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Every once in a while an artist stands out for their depth, power, versatility, innovation, expression, excellence, and pure musicianship, for the zheng, for this time, that artist is Mei Han.
One of the world’s premiere zheng artists, Mei Han is a groundbreaking virtuoso propelling the Chinese zheng into radical new dimensions of musical expression. Presenting music deeply rooted in over two thousand years of Chinese culture, Han is transforming this stately instrument into a powerful tool for the contemporary international concert stage. She is a consummate performer, appearing with leading artists around the world in a multitude of musical genres from symphonic, chamber and New Music; to traditional and World music; and from Creative Improvisation to electronic.
Han took the most sought after position in China at the age of nineteen, while others of her age were just starting their Conservatory training. This position as a featured soloist at the prestigious Beijing Zhan You Ensemble was due to her extensive private studies with China’s top zheng masters Zhang Yan and Gao Zicheng. After extensive touring with Zhan You, Han went on to become a rare blend of performer and scholar with two Master’s degrees in ethnomusicology, from the Musical Research Institute of the Chinese Arts Academy in Beijing (1995), considered internationally the most prestigious institute for Chinese music studies, and from the University of British Columbia (2000). Han received her Ph.D. in Ethnomusiclogy from UBC in 2013, was an Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, and is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of the Center for Chinese Music and Culture at Middle Tennessee State University.
Han contributed the zheng entry for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and entries for the zheng and other Chinese instruments for the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the premiere music reference books. She also has published articles in music journals and book chapters in both English and Chinese. She continues to lecture on Chinese music in numerous universities and music institutes around the world.
A dynamic performer and innovator, Han has been exploring new directions for solo zheng and unique combinations of zheng with other instruments in a contemporary experimental aesthetic. Works written for and premiered by Han include a zheng concerto (by John Sharpley, premiered with China Philharmonic Orchestra), a composition for zheng and string quartet (by John Oliver, premiered with Borealis String Quartet) and a work for zheng and harpsichord (by Janet Danielson, premiered with Cynthia Hebert). A commanding virtuoso, Han regularly performs challenging new works by contemporary international composers including compositions by Minoru Miki, Yuji Takahashi, and Barry Truax amongst others.
Han’s career spans Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. As a soloist, Han has performed with a number of orchestras internationally. Together with composer and multi-instrumentalist Raine-Reusch, Han toured to prestigious venues in Australia (WOMAD), Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore (WOMAD), and South Africa. With her Chinese string band Red Chamber she has toured North America, Asia, and the Netherlands with a feature performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. An accomplished improviser, she has toured North America and China with the Mei Han Art Ensemble. She has performed internationally on concert tours and at major international music festivals in the New Music, Chamber Music, World, and Jazz genres.
Han’s first solo CD, Outside the Wall of traditional and contemporary works, received critical acclaims, with airplay on CBC (Canada), BBC (Great Britain), and ABC (Australia). Her collaboration with Randy Raine-Reusch on Distant Wind for zheng duet, and Road to Kashgar with the Orchid Ensemble were nominated for Juno Awards (Best Global). Han’s album Ume with piano luminary Paul Plimley creates a rich and original musical language in contemporary jazz aesthetic. Her album Redgrass with Red Chamber features string band music from the Chinese imperial court to Bluegrass and beyobnd, backed by mandolin master John Reischman and the Jaybirds. The Redgrass Youtube video of Red Chamber with the Jaybirds became a viral internet sensation. Red Chamber's second CD Gathering became #1 on the College Radio Circuit, and Mei Han's third CD with Red Chamber, Classical and Contemporary Chinese Music, on the ARC label became top ten in Europe and won a Best World music nomination in Songlines Magazine.
With passion and vigor, Han’s stunning presentations of contemporary music constantly challenge the conservatism of Chinese music, and redefine the zheng as a powerful vehicle of innovation and expression.
Personal History in Brief
Five years later she was recruited by the army to play with the opera wing of the Qian Jin Song and Dance Troupe in Shenyang. Although far from home at a young age, the zheng saved Mei from the “re-education” her older sister had to endure in the remote countryside.
Two years later the ensemble sent Mei to study with Zhang Yan (1947-1996), considered the top zheng player in China at the time. Her return to Shenyang a year later was rocky and so at 20 Mei left for Beijing to see what fate would provide. There she applied for a position with the Zhan You Ensemble the leading group of its kind in China. She was surprised to be offered the position, beating out some of the top zheng performers in the country.
With Zhan You, Mei toured in old diesel buses with wooden seats on the back roads of China, and when lucky, by boat up remote rivers. These tours took her throughout Inner Mongolia, along the Mongolian, Russian and Chinese borders and to the extreme northern forest of China, visiting remote outposts to do small concerts. Sometimes in the middle of their performances Russian helicopters would rise up on the other side of the river to see what was taking place.
After six years with Zhan You, Mei started to lose interest in performing as the ensemble’s music became influenced by Hong Kong pop music. Instead, she learned English as another skill, and within a short time found herself editing music books and translating ethnomusicological articles for Chinese music journals.
In late Spring, 1989, Mei was living not far from Tiananmen Square. All of Beijing at the time was full of hope for change, and even police and soldiers had joined the demonstrations. On the fateful night of June 3rd, Mei sat in horror in her dormitory as the sound of gun fire filled the air throughout the whole night. At daybreak she ventured out, going to one of many small local hospitals to see dozens of dead and wounded. She felt betrayed by the government, and the army she had once belonged to.
The events at Tiananmen opened Mei’s eyes and made her start to question everything. Mei started to study psychology and sociology privately. When her English was strong enough, Mei entered the prestigious Chinese Music Research Institute in musicology. For her Master’s thesis she undertook field research of the Dong minority, travelling at great personal peril to extremely remote mountain villages, some known for poisoning their guest’s food. Mei received her first Master’s degree in 1995.
In 1996, Mei came to Canada to do a second Master’s in Ethnomusicology at UBC. She began performing again and brought all her past experiences to bear in the West to break musical boundaries, taking the zheng into a multitude of new genres, and developing radical new repertoires for her instrument. As such Mei has become a world renowned zheng virtuoso; become the leading authority on the zheng; written for the world’s leading reference books on music: and been the feature of numerous radio and television documentaries. With a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of British Columbia,Mei Han taught Ethnomusicology and Anthropology, along with the Chinese Music Ensemble at Kenyon College in Ohio for two years. Dr. Han is currently the Director of the Center for Chinese Music and Culture at Middle Tennessee State University while continuing to perform worldwide.