On one hand, Mingmei Yip was hardly a traditional Chinese girl. “Women used to be discouraged from playing the qin,” the Hong Kong-born Yip told audiences at last night’s lecture-demonstration Qin and Chinese Calligraphy at the China Institute. “Any talents or abilities made a woman less attractive.”
Ever since playing the qin became formally recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, men and women have both been flocking to China’s ancient zither. But Yip was ahead of the curve, having studied with a longtime proponent of the tradition—another woman, as it happened—Hong Kong-based master Tsar Teh-yun. “They say both qin-playing and calligraphy lead to longevity,” Yip said. “My teacher lived to be 103.”
Gender issues aside, however, Yip—who went on to write her dissertation on the history and aesthetics of the qin at the Sorbonne (Paris)—falls squarely into the world of Chinese literati, for whom the qin, calligraphy, painting, and poetry are all interrelated. As a practitioner and teacher of calligraphy (currently at CUNY), a devoted advocate of the qin, and a writer-illustrator of children’s books (including her 2008 novel Peach Blossom Pavilion, featuring a qin-playing courtesan), Yip is clearly a scholar for the modern age.
Her talk, which filled the China Institute’s 70-seat hall to capacity, also filled an obvious gap for any institution the size of Carnegie Hall: how to experience the subtle nuances of an instrument usually heard by an audience of one, and sometimes only by the player. The evening often found connections between visual and musical aesthetics—how balancing line and space can equate with sound and silence—as well as comparisons to Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock, who offer much of the style of Chinese calligraphy with none of the literal meaning of the written language.
There were a handful of musicians in the room, as well as a number of calligraphers who could not only read Yip’s elegant characters, but also called out technical terms when she paused over their names in English. But few from one discipline seemed to have studied the other. Safe to say, everyone in the audience learned something about something.Posted by Ken Smith