The King Of Violins
Today, Chinese violinist and composer Ma Sicong 馬思聰 (pronounced Ma-se-cong) is revered as The Violin King in his native China. Despite those recent accolades, life has not been kind to Ma.
Ma was born in 1912 in the Chinese province of Guangdong, a coastal area bordered by Hong Kong and Macau.
Life in China has never been easy. The past 5,000-years has seen the rise of well-intentioned dynasties that make numerous societal contributions then crumble—centuries later—under the force of their corruption and an insatiable appetite to maintain power. As China’s final ruling dynasty, the Quig, crumbled at the beginning of the 20th Century, China became ripe for the expansion of foreign imperialism, a violent, roller-coaster transition into a united Republic of China, the imposition of state-controlled communism, and the elimination of individual rights and freedoms as decadent bourgeois musings.
In 1967, Ma and his family said, “Jai Jian” (goodbye) to their beloved homeland and fled to America to avoid certain imprisonment during the self-appointed supreme leader Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As you will learn, the family’s flight was filled with danger and uncertainty.
Initially, Ma and his family lived in New York and subsequently settled in Philadelphia. He continued to compose and perform until he died in 1987.
A consequence of his self-imposed exile—his creative genius is unknown to all but a few classical aficionados in China. As you are about to discover, his musical artistry and symphonic compositions (57 in total), place him in the company of the world’s greatest composers like Bach, Brahms, Mozart and violinists virtuoso’s as Italy’s Niccolò Paganini and Israeli Americans Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, among others.
The Violin King is the first-ever “politically-neutral” book written about the inspirational accomplishments and inhumane atrocities experienced by this Chinese musical icon. Great care has been taken to make this work painstakingly accurate. Some in China may wish to hide from the unvarnished truth, but much of this book is based on the actual conversations of Ma recalled from the memories, notes, papers, and pictures of Ma’s son-in-law, Cheng Ken Chi, and his granddaughters, Ida Chi and Nina Chi Sabins.
To make Ma’s story interesting and informative, we have decided to write the book in the first person; his family and I are confident Ma would have liked his story shared in that manner. He died frustrated that much written about him in his native China was filled with inaccuracies, lies, and propaganda.
Ma’s dreams were grand but straightforward. He hoped his life’s work would serve as an inspiration to struggling artists around the world never to stop dreaming big dreams. Ma knew creativity and imagination are virtues to be cultivated and revered.
He also hoped his musical legacy would, in some small way, increase the cultural understanding and mutual trust between his homeland, China, and his adopted home, the United States of America.
One final comment before you begin your journey. To better understand Ma’s beliefs, actions, music, and life choices, you will need to understand some of China’s complicated, mysterious past. As you can appreciate, a musical genius, who loved his country does not wake up one morning at the age of 55 and decide to leave under the cloak of darkness.
Every attempt has been made to design and integrate the required historical passages in an approachable manner; they are not meant to be an all-encompassing academic treatise and should not be judged as such. There is also an unconventional Afterword entitled a Pocket Guide to 5,000 years of Chinese History, which the reader might find useful.
Also, be aware, the first time a Chinese name appears in this book, it is followed the phonetic pronunciation of that word in English. We have avoided using native Chinese characters because Westerners, like myself, find them impossible to decipher!
MOTHER and FATHER
I wish to begin my story by telling you a little about my father and mother. My father was more than just a great man; he was an important influence on my life choices and passed on his gift of determination and love of country. My mother was my moral compass and gave me her love of music.
To better understand my father's and mother’s principles and beliefs, you need to understand a little of the times in which they were born and raised.
As I have come to understand over my lifetime, we are all to one extent or another a product the environment in which we live and the individual experiences we have as human beings.
My father, Ma Yuhang (pronounced Ma You-Tang), was born in 1883 in Haifeng, a small sea village on the South China seashore, in Guangdong Province (today Canton) in 1883. He came from a “middle-class” family, which in China meant they had just enough money to live. Father had two brothers, one three years older, the other three years younger. When my father was 13, his father passed away suddenly, leaving my brothers responsible to earn money to support the family.
As a young man, he grew up during the final stages of the Qing Dynasty (pronounced Cing), which had ruled China from 1644 to 1911. The physically-violent Qing minority was the last of the ten Imperial dynasties that ruled my homeland for almost 3,000 years. They employed fear, corruption, and unilateral legal mandates to control my country’s largest ethnic group called the Han, a gentle people who today still represent more than 90 percent of the Chinese population.
During the reign of the Qings, they constantly reminded the Han that they were meant to be ruled by “intellectually superior” Manchurian outsiders. This marginalization of the peasant class led to bloody wars and perennial unrest. Ironically, the Qings also left a legacy of amazing achievements in art, culture, and economics.
Long before my father was born, the Chinese population in the provinces grew from 130 to 400 million, placing a severe strain on food supplies. To eliminate the possibility of famine and consequential social upheaval, the Qings decided to increase agricultural yield in China’s fertile north by forcing the Han to use new fertilizers and advanced irrigation techniques imported from Western Europe. The Qings also declared the profits from these higher yields would be shared exclusively among the Manchurian minority.
Initially, the indigenous Han farmers worked for the Qings while quietly expressing their frustration at 150 years of marginalization. One of the ways the Qings maintained control during these chaotic times was to promote the value of scholarly pursuit among the peasant class by establishing the Imperial Examination. Candidates who passed the exam were given the title of “Scholar,” which meant they were intellectually superior to the peasant masses. My grandfather was considered a Scholar, and his family was considered a prominent member of the Qing Dynasty.
To complete the Imperial Examination, you were required to read many books of literature and write a composition (thesis) that explained the benefits of these stories to the Qing Dynasty. The idea was to recognize Scholars publicly.
As a young man, my father and his best friend, Cheng Jiongming (pronounced Cheng Jo-Ming), decided to stay in the good graces of the ruling class by becoming trusted scholars. At the same time, they found a creative way to profit from the Imperial Examination process by obtaining a fee for helping other students pass the Imperial Examinations.
My father and Cheng would hide outside a window of the examination room while their student wrote the test composition subject on a piece of paper. The student would then roll the paper into a small ball and throw it to them. My father would pick up the document, run and hide behind a nearby building, correct the composition, and then smuggle it back to the waiting student.
While my father realized helping others to cheat on the Imperial exam was not honorable, their activities did generate extra money for his family. To father, that purpose was noble!
In 1898, both father (age 15) and Cheng (age 20), passed the Imperial Examinations at the county level and earned the titles of Xia Cai, meaning scholar or skillful writers.
In 1903, my father married my mother, Huang Chuliang (pronounced Chun-jun-my-n-tee). They were both 20 years old; eventually, our family had ten children—six girls and four boys. As a child, my mother, also the product of a peasant family, planted the rice fields and helped her older brother gather grass and woods on the mountain for cooking and heat. Because she performed these chores as a child, my mother was spared the barbaric tradition of having her feet bound until she was 12 years old.
(Footbinding was a primitive Chinese custom that lasted over 1,000 years. Tight cloth bindings were applied to the feet of young girls to stifle their growth. Chinese men believed that women with small feet were deemed more beautiful and would marry better. The practice was technically outlawed during my Father’s lifetime, but the practice didn’t end until 1950).
My mother had a kind heart, a tolerant and forgiving attitude, and a quick, smart mind. Although a peasant at birth, she turned into an elegant and graceful young woman. She was highly pragmatic, managing the family budget, repairing water faucets, broken chairs, and household electrical problems while my father disappeared for months chasing revolutionary social change.
Mother also taught my sisters and brothers about moral standards and values. While technically illiterate, she had a detailed memory and passed along stories from the ancient Chinese morality book Three Character Classic and Mulan that her mother taught her. I have vivid memories of her sitting by the fire, explaining, “People at birth are naturally good. Their natures are similar, but their habits make them different.” She also told us to study and work hard. “No particular skill will make you a beggar.”
Besides my father’s dissatisfaction with the behavior of the ruling class, he held advanced views about the role of women in what was an entirely male-dominated society. He felt women should not be at a disadvantage to men in reading or writing. So, he organized a school in his home to eliminate illiteracy among the women in his village. He was also a strict disciplinarian; no one dared to be late for class.
Father insisted my mother attend the classes and complete homework assignments like all the other women, despite breastfeeding, cooking, and running the household. In time, she learned to read, write, and sing local operas. Such as The Butterfly Lovers (a Chinese Romeo and Juliet). Her gift to perform made people laugh during the comical moments and shed tears when the opera saddened.
While I loved and respected my father as a teacher, he was also an intimidating presence at home. He would “order” my brothers and sisters to study hard, then sit and watch over us as we worked. When I protested, my father became even more strict.
FATHER'S BEST FRIEND
Although my father and Cheng were born in the same town five years apart, their formative years were quite different. Cheng’s father was a landlord of moderate wealth, and he was sent to a private school to study Confucian classics at the age of six.
Cheng trained to be a schoolteacher at the advanced Haifeng Normal School. After graduating, he was banned from teaching because his iconoclastic ideas were deemed to be at odds with the “best intentions” of the Qings, desperate to maintain power.
Soon, my father and Cheng again reunited as classmates at Guangdong Academy of Law and Political Science, a Qing sanctioned institution which was created to demonstrate the Dynasty’s willingness to support new ideas that would improve the Hans’ quality of life.
In 1899, the friends graduated at the top of their class, frustrated that the Han majority had allowed the Qings to “carve China up like a melon.” Both men believed the solution to centuries of social unrest was a unified Republic of China that served all the people. They had witnessed the bloody anti-imperialist uprising known as the Boxer Rebellion, which raged for more than two years, despite the Han joining forces with the Qings. When the rebellion was lost, they were appalled at the terms of the surrender agreement.
The British, French, Russian, American, and German invaders created a series of so-called “unequal treaties” that effectively reduced the Chinese Provinces to a collection of colonies managed by corrupt Chinese provincial officials who reported to the Western powers. This patchwork of enclaves came to be known as “spheres of influence.” Places where foreign merchants maintained unlimited access to valuable Chinese natural resources such as tea, silks, porcelain, and decorative luxuries. Generally, the foreigners paid corrupt officials for the goods with uncut opium (80 percent or higher heroin purity), which created serious addiction and unfettered demand among the Han majority.
Determined to return their homeland to its rightful owners, by what they saw, Cheng and my father used their vacations from Law School to return to Haifeng to promote the benefits of self-government, the eradication of opium smoking, improvement of local grain depots, and the creation nurseries for children, so older family members could earn more money.
After graduation, the two friends opened China’s first private school, Haifeng Local Zlzhi Hui (school of self-government), designed to create modern social thinking. They also published the newspaper, Haifeng Zizhi Bao (self-government news), which proposed revolutionary ideas such as equal rights for all classes. They also advocated the elimination of outdated, unproductive Chinese traditions. For example, they suggested men cut off their ponytails—long a symbol of the Qing Dynasty masculine superiority.
The intensely patriotic Cheng realized words alone would not change centuries-old behavior—there needed to be a grassroots like-minded revolutionary force. So, he recruited persuaded over thirty young men from Haifeng—including my father— to swear secret support for a national revolution. To reinforce the importance of their endeavor, Cheng made the group complete their pledge of allegiance in front of the portrait of Wen Tianxiang (pronounced When Te-ent-tiam) who had long been considered China’s greatest patriot by the masses.
Wen’s iconic status was created during the fall of the Song Dynasty in the 13th century. Grand Chancellor Wen was captured by the invading Mongol armies of Kublai Khan. He was offered an important post in the new ruling Yuan Dynasty if he convinced the remaining Song military forces to surrender. Wen rejected the offer to work for a government he viewed as barbaric and immoral; instead, he preferred to practice the Confucian virtues of benevolence and righteousness learned in his youth. He suffered four years in a Yuan military prison before he was beheaded in 1283.
His last written words referenced the legacy of truth: “All men are mortal, but my loyalty will illuminate the annals of history forever.”
Despite Cheng’s zeal, China continued to deteriorate in the hands of foreigners. Cheng and my father joined multiple revolutionary movements dedicated to overthrowing the Qing and extracting China from foreign intrusion. They believed, as did their hero Wen, that one must be willing to sacrifice one’s own life than one’s own principles. Thanks to my father, I would live my life that way. In 1909, the two friends joined Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance for Democracy, which was predicated on three core principles: nationalism, democracy, and the right of people to earn a fair wage.
Two years later, my father and Cheng joined the Sina Assassination Team in Hong Kong. Cheng was named a team leader, and my father agreed to the dangerous mission of smuggling explosives back into Guangzhou Province by fastening them to his own body. My oldest brother, Siqui, who also was staunchly anti-Qing, traveled with my father from Macao to Guangzhou with explosives fastened to his body on two separate occasions.
Later that same year, my Father was named a deputy commander of the First Revolution, which is generally recognized as the war that finally toppled the Qing dynasty in 1912, and officially put an end to 4,000 years of Chinese rule by corrupt dynasties.
Within months of the Qing collapse, the Republic of China was formed, and Sun Yat-sen was named its first President. Sun envisioned a two-phase approach to democracy. The first was to eliminate conflicting provincial beliefs held by using military force to unify the country into a one-party government. Once political order was firmly established, Sun believed he could gradually introduce the selected principles of democratic human rights, regardless of class.
Cheng and my father disagreed with Sun about his two-phase strategy. They believed the fastest way to create the united Chinese Republic was to install self-governed united provinces with elected parliament members and local officials, similar to the American system of governance. Despite their differences, they remained loyal to Sun.
To oversee unification by military force, Sun yielded power to the revolutionary commander, Yuan Shikai (pronounced Yo-wan See-ki), proclaimed himself the new emperor. However, several provincial governors continued to pledge their loyalty to Sun, and soon, my country was embroiled in another leadership struggle. This struggle was commonly known as “The Second Revolution.”
MY EARLY YEARS
I was born in 1912 in the early days of the Sun presidency, as the fifth of ten children, some of which I never knew very well.
As a child, my parents said I didn’t show any particular interest in or talent for music. When I was about three-years-old, my mother said I heard music for the first time on my grandma’s phonograph. I surprised and amused the entire family by spontaneously singing and dancing with great joy.
After that, I started to notice, memorizing and playing music came easily. When I was seven, we were sitting at my aunt’s house when she started to play Chinese music on the organ. I asked her if she would teach me. She smiled and nodded. After just a few lessons, I could play those same songs without ever looking at a music sheet. I remember the smile in my mother’s eyes as she watched me play. She seemed amazed at how quickly and confidently my small hands moved around the keyboard. Neither of us understood my gifts at that moment, but she and my father decided to buy me an organ.
At nine, while I was at boarding school, I saw students playing a little instrument called a harmonica, which fit my small hands perfectly. I quickly learned to master it. Later, I became fascinated with an ancient Chinese string instrument called the yueqin on which I learned to play intricate Cantonese music.
It would be three more years before I even heard a violin, much less learned how to play. Learning to play the violin was a complete accident.
Because of my father’s absence in Southeast Asia, my mother played a significant role in the development of my childhood values. She regularly recited the famous Three Character Classic to me and my younger brothers and sisters. In simple terms, she taught us many essential tenets of Confucian morality. Notably, people at birth are naturally good and similar—it’s their habits that make them different. Secondly, respect for elders is a virtue to be cultivated.
While my mother was illiterate, her heart was pure, and her memory was rich and full. She taught me never to try to take advantage of others, to care and share things among your siblings, and to study and work hard. “If you don’t have a skill in a particular field, you will become a street beggar.”
While not disrespectful, I was always full of questions. Mother used to smile and say I was her stubborn child; she was most at ease when I went to school. One day, when I was about six, my mother got an unexpected notice from my teacher. He asked her to meet him at school. When she arrived, the teacher asked, “Ma has not attended school for several days, where does he go?”
My mother was surprised and replied, “there must be some mistake. I send my son off to school every day.”
“Really,” replied the teacher, who walked my mother around the school. “Do you see him anywhere?”
On the way home, my mother thought about how to educate me about the importance of following the rules. When she returned home, she acted like nothing happened that day. But, the next day, after I left for school, she followed me. It was a beautiful spring day, so once I was safely out of sight, I changed direction and headed for the beach. I loved to explore all that nature had to offer. So I walked a few miles to the seaside and sat quietly, observing the movements of crabs, shrimp, and other tiny sea creatures. Then I went swimming far below the water’s surface to explore rock and coral formations.
One day when I got out of the water and began to put my clothes on, my mother suddenly appeared. “Ma, you swim like a fish.” I didn’t know what to say. She continued, “ You must be hungry by now; let’s go home.” She reached for my hand, and we calmly walked home. When we were inside the house, my mother asked, “Can you tell me why you don’t go to school for days at a time?”
I told the truth.
“Mother, my teacher never smiles, and he uses a ruler to hit my palms.”
“Why does he do that?”
“Because he has decided I am not following instruction like the others,” I replied.
“Is he correct?”
I hesitated. “No.”
My mother remained silent. She knew challenging her headstrong son would not accomplish anything. She slowly walked over to the window and called my nickname, “Ali see the high-spirited gentlemen on the horse dressed in nice clothes?” I nodded.
“Now look over here. What do you see?”
“A street beggar,” I replied.
Do you know the difference between the two men? The gentleman attended school every day so he could get a good job; the beggar did not.”
The next day, my mother accompanied me to school and said to the teacher, “My son loves people that smile. Please smile more often.”
Both the teacher and I got the message. I never again missed a day of school.
Copyright © 2020 Mg Crisci