The Accidental Choir

Somehow, I've managed to be in Beijing for nearly six weeks and still haven't made it to the forbidden city. Those of you that know me well will probably see something telling in this; after all, I am the guy who is always inclined to think that the best experiences in life are waiting to be found just around the odd corner, rather than highlighted in block letters in the guide book. At the same time I claim to be a budding China specialist, so it is something of a professional imperative to check out the seat of imperial power at some point. I worked out a compromise between the demands of self and career a few weekends back and went to Jingshan Gongyuan 景山公园, the hill park behind the forbidden city that offers sweeping views of its red walls and yellow tiled roofs. From there I hoped to contemplate imperial splendor while enjoying the sense of discovery that comes with being at least a few steps off of the beaten path. Yes, the park is in Lonely Planet, but I have to imagine that no one visits it with any intention other than to charge up the hill and snap a few pictures from the top. That should leave plenty of untouched park on the back side of the hill for me to ramble in, and hope to stumble upon something inspiring.

Upon arriving at the park, the impulse to gawk proved overpowering, and I charged up the hill to drink in the anticipated overpowering view. It's impressive all right. A damn good place to put a hill, and a convenient way to dispose of the earth that was dug out of the imperial moat, or so the guidebooks say. As you can see in this picture, the curiosity of foreign tourists is overmatched by the enthusiasm that the Chinese exhibit for their own past. It was nearing sunset and the highest viewing platform on the hill was crowded with Chinese snapping pictures of sweeping ranks of yellow-tiled roofs.

As I snapped pictures of Chinese snapping pictures faint wisps of song floated up from the bottom of the hill. I circled the viewing platform trying to pinpoint their source. The voices became distinct when I worked my way through the crowd to the backside of the platform, coalescing into an erie polyphonic mix. I had no idea what I was listening to. Sections of the choir competed in sending their ascending melodies up the face of hill, seemingly without regard for the meter, tone, or key of their counterparts. When did anyone ever compose music like this? In its atmospheric majesty, it approached Tallis's "Spem in Alium"; yet there was a threat of impending chaos that reminded me of the terrifying choir heard in the soundtrack to "2001" in the final scenes depicting the approach of the obelisk. All interest in the view dissolved. My most profound musical discovery was calling!

Half-jogging the trails down the back of the hill gifted my ears with musical vignettes of every kind: a handful of musicians from Xinjiang, two saxophonists trading jazz licks, local opera accompanied by shrill and resinous bowed instruments-- Chinese parks are always centers of the cultural activity-- but the main prize still lay ahead: that magnificent choir!

The trees cleared and the sounds clarified, not into the one mad modernist choir I expected, but into the songs of separate clumps  of singers sprouting like mushrooms from the vast lawn, 20 or 30 to a group, usually centered on a vigorous conductor and an accompanist on accordion. Their music was surprisingly conventional in style, if exceptional in the enthusiasm with which it was performed. What had become of my shock-and-awe choristers? Nothing at all. When close to one group, their voices completely drown out the adjacent groups spaced perhaps 10 yards away. It was only high on the hill that their separate rehearsals combined into the divinely mad vocal performance that had lit my imagination. My disappointment at the dissolution of the powerful strains I heard on the hill was easily overcome by the joy of wandering between groups, enjoying the fervor with which they sang old love songs and patriotic tunes.

I ran into a long-haired European, a romantic for sure, gazing at one group, his face glowing with the satisfaction of some private conviction. 

"Do you speak English?", he asked.


"At home we think we are free. We think the Chinese  lack freedom. But look at this. There is no park in Germany like this. No one would sing like this. No one would dare to sing so freely. They would just get stared at. People would think you are mad. But here, they just sing. They love it."