January 26th, 2010
Starbucks (or as it is called in Chinese Xing ba ke) in Chicony is the hot spot if you want to make friends in Wuhan. The coffee shop is full of posh Chinese sporting Macintosh computers and Iphones and has foreigners abound, reading the newspaper, studying Chinese and drinking steaming mocha lattes. Waiting in the Starbucks for my Chinese tutor I ran into three people that I had met at Wuhan prison that weekend. Duly noted, if I am ever lonely or bored, Starbucks is the place to be. (Though at Canadian prices I doubt I will ever buy anything. For the price of a Starbucks tea I can treat myself to an entire meal.)
My Chinese tutor, Zhang Yi, is fabulous; almost too good to be true. She is a twenty year old girl studying teaching Chinese as a foreign language at the Wuhan University of Nationalities. As such she is a fabulous and very motivated teacher. She is very professional coming to meetings equipped with handouts and smiles. (Smiles are essential when learning a language; otherwise it can be very frustrating.) And she refuses payment. She says the practical teaching experience and opportunity to practice English is payment enough. However, I do plan on treating her to lunch tomorrow. I am greatly looking forward to it because we will be going to one of the only vegetarian restaurants in Wuhan. It is right beside the temple and as such caters to the monks and devotees. My mouth is watering at the thought of being able to pick anything off the menu without anxiety.
But, best of all, Zhang Yi today introduced me to Yun Yu, a talented musician in her last year in music at the university and a professional goujung player. The goujung is a twenty string classical Chinese musical instrument. Hearing Yun Yu play this instrument has so far been the highlight of my trip.
Zhang Yi took me on the bus and through the narrow streets littered with music stores of all kinds and up a winding and dank staircase to Yun Yu’s apartment. Yun Yu is more girl than woman, with a gaze that never quite meets mine. She is drowning in her white knit sweater and wearing distractingly bright neon striped boots.
Before she plays the instrument, she explains that Chinese music is about creating an atmosphere and that many of the songs tell a story. Her English is non-existent, so Zhang Yi acts as translator. First she tells me the story of high mountain and flowing water. Legend tells of a musician who was playing beautiful music in the woods of Wuhan. A peasant man was walking by and heard the music. He came up to the musician and said how much he enjoyed the song about the high mountain. The musician was startled. This peasant man was the first person who had ever understood the meaning of his song. The musician played another song for the peasant and asked him its meaning. The peasant smiled and said “it is about beautiful flowing water.” The musician felt such joy and saw in the peasant his soul mate. They became instant friends. But the musician had to leave so the two of them promised to meet back up the following year in the same place. The next year the musician came back but his friend was not there. He asked some locals where he was and when they told him of his death the musician broke his instrument. Never had anyone understood his music before the peasant man and without him he felt playing had become pointless. Yun Yu than began to play and the story unfolded in song.
Yun Yu plays several songs, each accompanied by a story and each sounding completely different from the last as if she were playing a completely different instrument. Her hands moved so gracefully along the instrument I felt transfixed. Yun Yu uses no sheet music. She says that songs are taught from teacher to student by rote memorization and only recently have started being written down to make them more accessible.
Yun Yu is leaving shortly; she is returning home for the holidays (Chinese New Year is on February 14th this year.) But afterwards she promises in exchange for English lessons to teach me goujung. When I return to Canada I hope to tell the story of the great sadness of the Emperor. He had a wife that he loved too much. He spent all his time worshiping her and not enough time looking after the nation. The country fell into ruin and demanded that he put her to death. The song commemorates their last night together and the pain of the sacrifice the Emperor made.