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Playing the Flute in Shanghai: the Musical Life of Dai Shuhong

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019 4:00 pm

Conrad Prebys Music Center Recital Hall


Professor Helen Rees will present her documentary film, Playing the Flute in Shanghai: the Musical Life of Dai Shuhong, in the Focus on Integrative Studies seminar (MUS 205). 


Dai Shuhong (b.1937) is one of Shanghai's most renowned performers and teachers of China's traditional bamboo flutes, the transverse dizi and endblown xiao. Plucked in 1956 from life as a factory worker to join the first ever Chinese traditional instrument class at the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Dai subsequently taught at the Conservatory for almost fifty years. As a young performer, he made his mark as dizi accompanist to Tibetan megastar propaganda singer Caidan Zhuoma (Tseten Drolma). Since the 1980s, he has specialized in a rather different genre, the esoteric art of qin-xiao performance. Partnering with several of China's foremost qin zither performers, including his legendary mentor Zhang Ziqian (1899–1991), he creates delicate xiao lines to complement the elegant pieces of the qin repertoire, many of which date back centuries. Dai's recordings with Zhang and others stand as landmarks of this style.

Shot over 2016–2017 in Shanghai and incorporating historical photographs and video footage, this documentary focuses not just on Dai's artistry and pedagogical skill, but also on his firsthand experience of the seismic upheavals in Chinese musical life since the 1950s. He witnessed the Soviet-inspired institutionalization of local folk music, the modernization of traditional instruments, the creation of a new civil servant class of professional performers, and, more recently, the nostalgic revival of attenuated traditions such as the qin zither. Possessed of a prodigious memory, Dai is a natural raconteur who engagingly recounts how such national trends played out in one individual's everyday life.

From the outset, this film has been a collaborative endeavor, with Dai and other participants helping plan the shoots and critiquing the results during the editing process. It was selected for screening in August 2019 at the Shanghai Grand Theater as part of the First Festival of Chinese-language Ethnographic Films on Music.


Helen Rees, director of Playing the Flute in Shanghai, is a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, where she is also director of the World Music Center. As a recipient of a British Council scholarship to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the late 1980s, she studied Chinese flutes with Dai Shuhong for two years. Frequent trips back to Shanghai since then have resulted in an extensive oral history, which is the basis for a forthcoming biography that will complement the film. Her other research interests lie in ritual musics of southwest China, and in East Asian intangible cultural heritage protection policies. She also performs professionally on recorders and Chinese flutes.


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