A Bridge Between Cultures

A traditional Chinese instrument becomes a bridge between cultures

Wenzhuo Zhang was extremely young when she took up an extremely old musical instrument. At the impressionable age of five, Zhang (’15) attended an after-school music program in China’s Hebei province, where choosing from among the dazzling array of instruments stumped her. A kind instructor suggested, “Would you like to try the yangqin? I could teach you.”

She started lessons on the instrument, a stringed dulcimer played with bamboo beaters that dates to the 17th century. What began as a hobby has become a vocation for Zhang, who today teaches the yangqin and has performed in recitals from New York State, where she lives, to the UK. In 2008, she won the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship in Kansas.

Watch Zhang perform on the yangqin as part of the Rochester, N.Y., Memorial Art Gallery’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Virtual Celebration in May 2021. Video courtesy of MAG Rochester

To Zhang, the yangqin is more than a music-maker. It’s a modern bridge-builder between different peoples, which is why she tries to pass on her mastery through teaching.

“Musical instruments are a form of cultural legacy and heritage,” she says. “Learning instruments or songs is one of the most efficient ways to learn the tradition of the cultural groups from which instruments and songs originated.” The yangqin is multiculturalism in wood and string: it was modeled on a Persian instrument and reached China through trade with the Middle East.

At 13, Zhang was admitted to Hebei’s competitive art school, which accepted only one student for each Chinese instrument every two years. After graduation, she enrolled in the prestigious National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, then came to the US for a master’s at the State University of New York at Fredonia. She received her doctorate in music education at BU.

She teaches at SUNY Fredonia and has performed with a Chinese string and wind ensemble, Western ensembles, and Chinese folk singers, and in national and global recitals. Zhang says of her musical career: “When I think about the past, I realize that it wasn’t just my decision. It was my teachers’ decisions as well. They chose me, and I am grateful. I enjoy being a performer.”

Zhang says her studies, along with playing the yangqin, have shown her the importance of multicultural music education. She vows that she’ll “continue contributing to multicultural music education in research and practice, one of my everlasting career goals.”