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Saturday, October 24, 2009 at 7:30 PM
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall

Ancient Spirits

Wu Man
Li Family Daoist Band
Zhang Family Band (Old Tune Traditional Music with Shadow Puppets)
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Li Family Daoist Band

Li Family Daoist Band

Wu Man, Curator, Pipa, and Host (Read Biography)

Wu Man, Curator, Pipa, and Host



Since moving to the United States from China in 1990, pipa virtuoso Wu Man has not only introduced the traditional Chinese instrument and its repertoire to Western audiences, she has successfully worked to give this ancient instrument a new role in today’s music. As a result, she has made the pipa accessible to a larger audience, including musicians and composers who value the instrument for its unique tonal qualities and virtuosic character. These efforts were recognized when Wu Man was made a 2008 United States Artists Broad Fellow.

Wu Man continually collaborates with some of today’s most distinguished musicians and conductors. She has performed as soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras and her touring has taken her to the major music halls of the world. Wu Man is a principal member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, and often performs and records with the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet.

Wu Man begins her 2009–2010 concert season at Carnegie Hall as part of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. Her travels throughout China to select musicians for the festival have been documented on film, Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China.

This November, Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet present the world premiere of a new staged work with video, A Chinese Home, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. In May of next year, she is scheduled to perform in Moscow with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists, with whom she was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Small Ensemble Performance (world premiere recording of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto). She also has plans to tour Europe and Asia with the Silk Road Ensemble, in addition to performing with the Taipei Chinese Traditional Orchestra.

Recent recordings include Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic with the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch; Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago, featuring Wu Man’s performance of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the CSO Resound label; and New Impossibilities with the Silk Road Ensemble on Sony/BMG.

Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa performance. Wu Man was selected as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University, and was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House. Visit wumanpipa.org for more information.

Li Family Daoist Band
Zhang Family Band (Old Tune Traditional Music with Shadow Puppets)
Pipa virtuoso Wu Man has chosen two ensembles from China for a presentation of traditional music performed at village rituals, including temple fairs, weddings, funerals, and seasonal festivities.

Program is approximately 1 hour, 50 minutes, including one intermission
(Read the Program Notes)
Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with World Music Institute.
Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: A Festival Celebrating Chinese Culture is made possible by a leadership gift from Henry R. Kravis in honor of his wife, Marie-Josée.
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Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
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Watch a Video

Wu Man discusses the other side of China.

Wu Man interview footage © 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation. Footage of Li Family Daoists and Zhang Family Band excerpted from Discovering a Musical Heartland—Wu Man’s Return to China; Andrea Cavazzuti, Cinematographer, and Director; Wu Man, Host and Artistic Director; special thanks to Sarina Tang; © 2009 Wu Man and Andrea Cavazzuti.

Related Essays

Ritual Daoism

The Qin

Far from both the abstruse mysticism of Daoist philosophy and the celibate priests in the great urban and mountain temples, the main life of Daoism has long been found in small household groups of lay ritual specialists working to bring well-being to their local communities. Don’t ask these Daoists to tell you the meaning of life or to teach you meditation; what people do ask is for them to “do things” (banshi)—to perform rituals for communicating with the gods to grant practical blessings. Ordinary peasants with long hereditary traditions, they hand down complex ritual skills, ritual manuals, god paintings, magic talismans, and mantras within the family, performing long sequences for temple fairs, funerals, and occasional rituals for fulfilling vows, granting healthy sons, and establishing cosmic and social harmony—each lasting two to four days.

The Datong region in the north of Shanxi province, west of Beijing, is one thriving area for these groups (known here as yinyang); the Li family band is most prestigious in the county of Yanggao, with a heritage of some nine generations. The current leader is Li Manshan, son of the late great master Daoist Li Qing (1926–1999). Today’s senior masters were active throughout the early years of Maoism and revived after the Cultural Revolution.

Accompanying processions and rituals before the coffin or the god images are the sounds of the Daoists’ vocal liturgy and percussion ensemble, as well as exquisite incandescent melodic music led by the guanzi oboe and sheng free-reed mouth-organ, another vital part of north Chinese ritual music. Pacing the cosmos, by turns mournful (slow accompanied hymns) and comic (zany tricks with the wind instruments), they maintain their local communities in harmony through the healing forces of ritual and music.

Like all folk culture, this is a patchwork of elements reworked over many generations, and our main inspiration from the Yanggao Daoists is to witness a vibrant ritual heritage still serving folk society today, in a tradition that we can attest conservatively to have been unbroken for several centuries.

More Ancient Paths »

Program Notes


Thanks to Wu Man’s intrepid explorations, this concert is a rare opportunity to savor two magnificently earthy folk groups from China’s poor dry northwestern countryside. No museum piece, no reconstruction, these vibrant ritual heritages still serve local communities today in traditions unbroken since the imperial period, their patchwork of elements reworked over many generations.


Shadow-puppetry remains in rural areas of Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. In Shaanxi, the Zhang family band, based in Shuangquan village in Huayin county (on the Guanzhong plain east of Xi’an), tours the nearby countryside to perform rugged dramas at temple fairs and rituals for the well-being of families. The majority of this performance consists of the hoarse singing known simply as “old tune” (laoqiang) that is based on shadow plays. The senior singer Zhang Ximin brings to life the mythical heroes and gods of the oral folk culture of Shaanxi, often evoking famous battles of the Tang dynasty (618–907) as portrayed in The Story of the Three Kingdoms. The guttural singing is accompanied by a concise battery of loud percussion, shawm, yueqin moon-lute, fiddle, and long natural trumpet—all rivaling the voices in their gritty style.

This style was popularized further afield in the soundtrack of Zhang Yimou’s amazing 1992 film The Story of Qiuju, echoing the fashion for the rugged “northwest wind” style of pop music, of which Cui Jian was a pioneer. The efforts of cultural officials have recently led to staged performances in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as on Chinese TV.

Round Sun and Crescent Moon in the Heavens: This is the stirring overture from a recent
spoken play Plain of the White Deer, arranged by local scholar Dang Anhua. The lyrics
explore the complementary tasks and resulting feelings of peasant men and women.

A Bright Pearl in the Sea:
An ode to battle sung by the Tang general Qin Qiong.

“Shiyang jing” (Instrumental):
Instrumental interludes punctuate the drama, resting the puppeteers’ voices.

All Desolate on the Eastern Campaign (Puppets):
A drama evoking the threat to the Tang empire from the Korean kingdom of Koguryo.

Ancient Song of the Guanzhong Plain:
The gods and generals may have created the landscape, but peasant life must go on.

The Won-Done Song:
The poem, a meditation on the vanity of human ambitions, comes from Cao Xueqin’s celebrated 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone.

Three Heroes Do Battle with Lü Bu (Puppets):
This excerpt is a dialogue between the celebrated ancient warriors Zhang Fei and Lü Bu as they do battle.

The General’s Orders Stir the Mountains and Rivers:
Another martial song, this inspires the troops’ preparations for battle.


Daoism is the most ubiquitous form of religious practice throughout rural China today. Far from both the abstruse mysticism of Daoist philosophy and the celibate priests in the great mountain temples, the main life of Daoism has long been found in household groups of lay ritual specialists.

Still in northwest China, in Shanxi province east of Shaanxi, the Li family band of lay Daoist priests has a family heritage of some nine generations. Based in Yanggao, a county in the far north of Shanxi, they are ordinary peasants, paid to perform rituals. Li Manshan’s father Li Qing (1925–1998) was the most revered Daoist master in the area. He and his colleagues were active throughout the early years of Maoism (despite a reduction in ritual activity) and continued after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The group also includes Li Manshan’s brother (Li Yushan) and son (Li Bin). The magnificent and unassuming wind player Wu Mei, from a nearby village, became a disciple of Li Qing while in his teens. Apart from isolated visits to festivals in Beijing (1990) and Amsterdam (2005), they have served their local community throughout all the upheavals of modern Chinese history—the Japanese invasion, civil war, political campaigns, and chronic poverty.

Don’t ask these lay Daoists to tell you the meaning of life, or to teach you meditation; instead of philosophizing, they “do things” (banshi), performing two- to four-day rituals to communicate with the gods, requesting practical blessings for individual families and the whole community—mortuary rituals; temple fairs; and occasional rituals for fulfilling vows, granting healthy sons, and establishing cosmic and social harmony.

The Daoists individually choose auspicious days for action and appropriate sites for this world and the next, using their almanacs and luopan compass. In their public role, they perform in groups with a whole set of complex ritual skills based on hereditary manuals. At temple fairs and funerals (where they accompany processions and rituals before the coffin or the god images), they recite scriptures, prepare the written texts required for communicating with the gods, display images of the gods, chant mantras, depict magic talismans, sing hymns, and play percussion.

If the exquisite incandescent melodic music for sheng free-reed mouth-organ and guanzi oboe (performed by lay ritual specialists throughout the north Chinese countryside) is perhaps the best-known aspect of their performance, it is only one part of their complex ritual practice. Pacing the cosmos, by turns plangent and comic (watch out for Wu Mei’s zany tricks with wind instruments), the Daoists maintain their local communities in harmony through the healing forces of ritual and music.

This evening, the Li Daoists perform an abbreviated version of ritual segments they present to the gods for a temple fair.

Procession with Ritual Percussion and Conch: The Daoists are allotted a “scripture hall” in
which they rest and prepare the written documents required for their rituals. Each time they
emerge on procession through the village to perform a ritual, they announce their coming
with percussion and conch.

Vocal Liturgy, Hymn Sequence:
On arrival at the altar, the Daoists perform a sequence of hymns in praise of the gods, seeking blessings for the community and the absolution of sins, standing before the god statues and altar table laden with offerings.

Instrumental Suite
: The melodic instrumental repertory of suites, known as “holy pieces,” is played in strict sequence throughout the day and night, alternating with the vocal scriptures. The suites progress from solemn melodies to a series of short fast pieces.

Vocal Liturgy, Hymn Sequence:
Vocal hymns are often accompanied by the melodic instruments, and form a moving part of the Daoists’ ritual sequence.

Medley of Pieces from Local Opera, with Clowning:
Part of the Daoists’ ritual program (in sections like “Releasing the Pardon” and “Judgment and Alms”) is designed to entertain mere mortals. A sequence of popular pieces from local Errentai vocal music, and even pop, leads into Wu Mei’s astounding “catching the tiger” clowning sequence when the others act as stooges.

Chasing the Five Quarters (Percussion with nao and bo Cymbals):
This is the climax of the spectacular “Raising the Pennant” ritual, along with the depiction of magical talismans and the “precious sword” in the earth at the foot of the five poles. At the end of this ritual, the cloth envelope beneath the flag at the top of the high central pole is untied, releasing walnuts, dates, and candies to the excited crowd below. This symbolizes the feeding of the hungry ghosts and bounty for the community.

—Stephen Jones

© 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation.

© 2001–2009 Carnegie Hall Corporation

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Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)