Photo: Pudong Pipa Master Lin Shicheng and Gao Hong performing at Beijing Concert Hall, March 31, 1996
December 6, 2005 was a sad day for Chinese music. It was the end of an era, the last breath of a superstar in the Chinese pipa music world. It was the day my mentor, Pudong* 浦東派 pipa master and educator Lin Shicheng 林石城, passed away. It was 15 years ago today. On this momentous anniversary, I want to share some little-known true stories of my time with him. Today, as always, I mourn his passing. After 15 years, I still miss my teacher very much! And I will forever be thankful that I met him and became his student.
I often say: "My parents gave me life, but Mr. Lin gave me my artistic life. Without Mr. Lin, I would not be where I am today."
The first time I met Mr. Lin was during the 1982 Northern National Music Competition. At the time, I was only 18 years old. I was studying in the Music Department of the Hebei Arts School under the tutelage of pipa educator Fan Huali 樊華麗. All of the traditional music students from our school's music department rushed to Jinan to observe and learn from the competition.
During the event, Teacher Fan took me to visit many famous pipa figures like Chen Zhong 陳重, Qin Pengzhang 秦鵬章, Wu Junsheng 吳俊生, etc. These masters were giving private lessons in the hotel. Because teacher Fan was a student of Mr. Lin, I was lucky enough to have a private lesson with my future mentor soon after I arrived. I was very excited. I couldn’t believe that Mr. Lin – the famous heir to the Pudong tradition – was there before my very eyes teaching me.
Mr. Lin gave me a traditional piece entitled Lotus Emerging from Water 《出水莲》 and asked me to play it for him. I had never played the piece before and was not familiar with it. I looked at the score and began to sightread it. The piece seemed to be akin to Hakka music. Being from Henan, I naturally played it very smoothly.
Less than 30 minutes into this impromptu lesson, a pipa professor from a university in northeast China joined us for some time. After observing the lesson, she praised us and said: "It's Mr. Lin's student, she plays really well. A famous teacher makes a good disciple!" She wasn’t aware that I was only halfway through my first lesson with Mr. Lin, but perhaps her words inspired Mr. Lin. He immediately asked me if I would like to participate in his pipa masterclass on the following day and play Lotus Emerging from Water.
I was so scared that I almost cried. I knew that performers, professors and students from music conservatories and well-known colleges and universities throughout the country would be in attendance at the masterclass. I wondered how I, a completely unknown student, could be a part of such an important event. Fortunately, I remembered the saying, "newborn calves are not afraid of tigers," and agreed without hesitation.
Throughout my life, whenever I play Lotus Emerging from Water I vividly remember that day and how connected the piece is to Mr. Lin. I often tell my students that Lotus Emerging from Water is my favorite piece because of this connection and the unlikely twist of fate that allowed me to begin my long relationship with my teacher.
Photo: Gao Hong playing for Master Lin Shicheng at his masterclass during the 1982 Northern National Music Competition in Jinan, Shandong
In 1985, after six years of study at the Hebei Arts School, I graduated and was hired as a pipa teacher there. The School always gave great support to its new teachers.
In the fall of 1985, they sent me to Beijing to have one-on-one lessons with pipa masters, providing round-trip train tickets from Shijiazhuang to Beijing and a tuition fee of 10 yuan (equivalent to $0.92 in 1985 U.S. dollars, or $1.53 in 2020 U.S. dollars).
With Teacher Fan’s recommendation I started private study with pipa master Professor Liu Dehai 劉德海. Every two weeks I would bring a famous Shijiazhuang roasted chicken and 10 yuan to Prof. Liu's home in exchange for my lessons. I soon discovered that Teacher Liu's ancestral home was in Cangzhou, Hebei. He was especially fond of the roasted chicken that I brought him. Once, Prof. Liu told me: “In the future, you don't need pay me 10 yuan for tuition, just bring me two roasted chickens. That would be just fine."
I felt so stupid after he mentioned that. I realized that I really should have been bringing him two roasted chickens at every lesson, plus a 10 yuan fee. After all, the chickens only cost 8 yuan each, and it was such an honor for me to study with him. Thinking about it now, I was so naive!
I continued private lessons at Prof. Liu's home for about half a year. At one lesson he told me that he was going to the United States to perform, and that he might not be able to teach me for a while. He suggested that I go to the Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) to find a pipa professor there. Of course, I changed to Mr. Lin, the CCOM's senior pipa professor, studying privately with him at his home.
One lesson, which took place in late April 1986, stands out in my memory. Mr. Lin asked me if I wanted to audition for the Central Conservatory of Music. I had never even dared to dream about attending the Central Conservatory before! I knew that it was the most difficult school to get into. Nevertheles, I replied to his question in a low voice, saying "I really want to."
However, I didn't really give the idea much thought. Suddenly, one day in early May, after I had just finished teaching, I checked my mail and saw a letter from Mr. Lin. The letter said: "I have already signed you up to take part in the preliminary examination in Beijing. Please prepare some pieces to play for the examination." Huh?! I was so shocked! It was like an earthquake had caused the entire world to spin!
Just one week later, I traveled to Beijing filled with dread, for the first audition. I didn’t expect much, but soon learned that I had successfully advanced to the second round. And then I received a notice summoning me back to take the final entrance exam... In the end, my dream came true, and I was accepted for the conservatory's B.A. program in pipa performance (with a minor in zhongruan).
With his original suggestion that I apply to the CCOM, I later realized, Mr. Lin had "selected" me to attend my dream school and become his disciple!
Photo: Master Lin Shicheng with Gao Hong at the Central Conservatory of Music 中央音樂學院 in Beijing
During my four years of studying at the Central Conservatory, I took lessons at Mr. Lin’s home every week. Each day after lunch or dinner, I would also go to Mr. Lin’s home to sit for a while and listen to the conversations between my master and his wife.
At that time, my health was not good, so I would often go to the reception room opposite Mr. Lin's apartment building to boil Chinese herbal medicine for treatment.
Once, my mother found a secret Chinese medicine from Shandong. After taking it, I got a daily nosebleeds and my face got so swollen that I couldn't open my eyes. Looking at me, Mr. Lin immediately told me that the medicine must be discontinued at once, and he prescribed a secret antidote for me. I went to the Chinese medicine store in Xidan and bought the medicine he had prescribed. After taking it, all the symptoms disappeared. Therefore, Mr. Lin not only gave me artistic life, he also used his secret ancestral recipe to save my life!
Mr. Lin always treated me like a daughter, taking care of my every need. When his daughter Jiamei got married, I was the only current student at the Central Conservatory to be invited to participate in the wedding, which was held in Zhongshan Park中山公園. When I got married, he gave me a pure natural crystal necklace as a wedding gift. Even today I’m still reluctant to wear it because I treasure it so much.
Photo: Dinner with master Lin Shicheng, conductor Qin Pengzhang 秦鵬章 and Lin Shicheng's son Lin Jiaqing 林嘉慶, with other family members and friends in Beijing, 1996.
My four years at the Central Conservatory passed in a flash. They were the best years of my life. In the year that I graduated, I was one of only four new graduates recommended by the Department of Traditional Music to be admitted to the Conservatory's graduate program without the need for examination (of which only one would be chosen) : Dai Ya 戴亞 (dizi), Yan Jiemin 嚴潔敏 (erhu), Zhang Hongyan 章紅艷 (pipa), and myself (pipa). Rumor had it that Dai Ya was already playing so well at that time that there was no guarantee there would be a worthy instructor to teach him. Yan Jiemin did not have a guarantee because she was an erhu major with a double major in composition. In the end, the choice was between Zhang Hongyan and me.
At that time, Mr. Lin had been very eager to recommend me for graduate studies, something I was also very interested in pursuing. He personally went to the home of Mr. Zhao Feng 趙渢, the lifelong president of the CCOM, to tell him about my situation. President Zhao was very moved after hearing about me, and wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf to the dean of the CCOM.
In the end, all of this was for naught; due to circumstances beyond my control, I eventually decided to switch gears and accept a position in the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe 北京歌舞團 as first chair pipa player and pipa soloist.
Because I missed teaching and academic research, however, after two years I decided to embark upon a project comparing the Chinese pipa tradition with the biwa tradition of Japan. Mr. Lin was very supportive of this idea and immediately wrote a recommendation letter for me.
Once in Japan, I worked hard every day to learn the Japanese language, and even did some touring and performing. Eight months later, I found myself at Tokyo Gakugei University 東京學藝大學, the university to which I had applied in order to pursue a M.A. degree in ethnomusicology.
As I was waiting in the classroom for my interview, the written test not yet having begun, one of the examiners, a professor who was also a famous biwa master，asked "Who is Gao Hong?" I immediately answered, "It's me." He glanced at me and left without saying a word. I was curious and puzzled.
During the interview, 15 examiners took turns asking questions. I had only been in Japan for less than a year and answered the questions in less-than-fluent Japanese. However, I had a hunch at the time that I might be admitted. This was confirmed when the biwa master told me: "From now on, you will see a few Chinese students from the Central Conservatory of Music coming to school every day."
Sure enough, a week later, I received the acceptance letter from Tokyo Gakugei University. I was shocked because more than 300 people applied that year, but there were only two places. Later, I learned that it was my three letters of recommendation that had played the decisive role. It was because these three letters were from masters in the Chinese music industry：Pudong pipa master Professor Lin Shicheng; Professor Zhao Feng, lifelong President of the Central Conservatory of Music; and Master Qin Pengzhang, a famous Chinese conductor.
"Not only can she (Gao Hong) master different performing techniques, but she also can perfectly express the beauty of music, based on actual contents of each piece, which provides a wonderful enjoyment for her listeners. She can perform traditional pieces, and modern pieces with her unique style. Ms. Gao is a very warm, sincere and promising individual..." – Pipa Master Lin Shicheng
"...she (Gao Hong) possesses deep performing skills and particularly strong sensitivity with the pipa...she is definitely among the top artists of traditional music performance in the young generation." – Zhao Feng, President, Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing
I had just been studying in Tokyo for a year and was preparing to attend Tokyo Gakugei University when I was invited to do a solo concert tour of 10 cities in the United States, which included New York City, Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh and six others.
Soon after the tour, I got married and never returned to Japan to finish my studies. Although it was a pity for me not to continue my studies in Japan, I considered it a wise choice to stay in the United States and promote the Chinese pipa and Chinese music. Although everything was difficult in the beginning, it was still worth it.
Not long after I arrived in the United States, I decided to invite Lin Shicheng to tour the U.S. with me. There were two very important reasons for this. First of all, I wanted to thank Mr. Lin for his cultivation and support of my pipa career. Secondly, my teacher had already toured worldwide, but his only regret was that he had never had the opportunity to perform in the United States. Therefore, my first idea was to show my gratitude, and my second inspiration was to make Mr. Lin's wish come true.
On March 31, 1996, Mr. Lin was carefully planning the successful "Lin Shicheng/Gao Hong Teacher-Student Concert" 林石城、高虹師生音樂會 at the Beijing Concert Hall, which served as the prelude to our U.S. tour.
The night of the concert saw a packed house, with over 1,000 celebrities from the pipa and music circles from all over the country in attendance. Among them were pipa performers and professors such as Mr. Lyu Ji 呂驥, Chairman of the Chinese Musicians Association; Wu Zuqiang 吳祖強; Feng Guangyu 馮光鈺; Kuang Yuzhong 鄺宇忠; Wang Huiran 王惠然; Wang Cizhao 王次炤; and Zhang Qiang 張強. That day was the most memorable and honorable day of my life.
One special aspect of this concert was the fact that I was to be the first person other than Mr. Lin to perform his personal version of the exciting solo piece Dragon Boat. I never expected that, just as I began playing my first notes, my first string would suddenly break. I hurried backstage, took the pipa Mr. Lin was holding directly from his arms, and returned to the stage to resume playing the piece.
It was just a few months ago that a famous young pipa player who is now living in the U.S. mentioned this incident to me. She said: "At the time, I was only eight years old, and my mother took me to see your teacher-student concert with Mr. Lin. When I saw you calmly carrying a pipa from the backstage area onto the stage, I clapped my hands so hard that my little hands got all red. It remains the concert that I most remember."
Photos from the Lin Shicheng/Gao Hong Teacher-Student Concert at the Beijing Concert Hall, March 31, 1996:
#1: Concert program
#2: Congratulatory calligraphy pieces from important figures in the Chinese music world
#3: Post-concert photo with important musical figures
#4: Signatures from celebrity attendees
On the third day after the concert, my teacher and I boarded a direct flight to Honolulu, Hawaii, and successfully performed the first teacher-student concert of our U.S. tour at the University of Hawaii. Subsequently, we gave successful performances in cities including Seattle and Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona, Minnesota.
Video: Performance of Three Six by Lin Shicheng and Gao Hong, from the first performance of their U.S. tour at the University of Hawaii, 1996
Photo: After the performance in Seattle, 1996
(Every time I see this photo, it brings me back to the memories of our time there. Whenever I look at the photo Mr. Lin sent me with his inscription, "Little Hong, beloved student,” it moves me to tears.)
A little over halfway through our two-month tour, Mr. Lin suggested that, for the last two concerts (in St. Paul and Seattle), it would be best to have an album of our music released, which would leave the audience with long-lasting memories.
So my mentor and I went to a well-known recording studio in Minneapolis and recorded the teacher-student pipa album Hunting Eagles Catching Swans. In addition to representative solo pipa works from Mr. Lin’s Pudong school, this album also included two precious pipa duets: the Jiangnan sizhu pieces Xing Jie Si He 《行街四合》 (Street Procession, Four Parts in One) and Three Six 《三六》.
Because Mr. Lin was suffering from jet-lag when he first arrived in Minnesota from Hawaii, he couldn’t sleep until we had some additional pipa duets to perform on the remaining concerts of the tour. He started writing as soon as he arrived in Minnesota. At three o'clock in the morning the day after our arrival, he wrote Xing Jie Si He on the dining room table of our house. Therefore, the recording and performance of this duet were both world premieres, done in the United States by my mentor and me.
Another work, Moonlight Over the Spring River 《春江花月夜》, is a duo arrangement specially made by Mr. Lin for pipa and guzheng. It was performed by Mr. Lin and the famous guzheng player Professor Li Meng 李萌 at the “Lin Shicheng/Gao Hong Teacher-Student Concert" at the Beijing Concert Hall.
When he came to America, there was no guzheng in my house at the time, so I used zhongruan instead. Mr. Lin and I recorded it for our album. When the album was first released in 1996, however, Mr. Lin and I decided that it should be an album exclusively of pipa music, and therefore the recording of this pipa-zhongruan duet was not included.
During the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, I was sorting through materials at home and happened to come upon the master tape of this work. I jumped up in excitement. Without delay, I asked a professor at my college to convert the DAT tape to digital audio files.
Hearing this recording again brought back the words Mr. Lin had spoken to me in 1996, which I have never forgotten. He said: "When I am gone (passed away), this album will be more valuable, because the sound quality is excellent, and I am also most satisfied with this recording of Hunting Eagles Catching Swans《海青拏天鵝》(a lengthy, extremely demanding, and rarely performed solo pipa piece). It would be best to release it worldwide."
After I had the audio files in hand, I immediately contacted the owner of the the British label ARC Music. I was thrilled when, within two hours, she sent me the very enthusiastic reply, "Of course! We will be happy to release it!"
On September 25, 2020, ARC Music, a leading international label for world music, rereleased this historic teacher-and-student pipa album globally, and right away it was named one of the top 40 best new world music albums in the Transglobal World Music Chart. After more than 20 years, I finally fulfilled my teacher’s long-cherished wish! I think Mr. Lin Shicheng is very pleased up there in heaven!
Photo: Album Cover and Track titles for the 2020 reissue of Hunting Eagles Catching Swans
In 1996, Mr. Lin became very involved with the initial release of this album. He personally designed the cover, which integrated his calligraphy, and selected the tracks. What stands out most in my memory is the fact that he did not agree with the use of a multicolored cover. He thought it was too expensive, so we chose to use a less expensive (though still attractive) blue and white cover instead.
While recording, he would read along with the score and listen carefully to every note I played. If a single note was not precisely executed, he would insist that I record the entire piece again. He would not allow any editing to be done. He felt that Americans would not understand Chinese music well enough to edit the music properly.
Therefore, the entire album was recorded without any editing. The result was a very rare and precious album of pure pipa music. When it was first released in 1996 (by the Minnesota-based International Friendship Through the Performing Arts), it was praised by European and American musical authorities as "one of the best pipa albums of the 20th century"!
Photo: Cover of the original 1996 release of Hunting Eagles Catching Swans
Photo: A preview article by the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis for the initial release of our album, 1996
After I settled in the United States, Mr. Lin always paid special attention to my career. In 1997, while he was on tour in Minnesota, I had the opportunity to work with Indian sitarist Shubhendra Rao, a top protégé of the famous Ravi Shankar, to create a new work for sitar and pipa, which we called Morning. It was my first cross-cultural collaboration, and I took it seriously: the process of creating this 10-minute piece took us three whole days, plus a fourth day to record.
After seeing the video of our 2002 Minneapolis performance of this piece, which added a third musician, tabla player Ty Burhoe, Ravi Shankar called Shubhendra in the middle of the night and was very excited. He said that he thought it was the best cross-cultural collaboration he had ever heard. We were also very excited after hearing these encouraging words from the Indian master, but I was still worried that Mr. Lin would be opposed to me taking such a break from traditional playing.
When I went back to China to visit relatives, I visited Mr. Lin at his home and played an audio recording of our collaboration for him. At the time I was ready to be "scolded." But I was relieved when Mr. Lin smiled and said, "You brought the pipa to the United States and made a contribution by opening new doors for the pipa." Wow! I was touched and encouraged by his reaction. I got Mr. Lin's affirmation and support for my cross-cultural collaboration in world music.
Since then, the dual roles of promoting the Pudong school of pipa music and pursuing cross-cultural collaborations in world music have become my lifelong goals.
Video: Live performance of Morning by Gao Hong and Shubhendra Rao, with tabla player Ty Burhoe, Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2002
At the same time, Mr. Lin was also very concerned about my personal life. During the few months when Mr. Lin lived in my American home, I was particularly happy to be able to practice pipa with him and learn from him daily, and also to learn the long-lost Mother-in-Law Arguing with Daughter-in-Law 《婆媳相爭》. The score for this classic piece from the late Qing Dynasty had been lost for many years before Mr. Lin reconstructed it from a fragment of the original score, filling in the rest from his memory. It became an indispensable part of my lessons while he lived in my home.
One interesting thing I remember from that time is that he knew I liked to sleep late. My bedroom was on the second floor of the house, while Mr. Lin stayed on the first floor. He awoke around 6 a.m. each morning. He was afraid of waking me up, so he carried his pipa to the basement to practice every day. Because most buildings in the United States are made of wood, the sound insulation is very poor. Therefore, I woke up early every morning to the melodious sound of Mr. Lin’s pipa.
Think about it – a great Chinese pipa master is practicing pipa every morning in your home. How could any humble student remain asleep while their home is filled with such beautiful music? Therefore, as soon as I heard Mr. Lin’s playing, I would get up and go practice pipa with him.
In this way, I spent the most precious days of my music career during the few months he spent in my home in the United States!
Photo: Lin Shicheng and Gao Hong practicing in Gao's Minnesota home
Mr. Lin often wrote to me like a father would write to his daughter. After I moved to the United States and began my performing career there, I had no time to have children. This concerned him. He sent me a letter containing an ancient Chinese medicine fertility recipe for us. He wished for us to have children sooner rather than later.
Sometimes, Mr. Lin was particularly humorous. He always had trouble with directions while in the United States. One day he suddenly asked me, "Why does the American sun rise in the west and set in the east?" and "Why does the sky in the United States have more stars than China’s sky?" He also wondered, "Why does American snow not melt under the sun?"
Because I didn't know how to drive when I first arrived in the United States, I stayed at home most of the time when I wasn’t touring. Once he joked, "Gao Hong, you put me under house arrest in the United States so we can practice pipa together daily and I can teach you every single day..."
When I think of our time together it reminds me of a warm, pleasant scene in a movie. Since my father left my family when I was a young child, Mr. Lin has always been like a father to me. Every time I think of him and how he treated me with such kindness and concern, tears fill my eyes.
Photo: Letters from Master Lin Shicheng
In the 15 years that have passed since the death of my teacher, I have never forgotten Mr. Lin’s expectations of me, and his fatherly smile has never disappeared from my mind. I have been working tirelessly to promote the Chinese pipa to repay him for his kindness.
I will always treasure the twist of fate that allowed me to spend so much precious time with him and reap so many benefits from his artistry and humanity. I will always hold him close in my heart. I was so fortunate to be a disciple of his! May my teacher rest in peace! I will forever remain grateful to my mentor, Master Lin Shicheng!
Photos: Master Lin Shicheng and Gao Hong in the United States, 1996
Photos: Master Lin Shicheng and Gao Hong at the CCOM, Beijing
*The Pudong school 浦東派 (named for an eastern district of Shanghai where it developed) is one of the most important lineages of the Chinese pipa tradition. Originating in the 19th century and handed down from teacher to student until the present day, its style and repertoire are elegant, typifying the southern style of pipa playing. At the time I met him, Mr. Lin Shicheng was the senior and foremost exponent of the Pudong school.
Photo: Bust of Master Lin Shicheng in the Shanghai Xinchang Old Town Pudong Pipa Museum (上海新場古鎮浦東派琵琶館)
About Lin Shicheng 林石城
Lin Shicheng was the sixth-generation definitive master of the “Pudong school” of pipa playing. Often referred to as the Ravi Shankar of the pipa, Lin was teacher to the majority of prominent pipa players living in the world today.
Lin Shicheng (1922-2005) was born in Nanhui, Jiangsu Province (now Shanghai). He came from a family of traditional Chinese medicine doctors who were also musicians proficient in playing the pipa. At the age of 6, he began studies with his father who passed on to him the performance skills of the Pudong school and also taught him to play erhu, sanxian, yangqin, jinghu, xiao and other instruments. He graduated from Chinese medical college in 1941 and then practiced medicine in Shanghai. After his graduation, Shen Haochu, the fifth-generation master of the Pudong school, accepted Lin as his only disciple. Shen encouraged Lin to also study with masters of the Pinghu, Chongming and Wang schools.
In the 1940s, Lin Shicheng also became a master of Jiangnan silk and bamboo music. In 1956, Lin closed his successful medical practice in Shanghai and became a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He immediately began producing numerous pipa method books and collections of scores, and became recognized as the founder of folk music education in New China.
After arriving at the Central Conservatory of Music, Lin was one of only four traditonal music teachers and the only plucked strings teacher. He took on all of the plucked strings teaching work at the conservatory, and began compiling his method books, textbooks and scores. In order to enrich the pipa textbooks, he worked hard to study folk music from various regions and adapted folk songs to pipa scores. He collected and arranged nearly 100 folk songs for pipa and was the first to systematically compile teaching materials for pipa teaching in colleges. Throughout his lengthy career, Lin also taught at the Guangzhou Conservatory, Sichuan Conservatory, Shanghai Conservatory and other institutions. Being in great demand as a performer, he toured Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Europe and the U.S.
During his lifetime, Lin Shicheng was awarded a Golden Bell Award, a Lifetime Medal of Honor, a National Teaching of Chinese Music Achievement Award, a Garden Award, a Certificate of Recognition, an Honor Award, an Advanced Teaching and Educating Honor, a Cultural Promotion Award, a Recognition of 50 Years of Active Contribution Award, an Outstanding Contribution Award among others. The Silk and Bamboo Ensemble of the Central Conservatory, under Mr. Lin’s supervision, won four championships and the first place award in the 1992 and 1993 Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo Competitions.
For the remainder of his life he dedicated himself to the pipa, the Pudong school, and Chinese national music education. Lin was once quoted as saying, "There are thousands of good doctors. Master Shen's successor is only me, and the Pudong school cannot be cut off from me."