Home > Travel > Old men, Old Musical Instruments, Old Songs

Old men, Old Musical Instruments, Old Songs

Dr. Ho and his wife

Image by luca pedrotti via Flickr

Lijiang is home to two living fossils.  One is the Traditional Chinese Medicine expert, the venerated (by Bruce Chatwin at least) Dr. Ho, who was pushing 300 when Python Michael Palin visited him in 1998 (the rumors that John Cleese visited and wrote “interesting bloke, crap tea”, are just that, two idiots wrote the names in the guestbook thinking they were being funny), and must surely be at the top of the World Heritage List by now.  The other is Naxi Music, and the history is far more interesting than Dr. Ho’s tea.

The posters around Lijiang promoting the Naxi Orchestra say that most of the performers are at least 70 years old.  The poster is somewhat out of date, and the median age of the orchestra is around 83 years old.  The youngest instrument is around 100 years old, and the oldest is..well it was based on an ancient Egyptian design that made its way to the Middle Kingdom. During the Red Army’s purges, the instruments were saved from the zealous masses hell-bent on destroying “The Three Olds” by burying them in walls or in the ground.

Xuan Ke is proud of the fact that the orchestra doesn’t receive any money from the government, what he conveniently forgets to mention is that the tickets for the 90 minute show (which ends in typical Chinese fashion with a video presentation) are about $30 each – which of course means that he doesn’t really need any kind of government grant.  Even for $30, Xuan Ke turns up late (confessing that he always comes late) and plays a couple of tunes with the orchestra, interspersing the songs with lengthy discourses in Chinese, and the odd sentence or two in English, most of which centered around the now outlawed practice of foot-binding.  The microphone is mercifully handed back to the Master of Ceremonies, who makes sly digs at the pounding techno pouring from the bars outside, probably forgetting that the audience is forced to watch the octogenarians perform in an unheated room that has, for some inexplicable reason, doors that won’t close properly.


The repertoire ranges from traditional Chinese songs, almost all of which seem to centre on dragons (Song of the Water Dragon, A Black Dragon Dances, Dragons Singing and Dancing, etc) to the cacophonous melodies of Tibetan hymns, to classical Chinese opera.  All of which are more preferable to the music outside that sounds like a thousand monkeys using a thousand typewriters to put up a thousand shelves.

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