One of MTSU’s newest educational centers demystifies Chinese culture for MTSU students and local citizens alike
The outgoing voicemail message on Mei Han’s phone is different than that of most faculty of MTSU’s School of Music. She begins with a personalized message: “You have reached the office of . . .” But the unexpected difference comes at the end of the message, right at the moment you might expect to hear the “beep.” That’s when Han repeats the message in Mandarin Chinese, her native tongue.
Another key difference that sets Han, an associate professor of music and an ethnomusicologist, apart from her faculty colleagues, is that she spends significantly less time in the Wright Music Building in the heart of campus. Instead, she most often works in the Miller Education Center that opened two years ago a few blocks west of campus, where she serves as director of MTSU’s Center for Chinese Music and Culture, or the CCMC, a facility that opendsed in March 2016.
Inside the CCMC are classrooms, performance space, a library, and a veritable cache of beautiful Chinese musical instruments — some vintage, some contemporary, some stringed, others percussive or woodwinds — all of which are intended to draw MTSU students into a rich, exotic-to-Westerners culture that spans thousands of years. They also serve to contextualize the lessons Han teaches. Everywhere she looks, Han sees connections to her motherland of China. Sometimes it’s in those beautiful musical instruments designed to play the music of a faraway land, and other times it’s in the photos of visiting musicians who traveled to Murfreesboro from halfway around the world at her invitation to participate in meaningful cultural exchanges with MTSU students.
Toward that end, Han points to her lecture on Chinese opera as an example of how she uses class time to demystify elements of Chinese culture to her mostly American students.
“Some people say Chinese operas sound squeaky. But to me, that’s an out-of-date and misinformed perception,” Han said. “Of course, the singers are high-pitched, but there’s an underlying understanding of the culture that explains why. And that often goes overlooked in the West.”
Chinese operas developed long ago from a folk tradition and were associated with the celebration of the Chinese New Year—and the famous Chinese dragons that Westerners often identify with the related celebrations.
“Long ago in the old time, China was an agricultural society, and people believed you needed to please dragons to ensure you would have enough rain to bring the harvest,” Han said. “So, to please the dragon, you needed to have a lot of loud sounds like gongs and bells. And those sounds were represented in our operas, so the singer had to sing in a higher pitch to break through that accompaniment.”
There’s another reason, too, she explains. And it’s less related to folklore.
“In the Old China, the women were not allowed to go out of the house. Their feet were bound, and they definitely were not allowed to perform in public,” Han said, “so women’s roles in opera were played by men who would tighten their throats to get that sound to sound like a female.”
“For me, the center brings the information that represents the history and the current Chinese music in its cultural context, and also in a more informed environment.”
Just like that, Han peeled back the curtain on a signature trait of Chinese opera by contextualizing the culture of “Old China,” as she calls it. And, at its core, this exemplifies the mission of the Center for Chinese Music and Culture.
“For me, the center brings the information that represents the history and current Chinese music in its cultural context, and also in a more informed environment,” Han said. “Lots of Chinese musicians who come to the West do so to ‘promote’ Chinese music; I don’t like the use of the term ‘promote.’ I am here — and the Center for Chinese Music and Culture is here — to share Chinese music. We’re not here to promote it. Promoting is something a salesperson does. Sharing is different. Sharing is giving of something you love and want others to have, too, if they’d like to have it.”
Han was born into a military family in Beijing, a city of nearly 25 million people located in northeastern China near the intersection of the Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges to the northwest and the Boahi Sea 100 miles to the southeast. As a young girl, Han learned to play the violin. However, she wasn’t inspired by it. The instrument that would become her passion — and soon her ticket to see the world — was the zheng, a 21-string instrument that, to some, may resemble a harp that’s lying on its side. However, it’s more closely related to the German instrument called a zither, Han said.
“Lots of Chinese musicians who come to the West do so to ‘promote’ Chinese music. . . . I am here — and the Center for Chinese Music and Culture is here — to share Chinese music.”
“My first instrument was the violin. But after six months, I knew that was an instrument that I didn’t want to continue playing,” Han said. “I was drawn to the Chinese zheng — it was not popular at all at the time. This was in the early 1970s during the Cultural Revolution. Very few people even knew this instrument existed. It may look like a harp to some, but it sounds much different from the harp as the pitches can be bent, and its five-tone scale sounds like flowing water.”
Han was exceptionally good at playing the zheng. So good, in fact, that she toured parts of China as part of an ensemble. This, of course, would have been strictly taboo, if not outright forbidden, in “Old China.” However, a pivotal cultural movement was under way that shed many of the gender-based restrictive norms of “Old China.” This opened the world to the talented young musician, who would soon travel the world and eventually settle in the creative mecca of Vancouver, Canada, 150 miles due north of Seattle. Han married Randy Raine-Reusch, an acclaimed composer and pioneer of world music. She taught at Kenyon College in Ohio before joining MTSU in 2015.
Han continues her work of shedding light on the rich Chinese culture and musical heritage for MTSU students — and drawing connections to Tennessee when she can. Toward that end, Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn spoke at MTSU’s Chinese center in February 2017. Washburn, who is married to musician Béla Fleck and has traveled extensively throughout China, discussed “Bridging Cultures through Language and Music” as part of the center’s celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Another surprising connection Han makes to students in her classes is to the dulcimer family of instruments that many believe to be indigenous to east Tennessee.
“The hammered dulcimer is a Chinese instrument as well,” Han said.
Interest in the hammered dulcimer, Han said, traveled from China, into the Middle East, up into Europe, and eventually to North America, where it became a particularly influential instrument in the Appalachian region of east Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Some viewed the opening of the Center for Chinese Music and Culture in 2016 with skepticism, as it is partially funded by the Chinese government. It was launched through an initial $1 million grant from Hanban Confucius Institute, an organization sponsored by China’s education ministry that oversees similar cultural centers in hundreds of colleges and universities worldwide.
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee has no such concern. McPhee, whose deep personal and professional connections to Chinese institutions of higher learning stretch across nearly two decades of frequent travel there, has long espoused the value of education exchanges between China and MTSU. The veracity of that opinion, arguably, is embedded in the richness of the MTSU student experience.
“We’re in our fourth semester operating the new center,” Han said. “And the students seem to enjoy it very much. They say rather than watching a YouTube video or hearing a recording of Chinese music, they’re touching the instruments and watching a live performance. It’s interactive teaching. And the information they receive is a lot more alive.” MTSU
The Center of It All
The Center for Chinese Music and Culture, the first and only center of its kind in North America, opened at MTSU in March 2016.
The 3,200-square-foot facility includes a library, an archive, classrooms, and a musical instrument gallery and serves as a central hub for promoting not only Chinese music and culture but also language, business, and trade.
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, who has visited China every year since 1999, highlighted the educational component of the center as a stimulus for classroom learning.
The center also “designs curricula that includes Chinese music as an integral part of the general education offerings reaching more than 3,000 MTSU undergraduate students,” McPhee said.
Center director Mei Han noted that chances to appreciate her own culture during her youth in China were limited but expanded greatly during her time in the West.
“The experience of learning about different cultures and opportunities to interact with people from other cultures is very powerful,” Han said. “It nurtures minds, deepens human connections, and sparks innovation. Life becomes richer and more meaningful.”
When the center opened, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam noted, “Facilities like this can play a tremendous role in building bridges between different and diverse cultures, fostering greater understanding, and spotlighting mutual opportunities for educational and economic growth.”
The center has established regular public visits by local and regional public schools, seniors groups, and other interested organizations, while also taking Chinese music education to various middle Tennessee school districts.
“The experience of learning about different cultures and opportunities to interact with people from other cultures is very powerful. It nurtures minds, deepens human connections, and sparks innovation. Life becomes richer and more meaningful.”
More than a repository for indigenous instruments, the center collaborates with programs at MTSU, including those offered by the School of Music, College of Liberal Arts, and College of Media and Entertainment.
For more information about the Center for Chinese Music and Culture, visit mtsu.edu/chinesemusic.
MTSU signs an international pact to study, develop, and promote Tennessee-grown herbal products for sale in Asia and other emerging markets
From Staff Reports
This past spring, President Sidney A. McPhee traveled to China with state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and businessman Paul Martin, the first graduate of MTSU’s Honors College. The trip was organized by and in support of MTSU’s Confucius Institute. The highlight of the trip occurred in Nanning, where McPhee announced the creation of a new institute in concert with the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants, MTSU’s primary research partner in China. In the agreement, the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU agreed to create a joint ginseng institute in partnership with Guangxi to study, develop, and promote Tennessee-grown herbal products for sale in Asia and other emerging markets. The new International Ginseng Institute, with MTSU researcher and associate professor Iris Gao serving as its American director, will spin off from the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU, which will continue to work with the garden on other projects.
“This collaboration between MTSU, the Guangxi Botanical Garden, and business and industry is pioneering and a model for other types of collaborations between our countries,” McPhee said.
Miao Jianhua, director of the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants, said the garden plans to spend the equivalent of about $30 million in U.S. dollars for the construction in August of a new lab at the Nanning complex to support the effort. The garden has been designated one of China’s top 10 research facilities in funding priority. He also outlined the garden’s plans to hire up to 130 researchers and staff devoted to the institute.
Ginseng, an over-the-counter supplement used to boost the immune system, was one of the first herbs from traditional Chinese medicine to be widely used. It is popular with those suffering from colds or flu or whose immune systems are suppressed, such as cancer patients. Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina are the top three states among the 19 that can legally harvest and trade ginseng in the United States.
McPhee was accompanied at the signing by two local businessmen, Ted LaRoche and Edward Chiles, whose Greenway Herbal Projects firm has given $2.5 million toward MTSU’s herbal research. Martin arranged for the first contribution to the new institute: a $2,500 check from the Walter and Edith Loebenberg Foundation. The university’s pursuit of the study of ginseng goes back to 2013, when Ketron encouraged MTSU to use its China ties and research expertise to help Tennessee farmers add ginseng as a cash crop. The senator also helped gain state funding in November 2013 for a demonstration plot on the MTSU campus.
Other highlights of the 2018 trip to China included:
• Lectures at Guangxi University and Guangxi University of Chinese Medicine in Nanning, where the two universities agreed to look for ways to sync up with the institution, especially given the creation of the International Ginseng Institute; North China University of Technology; Hangzhou Normal University, MTSU’s partner in the operation of the Confucius Institute; and Hunan Normal University. The lectures served as part of an effort to share American culture with high-ability students considering potential study-abroad opportunities.
• Attendance at the annual meeting of the MTSU Confucius Institute board with Hangzhou officials. Leaders from both universities discussed potential joint research, new scholarships for Chinese students to attend MTSU, and ways to showcase MTSU’s Center for Chinese Music and Culture in Murfreesboro.
• A meeting with Hangzhou alumnus and Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group. Ma is also chair of Alibaba Business School at the Hangzhou university.