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Descendants work to preserve melodious stories of old

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-18 22:53
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Photo taken on Oct 17, 2020 shows the view of Lulin Lake at Lushan Mountain scenic spot in Jiujiang city, East China's Jiangxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In Jiangxi province, a forgotten chapter in US-China relations lies amid the misty peaks of Lushan Mountain. The descendants of those who first built this unique bridge decades ago are now hoping to revive this fading memory.

Ellen Roots McBride's connection to China is deeply personal. Named after the majestic mountain itself — Wu Meilu, meaning "beautiful Lushan roots", her family history is intertwined with the history of US-China amity.

Her great-grandfather, Logan Roots, arrived in China in 1896 as a missionary carrying a message of unity. In Lushan, he met his future wife and raised two generations in Chinese culture.

The bonds extended beyond the family. The Roots family befriended prominent figures, including Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

"My great uncle John was there in 1972 when president Nixon visited China," McBride told China Daily, adding that Premier Zhou extended the invitation to his sister to come and play her music in China again.

Her great aunt, Frances Roots, was a pianist and became a musical ambassador to China. She composed The Lushan Suite in honor of the mountain where she was born.

Frances was invited back to China in 1972 and she played The Lushan Suite at the Great Hall of the People. She also played The Lushan Suite at the White House in 1973. McBride's book, The Lushan Suite: A Love Song from the West to the East, was published last year to commemorate the special bond.

"It (The Lushan Suite) really tried to celebrate the Chinese American friendships that we have, and it's not about political ideology; it's about who we are as people," McBride said.

"So, when they (Frances and her husband) were out on concert tour in China in 1972, they would go to the music stores and they would have just an impromptu concert, and people would be coming from all over just to listen to them and talk to them and get to know them as people."

While the world remembers Ping-Pong Diplomacy as a catalyst for US-China dialogue, a lesser-known story unfolds — the power of music in fostering understanding, said Hu Zhiyang, vice-president of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries in Jiangxi province.

This act of "music diplomacy" helped pave the way for reviving cultural exchange when China began opening its doors to the world, he said.

Recognizing the importance of rekindling those ties, Hu is leading a delegation currently visiting the United States, working with the descendants of those pioneers. The two sides signed agreements in San Francisco on Wednesday to promote US-China friendship, with a specific focus on reigniting "music diplomacy".

Forgotten chapter

A new concert featuring McBride's nephew, Logan Roots, is planned, with The Lushan Suite being performed again in both China and the US.

This forgotten chapter is what Steve Harnsberger, another descendant of those who lived in Guling, a historic US summer resort on Lushan Mountain, is determined to revive.

"Our stories have been developing over many years, but they're not public yet," Harnsberger, president of the Kuling American School Association, said. In December 2020, Harnsberger reached out to the Roots family. He has been working with the Lushan government to record family stories to preserve this history.

US writer Pearl S. Buck found solace in her summer home in Lushan.

"Her story in Jiangxi province, which is a very important home of hers, has never been told in China and the US," Harnsberger said.

Harnsberger signed an agreement with the Jiangxi delegation to restore the Pearl Buck educational exchange program at the Lushan Middle School.

That connection, he believes, reflects the true spirit of US-China relations — a desire for understanding and cooperation that resides among the people, irrespective of political tensions.

"That's why right now the people-to-people exchange is much more important because the Chinese people and the American people get along very well," Harnsberger said.

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