An Organ in Mengying’s Dowry

Chapter 9

An Organ in  Mengying’s Dowry

Zhang Yuhe took the boat to Suzhou for his bride. He traveled on Yuanhetang canal. About ten years ago, steam-powered  boats replaced the man-powered wooden boats. One wheel ship would have two or three wooden boats in tow. It was called “lunchuan”, wheel ship, because it carried  an enormous  wheel on the starboard. Later  the wheel was replaced by the screw, but the name “lunchuan” stayed in the new Chinese vocabulary.

Competition for passengers was fierce among the shipping lines that plied the rivers and canals. The boiler of a ship could not take the pressure and exploded in one incident, killing and wounding some passengers and crew. Yuhe’s boats returned to Changshu the next day, again towed behind a wheel ship, with the bride and her dowry on board. In addition to the mandatory rosewood wardrobe, chest of drawers, the eight-immortal table and chairs, there was a “feng  qin”, a wind qin, qin being the name for many  music instrument, that is, of course, the organ. A piano is a steel qin.

Yu Mengying could pedal the organ  (yes pedal, because the two foot pedals produce the wind, and thus the music). She learned it in a girls job-skill school. She was probably on one of  the earliest batches of girls going to this school which taught basic skills such as embroidery, organ playing, in addition to Chinese and even some elementary English. If not for the marriage, she would have learned to be a midwife.

Keyboard instruments are not indigenous to China. The introduction of organ can probably be traced to 1600 when Mateo Ricci, who lived in Macao at that time, presented the “Great Western Qin” to Emperor Wanli of Ming Dynasty. The church organ was then simplified and adapted for use in China, first for church services, then church affiliated schools and finally  the public and private schools. The success of the organ as an instrument for the common people in China  is well worth further study, and I believe, it is connected with the introduction of the numerical music notation which was introduced also from Europe.

The wind qin in Mengying’s dowry was definitely the fashion in upper middle class Chinese families in 1910-1930s. It is cheap and light in weight and was manufactured in China. It is easy for a young woman to learn to play. My mother could also pedal the organ and sing. She acquired this skill in the same girls’ school in Suzhou. After she graduated, she became a school teacher, first in Changshu, then in Chongqing during the war. I remember my mother singing a song while pedaling an organ. She must have taught the same song to her school pupils.

(Please see the book for the song.)


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