The jasmine crossing
by Peter Micic


Melodies and tunes that travel across time and space are fascinating. In China, variants of the same tune can be found across the country, but a tune may also appear in a number of different guises within one area or region. Take the Jiangsu folk song Beautiful Jasmine Flower (also known as Jasmine Flower), one of the most popular of all Chinese folk songs. The “flower” has migrated within a region, across the country and also cross-pollinated around the world. We can find it in Puccini’s Turendot, Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997, in a numerous arrangements by Chinese and Western composers, and even a version by Kenny G.

The story of the how the song emigrated to the West begins in China in the late eighteenth century. In 1792, King George III of Great Britain sent George Lord Macartney as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the emperor Qianlong of China. Joining Macartney on his embassy to China were five German musicians lead by John Zapfal (there were actually six musicians, but one deserted at Portsmouth). The instruments they brought with them included two violins, one viola, a transverse flute, a fife, clarinets, bassoons and French horns.

The late Ming and Qing imperial courts were not unfamiliar with Western musical instruments. When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci returned to Beijing in January 1601 he hoped that his gifts might bring him closer to an imperial audience. The presents included beautifully ornate clocks, a statue of the Madonna, crucifixes and a keyboard instrument that was most likely a small harpsichord, spinet or clavichord. Some forty years later the instrument in question was discovered in a Ming Court Repository. The Jesuit Joannes Adam von Bell was ordered by the Emperor Chongzhen to repair it and build another one identical to the original.

When Macartney and his embassy arrived, Qianlong’s court had a modest ensemble of Western instruments including violins, cellos, flutes, and pluck-stringed lutes. Macartney wrote in his journal that the chief mandarin of Qianlong’s orchestra was “much pleased” with some of the instruments they brought with them that he sent for a couple of court painters to spread sheets of paper on the floor and trace with their pencils the figures of clarinets, flutes, bassoons and French horns.

Sir John Barrow (1764-1848), a geographer, mathematician, and arctic explorer, also joined the first British embassy to China. Barrow recorded many descriptions of what he saw in Travels to China (1804). His observations and impressions of China were no doubt coloured in part by a Chinoiserie craze that had swept Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. Barrow observed, among other things, that “the merit of performance” of the Chinese ensembles he heard “should seem to consist in the intenseness of the noise brought out by the different instruments.” He refrained from the more offensive expressions used to describe Chinese music by some of his contemporaries. Johann Huttner, for example, who served as a Greek tutor to the son of Macartney’s secretary, noted that many people compare Chinese singing to the “mewing of cats” and their numerous trills to “the bleating of a goat.” In the course of his travels Barrow transcribed the melodies of a boatman’s working song, and “Moo-Lee-Hwa” (Molihua) with a phonetic transcription of the lyrics. He also transcribed in staff notation nine popular tunes of the day titled “Chinese Popular Airs.” There were only eight in fact, because one of the tunes appears twice in different duple time metres.


Chinese tunes can be found in texts published in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards by a handful of writers, travellers, missionaries and composers. A music dictionary edited by the French composer Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1768 contains a folk song that he found in a detailed four-volume work on China by the French missionary Jean Baptiste du Halde published in Paris in 1735. The most influential text on Chinese music to make a huge impact on cultural life in Europe in the late nineteenth century was quite possibly a work by the Belgian J.A. van Aalst simply titled Chinese Music, published in Shanghai in 1884. It is in this text that Puccini apparently “discovered” Jasmine Flower which he used in Turendot. Aalst’s work became one of the most widely used reference sources on Chinese music.

This is just the beginning of the story. A tune map could be drawn up to trace exactly where the song has journeyed and who has arranged it. In terms of sheer numbers, we would have no trouble finding a field of jasmine “covers.” Like any tune that has been reworked or remoulded by a composer or performer, it will be recognized by listeners familiar with that tune.

A tune or melody that is regularly made new again draws our attention to the way performers, arrangers or composers articulate meaningful connections and relationships to previous arrangements and how a familiar tune ultimately becomes their own. A melody may be repeated exactly or changed or altered. It has nothing to do with tampering something “sacred,” but has everything to do with the creative powers of whoever is arranging it. Whether it is an arrangement of a Vivaldi concerto by J.S. Bach, a piano transcription of an orchestral work by Ravel, or variations on a theme of Greensleeves, what matters is the artistic result, not where the tune comes from. The greatest discovery of all is not the provenance of a tune or song, but that successive incarnations of it continue to bloom across time and space.

Jasmine shows no signs of wilting.

• You can listen to a variety of renditions of Jasmine via a Baidu MP3 search: 茉莉花.

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