An Erhu Master Captures a violent slice of China’s history

To understand another country’s history and culture, one should listen to its music, read that country’s novels, and see its films.

For instance, Reflection of the Moon about Ah Bing (1893 – 1950), a master of the Chinese Erhu, who in 1950, shortly before his death, became a national sensation as radios throughout China started to play his music.

Fortunate for me, this Chinese film had English subtitles, but were not the best quality and true to form for a Chinese movie filmed in 1979 (shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976), the plot was melodramatic with traces of propaganda that favored the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

However, to be fair, the brutal Civil War between the Communist and Nationalist Parties raged from 1927 – 1950 (with a short break during World War II to fight the Japanese invaders), and the CCP, with support from several hundred million peasants, won.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would not begin for years and for those that survived the purges in 1949 and 1950 (the victims were allegedly abusive land owners and drug dealers accused of crimes by the people they allegedly abused and victimized), Mao fulfilled his promise of land reform. Many of the landowners lost their lives, and the land they had owned was divided among the peasants collectively and not individually.

To understand the era of Ah Bing’s life, much of China (including Tibet) was still feudal in nature, and the upper classes often took advantage of the peasants and workers as if they were beasts of burden treated as slaves. At the time of his death, he was 57, and the average lifespan in China was 35. Today the average lifespan is 75.5 years.

Ah Bing’s real name was Hua Yanjun. His knowledge of traditional Chinese music and his talent as a musician went mostly unnoticed until the last year of his life in 1950, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1950, two musicologists were sent to his hometown of Wuxi to record and preserve his music. At the time, he was ill and hadn’t performed for about two years. Six of his compositions that are considered masterpieces were recorded by those musicologists. It is said that he knew more than 700 pieces and most of them were his compositions.

The lyrics of some of his music criticized the KMT (Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government), and he was often punished for speaking out through his music. If you have read of The Long March, you know that the peasants did not trust the KMT, but they did trust the Communists, and most rural Chinese from that era still think of Mao as China’s George Washington.

Before the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, China’s Communist Party treated the peasants and workers with respect while the KMT didn’t.

China Daily reported that Ah Bing’s story and music is still popular, and that the Performing Arts Company of China’s Air Force performed Er Quan Yin, an original Western-style Chinese opera, in 2010. The performance was “Based on the story of legendary Chinese erhu performer, Hua Yanjun, or Blind Ah Bing, the opera tells the story of an erhu performer, Ah Quan and his adopted daughter Ah Li, who struggle to make a living in the 1950s.”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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