Hong Zhang, senior instructor of Chinese at Binghamton University, appears at the United Nations in early January 10 for a discussion/performance of 'Chinese Ethnic Groups and Their Songs.'
Photo by Liming Guan
Hong Zhang educates and entertains UN with Chinese songsTweet
Foreign diplomats and United Nations staff members shuffled into a conference room at 2 United Nations Plaza on Jan. 10 to witness a one-of-a-kind lecture. The international organization had hosted countless topical presentations over the decades – in-depth discussions on everything from climate change to human rights to poverty – but this one was different. Visiting lecturer Hong Zhang took her place in front of the room, greeted the crowd, stood up straight – and belted out a bevy of beautiful tunes.
The United Nations Headquarters doesn’t have a concert hall, and despite being located in the entertainment hub that is New York City, isn’t known as a hotbed for music, but that didn’t prevent Zhang, senior instructor of Chinese at Binghamton University, from treating this audience of dignitaries and intellectuals to a rousing musical performance. Half a lecture on Chinese folk music and half an operatic rendition of these styles, her presentation, “Chinese Ethnic Groups and Their Songs,” was an opportunity to share the beauty of Chinese music with a fresh group of ears, and an influential one at that.
“Lots of people have no idea what Chinese music is like,” said Zhang, a professionally trained singer with a master of music degree in voice performance from Binghamton University. “Through my recitals, they understand that Chinese songs are beautiful.”
During her 1-hour and 20 minute presentation, Zhang discussed various Chinese song styles – Han Chinese songs, modern songs and ethnic folk songs – following each spoken section with a performance. She explained to the audience (who are also students in a UN Chinese class) how differences in geography contribute to idiosyncrasies in the musical styles of China’s ethnic groups. For example, Han Chinese in the south sing softer songs because they live in a milder climate, while Han Chinese in the north sing songs that are more course and vigorous due to the drier, colder environment they inhabit.
Zhang began her lecture-recital by asking the audience two questions: “What is China’s population?” and “How many ethnic groups are in China?” While the global-centric crowd was able to answer the first question without a problem (China’s population is approximately 1.3 billion), the second question took a bit of guesswork (the country has 56 distinct ethnic groups). Zhang hopes to make the world less ignorant of Chinese culture, especially its music, through her lecture-recitals.
“I’m very happy I can be a Chinese music ambassador,” Zhang said. “I open their eyes, open their ears and enhance their knowledge of Chinese music.”
As a self-appointed Chinese music ambassador, Zhang has performed at numerous venues around the globe, including the University of Michigan, New York University, the University of Toronto and Nankai University in China. Her stop at the United Nations was, she said, quite an honor.
Yong Ho, Chinese language supervisor at the United Nations Chinese Language Programme, found Zhang’s presentation both educational and entertaining. He first heard her sing at the 11th New York International Conference for Teaching Chinese, held at Seton Hall University in May 2013. Impressed by her presentation, and seeing that it fell in line with the UN’s values of multilingualism, diversity of cultures and global citizenship, he invited her to perform for the organization. The invite proved to be a good idea.
“The audience responded enthusiastically,” said Ho, whose favorite song from the UN presentation was “Molihua,” a folk song from his hometown of Jiangsu, China. “We have never had an event like this before.”
Despite her growing reputation, Zhang stressed that she isn’t fueled by thoughts of money or fame, but rather by an ever-increasing love for the songs she sings, like “Flying Songs Over the Earth,” a modern art song which combines Western and Chinese elements.
“The more I sing these songs, the more I like them,” she said. “I love every word. To express them is very natural. There’s nothing fake about it.”
When Zhang’s not singing her beloved songs, she’s on the lookout for new ones to add to her repertoire. It doesn’t matter if she’s cooking or out for a walk – she’s got headphones on and she’s searching for more. But she won’t add just any song to her list. In order to make the cut, songs need to 1) be beautiful, 2) have great lyrics, 3) be good for her voice and 4) have a pretty melody.
These are the same characteristics Zhang looks for when adding songs to Singing Chinese, a groundbreaking course she introduced at Binghamton in the early 1990s. Students in Singing Chinese learn how to speak the language more fluently by – you guessed it – singing Chinese songs. Zhang takes advantage of her abilities as a performer to help students in the class become better at speaking and singing the language.
“I’m a person with two hats – one as teacher and another as singer,” said Zhang. “I consider the classroom like a small stage for me. I use my performing skills to explain difficult concepts or words and make students feel not intimidated, but happy to learn.”
Singing Chinese is highly popular with students, many of whom have gone on to win awards at singing competitions. At the end of the semester, students participate in a recital, all of them having noticeably improved, noted Zhang. She believes that her course helps students gain skills crucial to career and personal success.
“You have presentations,” said Zhang. “You have interviews. You have to go to work, talk to your boss, talk to colleagues. This course trains you not only to sing Chinese songs, but how to present in front of people.”
Whether performing solo in front of dignitaries or helping second-year Chinese students transition from nervous performers to karaoke stars, Zhang always has one objective in mind: happiness. It’s no coincidence that one of her favorite songs to perform is titled “Beautiful Mood,” a song she sang to the UN crowd to wish them good fortune in 2014.
“My goal in doing these things is to make people happy,” she said. “If I sing for you, I want to make you happy. If you gain, I’m happy and I’m gaining.”