In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, we sit down with traditional Chinese musician Xiaodong Wei who teaches Chinese music in the Residential College. In 2010, LRCCS helped organize an event in collaboration with the Detroit Tigers for the year of the tiger, where Wei played the national anthem on the erhu 二胡 to open a game at Comerica Park. In this interview, Wei talks about smashing her erhu, her favorite musicians, and her fascinating journey to where she is today.
LRCCS: Where is your hometown, your 家乡?
Wei: I come from Heilongjiang Province, Jixi 鸡西. It’s really close to the Russian border.
LRCCS: When did you first start playing music?
Wei: I started playing Chinese music when I was 5. Later I moved to Beijing to study at the Central Conservatory of Music 中央音乐学院, and learning piano was part of the curriculum, so I also started studying Western music around that time. Now I primarily play the erhu, the piano, and the guzheng 古筝
LRCCS: When did you first come to the US?
Wei: I first came in 1998 for a business trip. I was working for a company that made military reproductions – German helmets, Japanese shovels, gun holsters. We were going to trade shows in the US to sell our products.
LRCCS: What’s the story behind that? How did you go from musician to business woman?
Wei: I graduated in 1990, just after the Tiananmen Incident, and there was a new policy that anyone from the ten provinces that border foreign countries would have their hukou 户口 reverted to their hometown. So even if I was two orchestras in Beijing both wanted to hire me, and I eventually worked for one orchestra in Beijing with short term contract, my salary was lower than people with a Beijing hukou, and I wasn’t eligible for benefits.
I tried working like that for a while but was feeling pretty jaded about my experience, and also just getting sick of Beijing. One of my classmates started working for this American Korean War veteran who was working on this business and the boss invited me to work for him.
LRCCS: How did you end up coming to the University of Michigan?
Wei: When I moved to Detroit, my husband suggested I contact UofM. We sent my CV someone in the music department, and Joseph Lam [Professor, School of Music] contacted me. I started working through the Confucius Institute right when they started around 2010.
LRCCS: What are you working on now?
Wei: I teach erhu, guzheng and piano privately, and also teach Chinese music ensemble at the RC. I do some performances, like the with Detroit Symphony Orchestra, or with pianist Yuki Mack. And I have a pop-rock band. We play at events like Arts, Beats & Eats, Detroit Festival Arts, Concerts of Colors - those kinds of venues.
LRCCS: Tell us about your band.
Wei: When I first moved here, I was taking music classes at Wayne State, and I saw an ad that said “Female musicians needed – piano, violin, vocal, or whatever.” I thought, “Whatever? That’s me!” So I called and the guy was a bluegrass guitarist who said to me a mandolin player just called couple days ago, so lets jam to see what can come out of it. We formed a three-piece band, where I played the erhu.
That band evolved into a few different groups; now our group is called Madame XD. It’s a play on words from the movie Madame X. We have a lot of fun and do crazy stuff like smash my erhu.
LRCCS: Smash your erhu? Like Jimi Hendrix?
Wei: Yeah! It was a funny story. I didn’t tell my band members I was going to do it, and at the end of a performance I just smashed it and walked off stage. They were worried something was wrong with me.
LRCCS: That’s amazing. How do you perform with the erhu? Do you plug it in somehow or just play close to a microphone?
Wei: At first I just used a mic and played it that way. Later I found some tools I could use to plug it in more like a guitar. Sometimes I can even use pedals like reverb, wah-wah, stuff like that. I have a preamp made specially for the erhu by Rolland, which has direct input.
LRCCS: Who are some of your favorite Chinese musicians?
Wei: My favorite erhu player is Min Huifen 闵惠芬, who passed away a couple years ago. I also like the flute 笛子 player Dai Ya 戴亚, who was one of my classmates. Some others are pipa 琵琶player Zhang Qiang 张强，and jinghu 京胡 player Zhang Suying 张素英 who tragically took her own life.
LRCCS: What about Western music? How did you first get into rock music when you were living in China? Was it hard to come by?
Wei: It’s funny, when I was getting into non-classical Western music back then, most people only knew about John Denver and Kenny G. Rock music was very hard to find back then. In China they were smuggling music in from Hong Kong and places like that, many of them were “cut-out,” dakou 打口 albums.
At that time, one of my friends was a rock producer and he had a lot of those types of albums. I was listening to groups like Led Zepplin, Mr. Big and Bjork. Back then I didn’t get Bjork, but now she is on the top of my list.
LRCCS: What’s your vision for your musical career? Do you have any desire to spread Chinese music in America?
Wei: Yeah, I really like doing that. When I first moved here I didn’t think about that much, but now it’s becoming more and more important to me. Music has no borders; it’s a language everyone can understand.
I have a story about that. I went to a reunion for Korean War veterans, and there was a guy there who hated Chinese people. Every time someone even brought up China, he would get angry. Well, at the event I played “Amazing Grace” on the erhu, and after that he came up and talked to me, he loved my performance. Everyone was surprised because normally he wouldn’t even talk to a Chinese person. After that, people told me that guy changed. I feel good about that.
Thanks for reading this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series. You can find out more about Xiaodong Wei at her personal website: http://www.xiaodongwei.com/
Stay tuned for more interviews!