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Melodies in the mist

Fragments of the old Chu Castle on the shore. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 30-01-2013


In addition to ancient bell chimes and an enormous city lake, Wuhan is home to one of the world's most beautiful compositions


Sandalwood-scented smoke drifts lazily from an incense burner as an elderly gentleman slowly places his fingers on the strings of the zither in front of him. With his other hand, he starts to pluck the instrument.

The sounds of the traditional Chinese traditional guqin hover in the air, bringing to mind mountain peaks embraced by cloud and the magnificent flowing rivers of China.

"'High Mountain, Flowing Water" or "Gao Shan Liu Shui", is one of China's best-known musical works. It was composed in Wuhan by Yu Bo Ya during the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC),' the instructor at Heptachord Terrace, or Guqin Tai, tells us as the final notes die away.

The instructor continues his story. "On his way back from an official visit to the Chu State, Yu Bo Ya rested and played his guqin. A man named Zhong Ziqi stopped and listened. When Bo Ya changed his tune to eulogise the high mountains, Ziqi exclaimed, 'The melody is as magnificent as Mount Tai reaching to the sky!'. When Bo Ya played a piece of music depicting the turbulent waves, Ziqi said, 'The melody is as mighty as the great rivers!'

"Bo Ya was excited to find someone who could understand his music and the two became close friends. When the time came for Bo Ya to return home, they arranged to meet the following year. But when Bo Ya arrived at the meeting point there was no sign of Ziqi. Later Bo Ya found out that Ziqi had fallen ill and passed away. He went to Ziqi's tomb and played 'High Mountain Flowing Water' again. Bo Ya was overwhelmed by the power of his music and his loss. Believing that nobody would understand his music like Ziqi, his smashed his instrument and never played it again.

Guqin Tai was built in honour of the friendship between Yu Bo Ya and Zhong Ziqi during the Song Dynasty and restored during the early years of the Qing Dynasty.

The legend of Bo Ya is one of the many stories Wuhan has to tell. With more than 3,500 years of history, the capital of Hubei province in central China, is a cradle of Chinese culture and history.

Also known as Jiang Cheng, meaning the city of rivers, Wuhan sits at the intersection of the middle reaches of the Yangtze and Han rivers. It is also often dubbed the city of a hundred lakes because water covers one fourth of the city's total area.

East Lake or Dong Hu, at 80 square kilometres, the largest lake within a city in China, feels rather like a sea and a cruise complete with hot tea and snacks is a welcome relief on a chilly day.

From the boat, we head to Moshan Hill on the lake's south-eastern bank. With fragments of the old Chu Castle on the shore, the hill is a landmark of Chu culture and the design of the imposing Chutian Tower is based on the palatial Chu resort of Zhang Hua Tai, a symbol of power and prosperity. An altar where the Chu king worshiped heaven is also there.

The best place to learn more about Chu culture is Hubei Provincial Museum. It has a collection of over 200,000 ancient cultural relics.

The bronze chime-bells set or Bianzhong excavated in 1978 from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng is one of the finest artefacts from the Warring States Period. It is the largest bronze musical instrument ever discovered. Hung in a wooden frame, the 65 gold-inlaid, bronze bells cover five octaves and range in size from 20 centimetres to 1.50 metres. According to an inscription on the central bell, it was a gift from King Hui of Chu and was cast in 433 BC. A set of bells of different sizes that can play various tones of the musical scale demonstrates that Chu knowledge of metallurgy and music was extremely high.

"A replica of the chime-bells is kept in the Chime Bells Exhibition Hall, where musicians wearing ancient clothes play Bianzhong so we can listen to the closest imitation of the sound of the ancient instrument," our guide says.

The beautiful music from the bells lingers even as we move to Guiyuan Temple, one of the four biggest Buddhist temples in Hubei Province. Built by the monk Bai Guang in 1658, the monastery houses a beautiful Tang Dynasty tablet depicting the goddess Guanyin holding a willow branch.

The most famous structure is the Arhat Hall where 500 golden arhat sculptures, identical in size but different in appearance and expression, are seated.

"If you want to know your future, choose the arhat that you like most and start counting from the next arhat, stopping when you reach your age. The expression of the arhat will foretell your future," the guide explains.

No trip to Wuhan is complete without a stop at the Yellow Crane Tower. Originally built in AD 223, during the Three Kingdoms Period as a Wu Kingdom military tower, so many popular poems were written in praise of it during the Tang Dynasty that it became famous nationwide. The tower has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The present tower got its design from the Qing Dynasty and is located one kilometre from its original site. With yellow upturned eaves, each floor looks like a yellow crane spreading its wings to fly.

From the top of the tower, looking down at the Yangtze river flowing through Wuhan's history, I fancy I can hear Bo Ya playing his last song to his bosom friend.

The writer travelled as a guest of AirAsia.


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