Zhu Liangcheng: The Guardian Angel of Zhoushan ‘gondgs and drums’
Evening closed in as repeated failures of GPS navigation led to our car becoming a little lost in the hubbub of a crossroad in front of the city’s West Bus Terminal. Zhu Liangcheng emerged from nowhere on his electric bike and greeted us from afar. “Follow me,” the man said, and after a swift ride from the main road into a labyrinth of country houses in a residential quarter called Zhujiatang, we were in front of a two-storey mansion the man humbly described as “just so so”.
His chatty wife had barely greeted us in the living room when Zhu Liangcheng dashed into the basement – his ‘work station’ - like a child dying to show off his gifts from Santa Claus, suggesting we take a look at his drums and paraphernalia.
Like a patient musical teacher, he unveiled his beautiful gong ensemble, adorned with decorative swirls, and fitted with two golden dragons to be placed on top. With the five drums and 13 gongs of varying sizes all set up properly, Zhu Liangcheng was ready for the opening of a show, with beads of sweat forming on his forehead and temples.
With the drums painted red and embellished with pink flowers, Zhu’s attire seemed to match perfectly as he was handsomely dressed in a buttoned-up shirt featuring a paisley and floral print. Seeing Zhu gaze lovingly at his drums, one could imagine
his heart beating to the reverberating sounds of the drums. “Will the neighbours complain about the noise?” I wondered.
“No worries,” he beamed, “For us rural people, it is always a happy moment to hear the drums. Everyone will join the fun. It is not like living in one of those apartment buildings in the city, and that’s the good thing about living in the countryside.”
“Are you always so happy?” I challenged.
“Why not? I have music. I see no reason for not feeling happy,” he shot back, his face wreathed in a big smile, causing me to smile as well. Upon meeting Zhu Liangcheng, one can easily come to the conclusion that he is the happiest man in Dinghai. For Zhu Liangcheng, drumming is indisputably his number one priority. “What if you are too busy to get ready for a show?” I ventured. “That’s not a possibility at all,” the man cocked his head like an unreasonable child.
His better half was busy at that time making tea for us, supportive of her husband and smiling back. “That’s him, always feeling so justified when it comes to drumming,” she said.
The man’s most recent drumming show was at a national ‘drums and gongs’ competition held in Shanxi Province. “On the national stage, Zhoushan drummers are the best in Zhejiang and I am the best in Zhoushan,” he announced, bubbling with excitement.
“The drummer is like a conductor who cannot afford to make any mistakes on the stage,” Zhu Liangcheng explained his role earnestly, bracing up for his show. His eyes closed and with two drumsticks poised in position, Zhu Liangcheng held his breath and set the tempo with the first strike on the drum skin. The air seemed to freeze as everyone listened intently, our spirits invigorated by the rising sounds.
Zhu’s powerful smile did not leave his face as he began to pound the drums. One can begin to understand the meaning of ‘passion’ from observing Zhu’s drumming technique. Standing in front of us in the sultry basement was a Herbert von Karajan conducting Ildebrando Pizzetti's opera Assassinio nella cattedrale in 1960, with an ace up his sleeve. He was so intoxicated in the roll of the drums that he seemed to be performing for a thousand spectators.
Every strike was maneuvered with sovereign command and elevated feelings, and was as natural and smooth as floating clouds and flowing
The rhythmic flow was precise and calculated in his solo recital, as he interpreted each movement according to his imaginary partners who he would normally perform with. The beauty of the high-pitched and resonant drumming, can be appreciated both in its singularity and when accompanied by the gongs. These unique sounding drums are unlike the loud, dry and low-pitched set used by a rock drummer. Instead of a rapid head-banging reaction induced by listening to drum solos within rock music, one has the urge to sway one’s head or move one’s hips, as the
compellend tdo body is flow to the rhythm. As for the gongs, they have a substantially flat surface that vibrates in multiple modes, producing a “crash” rather than a turned note. When the drumming builds, the crashing sound of gongs elate the mood and keep the energy alive. Large flat gongs may be ‘primed’ by lightly hitting them before the main stroke, greatly enhancing the sound and causing the instrument to ‘speak’ sooner, with a shorter delay for the sound to ‘bloom’. It requires a great deal of skill to keep this priming stroke inaudible.
In many traditional cultures, drums have a symbolic function and are used in religious ceremonies or musical therapy. For Zhu Liancheng, the act of playing the drums is like a spiritual therapy, filling him with the innocence and happiness of a newborn child. It cleanses and heals his soul. Imbedded within the vibrating overtones is a man’s passionate love for his seaside roots and the beauty of life, and his solid resolution to carry forward the lineage of this ancient folk art.
Once upon a time
The gong has been a Chinese instrument for millennia. They may have been first used to signal peasant workers in from the fields, as some gongs are loud enough to be heard from miles away. It is widely believed that the tradition of drumming in Zhoushan dates back to the 15th Century when the seafaring locals used the hilarious sound for soliciting business from far and wide, merry-making or to stave off loneliness when they were on the icy, boundless sea and home was fading away, rather than for its musical qualities.
In the old times of Zhoushan, the deafening sound of gongs and drums also came handy as a means of communication over great distances, used
Imbedded in the vibrating overtones is a man’s passionate love of his seaside roots and the beauty of life, and his solid resolution in carrying forward the lineage of this ancient folk art.
The moment he lifted the torch was also a memorable reward for the man’s love and pride of his hometown – the roots of a musical life that not only brought immense joy but also made him a better person.
by fishermen and mariners as signals in case of an emergency.
This folk music reached its heyday in Dinghai in the Ming and Qing times of China. And like all other gong and drum arts across China, the tradition also plays an integral part in all festive occasions such as weddings, birthday celebrations, business openings and putting a new fishing boat out to the sea.
Music runs in Zhu’s blood and veins. Born into a musical family that relocated to Dinghai from Fujian Province and had long thrived on a folk music ensemble since the Yongzheng years of the Qing Dynasty, Zhu Liangcheng learnt about the importance of music from his father. Born into a world of drumbeats, Zhu Liangcheng and his older sister showed a special musical gift and took the relay baton at a very young age from their father, whose reasoning for his decision to train his children into music lovers, if not musicians, was awesomely simple and straightforward. “One who plays any musical instrument at all will not be tempted by evil or do wrong to other people,” the father told his children.
One of the features of the ‘Zhoushan gongs and drums’ is its use of traditional stringed and woodwind instruments, collectively known as ‘sizhu’, in its music arrangement. The result is an intriguing combination of sublime grandeur and the mellowness and grace of ‘Jiangnan’. To master playing the ‘sizhu’ family, ‘erhu’ is the key and the most difficult part of the learning process. “When your benumbed fingers can get the two-stringed instrument under beautiful control in freezing winter, you can play it effortlessly in any extreme conditions. It is like building a channel for water to flow freely,” the father told the boy.
Zhu Liangcheng did not start learning to play the gongs and drums until the early 1970s - a dark period in the family’s musical business. The ensemble had to make ends meet from teaching, as commissioned performances earned a meager income. Amidst the political chaos of the 1970s, many musical instruments were banned as “decadent music”. The folk music scene of Zhoushan suffered an overall decline in quality and popularity, with many musicians dismissed as outliers. After struggling for two leaner decades, 40-year-old Zhu Liangcheng drew inspiration from Gao Ruxing, a Zhoushan gongs and drums master and founding father, and saw a new hope for the withered ‘music tree’ to come to life again.
Like many other endangered folk arts in China, Zhoushan ‘gongs and drums’ as an art form has been suffering from a serious lack of written records and is struggling on the margins of survival. To defend the authenticity of this musical treasure from his hometown and share its beauty with the younger generations as well as a wider, international audience, Zhu Liangcheng makes the best of every chance he is given to perform. As well as frequently meeting with Zhoushan’s older drumming masters such as Gao Ruxing, innovating and practicing every melodic detail to keep the drumming culture vibrating in the social pulse of Zhoushan.
“Whatever he chooses to undertake, he’ll exert all his strength,” his wife told us.
As one of the most excellent members in the folk cultural ‘hall of fame’ in Dinghai, Zhu Liangcheng was chosen as one of the ‘Beijing Olympics’ torch bearers in Zhejiang Province in 2008. It is easy for one to imagine the boisterous tempo of the drumbeats surging in his heart when he was running to the grand accompaniment of trumpets and the cheer of a choir of followers.
The moment he lifted the torch was also a memorable reward for the man’s love and pride of his hometown – the roots of a musical life that has not only brought immense joy but has also made him a better person.