An obsessive passion to revive nearly forgotten music enjoyed by China’s elite more than 1,000 years ago has cost Li Kai his wife, his job and most of his savings.
But the energetic, smiling 57-year-old insists he has no regrets.
“When I play the music, I’m happy — I don’t feel tired, I don’t feel hungry and I’m not bored,” he said as he introduced the ensemble he set up almost a decade ago. “I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never been ill. I’m happy.”
The group plays every week in a pagoda in Xian, Shaanxi Province, which was once the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) empire.
“I realized that this ancient music was going to disappear as no one was playing it, so I set up this group,” said Li, the ensemble’s drummer.
“My aim is to revive, transmit, protect and develop Tang Dynasty music. As a Chinese person, I have this responsibility,” he said, wearing a green and yellow tunic like those worn by musicians who played this music for Tang emperors.
Li’s 18-member group is a mixed bunch, including a fashionable 22-year-old tourism student and a 59-year-old policeman nearing retirement.
Li said that 60 years ago, when the People’s Republic of China was founded following decades of civil war and revolution, there were 50 groups practising this music in Shaanxi.
Now, after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to wipe out China’s ancient traditions, only 12 groups remain throughout the country, totaling 200 people.
Li believes that Tang music is the earliest form of written music. While some academics believe it originated later than the 7th century, there is a general consensus that the music is among China’s oldest surviving kinds.
It blends drums, bells, flutes and pipes.
During the Tang Dynasty, performances were for the elite only, something Li finds amusing as he points to the pedestrians who stop and listen as his group plays.
He said he discovered the music in 1981 in the same way — walking past a group of men playing their instruments in the street.
He took up the sheng, which looks like a teapot with pipes protruding from the top, and the pipa, a pear-shaped lute, and was fascinated.
One of the musicians became his teacher and Li became so passionate about it that he decided to set up his own ensemble, spending an inheritance of 1.5 million yuan (US$220,000) left to him by a wealthy grandfather.
His passion has cost him more than money — his wife left him seven years ago, saying he was putting the music before her.
“I now don’t have a wife and I don’t have a child, so Tang Dynasty music is my wife and child,” said Li, who also gave up working in 1999 and now relies on his own money and some government donations to live.
Shows are regularly performed in Xian — one of China’s top tourist destinations as the home of the famed Terracotta Warriors. Li is also working to have a theater built that will become the home of Tang Dynasty music.
His main aim, he said, is to popularize the music and to that end his ensemble has played some unusual venues, including to planes full of foreign tourists flying between Xian and Beijing and Shanghai.
Although the vast majority of Chinese know very little about the ancient music, Li is confident its popularity will spread as people learn more about its history and listen to its melodies.