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Music for Poetry: A Fourth- or Third-Century B. C. Bamboo Text

In October 2000, with the assistance of Ms. Fan Dongqing (consultant of Christie's Inc.),'s CEO Yu Gan interviewed world's renowned Chinese bronze expert and archaeologist Mr. Ma Cheng Yuan in a middle town hotel of Manhattan, New York. Mr. Ma is also the former executive director of Shanghai Museum of China.

eCA: Mr. Ma, what is the direction of your recent academic study?

Ma: My recent focus is Chinese ancient bronze and ancient characters, especially the Bamboo Slips and text. During the last three years, I have laid particular emphasis on the ancient characters study, for instance, bronze text and the bamboo text of Warring State Period. In 1994 Shanghai Museum acquired a large group of Bamboo Slips of the Warring State Period from Hong Kong with the assistance of local friends, which totaled 1,200 pieces and over 3,500 characters. Most of those ancient texts are scarce and thus precious in the world. We now know those are actually widely used text in Chu prior to the dynasty of Emperor Qin, the first emperor in China's 5,000 history.

eCA: This is a tremendous discovery and great achievement to China's history, literature and archeology.

Ma: It is. As we all know, ancient texts are numbered, mainly because Emperor Qin adopted "Burn Books and Kill Intellectuals" policy. Books, to be exact, Bamboo Slips, were usually buried with deceased celebrities during that time. Anyway, those returned texts have raised a lot of new questions to us and is definitely a big plus to our academic study such as ancient Chinese Philosophy, History, Literature and even Geology. We are exploring those Bamboo Slips Texts and the ever-discovered contents. Now the world is looking at us. We plan to publish our findings and those marvelous collections starting from next year.

eCA: How many events will be held in Shanghai Museum in 2000 and 2001?

Ma: We've set up a general direction, that is, every year the Museum will present an activity from minorities. For instance, now we have archaeology exhibitions from Xin Jiang and Mongol. Next year we will hold exhibition from Tibet. To promote these great events, we also invited foreign archaeologists and researchers to join the program. Before, it was difficult to expose minorities' findings to the West due to inconvenient transportation and culture difference. Now it is a big improvement for both minority archaeology activity and international professionals. We are going to offer as much assistance as possible for the experts who want to explore findings in those areas.

eCA: Can you tell us the main purpose of your US trip this year?

Ma: This year there is a Music and Art exchange program between the US and China. In China, this March, we presented an exhibition called "Old Music but New Tone" in Shanghai. To do that, we collected ancient music instruments from all over the country. Plus, we hosted an international seminar to evaluate and summarize the event. In Shanghai Opera House, there was also an Ancient Music Performance, which made a sensation throughout the event. On US side, several days ago (September 16, 2000) there was a similar exhibition at Sackler and Freer Museum in Washington DC. It also hosted a seminar and performance called "Music in the Age of Confucius" which attracted over 300 experts and collectors to participant. I addressed a speech at the seminar and that's my main purpose of US trip.

eCA: What were your key points of the speech?

Ma: My topic was "Music for Poetry: A Fourth- or Third-Century B.C. Bamboo Text". Those Bamboos recorded some unknown sections that we haven't figured out before, for instance, "Gao" is a chapter of poetic performance which is composed of 9 notes and 13 pitches. We used to study serials bells by its shape, sound and veins when we study ancient Chinese music. However, nobody knows what exactly formed those characters. Now we have the results from the Bamboo Slips that will tell us many things and events in their time, and this is a breakthrough. I'm trying to translate these new discoveries to our modern people. It was always difficult to explain the characteristics of ancient music because it was spread by sound not text. What we discovered was "Pitch" of Chu music recorded on those Bamboo Slips. This is an important finding. I used some transparencies in the speech and the audience was enthusiastic.

eCA: Can you tell us some details?

Ma: The titles of poems are all very simple and popular. Some of poems are like love songs and used to be excluded from traditional chapters and collections. For instance, one poem portrays a woman expresses her deep admiration to her husband. The rhythm is quick and light, just like pops now, such as "Everything about my husband is lovable", "Why didn't you listen to me", and "your longings for me", etc.

eCA: Mr. Ma, if I comprehend right, you act as a great translator. You translate those Bamboo Slips Texts from ancient into modern. The role you play has contributed a lot to the culture exchange between East and West. Millions of Chinese who live oversees also benefit substantially from you works.

Ma: That's my job and pleasure.

eCA: Mr. Ma, you are the world renowned expert of Chinese bronze. Could you tell us some information about the trading market, especially the auction market for Chinese bronze?

Ma: Auction itself is a culture. The buyers from West and East are eager to collect Chinese antiques and bronzes. They try to comprehend China's history, art and culture by studying those antiques and bronzes. Culture is a universal phenomenon without national boundaries. However, the ownership and cultural exchange is a different issue. It belongs to economic category. In the past, a large amount of Chinese antiques have drifted into the other countries and has formed a unique culture after many years of trading in the auction market, and the auction market is a special stage for this kind of culture. My big concern is those recently lost antiques. We should not allow this happen again.

eCA: That's actually my next question. How do you feel about this?

Ma: Negative. I mean it will hurt our antiques and the reputations of our country. Those Bamboos is a good example. The reason for this situation is we didn't have auction in the past and the West did. Therefore, our antiques flowed away through different channels. For instance, Hong Kong has a big antique market. Hundreds of antique shops crowded on two or three streets, which are full of, lost Chinese antiques. In the USA and Europe, there are also lots of people own many of those national-level antiques. We feel deep regret for our huge losses. Those markets have some very precious antiques that our national museums don't. Recently, we have taken back some lost antiques because of the great support from the Chinese national and local government. For bronze, we regained two hundred pieces that are all the top-level collections. Recently, our country lost some very valuable antiques and treasures. For the economic sake, some people ignore the nation's law to illegally export antiques to abroad. We lost too much good things, and we should not allow this happen again. On the other hand, although many valuable antiques are spread through oversees, there are still tons of fakes in the market. It is necessary to set up a non-profit organization that helps collectors and buyers appraise the antiques and offer suggestions.

eCA: Thanks so much for your time and support. eChinaArt will make more efforts on the presentation and promotion of our Chinese antiques.

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