin (a moon-shaped lute) and her aunt Chen Jui being an actress in Taiwanese opera, Chen developed a strong interest in traditional arts over time. In her early teens, she followed in Chen Jui's footsteps and joined a professional Taiwanese opera troupe, but two months later she fell ill and gave it up. Although she recovered from the illness, the performance bug, however, never left her. When she later starred in a solo radio drama, in which she played instruments and simultaneously shifted into different singing voices, she basked in the glow of praise. "I couldn't act, but I could sing quite well," Chen says. "I was considered a genius."

Chen, however, did not have any contact with nankuan until one day she received, at the age of 19, a letter from a listener asking her to play the ancient music during the radio program. At first, she thought nankuan was a musical instrument, but later found it was actually a type of music. The letter piqued Chen's curiosity, and she visited the Nansheng Troupe, a nankuan troupe based in Tainan in southern Taiwan. "I felt really impressed when I heard them play the music," she says. "I was so familiar with traditional music that I could tell nankuan was special."

Chen's interest in the art was aroused not only by the music itself but also its cultural and historical characteristics. "Few people knew about its origins," she says. In her early 20's, she began to learn the music from masters of the Nansheng Troupe. The young artist later trained along with other musicians for a year before going abroad for the first time to play for overseas Chinese in the Philippines. She was so excited because Manila was home to many topnotch nankuan players.

For the next several years, Chen spent at least half a year annually in Southeast Asia, mainly Manila, learning the intricacies of nankuan and conducting field studies into its history. Meanwhile, she came across a book on nankuan's history by painter Yu Cheng-yao, who later became her mentor in academic research. The book attempted to build a link between nankuan and ancient Chinese music of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) or even earlier times. The book helped stimulate Chen's own interest in tracing the origins of the musical form.

When Chen led a nankuan troupe to Europe for a three-week tour in 1981, she discovered that others were also interested in the form and that audiences followed Taiwanese performers. "They paid great attention to Taiwan because they thought Chinese cultural legacies on mainland China had all been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution," she says.

An international seminar on nankuan took place soon after and Chen found herself embarrassed because she felt unqualified to participate in academic discussions with foreign scholars. "That experience had a sobering effect on me," she recalls. "I realized it is not enough to sing and play nankuan well. I needed to research the music's origins."

To further the study of the musical form, Chen founded the Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble in Taipei in 1983. (Yuefu was a government agency for collecting ballads in ancient times). Its name is evidence of Chen's nostalgia for the music of the Han and Tang dynasties, and of her respect for those musical traditions.

Respect for tradition, however, did not mean accepting the established version presented by other nankuan players and by academics who researched its traditions. Chen was considered something of a rebel for playing nankuan because she is a woman--as the music was generally associated with places of sensuality and an immoral, if refined, world. She encountered resistance from her old troupe, the Nansheng, for opening her own musical group in Taipei. Moreover, she says, the Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble's intention to conduct academic research caused hostility among intellectuals who studied the nankuan. "They thought I was challenging their authority," Chen says. And perhaps Chen did, with her theories on the origin of the form and her willingness to challenge perceptions of the music and even popularize it.

Chen's ambition to share nankuan with a wider audience led her to form the Liyuan Dance Studio in 1995. "It's not easy to promote the music among a wider audience if we keep playing music only," Chen explains. "The lively performances of dance help draw attention to the art."

Liyuan--a traditional dance frequently performed for the emperor during the Tang Dynasty--gave Chen the opportunity to shroud a performance in the tranquil sounds of nankuan , but the artist also experimented with the form of the operas, creating pieces traditional in spirit but contemporary in form. "It was really painful to learn the dance at first," says Hsiao Ho-wen, dancer and deputy director of the troupe. "After three months of training, I still couldn't walk with the right gait." For Hsiao, who used to be a member of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Taiwan's most prestigious modern dance troupe, learning the ancient dance was a real challenge. "Modern dance tends to use bold body language, but liyuan dance makes you look restrained, which I think is reflective of the conservative character of Han people," the dancer says. To master the difficult form, Hsiao traveled twice to Fujian Province to study with masters of the dance. "You can feel it's an accumulation of cultural wealth," she says.

Those cultural traditions seemed to stir appreciation even among audiences unfamiliar with their inspirations. "I've always resisted the term spellbinding, but sometimes nothing else will do," wrote dance reviewer Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times after seeing a liyuan performance in August last year. That "spellbinding" quality comes not just from the charm of the combination of nankuan music and liyuan dance, but also from the aesthetic quality of the staging, which includes wardrobes designed by Yip Kam Tim, winner of the best art direction for the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon at the Academy Awards.

Chen believes that her promotion of nankuan is preserving what "might have otherwise fallen into oblivion." Chiu Kun-liang, president of Taipei National University of the Arts, recalls meeting Chen for the first time and being impressed by her dedication to the sounds of the ancients. "She told me nankuan music is the most beautiful music in the world," says Chiu. "She resolved to make everyone love it."

She is well underway, and has since staged performances at prestigious academic institutions, such as Harvard University and the University of Heidelberg. Interest in the United States and Europe gives Chen hope in the potential for the "southern winds" to keep blowing, carrying the melodies which entranced generations after they were first created.

In September 1989, the Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble performed in Beijing Concert Hall in collaboration with the China National Orchestra, making it the first art group that traveled across the Taiwan Strait after Taiwan's government lifted the ban on unofficial cross-Strait exchanges in 1987. The southern winds, it seems, were blowing out of Taiwan and returning to their ancestral home.

Nankuan Music and Liyuan Dance

Chen Mei-o believes that nankuan (southern winds), also known as nanyin (southern tones), originated in northern China. During the fifth century, war caused people living in the area to flee to places such as Quanzhou--once a coastal boom town and world-class trading harbor--in the south of Fujian Province. These migrants carried with them their traditions, including the melodies of the "southern winds." Nankuan later traveled with Fujianese migrants to Taiwan toward the end of the 16th century and throughout Southeast Asia, where it was preserved over the generations.

Major instruments used in nankuan, performed mainly for aristocrats and wealthy families, include the pipa, a four-stringed vertical lute, tung-hsiao, a vertical flute, two-stringed and three-stringed Chinese banjos, and rhythm instruments. The music can be played with or without singing. If singing accompanies the music, it is sung in the Quanzhou dialect of Chinese, which belongs to the Southern Min dialect of Fujian Province and is widely spoken in Taiwan today.

Liyuan dance, like nankuan music, has an ancient pedigree. It is derived from the liyuan, or "Pear Orchard" opera, a mixture of song, dance, and nanyin music that was performed at the imperial court during the Tang Dynasty. Liyuan was later combined with drama and became popular among ordinary people. Liyuan opera, known in Taiwan as nankuan opera, was once a common entertainment on the island. The Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble plays traditional nankuan music and later combined it with liyuan dance.

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