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Enchanting Sydney's streets with Chinese music

Dong Min, a talented Chinese flutist, captivates the streets of Sydney with traditional Chinese music, fosters cultural exchange and musical education, Meng Wenjie reports.

By Meng Wenjie | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-04-03 07:50

Dong Min, a Chinese flutist, is known for playing the dizi on the streets of Sydney, Australia, earlier this year. [Photo provided to China Daily]

On the bustling streets of Sydney, Australia, a young Chinese woman, adorned in elegant hanfu, the traditional attire of China, gracefully holds a dizi, the bamboo flute of China, enchanting passersby with the melodies of traditional Chinese music.

The videos of her performances have been making the news since earlier this year. And the performer is Dong Min, a talented musician born in 1990.

When she was growing up, Dong noticed that many dizi musicians were male. So, at the age of 8 when she first saw a female performer playing the bamboo flute on TV, her eyes lit up. "I thought it was cool for girls to play the dizi," she said, recalling how she persuaded her parents to buy her one so she could learn it.

Dong's interest soon blossomed into talent. At the age of 10, she stood out in a provincial-level Chinese musical instrument competition in her hometown of Central China's Hunan province. This accomplishment earned her one of only four spots available that year in Hunan for further studies in Beijing.

After graduating from Minzu University of China with a major in Chinese bamboo flute, Dong decided to venture into a new realm of art. In 2015, she enrolled at the University of New South Wales in Australia to study curating and cultural leadership.

Despite being far from home, Dong quickly found like-minded friends passionate about Chinese traditional instruments. They then formed a Chinese music band, attracting audiences interested in learning about these unique instruments.

Encouraged by this reception, Dong took a bold step toward entrepreneurship and founded the Sydney Meya Conservatory of Chinese Music — named after her English name "Meya" — dedicated to teaching Chinese traditional instruments to more people.

Dong noticed a lack of awareness of Chinese traditional music in Australia. So, inspired by local performers using Western instruments like pianos and violins for street performances, she initiated street performances with her conservatory members, showcasing traditional Chinese instruments in Sydney's Chinatown in 2016.

"Street performances offer a direct and visual way for people to experience Chinese music. By bringing it to the streets, we make it accessible to everyone," she said.

Transforming mundane street corners into their stage, Dong and her fellow musicians shared the richness of Chinese culture through music with an international audience.

Each time Dong performs, she wears traditional Chinese clothing, such as hanfu or qipao. According to her, many countries have instruments similar to dizi, such as the flute, India's Bansuri, and Japan's shakuhachi. Therefore, wearing traditional Chinese clothing during performances not only pays homage to her heritage but also complements the instrument she plays.

"Traditional clothing is also one of the symbols of Chinese culture," she said. "Through these holistic performances, the audience can intuitively grasp Chinese elements."

The sight of a mysterious Chinese girl in hanfu playing the bamboo flute on the streets of Sydney attracted many international spectators. Dong also displays a sign introducing the dizi, and she is eager to share her passion for the instrument and invite spectators to partake in the experience firsthand.

During one performance, a group of fair-haired, blue-eyed children were intrigued by Dong's attire and approached her to express their interest in trying the dizi. One of them chose the smallest one Dong had prepared in advance, and he was successful in producing sounds. "For beginners who have never touched a dizi before, blowing into it isn't an easy task," Dong explained.

She gave the young participant a Chinese instrument pendant as a gift. "The kid was very happy and said he would show it off to his friends at school," she laughed.

As Dong's performances grew in popularity, snippets of her shows spread across social media, drawing in a larger audience. With over 1 million followers online, including nearly 150,000 from international platforms, Dong's influence continues to grow.

"Many audiences travel all the way from cities like Melbourne and Brisbane to Sydney just to attend my performances," she said with pride.

One of Dong's most popular videos features her rendition of Cang Hai Yi Sheng Xiao, from the classic Chinese martial arts film Swordsman, amassing over 32 million views. "This melody, based on the pentatonic scale of traditional Chinese music, holds a distinctiveness that resonates with diverse audiences," Dong explained.

Dong also infused advanced playing techniques such as circular breathing and tongue blocking into her performances, which also attracted international audiences whenever they gathered to witness live renditions.

Beyond street performances, the conservatory also acts as a center for preserving and teaching Chinese traditional music. The institution offers instruction in various traditional instruments, including the dizi, guzheng (a Chinese zither with more than 20 strings), yangqin (a hammered dulcimer), and erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument). "Our students range from 4-year-olds to 80-year-olds, reflecting the timeless appeal of Chinese music across generations," Dong said.

Among her students, there's an intriguing blend of Western and Chinese musical influences. Some, already proficient in Western instruments like violin and flute, choose to delve into similar Chinese counterparts such as the erhu and dizi. They even seek Dong's guidance on incorporating elements of Chinese traditional instruments into their original music compositions.

Apart from her conservatory, Dong also offers online dizi lessons to a global audience and organizes online exchange concerts for her students worldwide. "I hope to create a platform for music enthusiasts to connect and cultivate friendships through their shared love for music," she said.

Ever since she arrived in Australia, Dong has noticed a growing interest in Chinese traditional music among local people. Many music schools now offer courses on Chinese instruments.

"In Australia, I've witnessed a shift in foreign audiences, from initial unfamiliarity to active engagement with traditional Chinese music. This demonstrates that traditional Chinese music is thriving not only in formal concert halls but also on the streets and within communities," she said.

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