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二泉映月 (Moon Reflected on Second Spring), a modern Chinese classic

If there is a music that can make one’s soul weep, 二泉映月 (Moon Reflected on Second Spring) is it.  It was composed and played by 华彦钧 (Huà Yànjūn), more commonly known as 阿炳 (“Blind” Abing), who lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of modern Chinese history.  Only with the most miserable human condition could someone make this music.  Famous Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa was quoted in Chinese, “此曲只应跪听” which means this piece should be heard while kneeling down.

Ozawa perhaps can relate well to the miserable life Abing had to endure, for Ozawa was himself born in China during Japan’s invasion. Abing lived from August 17, 1893 to December 4, 1950. The two Opium Wars in the 1800’s had left the Chinese government severely weakened. Chinese society continued to decline as the European, American, and Japanese colonial powers try to divvy up China in the 1900s. At age 34, he contracted syphilis and eventually became blind. After that, he roamed the streets of Wuxi and played his music on the 二胡 (erhu) and the 琵琶 (pipa) instruments. Around that time, Japanese troops advanced further into China, including Wuxi where he lived.

A year after birth, his mother died partly from depression, brought on from resentment by her family for having married Abing’s father who was a Taoist priest. In China, monks, nuns, and priests do not customarily marry. Abing was raised by an extended family until the age of 8. His father took him back and started teaching him music some time after that. At the age of 21, his father would die, leaving Abing to fend for himself.

With the tragedies in his immediate family and his own misfortune and a broader ravaged society from foreign invaders, Abing could only yearn and gasp for a different world. (See also, “毛阿敏 (Mao AMin), 渴望 (”Yearning”), yearning for a better future“)

Luckily, professors Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe, both natives of Wuxi, from the Central Conservatory of Music managed to record six of Abing’s songs in the summer of 1950. Abing at that time was already sick and had not played any instrument for few years. The recording was made following three days of rehearsal. The two professors had only enough tape to record three erhu and three pipa pieces during their first meeting, and Abing’s death in early December 1950 would end the opportunity to record more of his performances.

After the professors made Abing’s recordings available, his songs became instant classics, especially 二泉映月.

(Click play to play 二泉映月 within your browser, or, click on Abing’s image above to download it as originally played by him and recorded by the professors on magnetic tape. This photo of Abing was from an identification card issued by the Japanese army.)

Source: Baidu 百科, CCTV

Below is a more recent rendition of 二泉映月 hosted on tudou.com:

[Note: This post is absolutely not about dwelling on misery and playing victim-hood. Perhaps its said best by raffiaflower in one of our earlier post comments:]

Rather than compare China with Spain, Mexico, Vietnam, etc, it might be more apt to compare China 1842/1945 with World War II between the great powers of Europe. They were “civilisational crises”; both necessitated re-invention. In the case of the West, it had to ditch imperialism and nationalism that had put Germany into conflict with France and mainly Great Britain. The old powers adopted liberal democracy and forged closer fraternal bonds.

China’s century of humilation similarly laid bare the inadequacies of the 5000-year civilisation it had been so proud of. Against tremendous odds, it has re-invented itself and continues to do so. The Western world commemorates World War II every year, pledging “never again”. Why shouldn’t China remember its greatest hours of peril as the starting point of its modern nationhood?

It’s not about victimhood. It’s a reminder of the need for vigilance.

  1. August 26th, 2013 at 16:21 | #1

    Since I went to shanghai for quite a while this year again, I had the chance to hear this piece of beautiful music and before I went to the performance at Shanghai Conservatoire in June 2013 I searched the web to get informed about the composer and had the chance to come across your post and your blog. Now I will post it on my blog which is mainly about music and singers as i am an opera lover. I am very fond of erhu (二胡)Thank you for all the very interesting articles on your blog.

  2. August 26th, 2013 at 23:18 | #2

    I have listened to this piece countless times, many with my eyes closed trying to imagine what life must have been like then for Abing and his fellow countrymen.

    I am happy we have connected somehow through this piece.

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