China’s New Silk Road: Weekly Arts & Culture Round Up – June 19, 2020

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Journey To The West * The Guo Brothers * Ju Duo * Baijiu Martini 

Journey To The West 
Journey to the West is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng’en. It is one of the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature and has been described as arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia. Arthur Waley’s popular abridged translation, “Monkey” is well known in English-speaking countries.

The novel is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty Buddhist Monk Xuanzang, who traveled to the “Western Regions” being Central Asia and India, to obtain Buddhist sacred texts (sutra’s) and returned to China after many trials and much suffering. It retains the broad outline of Xuanzang’s own account, “Great Tang Records On The Western Regions”, however the Ming dynasty novel adds elements from folk tales and the author’s invention, that is, that the Buddha gave this task to the monk, and provided him with three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, who together with a dragon prince act as protectors.

Journey to the West has strong roots in Chinese folk religion, mythology, Confuscianism, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and the array of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattva’s remain reflective of some Chinese religious attitudes today. Enduringly popular, the novel is at once a comic adventure story, a humorous satire of Chinese bureaucracy, a spring of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeys towards enlightenment by the power and virtue of cooperation. It is essential reading for any Silk Road library and has been remade into numerous films and television series. Available from Amazon here

The Guo Brothers – Working With Clannad, David Byrne & Peter Gabriel 
Music has always been a vital part of the Guo Brothers’ lives.  Their father was a well-known erhu player (Chinese two-stringed violin) and a fine singer.  During the Cultural Revolution their mother was sent to the countryside and, on their father’s death, the boys were left to grow up in the Musicians Compound.  In Peking professional working people lived together in such ‘compounds’ and so, surrounded by other musicians, Yi and Yue naturally moved towards music as a career.  Self-motivation drove them to studying.  Living in extreme poverty, they picked up tuition as they could, even paying teachers in measures of cooking-oil.

The brothers began playing various instruments and now Yue specialises in Chinese flutes while Yi plays the ancient sheng, a hand-held mouth-blown organ. Yue’s first professional job was in the Army Orchestra of the People’s Republic of China, travelling to remote areas to entertain troops and carrying his flute across the country by train or on horseback.  Yi joined the Peking Film Orchestra at the age of fifteen and within three years had become a renowned soloist and composer, featuring on the soundtracks of over two hundred films.

The brothers came to England some years ago to further their studies, and their musical experience proved invaluable when David Byrne asked them to contribute to the soundtrack of the film The Last Emperor. In the summer of 1989, having succeeded in the long and difficult process of obtaining passports, the members of Shung Tian arrived in England.  A week later they were watching events in Tiananmen Square from a very new perspective.  These musicians, former colleagues of Yi in the Peking film Orchestra, are almost unique in that they are one of very few groups to come from china without State support.  The group included Yue and Yi’s sister, Guo Xiaun, an accomplished opera singer.

The musicians come from a culture, which does not differentiate, between folk and classical music, and their repertoire ranges from ancient Chinese tunes to modern, popular compositions.  It is rooted, however, in daily human experience.  It captures the landscape with exquisite musical imagery.  It takes the listener on a journey from the vast plains of Mongolia to the most remote mountain villages.  It evokes intense moods of peace and solitude, of romance and sadness.

Drawing upon these rich Chinese traditions, their music also gives space and expression to fresh new arrangements and free improvisation. Pól Brennan, the Irish musician and songwriter, and former member of Clannad, first heard a tape of The Guo Brothers whilst working at Peter Gabriels’ Real World Studios.  The unique collaboration, which followed, expresses the close musical affinities rather that the great geographical and cultural distances between their two countries.

Ju Dou – Classic Chinese Cinematography
Ju Dou is a 1990 film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li as the title character. It is notable for being printed in vivid technicolor long after the process had been abandoned in the West. It was also the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Oscar, in 1990. The film is a tragedy, focusing on the character of Ju Dou, a beautiful young woman who has been sold as a wife to Jinshan, an old cloth dyer. The film was banned for a few years in China, but the ban has since been lifted. It is available on Amazon Prime.

Chris’ Colonial Cocktails – The Bau Jiu Martini
The literal translation of “baijiu” is “white wine,” with its clear liquid resembling vodka. The initial taste though is often compared to paint thinner. Distilled from Sorghum, the Chinese drink it neat in shots. However it can be moderated to Western palates by using it as cocktail ingredient. The Baijiu Martini includes equal measures of Baijiu, Cointreau and Lime Juice, sweetened with brown sugar syrup. (This actually makes it more like a Daiquiri but what the hell). Shake well and serve as a martini, or add sweetened or carton Grapefruit juice to temper it down. Ganbei!

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Silk Road Briefing is published by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the practice Chairman. Please contact Chris at or through his Linked In account, or visit the firm at


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