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An interview with Beijing Opera artists
Pan Yong Ling, Li Jin Ping, Li Hong Mei,
and Wang Hong

Part 2 - If you don’t know the tradition --
how can you do something new?

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
San Francisco, California

Pan Yong Ling.
Pan Yong Ling. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

This interview of Pan Yong Ling, Li Jin Ping, Li Hong Mei and Wang Hong was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke in San Francisco, June 2, 2000. Wang Hong participated in the interview and also translated.

At the time of the interview, Beijing Opera artists Pan Yong Ling, Li Jin Ping and Li Hong Mei were in the United States to perform the premiere presentations of Jon Jang and James Newton's "When Sorrow Turns to Joy - Songlines: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang" (libretto by Genny Lim). This piece is inspired by the artistic and political legacies of the African American singer/actor/humanitarian Paul Robeson and Chinese operatic star Mei Lanfang. It was commissioned by Cal Performances - University of California at Berkeley and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Combining the two musics

In Motion Magazine: Li Jin Ping, what do you think of the bringing together of the music of Mei Lan Feng with African American music, jazz and spirituals?

Li Jin Ping: Right now, the Chinese government wants to put Chinese traditional opera on the market. Before, it was government-supported and you didn’t worry about your life. Because of the economic reforms, all Chinese artists are now on the market ...

In Motion Magazine: On the market?

Wang Hong: Yes, you have to find a job for yourself.

In Motion Magazine: You’re kidding.

Wang Hong: I’m not kidding. It’s very interesting. That’s why they want to try this. The group has to find a job on its own. Li Jin Ping thinks that this collaboration is exploring new things.

In Motion Magazine: So what do you think of combining the two musics?

Li Jin Ping: It works. Music has no borders. If planned well and practiced well they can work together. We need time to get to know each other.

In Motion Magazine: Do the musics have anything in common? What do you see when you see the two musics together?

Li Jin Ping: Jazz music gives you more freedom, like improvisation. Chinese opera has a fixed form, structure. You cannot change it. We are not used to improvisation. I am very interested in it. If I get another chance, I can do much better.

In Motion Magazine: Li Hong Mei, how did you feel when you were singing with Timothy Blevins, mixing the two musics?

Li Hong Mei: Because we were both presenting famous singers, Paul Robeson and Mei LanFeng, I was happy to have the opportunity to promote Mei LanFeng outside of China. I hope more people can know about him. Time has flown and people are forgetting him. I hope to bring back that memory. Both of them are great artists of the world.

In Motion Magazine: Did you know about Paul Robeson before?

Li Hong Mei: No.

In Motion Magazine: Did you enjoy the performance?

Li Hong Mei: I was very happy to have the opportunity and I hope to have more opportunities to perform with different artists and for more audiences to know about Chinese arts.

In Motion Magazine: Pan Yong Ling, what did you think of the coming together of the flute and the erhu?

Pan Yong Ling: That was eastern and western instruments together.

In Motion Magazine: Is this important?

Pan Yong Ling: A couple of years ago, when Jon (Jang) came to Beijing, he talked with me about a project. We wanted to do something different from traditional jazz music. We wanted to involve Chinese opera singers and instruments.

In Motion Magazine: Were you improvising during the performance?

Pan Yong Ling: Beijing Opera actually has some improvisation. For example, though there is a fixed traditional structure, we play more or less when the actor or actress is on the stage depending on the different stage sizes, Because we don’t know how long to play the performance depends on our improvisation.

In Motion Magazine: Had you heard of Paul Robeson before?

Pan Yong Ling: Because I was born in the 1940’s I knew something about him from records.

If you don’t know the tradition -- how can you do something new?

In Motion Magazine: Wang Hong, speaking as a Chinese musician in the U.S. what do you think is going on with this mixing of musical traditions?

Wang Hong.
Wang Hong. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Wang Hong: It’s a good question. I don’t know the future for Chinese Americans, but for my wife and I, our whole livelihood depends on music. We are professional performers and we have no other job, like some people who have to find a second job.

Being in the United States is different than in China. You have to find a way to make a living. You hope to make a project work, to find money, to manage your organization. There’s a lot of things to learn. I’m a performer, the executive director, the accountant, the grant writer. -You have to learn to do everything. If your group grows then later you can hire people to do some of the jobs.

Chinese American artists, Asian artists, if they are not English-speaking have to learn the language first. Secondly, they have to learn the game of the American performing cycle. They must try to understand the laws of artists in the United States. Thirdly, they have to keep their tradition but also they need to learn from others. Then you have more opportunities.

For example, we perform traditional music but also we combine that work with performances with jazz musicians, symphonic orchestra, music theater, dance groups, classical music, and electric music. Different things. That’s very important for new immigrants.

In Motion Magazine: You were saying you have to do traditional music and then you have to try something else -- what happens then?

Pan Yong Ling: The audience likes it when you try something new.

In Motion Magazine: So you should?

Pan Yong Ling: The best thing is to promote the traditions. If you don’t know the tradition -- how can you do something new?

Wang Hong: That’s very important.

Pan Yong Ling: Beijing opera has a very good future because the government thinks it is a very important treasure of Chinese culture. We just talked about how they want to put the group on the market, to be part of the reforms, but also the Chinese government promotes Beijing opera in different countries. The group performs in European countries, Asian countries, South American countries and African countries. At this performance you have just seen a little bit of the Beijing opera. If you see the real thing it is much different.

In Motion Magazine: Have you previously had an opportunity to mix musics in one piece, such as in the Jang/Newton piece?

Pan Yong Ling: This is the second time I and Lin Jin Ping have performed with Jon. For Li Hong Mei it is the first time.

In Motion Magazine: In your travels, has any other country tried to bring two types of music together?

Li Jin Ping: We tried it one time in Japan with Japanese opera. Not just music but the performance also.

In Motion Magazine: Was it successful?

Li Jin Ping: We performed a hundred and ten performances.

In Motion Magazine: Japanese and Chinese together?

Wang Hong: Yes.

This time with jazz

In Motion Magazine: Is this a new kind of music?

Wang Hong: It’s a new exploration - this time with jazz.

Li Jin Ping: We learned a lot of things from the jazz musicians and got some new ideas from them so probably the next time, in the next project, we can do more things.

In Motion Magazine: What did you learn?

Li Jin Ping and Pan Yong Ling: The rhythm and improvisation.

Li Jin Ping: I did some improvisation. I did the percussion with no written music.

In Motion Magazine: You’d never done that before? Was it a shock?

Li Jin Ping: During rehearsal it was a shock, but no problem. It was very interesting.

In Motion Magazine: Li Hong Mei, how about you?

Li Hong Mei: I did some improvisation movements. Before the rehearsal, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Beijing opera is different, there is structure, and you are told exactly where your feet should go. This performance was different, I could do it two times or three times. There was more freedom. I like it.

Pan Yong Ling: I hope jazz musicians can perform in China. A lot of people are interested in jazz music. We don’t have a jazz tradition.

Reforms in China

In Motion Magazine: Do you want to talk some more about the reforms in China and how the changes effect artists? You said that artists aren’t going to be supported by the government any more - they are going to be out on the market?

Pan Yong Ling: It’s very good. You have to follow the rules of the natural market. Not just be controlled by the government.

Wang Hong: Without the Chinese government reforms they can not do their touring. Before, the government controlled all the artists. If they wanted to go abroad, the government had to ask them to go. Without the changes, they could not do what they are doing now with this tour.

In Motion Magazine: Therefore they have more freedom to perform? That’s a pretty good point.

Wang Hong: Yes, it’s a very good point.

In Motion Magazine: Wang Hong, do the reforms make sense also from your perspective?

Wang Hong: Yes. I’m happy with them. Some governments, they do not know about the arts. They have different rules. If the government controls the rules of the arts - then the art is not natural. In the past, the government paid artists whether they were good or not - there was no incentive.

Li Jin Ping: The arts are the arts. Governments can not control the arts. The arts have their own natural rules - like water.

Li Hong Mei: Artists need more space.

Li Jin Ping: Arts are unlimited. You never stop learning.

In Motion Magazine: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Li Jin Ping: This time we had a very good performance but I hope next time on the next project we can add more instruments because the Beijing opera has four main instruments- the JingHu (two string fiddle, made of bamboo), the Jing er-hu(two strings fiddle), yue-qin (moon lute), and the san-xian (three strings lute with long neck) with three string. Without all the instruments it sounds a little bit strange. Also the percussion needs four people playing as a group. A total of eight people.

Pan Yong Ling: I hope we have more cultural exchanges programs. I want the American people to learn more about Chinese music, Chinese operas, our culture. It is good for understanding each other. It is a bridge to bring people together.

Li Hong Mei: I agree.

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Published in In Motion Magazine September 10, 2000