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From China to America: Bridging Cultures With Music

How Shirley Wang is defying Asian music stereotypes with an unlikely instrument — the guzheng.

March 9, 2017

When Shirley Wang plucks the 21 multi-colored strings of her guzheng in front of an audience in Seattle, she hopes its soothing sounds will transport them to the ancient Chinese stories from which the songs originate. The guzheng, a member of the zither family, has a 2,500-year history.

Shirley Wang (right) gives a music lesson to her student, Zhaojun Zhao (left).

“Not many people learn Chinese instruments here,” Wang says. “I want to bring more Chinese music to Seattle.”

Her passion for music was formed early in life. She learned the guzheng in Mongolia, when she was 6 years old. Her father wanted her to learn something related to Chinese culture.

“I decided to learn this one because I felt like it was just so easy. You can just make something happen,” She says, plucking a string. “Sounds amazing.”

Wang’s childhood was rich with music. Her elementary school offered music lessons and a before-and-after school music program that she participated in.

Wang continued her musical studies through graduate school at the China Conservatory of Music. She also pursued her passion for the instrument and for Chinese music by performing across the country and teaching students at guzheng institutions in Beijing.

“Another Chinese music teacher and I decided to found a Chinese music club as an after-school program,” says Wang. “They all (children) should have an opportunity to learn about Chinese culture,” says Wang.

After completing graduate school in Beijing in 2010, Wang and her husband moved to Seattle. Wang recently completed a graduate program at Seattle University and currently runs a temporary music studio in Bellevue with over 40 students.

Music belongs to the whole world.

Zhaojun Zhao is one of Wang’s students. Unlike many of her Chinese-American peers, who gravitate towards Western music and instruments, Zhao was drawn to the guzheng because of the instrument’s role in Chinese storytelling. She particularly enjoys learning about the context and background of each piece she plays.

“The meanings and stories that I can get out of Chinese music are deeper,” Zhao says.

Zhao says that learning the instrument has brought her comfort when she was feeling down.

“For me, it’s really calming and chill,” says Zhao. “I had been learning this instrument when I was in China. I liked it so much that I wanted to continue that here.”

Shirley Wang shows a Chinese poem that is etched onto the back of a guzheng.

While the guzheng may be an instrument firmly rooted in Chinese culture, Wang teaches students from many different cultures and backgrounds.

“People come here from different backgrounds and countries and I want to give them more chances to know [even] more different cultures,” says Wang.

And, the multicultural lessons go both ways.  

“I teach three Russian girls. They told me about their instrument in Russia, which was similar to the guzheng.”

When Wang performs for younger generations, she tries to incorporate more modern music with other instruments.

“They get so excited when they hear traditional Chinese music with modern music,” says Wang.

While she hopes to continue to expose younger generations to Chinese music, it’s often the older members of the Chinese-American community that form a special connection with Wang and her instrument.

“They probably get homesickness,” Wang speculates. “When they hear music that they were used to hearing [in the past], they get very emotional.”

“Music belongs to the whole world,” says Shirley Wang, pictured playing the guzheng.

Wang maintains a busy teaching and performance schedule. She frequently performs at regional cultural events, including the Lunar New Year Celebration at The Bellevue Collection. She most recently performed at Western Washington University. She is also a part of the Zeng Association, which often performs for people in retirement homes. Wang is a firm believer in the healing power of music.

“I want to do something different for the community,” Wang says. “Music belongs to the whole world.”


Peter W. Choi

Peter W. Choi joined KCTS 9 in October of 2016 as a production intern.

He was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States as an international student in 2011. He is a senior at Seattle Pacific University studying communication and sociology. He is passionate about international affairs, especially foreign relations with North Korea. He hopes to work as a foreign correspondent who covers national and world issues.  In his spare time, he enjoys watching films, beatboxing and singing.

Follow him on Twitter @peterwchoi_

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