February 8, 2023
BEIJING – For musician Zhao Taisheng, the traditional Chinese stringed instrument sanxian is a miraculous voice for emotions, an ancient instrument of charm and honor, and a precious ticket to an eventful life.
The sanxian “is something left behind to us by our ancestors, a very valuable piece of cultural heritage”, he said. “It is local and very traditional in China.”
As principal sanxian performer of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Zhao regards the sanxian as a unique Chinese folk music instrument and not a form of art that should be marginalized. He has so far devoted his life to playing the instrument and preserving this ancient art to pass on to next generations.
The origins of the sanxian, a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument with three strings, may date back as far as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).
In Zhao’s eyes, the instrument has at least three characteristics. First, its strongest feature is its appearance; no other country but China has anything in this shape. With a round sound box covered mostly in snake skin, the sanxian is also noteworthy for its three long strings.
Second, it can give out “limitless” glissando — the glide from one pitch to another — and can be played in standing or other postures. Third, its voice can be loud, clear, powerful and sonorous, capable of expressing a wide range of human feelings.
“Sanxian can be the ‘guts’ of a Chinese folk music band,” Zhao said, as it gives an ensemble a particularly strong ethnic and traditional characteristic.
The artist recalled that, in several decades of the 20th century, those who learned to play sanxian were many in number, similar to those learning pipa or guzheng. However, with the trend of adapting traditional Chinese music to the Western orchestra style, he said the popularity of sanxian seems to have declined, as some wrongly regard its sound as less harmonious.
For Zhao, however, the lure and charm of the sanxian is unchanging. In 2011, the renowned sanxian musician was invited to appear as a guest performer at a concert by Hong Kong singer Hacken Lee at the Hung Hom Coliseum. Zhao’s solo sanxian part was well-received to say the least.
“We performed seven shows in a row. In every show, the audience would ‘explode’ every time when I played sanxian,” Zhao recalled. “The audience was almost going nuts about sanxian.”
But according to Zhao, some in the audience could not believe the sound came from the sanxian. After one of the concerts, a renowned composer told Zhao that he thought he was miming on stage to sounds produced for him by someone playing electric guitar out back.
Zhao has been enthusiastic about publicizing the art of sanxian, both to music professionals and the general public. He said the lectures on sanxian culture and traditions that he delivered in 2019 at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music were unforgettable. “I had two lectures that day,” he recalled. “For the second one the place was packed.”
Zhao Taisheng is a member of the Chinese Musicians’ Association and the China Nationalities Orchestra Society, and also a committee member of the Central Conservatory of Music Alumni Association (Hong Kong)
Zhao is a member of the Chinese Musicians’ Association and the China Nationalities Orchestra Society, and also a committee member of the Central Conservatory of Music Alumni Association (Hong Kong).
But his journey to a music career was far from smooth, and some might say he has paid his dues. He twice failed the exam before finally becoming enrolled as a student at the Traditional Instruments Department of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Zhao was born into an ordinary family in a town in Shanxi province — his father was a Chinese medicine practitioner and his mother a rural housewife. “No one in my family has ever had any musical background,” he said. “But they were supportive of me learning music, without any conditions, especially my mom.”
He randomly picked up the instrument at age 6 or 7 when his primary school wanted to organize a student “publicity group” for art performances, in other words, a grassroots student band.
After his peers grabbed the more popular instruments such as guzheng or erhu, he found that only a ‘long and giant’ gadget lying against the wall was left. “I thought it actually looked very cool, so I picked it up as my own instrument,” he said.
Without a formal sanxian teacher, he began to learn it mostly by himself. As a kid, the more praise he won for his performance, the harder he practiced. His strong interest and genuine love for sanxian grew over time.
In the early 1980s, Zhao decided for the first time to participate in the entrance exam of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. With sanxian in hand, he rode alone on a train for 17 hours to arrive in Beijing, where he knew nobody.
Zhao, who had never before left his home in Shanxi, was in Beijing for 28 days, spending 80 cents per night staying at a public bathhouse as suggested by another test taker. However, even though he performed sanxian music very well, he did not get recruited, due to his poor academic record.
After that, he went back home to work in local folk troupes. The next year he failed again as he had never studied formally in a local high school.
“Fortunately, my mom never prevented me from taking the exams again, or had any complaint about it,” he said, choking back tears, remembering how she prepared in advance all the food coupons for him to use as he set out on his trips to Beijing.
After that, he practiced harder. He would stay focused on playing even as his peers were watching outdoor movies nearby. In 1984, having taught himself music theory and further practicing the skills, he felt it was again time to grab the chance to take the exam.
Later, his father surprised him with a visit during one of his performances in the countryside. “Why are you here?” Zhao recalls asking. As his father presented the letter of acceptance from the conservatory, he gave him a big, joyful hug.
Upon graduation, Zhao joined the Beijing Performance and Arts Group. He used to have solo performances every weekend during the company’s shows on tour. But after some reforms in the company, he no longer had solos for a while. Later he worked in many different trades, such as running restaurants, but his passion for sanxian never waned.
In 2005, Zhao joined the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, or HKCO, as a sanxian musician, and has served as principal sanxian performer since 2017. He has traveled widely with the orchestra. When on tour to Russia, Singapore and Estonia, his self-accompanied singing performance of Song of the Black Earth on sanxian won standing ovations.
Today, Zhao is concerned about the inheritance of the art of sanxian. And he regrets that a lot of professional and large-scale orchestras lack this type of instrument.
The fact that the HKCO has accommodated two sanxian performers “is an extraordinary achievement”, he said with pride.
To revive the audience’s passion and interest for the old instrument, Zhao, together with HKCO, will celebrate the New Year by staging the show As the Strong Winds Blow on Feb 10 and 11 at Hong Kong City Hall.
“At these two concerts, we are making a particularly bold attempt,” he said, “All five works are large concertos that combine music from East, West, South and North China”.
The orchestra’s artistic director Yan Huichang wrote a song named Nuo Dance, or exorcism dance, which represents a style of music from southern China. Northeast China is represented by The Song of Black Earth. String Poems with Drum Rhymes by Wu Hua, who is particularly good at composing about northern China, features Northern style music. For the northwestern and Shaanxi style music, Zhao has chosen part of the northern Shaanxi monologue storytelling with special auxiliary rhythm beater tied to a leg titled, As The Strong Wind Blows.
The performances will also include one created by local Hong Kong composer Ng Cheuk-yin.
“We can say my concerts are covering all the major components of traditional Chinese culture,” Zhao said.
Zhao has been enthusiastic about publicizing the art of sanxian to the music so that the art can recover and prosper. He said the lectures on sanxian culture and traditions that he delivered in 2019 at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music were unforgettable.
“I had two lectures that day, for the first one, it (lecture hall) was not full, but then for the second one, the place was overpacked with audience,” he recalled.
He explained that it turned out that the people who listened to the first one gave rave reviews about it. So during the second 90-minute long lecture, no one had ever left, and the feedback was surprisingly good.
“There were countless memories about my performances being very well-received, and these experiences have encouraged me work harder to carry sanxian forward,” he said.