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Tuesday, March 12, 2019, 12:09
Heritage item
By Huang Zhiling
Tuesday, March 12, 2019, 12:09 By Huang Zhiling

Bi Yinsheng plays the wudu for overseas visitors. (LEI PING / CHINA DAILY)

People taking a stroll in the Erqiao Park in Jiayu county, Central China's Hubei province, often notice an elderly man playing a wind instrument called wudu.

According to local chronicles, the wudu dates back more than 2,700 years and is a clay musical instrument in China that is capable of resonance

The picturesque park is where the county's intangible cultural heritage center is located. And, related items showcased there include the musical instrument that was once used by those herding sheep. Now, visitors from outside the county marvel at Bi Yinsheng, 69, who plays the wudu.

The instrument was known to have been popular with shepherd boys in Jiayu during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), when the county by the Yangtze River was under Wu rule, says Huang Jinhui, a former local publicity official. The riverbanks were long and when the shepherds needed to communicate with one another, they would play the wudu as well.

According to local chronicles, the wudu dates back more than 2,700 years and is a clay musical instrument in China that is capable of resonance.

In 1982, Bi, then a staff member of the Jiayu county cultural center, was asked by the county government to produce it. He was born in a poor family and a disease had deprived him of sight in one eye as a child. But he had a gift for music and could play various instruments. Before he worked in the county cultural center, Bi was a flute player in a music troupe for 14 years.

After four years of studying local chronicles and experimenting, Bi managed to produce a wudu in 1986. The wudu is hollow and shaped like a fish, with 10 holes in its belly and back. The playing technique is similar to that of a flute. When the music is soft, it can make people calm. And, when it is loud or sonorous, it can energize people.

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Bi attended a national meeting about musical instruments in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, in 1990. The instrument evoked the interest of musicians present there, and Bi was invited to play a piece depicting how ancient Chinese carried out slash-and-burn agriculture at the closing ceremony of that meeting.

In 1992, Bi, who was invited to play the wudu at the China Art Festival held in Kunming, Yunnan province, became the only player from Hubei to participate in the event that year. Two years later, he played the wudu in Thailand and South Korea with the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe led by Deng Pufang, chairman of the China Disabled Persons' Federation.

Deng Pufang is a son of Deng Xiaoping (1904-97).

"Members of the troupe joined the charity performances in Bangkok and Chiang Mai (Thailand) and Seoul and Busan (South Korea) to raise public awareness about people with disabilities," Bi says.

To mark the holding of the United Nations Millennium Summit at the UN headquarters in New York, the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe visited the United States in 2000, and performed at the John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington and Carnegie Hall in New York. They visited Seattle, San Francisco and Hawaii as well.

Bi Yinsheng explains to students how to make the wudu (LONG HONGKUN / CHINA DAILY)

When the troupe arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, Bi and some performers from the troupe paid a visit to Chang Hsueh-liang (1901-2001) along with Deng Pufang.

Chang was a mastermind of the Xi'an Incident in Shaanxi province in 1936 that led to the arrest of Chiang Kai-shek, forcing the Kuomintang to enter into a truce with the Communist Party of China to form a united front against Japan, which had occupied Northeast China. As a result, Chang spent decades under house arrest before migrating to Honolulu in 1993.

Bi played a piece about how Chinese soldiers fought on Mount Taihang in North China during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). The music cheered up Chang, who was in a wheelchair, Bi says. Chang was in low spirits because his wife Edith Chao had passed away around then.

Since Bi retired from the county cultural center nine years ago, he has been involved in training young people to play the wudu.

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Tong Xin, head of the Jiayu county intangible cultural heritage center, says the county wants to be known as the "hometown of wudu" since the instrument made Hubei's heritage list in 2007.

So far, 12 training centers have been set up in the county under the guidance of Bi and his daughter, Bi Qin, another well-known wudu player.

Contact the writer at huangzhiling@chinadaily.com.cn

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