Interview with Mr. Ma Cheng Yuan / 中文翻译


In October 2000, with the assistance of Ms. Fan Dongqing (consultant of Christie's Inc.), eChinaArt.com's CEO Yu Gan interviewed world renowned Chinese bronze expert and archaeologist Mr. Ma Cheng Yuan in a mid-town hotel of Manhattan, New York . Mr. Ma is also the former executive director of Shanghai Museum of China.

Yu, Gan : Mr. Ma, what is the direction of your recent academic study?

Ma: My recent focus is Chinese ancient bronze and ancient characters, especially the Bamboo Slips and text. During the last three years, I have laid particular emphasis on the study of ancient characters such as bronze text and the bamboo text of Warring State Period. In 1994 the Shanghai Museum acquired a collection of Bamboo Slips of the Warring State Period from Hong Kong with the assistance of local contacts. The collection totaled 1,200 pieces and over 3,500 characters. Most of the ancient texts are scarce and therefore, highly valued throughout the world. We now understand that they were examples of a widely used writing system in the Chu Kingdom prior to the unification of China under the emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

Yu, Gan : This is a significant discovery and great achievement for China's history, literature and archeology.

Ma Cheng Yuan : It is. As we all know, ancient texts are limited mainly because Emperor Qin adopted "Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars" policy. Bamboo Slips were usually buried with deceased nobles during that time. Discovery of these texts has raised a lot of new questions to us and are definitely a valuable contribution to our academic study such as ancient Chinese Philosophy, History, Literature and even Geology. We are analyzing Bamboo Slips Texts and continuing to uncover its contents. Now the world is looking at us. We plan to publish our findings and those marvelous collections beginning next year.

Yu, Gan : How many events will be held in the Shanghai Museum in 2000 and 2001?

Ma Cheng Yuan : We've set up a general direction, that is, every year the Museum will hold an exhibition dedicated to ethnic minorities. For instance, now we have archaeology displays from Xinjiang and Mongolia. Next year we will hold an exhibition from Tibet. To promote these great events, we also invited foreign archaeologists and researchers to join the program. In the past, it was difficult to present artifacts belonging to ethnic minorities to the West due to inconvenient transportation and cultural differences. Now it is a big improvement for both archaeologists focused on ethnic minorities and international professionals. We are going to offer as much assistance as possible for the experts who want to explore findings in those areas.

Yu, Gan : Can you tell us the main purpose of your US trip this year?

Ma Cheng Yuan : This year there is a Music and Art exchange program between the US and China. In China, this March, we presented an exhibition called "Old Music but New Tone" in Shanghai. To do that, we collected ancient musical instruments from all over the country. Plus, we hosted an international seminar to evaluate and summarize the event. The Shanghai Opera House also hosted an Ancient Music Performance, which was very well received. On US side, several days ago (September 16, 2000) there was a similar exhibition at Sackler and Freer Museum in Washington DC. It also hosted a seminar and performance called "Music in the Age of Confucius" which attracted over 300 experts and collectors to participate. I made an address speech at the seminar, which was the primary purpose of my trip to the U.S.

Yu, Gan : What were your key points of the speech?

Ma Cheng Yuan : My topic was "Music for Poetry: A Fourth- or Third-Century B.C. Bamboo Text". Those texts included sections that we not yet deciphered, for instance, "Gao" is a chapter of poetic performance which is composed of 9 notes and 13 pitches. When studying ancient Chinese music, we conventionally studied serial bells by its shape, sound and veins. However, nobody knows exactly what is formed by those characters. Now we have the results from the Bamboo Slips that reveal to us many secrets of their time. This is an exciting breakthrough. I'm trying to translate these new discoveries for modern people. It was always difficult to explain the characteristics of ancient music because it was spread by sound not text. What we discovered was "Pitch" of Chu music recorded on those Bamboo Slips. This is an important finding. I used some transparencies in the speech and the audience was enthusiastic.

Yu, Gan : Can you tell us some details?

Ma Cheng Yuan : The titles of poems are all very simple and popular. Some of poems are like love songs and were previously excluded from traditional chapters and collections. For instance, one poem portrays a woman expressing her deep admiration for her husband. The rhythm is quick and light, just like pop music now, such as "Everything about my husband is lovable", "Why didn't you listen to me", and "your longings for me", etc.

Yu, Gan : Mr. Ma, if I comprehend right, you act as a great translator. You translate those Bamboo Slips Texts from ancient into modern. The role you play has contributed a lot to the cultural exchange between East and West. Millions of Chinese who live overseas also benefit considerably from your work.

Ma Cheng Yuan : That's my job and pleasure.

Yu, Gan : Mr. Ma, you are the world renowned expert of Chinese bronze. Could you tell us some information about the market, especially the auction market for Chinese bronze?

Ma Cheng Yuan : Auction itself is a culture. The buyers from West and East are eager to collect Chinese antiques and bronzes. They try to understand China's history, art and culture by studying those antiques and bronzes. Culture is a universal phenomenon without national boundaries. However, the ownership and cultural exchange is a different issue. It is an economic activity. In the past, a large amount of Chinese antiques have drifted into the other countries and have formed a unique culture after many years of trading in the auction market. The auction market is a special stage for this kind of culture. My primary concern is that of lost antiques. We should not allow this happen again.

Yu, Gan : That's actually my next question. How do you feel about this?

Ma Cheng Yuan : Negatively. It will hurt our antiques and the reputation of our country. Those Bamboos are good examples. The reason for this situation is that we didn't have auctions in the past but the West did. Therefore, our antiques flowed out of the country through different channels. For instance, Hong Kong has a big antique market. Hundreds of antique shops are crowded on two or three streets, which are full of lost Chinese antiques. In the U.S. and Europe, there are also lots of people who own many of those national-level antiques. We feel deep regret for our huge losses. Those markets have some very precious antiques that our national museums don't. Recently, we have taken back some lost antiques because of the great support from the Chinese national and local government. For bronze, we regained two hundred pieces that are all considered top-level collections. Recently, our country lost some very valuable antiques and treasures. For economic gain, some people ignore the break the law to illegally export antiques abroad. We lost too many good pieces, and we should not allow this to happen again. On the other hand, although many valuable antiques have found their way overseas, there is still a considerable presence of fakes in the market. It is necessary to set up a non-profit organization that helps collectors and buyers appraise the antiques and offer suggestions.

Yu, Gan : Thanks so much for your time and support. eChinaArt will make more efforts on the presentation and promotion of our Chinese antiques.

Mr. Ma Chang Yuan and Yu Gan in Manhattan


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