My Journey Through China: Chaos and Harmony

An American Double Bassist Explores China's Urban Bustle

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 09:22 PM

The author, posing with two girls dressed up for a wedding. (Elizabeth Thompson)

The Chinese have a special word for the hustle and bustle that makes up a lively gathering of people. It’s called renao, and you can find it anywhere Chinese people gather together. Literally translated, it means hot and noisy, and it’s meant to be taken in the most positive context: the din erupting from a large group eating dinner together, the yelling and shuffling of people vying for street food, or the counterpoint of negotiations in a marketplace.

It has always vaguely intrigued and bothered me. Being of mixed Chinese and Caucasian heritage, it annoyed me when outings with extended family devolved into chaos and noise in cramped minivans or restaurants. But nowadays, strolling through a single street in Chinatown seems to recall all the excitement and activity I love about living in New York City.

I finally had a chance to get up close and personal again with renao this past month, and from its original source: China. Touring in a freelance orchestra, I played New Year’s concerts across China for three weeks, in nine different cities, for thousands of local Chinese. China was always just a myth to me, a patchwork of anecdotes, news reports, and a weird middle-name given to me at birth. And now, it was about to become real. 


A day after arriving, we took a bullet train to Ji’nan and jumped right into concertizing. At the first venue, I could hardly believe my eyes. The front facade of the concert hall had giant, Greek-inspired stone columns guarding the entrance, atop a long, gentle flight of stairs. These things were big as corn silos and had been wrapped all the way around with bright red wrapping to advertise our concert that evening. That was in case you missed the red, billboard-sized banner at the very top, or the red carpet going all the way up the stairs, through the lobby. They say Chinese like the color red: confirmed.  

That first concert started off pretty good, we played those Strauss Waltzes like proud international emissaries of culture. It wasn’t until we got to a really quiet section of the piece that we got our first real culture shock. 

Now let’s step back for a minute. You remember the iPhone-guy who recently interrupted Mahler’s Ninth with his unstoppable marimba alarm? That incident still reverberates in the blogosphere, not to mention complaints against candy-wrappers and program-rustling. So let’s just say that Western audiences are expected to be quiet. Even sleeping is begrudgingly acceptable. Anything but noise. 

Back to our concert: the entire hall was filled with rustling, murmuring, chatting and coughing. Constantly. The kind of stuff you hear before a concert starts. It wasn’t a reaction, this was a constant presence, sort of like the background radiation that scientists say fills the entire universe – only much louder, no radar needed to hear it. At intermission, it was the talk of the orchestra. What is up with this audience? Are they bored? Are they trying to tell us we’re not very good?  

The puzzle of the noise would have to wait, as there were plenty of other adaptations to make as well, like boiling our water and constantly dodging cars and bikes. Still, the strangest and perhaps the hardest to accept was the persistent smell of smog. You can read about it in all the news reports, of course: the pale yellow air, decreased visibility, burning in the back of your throat. What we never expected to see was smog inside the concert halls. In Xi’an, it was so dense that the stage lights illuminated it like fog beams. Ironically, this is a country that still loves to smoke, indoors and out, and cigarette smoke would join the fumes at intermissions. Some of these halls were truly gorgeous, inspiring places to perform, in stark contrast to the air inside.

Coal is often cited as culprit for the smog in China. Smugly armed with news reports and a dust mask, I imagined overbearing coal power plants spewing smog into pristine cities. But on the back streets is where I found the everyday reliance on this flammable rock. Walking along these alleys, in front of long rows of food vendors, I would see the piles of black, glistening lump coal. Throwing a couple fist-sized blocks into their stoves and turning up the fan would quickly send a wok into a hot sizzle or send soups into roaring boils for hungry customers. Billowing clouds of steam, catching the glow of neon signs, would send exotic spices and acrid fumes straight into my head. It was an intoxicating mix of future and past.

Of course, those who live there aren’t immune to this heavy air. Face-masks have become something of a fashion accessory for women. I saw patterns inspired or copied from Burberry, Hello-Kitty, or with bow-tie adornments, made of fashionable fabrics, shapes, and colors. I’ll never forget one little girl riding on the back of a moped, clutching a fake bouquet of pink roses to match her coat. Her intrepid eyes, peeking out from behind a cheerful, zebra mask in pink trim, seemed to beat back all the grayness of the street and sky with a hopeful determination.  

By the time we played our last concert, we thought we had seen it all, but we had one more surprise waiting: half of the seats in the hall were filled with Chinese soldiers. They had a striking presence, a forest of olive green uniforms accented by red sashes, glinting buttons and stoic composures. Despite being exhausted and now a bit nervous, we played our hearts out to this crowd. After the final applause, while waving to the civilian audience up front, one or two soldiers in the back actually waved back at us. They were shy at first, and then suddenly, bunches of them were vying for our attention, even making whoops, and we found ourselves giving thumbs-ups, A-okay’s, and other international signs of goodwill, from across the theater. I still can’t find Zhanjiang on a map, but can this count as international diplomacy?  

In a cold rain, the soldiers packed themselves into open-back transport trucks to go back to base, while we filed into our buses back to the hotel. I began to think back about the rest of our audiences, the noise and din, and audible chatting that filled the hall during quiet moments of the concert. I pondered how this could be normal, here, amongst even the audiences that seemed to love us the most.  

Remember that word I mentioned at the beginning, meaning hot and noisy? I've begun imagining that’s what we heard out in the audiences, that we had found renao in the concert halls. Billed as a “cultural exchange,” these concerts were more of a cultural marketplace, like we were selling tourist trinkets right back to our hosts. Unburdened by having to decipher ponderous messages from old masters, this was instead, a familiar alleyway where the Chinese could come with their friends, be themselves, and gab over a long row of musical dishes being served up, hot and noisy.  

So I’ve got my fingers crossed for the next trip – and I might actually be looking forward to the chatter of the concert hall. I’ll take it over cell phone rings and candy wrappers any day of the week.

A hot and noisy dinner after a long day's work (Kevin Mayner/WQXR)

More in:

Comments [7]


The article simply has nothing to do with how the tour was run. As another musician who participated in the tour, I can vouch for how unprofessional much of the organization was. However, the author of this blog managed to still get something ot of the trip instead of focusing narrowly on thoses ultimately unimportant details. Honestly, I found most of the complaints encountered during the tour exemplified the worst stereotypes of coddled Americans. I don't believe those people gained any valuable experience from their visit to china on the tour, so focused were they on minor issues of personal comfort and deviations from the way they were used to doing things back home.

Feb. 07 2012 01:40 PM

To "the truth".... I am a musician and also participated in the tour. I don't deny that there were issues that were far from acceptable. I can only speak for myself as you can only speak for yourself- and not the three who were left behind. It's a shame that you can come from such an experience and seem to have brought back nothing but contempt. Would you be so harsh without the cover of anonymity....French fries are awsome!

Jan. 26 2012 03:04 PM

To the Truth: I was not on the tour or anything, but the author is NOT talking about the tour - he is talking about China. I think there's a bit difference between a critique of the tour and a travelogue of China. I don't think it's fair to criticize the article based on your personal experience.

Jan. 26 2012 11:20 AM
music lover

This is to the truth: If you are a primadonna wanting to be an elite musician then I can see why your comments. It seems you saw only the negative side of your tour! That is so sad. Did you venture out and explore at all. Did you see the little girl on the moped? You did not
want to do anything but be treated like someone special when you are not.
I suggest that you do not go on any tours that are out of your familar area! Stay home and dont learn about the world as it is; not like it is portrayed in movies! Remain the meidocre musican that you appear to be from your comments. Do I detect jealousy as well??? Yous choose to go on this trip and now you sound like a pouting little boy.

Jan. 26 2012 09:26 AM
the truth

As a fellow musician - and one who was on the tour with you - I cannot believe what I am reading. The experience I had on the tour was COMPLETELY different from the glamorized version that you are spewing about in this article. Perhaps you weren't one of the three people who got left behind at an airport because the tour company and orchestra managers forgot to buy enough tickets for the whole group. However, you don't seem to be bothered by the way that we were treated on the tour. Maybe you didn't mind that the tour managers took away our passports. I did. Maybe you didn't mind that they told us the contracts were "decorative." I did. Maybe you didn't mind that the so-called "five-star hotels" were actually seedy dumps with non-functional lights and a supply of condoms in the bedside drawers. I did. This was by far the worst tour I have ever seen. The conductor was a joke - and when we investigated his credentials, we found that he is UNDER INVESTIGATION in the United States. The orchestra manager was also a mess - she "owns" her own business. Musicians, be warned. Great job on glorifying this tour to make yourself look like a more accomplished musician. Oh, and your statement "They say Chinese like the color red: confirmed"....? Really? That's like someone coming to the US, taking note of all of the fast food restaurants, and declaring "They say Americans like french fries: confirmed." Or reading this ridiculous story, and saying "They say that American musicians are arrogant, unrealistic, and self-promoting: confirmed."

Jan. 26 2012 12:03 AM
Joe Hayes

Great commentary on "culture conflict." Enjoyed it tremendously. There's a wonderful movie from 2000, "The Turandot Project," about the staging of "Turandot" right inside the "Forbidden City" in Peking (Beijing), by Zubin Mehta and Chinese film director Zhang Yimou. The Chinese side including the audience was about as familiar with our opera as was Puccini with Chinese history; the conflict about lighting the set is touching, hilarious, and instructive in equal part. As an opera fan and student of Chinese history who also lived a long time in Japan, I LOVED this movie!!

Jan. 25 2012 05:59 PM
Interested reader from Manhattan

I have always been intrigued by the history and culture of China. Thanks for a timely and interesting article. Really enjoyed reading about the smog, the girl with a mask, and a noisy audience!

Jan. 25 2012 11:02 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.