The Flute Player

I’m sitting in a tiny apartment sipping jasmine tea and cracking melon seeds on a cold winter’s day. The window opens out to the conservatory grounds. Students carrying small enamel or aluminum lunch boxes are walking to the cafeteria. Kong Qingshan, associate-professor and bamboo flute teacher at the Shenyang Conservatory lights another Hilton cigarette while we ponder when the heating will come on. His wife sits on the bed with the latest member of the family, a small black Russian dog.

Kong was born in northeast China’s Jilin province in 1946. He was three years old when his father died. There was very little money and not enough of it to support his mother and four sisters so in the early 1950s, Kong took on part-time work as a way of supporting the family. He did all kinds of odd jobs.

He was assigned to a job as an electrician, but it was not in that work that he discovered his profession. Early on, Kong particularly loved the sound of bamboo flutes: the transverse dizi and the end-blown horizontal xiao. In the mysterious way something grabs you that you then spend the rest of your life doing that one thing, and nothing else, Kong was drawn to the sounds of these flutes, especially the dizi. In the early 1960 with the catastrophic Great Leap Forward bearing down hard on the nation, Kong joined a regional opera troupe in Jilin province. In 1965, just before the beginning of those ‘ten years of devastation,’ he enrolled at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music.

Many years later he would talk of ‘those years’ as a young red guard, trying to make sense of what was going on around him, an increasingly confused and callous world, the political catastrophes, those wasted years. The country had economically, to twist an Arab saying, travelled at the pace of a camel. By the late seventies and early eighties China, the camel had now entered the brave new sand dunes of a market economy.

In October 1990, the TV soap Aspirations literally emptied the streets in Beijing and elsewhere. Set in the capital from the 1960s to the 1980s, the series found millions of sympathetic viewers around the country. An estimated 550 million people in China watched the soapy when it was first screened in late 1990. Kong could not stop talking about it. Many of his colleagues reminded me of the character Song Dacheng in the series, ready to pounce on any opportunity to flex some entrepreneurial muscle. One teacher in the education department at the Shenyang Conservatory was a part-time photographer, making and selling ocarinas to both local and international markets and earning some extra income as a freelance calligrapher.

None of which means Kong was not thinking of money. He was not impervious to self-promotion and making some extra income, but he has always been passionate about teaching, sharpening and honing his craft without having to tell the world about it. He is someone who has an air of reticence, of restraint, a refusal to put himself forward.

His practice room in the Folk Music Department has the simplicity of a military tent. The room’s furnishing consist of two wooden chairs, a long bench, a music stand, a piano, a small round table with an electric kettle and thermos, and a large desk covered with sheet music and bamboo flutes. Kong picks up a long flute in his hand. ‘This is where the real work is done. It’s about achieving the best results with as little effort as possible.’ He plays, I listen. He plays, I play. ‘It’s not about memorizing a piece.’ He briefly pauses before going on. ‘It’s about playing it over and over again until you become the piece. We learn a piece so well that you don’t need to think about it anymore. We have digested it, internalized it, and each time we play a piece or musical phrase we make slight changes to each performance of it.’

As we walk back to his apartment, braving sub-zero temperatures, he lights another cigarette, the flame throwing and orange glow across his face. That night I had some inkling of what it means to follow your bliss.

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