The title of this recording comes from one of the most famous poems from the Tang dynasty, "Pipa Xing" (琵琶行) by Bai Juyi. The poem describes a chance encounter with an aging pipa courtesan one autumn night in the year 815, after Bai himself had been banished from the capital. Once a great beauty and celebrated artist, Bai's pipa player was now the wife of a travelling merchant, pouring out her heart under the autumn moon. The poem's title has been translated "Pipa Song", "Ballad of the Pipa" or even "The Lute Girl", the Chinese character "xing" (行) in this context, describing an ancient form of narrative poetry intended to be recited with a musical accompaniment. As with many Chinese characters, “行” has many layers of meaning, including taking a walk, or a trek, an individual's conduct or behavior, or to give a performance, all of which add deeper levels of significance to Bai's moonlight encounter on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Today, the pipa is one of the most immediately recognizable and popular Chinese musical instruments; generations of virtuosos have elevated the instrument's technical capabilities to unimaginable levels of virtuosity, but its journey began on the Silk Road more than 2000 years ago when the first spiked lutes, the common ancestors of the Arabic oud, the European lute arrived in China from Asia Minor.
In the millennia since it arrived, poets have praised the pipa’s expressive power to convey every human emotion and activity from love to war; Artists have portrayed it as far back as the grottoes at Dunhuang (ca. 5th century); Women have sought solace in its plaintive sounds and priests have used it to accompany their preaching of the Buddha's message. It has been carried into the heavens by devas and into battle by soldiers.
Unlike the aristocratic qin zither, the pipa had always belonged to the entire nation, from emperors to itinerants. From China it would journey throughout East Asia, to become the Japanese biwa, the Korean bipa, and the Vietnamese dan tyba.
In its journey from foreign transplant to cultural icon, the pipa’s national status has become emblematic of the Chinese character to adopt and adapt, as evidenced in the popular idiom “to play pipa behind the back” (反弹琵琶), which is the rough equivalent of “thinking outside the box – with Chinese characteristics.”
Now, a new journey has begun and Master Sound Engineer Li Dakang and producer Ye Yunchuan invite you to join Yu Yuanchun as she explores mysterious, beautiful and poetic new worlds of sound and touches China’s ancient heartstrings.