Zither Master Visits Taiwan

Free China Journal

Publication date: 02/26/1990
Story Type: Feature
Byline: Karen Steffen Chung

     Lovers of Chinese music who have long awaited the Taiwan debut of the zither master Chang Yen (Zhang Yan) were finally rewarded Feb. 11 and 12. Chang was featured as a guest performer with the Taipei Municipal Chinese Orchestra in the zither concerto "Miluo River Fantasy," as part of the 1990 Taipei Festival of Traditional Arts.

     The Chinese zither, or cheng, is a long, plucked instrument roughly similar in sound and playing technique to the Western harp.

     It has from 13 to 28 strings stretched over movable bridges, and it is usually tuned in the Chinese pentatonic scale (without "fa" and "ti").

     Chang's path to Taiwan was a long and circuitous one. She was born in Shanghai in 1946, and entered the middle school affiliated with the Shanghai Conservatory to study piano at age 11. Her family could not afford a piano, so her teacher allowed her to practice on the school's pump organ after classes.

     When she first heard the sound of the cheng at age 14, she immediately told her teacher that she wanted to switch her major from piano to the cheng. Her teacher did his best to persuade her otherwise; conservatory students usually took up the cheng only when they were determined not to be concert pianist material. Chang was firm in her decision, but pledged that she would keep up her piano as well, and her teacher finally agreed.

     Chang entered the college program of the Shanghai Conservatory in 1963. In addition to her cheng and piano studies, she also took up the harp. Carrying the playing techniques of one instrument over to another gave her unusual flexibility in developing her own innovative techniques, particularly for the cheng.

     Then came the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when China's traditional arts were all condemned as belonging to the corrupt feudal culture. Schooling and studies were virtually halted nationwide. So how did Chang cope? "I hid under blankets in a basement to secretly practice and listen to records of outstanding musicians," she reveals.

     She tells with obvious pain in her voice about how her teacher, Wang Hsun-chih, for whom she had the highest respect and admiration, died in prison at this time. Exactly when or why Master Wang died, she does not know, since his death, like so many other pointless losses of life, was not publicly announced. She learned later that three years after she left the mainland, the Public Security Bureau sent a letter announcing that her teacher had been rehabilitated, and admitting that his death had been a grave error.

     "My teacher was not an outstanding performance musician, but he had a very open, creative, and synthesizing mind. He would invite guest musicians of every imaginable style and inclination to the conservatory to perform and exchange ideas with the students," she says.

     Richard Nixon's visit to China signaled a turning point in the Cultural Revolution, when artists were returned a limited degree of freedom. Chang was an officially designated "cultural ambassador" whose job it was to cultivate international friends through her art.

     Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were two of many foreign heads of state she played for. She also had the opportunity to perform in over 20 different countries, including the U.S.

     Chang is especially famous for her part in the development of "double zither" playing. The first zither, with 25 strings and tuned in the pentatonic scale, has foot pedals with which the player can change key mid-piece. The second, with 28 strings, is set up at a 45 degree angle behind the first, and uses a diatonic scale, greatly enlarging the range of the cheng. She has used it to great advantage in avant-garde pieces such as "New Moon." Chang did not spend much interview time describing either her life on the mainland or how she left. She said she applied to leave the country to visit relatives--her maternal grandparents live in Taiwan. Her application was held up for two and a half years, but was finally approved in 1983 through intervention by the mainland minister of culture. Japan was her first stop, a place of reflection, taking stock, and redirecting her life. The artists and others who helped pull her through this crucial time became very special friends, and were among those she made a point to look up on the Tokyo leg of this tour.

     After Tokyo, Chang spent some time with musical comrades on the U.S. east coast, and eventually settled in Berkeley, California, her present home. Chang now gives zither lessons in the Berkeley area, and sometimes accepts invitations to teach college courses or perform.

     "For six years running, I performed with the Grateful Dead--believe it or not!--at annual Chinese New Year's festivities held in Oakland," she recounts. "What really struck me was the freedom, directness, and genuineness of their musical expression." She once performed a Beatles tune she had never heard before on the cheng for a mostly American audience in 1984--and brought down the house.

     In response to a question about what role the cheng played in her life, Chang responded, "outside of the mundane daily necessities like eating and sleeping, it's 'number one,'" emphasizing her point in English. And she is acclaimed by many to be the "number one" cheng artist in the world.

     Finally fulfilling the requirement of living in a free area for at least four years, and after two unsuccessful applications in early 1989, Chang was granted an ROC passport and the right to visit Taiwan in December 1989.

     Chang's February concert was an undeniable success; she maintained her reputation for precise and expressive perfection in every piece she performed. But some listeners left hungry for more, since the cheng cadenza of "Miluo River Fantasy" was just too short.

     She made up for the loss partially by giving two solo encores (one of which was the famous "Little Sisters of the Steppe") in response to the roaring applause she received.

     Chang spent the remaining days of her stay in Taiwan touring the island and exchanging ideas with local musicians. Happily for her many admirers, she plans to return to Taiwan in April for a solo performance tour, sponsored by the Changhua-based organization, Ars Formosa.