Xue Trio concert celebrates the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival in Malta

June 22, 2023 - Thursday

On the eve of the celebrations of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, on Wednesday, June 21, the China Cultural Centre in Malta hosted the Xue Trio, a unique ensemble of musicians who showcased the beautiful harmony that can be achieved when the East meets the West.

The Xue Trio, a Paris-based ensemble was formed last year. Pierre-Henri Xuereb, the founder of this group, plays the viola d’amore, Simon Debierre plays the Chinese traditional instrument guqin, and Niu Ruixin plays the viola. The repertoire featured renowned Chinese traditional music pieces as well as some Western music compositions that were inspired by an imaginary encounter with China through the various tales of diplomats and an exhibition that was held in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Xue Trio also shared intriguing information about the instruments they were playing.

The viola d’amore is a seven- or six-stringed musical instrument with great resemblance to the violin and the viola, although it has an intricately carved head at the top of the peg box. It was most popular in central Europe during the Baroque era. Through his research about the viola d’amore, Xuereb discovered that it was probably linked to the Maritime Silk Road since there are similar instruments in Turkey, Egypt and Italy. One can view 13 of these instruments exhibited at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels.

The guqin is a seven-stringed zither which has been fixed in its shape since the 3rd century, making it one of the oldest instruments still played in its original form. The ancient instrument is imbued with symbolism. It is made of two wooden planks where the upper plank is curved to resemble the heavens and the sky, while the bottom plank is flat to represent the earth. Its length is three Chinese feet and 6.5 Chinese inches to mark the 365 days in one year. Traditionally, the strings are made of silk, although today, metal strings are also used. The guqin’s repertoire has been the largest source of written music preserved in Asia with more than 2,000 tunes published since the 15th century. In 2003, the guqin was proclaimed to form part of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage.

Yuan Yuan, the director of the China Cultural Centre complimented the Xue Trio for their superb performance and for sharing their insights about Chinese and Western music. She said that “The China Cultural Centre in Malta is dedicated to fostering cultural understanding and appreciation between China and Malta, our two diverse yet interconnected worlds. Through events like tonight, we aim to build a platform where different artistic traditions can converge and create something truly extraordinary.”

This evening also served to introduce the traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival which occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar. This festival, which in 2009 was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, is known to commemorate the death of the ancient poet Qu Yuan who was a minister of the ancient state of Chu in the period of the Zhou dynasty. When his king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. Writing several poems during his exile, he eventually committed suicide by drowning himself in a river when Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. People who admired him raced out in their boats to save him, or at least to retrieve his body.

This is believed to have been the origin of the dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi, known as sticky rice dumplings, which later becomes a symbolic food of this festival, and the audience was invited for a bite at the end of the event.