In tune with the past

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The musical score hangs on the window of Hu Qingxue's office, with the long notes, set against the warm rays of the sun, flowing like letters from heaven.

Hu, 48, has played the music inscribed on the notation since he was 17. Known as jing music, the piece has been preserved and passed down through consecutive generations of monks for about 580 years.

Hu's office has also doubled as the backstage area for a band in Beijing's downtown area. Every day at 10 am and 3 pm in the Zhihua Temple, Hu, a 27th-generation inheritor of jing music, strikes up a band consisting of seven musicians for a free, 15-minute performance for visitors from home and abroad.

The resounding, solemn music is passed down via verbal guidance and usually played with wind and percussion instruments. All musicians who know about the traditional temple music first learn to sing the notation called gongche pu, under a traditional Chinese notation system, before playing it with instruments.

Hu, who mainly plays wind instruments in the band, was born into a farming family in the village of Qujiaying in Hebei province. The village, about 100 kilometers from downtown Beijing, has preserved the centuries-old tradition since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) despite several periods of interruption.

In October 1991, as part of the Qujiaying village concert band, Hu performed at the Beijing Working People's Cultural Palace and encountered his future master, a monk from the Zhihua Temple.

"I remember that the monk musicians, who were in their 50s, from the temple, felt satisfied with our performance and that's why they decided to take us as their apprentices," says Hu.

Two months later, Hu and five other youngsters headed to the temple to learn the art of Jing Music.

"It was not easy to learn the traditional music form," admits Hu.

"The skill needed to sing the notation did not come easy. Since the gongche pu was named for its use of 10 Chinese characters as pitch symbols, it takes apprentices up to seven years to be able to sing the notation proficiently."

Students also need to learn from their masters in person to understand the key notes of the musical pieces, as well as the detailed musical changes, such as the raising of pitch in half steps.

Yang Zhiguo is a curator of the temple, which has also been known as the Beijing Museum for Cultural Heritage Exchanges since 1992.

"After years of preservation and inheritance, we felt that the sound and spirit carried by Jing Music is a great embodiment of our traditional culture. The tunes are handed down for generations largely due to their prevalence in, and embodiment of, folk culture and soul, with their rich tones and catchy melodies," he says.

To develop it further, Yang says, his aim is to cross generational lines, "so that this traditional music will be embraced by a larger number of people, and not just exist and be performed at the Zhihua Temple".

The temple, located 5 km east of the Forbidden City, was built in 1444 under the rule of Zhu Qizhen, also known as Emperor Yingzong, during the Ming Dynasty. It was originally erected as the family temple of Wang Zhen, the emperor's favorite eunuch and supervisor of the Office of Rites.

The temple, in its golden age, occupied an area of about 20,000 square meters, with five courtyards in its west, east and central sections. Only the main buildings remain intact.

According to Yang, Wang took advantage of his position, managing to remove the Ming imperial court's musical scores and preserving them in his family temple.

In the present day, Hu's performance includes mostly original songs, with many being examples of Ming Dynasty court music that have been passed down, and a few adapted from percussion-instrument musical scores from Qujiaying.

The instruments for performing Zhihua Temple's jing music mainly include the bili (pipe), flute, yunluo (a set of gongs), sheng (Chinese reed wind instrument consisting of bamboo pipes) and drums. Sometimes other percussion instruments, such as cymbals of varying sizes, are used.

The band is similar to that of the royal court ensembles. Among them, the pipes take a leading role, among which is Hu's instrument.

"We try to create an experience with our visitors, to get them involved with the music during the 15-minute performance, to build a connection between musicians and the audience," Hu says.

Hu's band now performs in art colleges and at various music festivals across the country. One of his major concerns is the selection of the right successor to carry the ancient music's torch into the next generation.

In 2006, Zhihua Temple's jing music was among the first folk arts to be inscribed on the national intangible cultural heritage list.

"Though jing music has been inherited for centuries, we are facing challenges introducing younger listeners to this fine music and finding the right people to follow in our footsteps," Hu says.

"To learn the music demands far more than mere patience. It requires a great deal of time studying the musical notation, as well as its long history and cultural tradition."

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