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Sharing Chinese culture two strings at a time

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Liping Woods, one of only a few erhu musicians in Colorado, uses traditional Chinese music to reflect on her childhood memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Liping Woods took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and straightened her back until her posture resembled the smooth wooden qín gān (琴杆), the neck of her erhu (二胡).

Woods raised her right elbow into the playing position, the gōng (弓), the bow, held gently yet firmly between her fingers. She took one more breath before sliding the bow’s fine white horse hairs across one of the erhu’s two strings.

Her head moved in harmony with the bow, the two dancing to the instrument’s crisp, sustained notes, of which many have described as haunting, expressive and resembling weeping.

Colorado Voices

Sharing Chinese culture two strings at a time

For Woods, these chords ring a bit more positively.

Despite learning the erhu as a child under Chairman Mao Zedong’s oppressive Cultural Revolution in Communist China, Woods finds that the music evokes happy childhood memories of love and family.

“It’s a very beautiful instrument… when you play it right,” said Woods. 

The erhu is a traditional Chinese two-stringed instrument that some believe dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). Earlier versions of the instrument were known as the huqin (which translates to the “barbarian’s stringed instrument”) and were thought to have originated from northern regions of China, indicated by the word hu which was a derogatory term for northern tribes of the time.

While the origins of the name erhu are uncertain, many believe it to be more modern, possibly arriving as early as the 20th century when the instrument rose to prominence through the compositions of musicians like Liu Tianhua.

Today, the erhu, which is sometimes referred to as the Chinese violin or fiddle, continues to play a central role in modern Chinese music. It features in everything from solos to symphonies, often soundtracking traditional festivals and celebrations, including the Lunar New Year.

The bow of the Erhu only hits one of the two strings at a time.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

For the past 17 years, Liping Woods has performed for the Colorado Springs Chinese Cultural Institute’s (CSCCI) Lunar New Year celebration. However, before she was invited by a friend to play with the CSCCI in 2007, Woods’ erhu had spent decades gathering dust. 

Woods was born and raised in Chongqing, China during the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong. Around May 1966, Zedong began implementing what has formally become known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a decade-long sociopolitical upheaval that cemented Chinese communist ideals and ideologies within the country. 

A central tenet of the movement was youth mobilization, with an emphasis on urban youth. Having worked extensively in rural settings, Zedong was an outspoken advocate for agricultural work, writing, “It is very necessary for the educated youth to go to the countryside and undergo re-education by poor peasants.”

This, matched with the swelling urban populations, inspired the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” a mass youth relocation initiative that sent an estimated 17 million urban youth to work in remote and bordering regions of China. 

“Both my sister and my brother went to the countryside,” said Woods. “It was pretty sad to watch them go. Barely 16, 17 year old, not knowing when they might be home.”

With hopes of avoiding the same fate, Woods began devising ways to justify her staying in the city.

“When I was 12, I started thinking, ‘Well, perhaps if I have a good skill, instead of going to the countryside, maybe I can join the army and play in the band.’”

Woods lived near a retired military veteran who played the erhu, and after some pleading to her parents, she began her musical career.

Chinese musical notation, also known as Jianpu, uses dot notation instead of musical notes.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

It was later that she learned her mother had spent an entire month’s salary to finance the instrument. The erhu cost about 50 yuan, or about $20.33 at the time.

“It wasn’t much, but that was a whole month’s salary,” said Woods. “Even though we were not a music family, they really supported me.”

Woods took music lessons from her neighbor, who the family often repaid with home cooked dinners. Woods remembers her mother once paying him with 10 eggs.

And in thanks for the classes, Woods would perform for her parents and other extended family at family gatherings. These are the memories she holds most dear.

“When I was young, my parents were so busy during those times… once in a while we’d get together, they’d watch me play,” said Woods. “You know, it’s not a lot, but those are my happy moments.”

Woods completed an undergraduate degree in China, during which she continued playing the erhu in the school band. 

In 1991, she moved to the United States to complete a graduate degree in biology at the University of Oklahoma. She spent years doing biochemistry research in Oklahoma and at the University of Colorado, before pursuing a second graduate degree, this time in Computer Information Systems, at Regis University in Denver. 

Busy with her studies and drowning in college debt, Woods found she had little time to play the erhu.

“I worked a lot. That’s all I did,” said Woods. “I saved to pay my college tuition. Worked, worked… so [for the] first few years — many years [in the United States] — I didn’t play.”

It wasn’t until 2007, when a friend of Woods introduced her to the CSCCI, a nonprofit cultural organization formed to promote Chinese culture and community in the Pikes Peak region. 

The CSCCI’s many events, including community dinners and cultural celebrations, proved the perfect excuse for Woods to pick up her bow and erhu once again.

“I was a little rusty,” said Woods, “but during the past few years, I’ve gotten more comfortable.”

Today, Woods is a regular performer with the CSCCI, as well as with other community organizations interested in featuring her talents. She will be performing at the CSCCI Lunar New Year celebration March 30 at the UCCS ENT Center for the Arts. 

Just as playing helped Woods reconnect with her past, hearing her music helped others reconnect with theirs as well. At one show, she remembers striking a significant chord with an international student.

“Once I played a piece called ‘Jasmine Flower,’ and there was one Chinese high school student who came to the event,” said Woods. “After I played that song, he goes, ‘Oh, you made me so homesick!’”

While Woods has yet to meet another erhu musician in Colorado, she hopes to find others who share her passion. In the meantime, she wants her performances to inspire the next generation of musicians.

“Sharing, you know, that’s most important to me, particularly in the United States,” said Erhu. 

She has also begun playing with her sister and her sister-in-law, each of which have taken up different Chinese instruments including the Guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither, and the Hulusi, also known as the gourd flute.

It’s in these moments — both performing with her relatives and performing on her own — that Woods reconnects with her fondest childhood memories, like sharing 2am meals with her father, who would wake her and her siblings after returning from a night shift with a meager ration of much-loved meat.

“We were poor, but we had a good family love,” said Woods, “and those are the very cherished moments in my life.”

Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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