Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bells and Whistles

Musical Artifacts of the Zhou and Han Dynasties
The Museum of Shanghai, Shanghai, China

A highlight of my recent visit to Shanghai was a visit to the fabulous Shanghai Museum on People's Square.

Among the hustle and bustle of modern China, the museum provides an island of serenity and education. It boasts an incredible collection of ancient Chinese bronzes as well as impressive sculpture, paintings, jade and furniture exhibits. There’s a good deal to see, but it’s a very manageable collection.

Chinese music dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization. It was fascinating to see artifacts indicating a well-developed musical culture as early as 1122 BC, and viewing the exquisite bronze bells and drums on display, it was easy for me to imagine the mysterious artistic atmosphere of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC.)

The fabulous bronze drums on display were used in rituals, battles, large gatherings and religious ceremonies. Interestingly they also served as storage containers.

Bronze drums. Western Zhou (Mid-9th century B.C.)

Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), considered by Chinese to be one of the greatest periods in their history. Indeed, to this day the ethnic majority of China still refer to themselves as the "Han people."

The notion of governments keeping tabs on subversive artist types is nothing new, and I was intrigued to discover that an Imperial Music Bureau was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC). It was charged with supervising court and military music and determining which folk music would be officially recognized.

Although in ancient China musicians were regarded as quite lowly creatures, music was seen as central to the harmony and longevity of the state. Emperors took folk songs seriously, dispatching officials to collect and inspect the latest tunes as reflections of the popular will.

The Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery displays some stunning sculptures including a pair of cheerful kneeling clay figures playing a bamboo flute and lute from the Eastern Han (A.D. 25-200). I was quite taken by these two charming fellows.

Flute & lute players. Eastern Han (25 - 220 A.D. )

Scholars have proved that the finger techniques used by musicians during the Eastern Han period were quite similar to those used today. Not only that, representations of musicians playing mouth organs from the period indicate that the design and playing technique of the instrument have remained unchanged since its creation more than two thousand years ago.

Such facts underlined in my mind the brevity of human history, and I couldn't help feeling a yearning connection with these musical misfits of the not-so-distant past.