Honorary University Fellow (2021)
When pipa master Ms Wu Man was still a little girl, she paid a visit to Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou together with her family. As she looked around the temple at the age-old statues, she felt a deep connection with the pipa held by the King of the East, one of the Four Heavenly Kings. She thus decided to learn this ancient Chinese musical instrument, and so began Ms Wu’s lifelong pipa journey.
Over the years, Ms Wu created many enviable but admirable records. She was one of the youngest student of the Central Conservatory of Music Middle School in Beijing and the first person to receive a master’s degree in pipa performance from the Central Conservatory of Music. She has also received the first prize in the National Music Performance Competition.
In 1990, Ms Wu embarked on a musical adventure to the west with the express mission of introducing the little-known instrument, which has a history of more than 2,000 years in China, to western audiences. She recalled that when she made this decision, she seemed to share the passion of Tang Sanzang, a central character in Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel Journey to the West, who also travelled to unknown cities on a very difficult mission. None of her friends and family members understood her choice, but their doubts did not deter her. Instead, she followed her heart and quickly made the impossible possible – creating global awareness of the pipa.
Countless audiences around the world have been impressed by the authentic Chinese sound of Ms Wu’s pipa. Its plucked tones are like the rhythm of an ink painting, the aftertaste of good tea, or the warm feeling of fine porcelain which no one can resist. But for Ms Wu, the pipa is not only appropriate for Chinese music. She has initiated various musical projects over the years, and they have resulted in the pipa finding a home in new solo and quartet works, concertos, operas, chamber, electronic, and jazz music as well as theatre productions, films, dance shows, and collaborations with visual artists including calligraphers and painters. She has given the instrument a new lease of life in both traditional and contemporary music.
Ms Wu has performed solo and with major orchestras around the world. Her musical tours have taken her to the major music halls of the world. Among the hundreds of performances that she has taken part in, she considers the one at the National Conservatory Music College in Azerbaijan to be the most memorable. The natural and magnificent landscape was breathtaking but most importantly, the audience, which was mainly composed of students, was very serious about the music. She had the best time on stage during this special concert.
Widely recognised as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and the leading ambassador of Chinese music, Ms Wu has been bestowed with numerous honours and awards. She was the recipient of The Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University in 1998, and she was the first traditional Chinese musician to receive The United States Artist Fellowship in 2008. She was also named Instrumentalist of the Year by the magazine Musical America in 2013, marking the first time that this prestigious award has been awarded to a player of a non-western instrument. In 2021, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the New England Conservatory of Music. While all these titles are hard-earned, what touches Ms Wu’s heart the most is perhaps the fact that her instrument is no longer seen as an exotic curiosity.
In recent years, Ms Wu has played an active and passionate role in Chinese music education. She launched a national music tour, and served as a Distinguished Professor of the Zhejiang Conservatory of Music. She is also a Visiting Professor at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music and her alma mater, the Central Conservatory of Music.
In 1998, Ms Wu was the founding member of the Silkroad Ensemble formed by the famous Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma as part of his Silk Road Project. The Project, which aims to promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding, has been going for more than 20 years. It has united artists from all over the world for joint activities such as music lessons and recitals and has had a major impact.
Ms Wu is truly an excellent role model for today’s younger generation. She embraces every challenge in her life and she sees them as an opportunity for growth and self-transformation. Her formula for success is to believe in yourself and keep going no matter how many times you screw up. She believes that with a positive mindset and a willingness to persevere, there is little beyond your reach.
Ms Wu will continue to step onto the stage, offering the gift of her music to audiences around the world. In this stressful environment created by the pandemic, her music will certainly bring society some much-needed peace and tranquillity.