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1 May 2004
A new life for an ancient flute

Few Chinese people have heard of the yue, an ancient wind instrument that belonged to the flute family. However, this flute used to be an important instrument in many ancient ceremonial rituals. In The Book of Songs (Shi Jing), the most ancient collection of Chinese poetry, which was compiled in the 6th century BCE, yue is the most frequently mentioned wind instrument. After the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) about 1,700 years ago, the yue seemed to have disappeared. The disappearance of the yue was a mystery, and even modern researchers had only a vague idea of what the yue might have been like.
     In 1986 and 1987, a number of wind instruments made of animal bones were unearthed in Wuyang County, in central China's Henan Province. These instruments, named gudi, are about 20 centimetres long and 1 centimetre in diameter, and could produce a complete seven-note scale. Dating tests indicated that these bone flutes were about 8,000 years old. The discovery pushed the history of Chinese musical instruments back a further 3,000 years, yet musicologists have not found any historical accounts of this instrument, and the blank of several thousand years in the history of Chinese instruments is hard to explain.
     However, the enigma of the mysterious yue and the bone flutes seemed to explain one another in the eyes of Liu Zhengguo, a scholar of Chinese music history who is also skilled in playing the transverse bamboo flute (dizi) and its vertical twin the xiao. Liu is convinced that the gudi is, in fact, the yue. Liu became interested in the ancient bone flute when he was teaching the history of ancient Chinese music at South China Normal University in 1992. Because Liu himself is a wind instrument player, he wanted to play the ancient bone instrument for his students when he was discussing it in his course. Similar to wind instruments with neither a mouth hole nor a notch, such as the bamboo chou of central China and the ney of the Tajik people, the bone flute has to be played obliquely.
     Liu always wanted to try the original bone flute but had had no opportunity. The opportunity finally came in 2001, when the archaeology team of the University of Science and Technology of China unearthed another group of ancient bone flutes also at Wuyang, in Henan, and invited Liu to play them. Liu was very excited when he tried the original instruments, playing about 10 tunes on them. "The original guyue had a uniquely sonorous sound because of fossilization," said Liu. "It is really amazing that an instrument 8,000 years old can still be played." In February 2001, Liu gave two concerts with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in Hong Kong, where he introduced the ancient bone flute to the audience.

Source: China Daily (26 April 2004)

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