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Pipa star lights up French streets

By MENG WENJIE | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-15 06:52
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Zhao Yang, a Chinese student in France, plays the pipa on the coast of Nice, France. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhao Yang, a Chinese student in Strasbourg, France, captivates global audiences with her pipa performances, redefining perceptions of Chinese youth through music.

In the bustling tourist city of Strasbourg, France, street performers from various countries can be found. Among them is Zhao Yang, a 24-year-old Chinese student studying film at the University of Strasbourg, who plays the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute.

Zhao's fascination with the pipa began at the age of four when she was captivated by its elegance and the skills of the player. This enchantment ignited her musical journey, starting with her first pipa adorned with a traditional Chinese pattern of two dragons playing with a pearl.

Toward the end of 2021, Zhao decided to showcase her pipa skills on the streets of Strasbourg for a video project. This impromptu performance attracted a growing audience who gathered to enjoy her music. What began as a casual filming session evolved into a street performance lasting nearly 40 minutes. "The atmosphere was amazing, so I captured that moment on video," said Zhao.

She shared the footage on social media, quickly drawing the attention of viewers worldwide. Since then, Zhao has been regularly playing the pipa on the streets of France in her free time and has built an online following of almost 300,000 fans through her vlogs.

During her street performances, Zhao has established meaningful connections and cultural exchanges with locals and tourists from around the world. Once, an elderly man who was visually impaired approached her and felt her pipa. Zhao vividly remembers the man's words: "This is it! I visited China in the 1970s and 1980s. When I heard it on the street today, I knew it was a sound from China."

During her five years of studying in France, Zhao has witnessed traditional Chinese culture resonating afresh in the modern era and on a global scale.

In one of her videos, she introduced classic pieces from China's Kunqu Opera, such as the story of Du Shiniang, a legendary courtesan of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while performing the pipa in traditional Kunqu attire and makeup. One comment from a female viewer under the video left a lasting impression on Zhao.

The viewer said she was inspired by the female characters in these tales who bravely broke free from traditional societal constraints, which challenged her preconceptions of ancient China. She also shared how this influence translated into her own life experiences, motivating her to boldly try new things and explore the world.

"Through my videos, I've been able to change some global audiences' perceptions of our culture and offer them encouragement in their lives. I find it very touching," said Zhao.

Zhao has also noticed a growing awareness among the French public regarding Chinese traditional musical instruments.

When she first arrived in France, Zhao found it difficult to acquire instruments like the pipa. However, in recent years, she has observed that Chinese traditional instruments have become more accessible. Major cities like Paris now have shops selling these instruments and even offering courses for learning to play them.

The understanding of foreign audiences regarding Chinese traditional instruments has also evolved. Previously, they only recognized the instruments mainly by name and appearance. But now, as Zhao has noticed during her street performances, spectators talk to her about the instrument's range, notes, and playing techniques, with guitar enthusiasts drawing parallels between the pipa and other string instruments.

"They are truly listening to my performances, and this deeper exchange of music and culture is fascinating," said Zhao.

Apart from showcasing traditional Chinese classical pipa music, Zhao is also looking to expand the playing styles of the pipa because she believes that, as a musical instrument, it holds greater potential.

In 2023, for example, Zhao performed La gloire a mes genoux (The Glory to My Knees) from the French rock opera, The Red and the Black, based on the 1830 novel by Stendhal (1783-1842). It was her first try to explore blending pipa playing techniques with contemporary music styles.

In subsequent attempts, she even experimented with incorporating bass guitar techniques into her pipa performances for rock-pop music. "Using the pipa to play rock, jazz, and other diverse music genres can inspire new possibilities and vitality for this traditional instrument, expanding its audience across different artistic realms," she said.

This is probably why Zhao's performances have gained a significant following on international social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok.

Her videos also offer global audiences a fresh perspective on Chinese youth. Zhao noticed that many foreign students initially perceived Chinese students as shy and introverted, with impressions of China often leaning toward the solemn and mysterious. However, she believes that while these aspects are part of Chinese culture, they do not fully define it.

"Young people in China can be both reserved and vibrant, and Chinese culture can be both ancient and inclusive," said Zhao. "I hope to display a more multifaceted and dynamic image of Chinese youth to break traditional stereotypes held by overseas audiences about China."

Recently, Zhao collaborated with a composer in China to create videos that use music for cultural exchange, commemorating the significance of 2024. This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, coinciding with the upcoming Paris Olympics.

Known as "Miss Qianmi" (meaning "keep exploring") on social media, Zhao said she picked this moniker because it symbolizes freedom, romanticism, and a spirit of exploration.

"I want to embody this limitless vitality to explore more possibilities and expand the path of our traditional culture," she said.

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