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Musical Journeys: A Trip to China

Musical Journeys: A Trip to China

Did you know that the Minnesota Orchestra’s Principal Bassoon, Fei Xie, was born in China?

Even if you’ve never been there, Fei has shared some recommendations so that your family can get to know the music of China without leaving home. Feel free to tailor the activity to fit your family’s ages and interests, and enjoy “A Trip to China.” Bon voyage!

A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix

A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix is a traditional Chinese folk tune written for the suona. Like the oboe, the suona is a woodwind instrument that produces a sound when a player blows air through a double reed made up of two pieces of wood wound together with string and then inserted into the instrument. The reeds vibrate together as air is blown between them.

This tune was inspired by a myth about the Chinese phoenix, or fenghuang. A long time ago, the fenghuang was a plain bird. Although the fenghuang looked ordinary, it was hard working and wise. It collected scraps of food that other birds left behind, which came in handy when a terrible drought made food scarce. The fenghuang helped the other birds by sharing its food stores so that they would not starve. In gratitude, each of the other birds offered its most beautiful feather to the fenghuang, leading it to become the dazzling creature we picture today. For years afterward, the birds continued gathering to celebrate and honor the fenghuang on its birthday. See if you can hear the birds calling in the music.

Today, most artists portray the fenghuang as a cross between many kinds of birds, including a pheasant, duck, peacock, crane, parrot and swallow. Its brilliant feathers contain the colors black, white, red, blue and yellow. Create your own interpretation of birds celebrating the fenghuang with whatever art supplies you can find at home, and then share your creation with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Select entries will be shown in an online gallery coming soon!

Ambush from All Sides


Ambush from All Sides is a piece of Chinese classical music written for the pipa, a four-stringed instrument which creates a sound when the player plucks a string to make it vibrate. The piece musically depicts the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC. At this battle, Liu Bang defeated rival Xiang Yu and the Chu army to become China’s new ruler: Emperor Gaozu of Han, the founder of the Han Dynasty. 

As Ambush from All Sides begins, soldiers in the Han army camp are preparing for war. The music picks up in speed and intensity as battle breaks out and the Chu and Han armies fight fiercely. An energetic finale marks the victory of Liu Bang.

The Battle of Gaixia was a turning point in China’s history. For the previous eight years, political chaos reigned while various leaders fought for power after the death of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Upon his death, Qin Shi Huang was buried with a giant terra cotta army made up of more than 8,000 soldiers, but during his lifetime he worked to connect and strengthen a series of border walls that eventually became known as the Great Wall of China. Work on the wall continued after Liu Bang and the Han Dynasty came to power. The 400-plus year rule of the Han Dynasty also coincided with notable inventions like paper, the suspension bridge, the wheelbarrow and the seismograph. Learn more about the terra cotta warriors and the Great Wall of China with lessons from TedEd.

Yellow River Piano Concerto

A team of composers wrote the Yellow River Piano Concerto, which was based on an older work called the Yellow River Cantata, in 1970. In the piano concerto’s first movement, The Song of the Yellow River Boatman, listen for the sounds of river waves and workers singing together. See if you can picture the landscape surrounding the river in the second movement, Ode to the Yellow River, which aims to honor the scenery as well as the accomplishments of the Chinese people. Though the river is sometimes celebrated as “The Cradle of Chinese Civilization” because of its storied place in history, it can also wreak havoc when it floods, hence the third movement’s title, The Wrath of the Yellow River. Finally, the fourth movement, Defend the Yellow River, celebrates China and its government with quotes from the Chinese national anthem and “The Internationale,” a Communist anthem.

At 3,395 miles, the Yellow River is China’s second-longest river and the sixth-longest river in the world. Its name and its color come from the large amount of yellow sediment carried by the water. The Yellow River flows through many regions of China, from the mountains in the west to the sea in the east. If you would like to learn more about the food and culture of China’s different regions, Fei recommends watching A Bite of China, a three-season documentary series available on YouTube. Fei also suggests watching the movie Together (He Ni Zai Yi Qi), a tale of a 13-year-old violin prodigy who shows incredible dedication and perseverance when he and his father move to Beijing to support his dream of becoming a successful violinist. Although the film does not appear to be available for streaming now, you can watch the Together trailer on YouTube and look for a copy at your local library.

What do you want to know about China? Think of three questions to which you'd like to learn the answers and continue exploring. National Geographic Kids and PBS Kids are both great starting points for making more discoveries!

Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto

He Zhanhao (b. 1933) and Chen Gang (b. 1935) wrote The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto in 1959. It is based on a legend and features a solo violin as Zhu Yingtai, the heroine, with a cello playing her lover Liang Shanbo.

The tale takes place many centuries ago. Zhu wanted an education, but because girls were not allowed to attend school, she had to pretend to be a boy. During her three years at school, she fell in love with her classmate and best friend Liang. When Liang visited Zhu at home and discovered she was a girl, he fell in love with her too. There was just one problem; Zhu’s father had already arranged for her to marry another man. Unable to marry Zhu, Liang died of a broken heart. When Zhu visited his grave, it burst open and she jumped in. The pair flew out as butterflies and began a new life together.

If you like folk tales like this, try finding a book at your local library. Two popular recent adaptations of traditional stories include Treasury of Chinese Folk Tales: Beloved Myths and Legends From the Middle Kingdom and Chinese Myths and Legends: The Monkey King and Other Adventures, both by Chinese-American author Shelley Fu. You might also enjoy the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s interpretation of Nian the Beast: A Lunar New Year Story. After learning the legend explaining the origins of the holiday, come to Orchestra Hall on Friday, February 12, 2021, to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the Minnesota Orchestra and welcome The Year of the Ox. We hope to see you then!

Minnesota Orchestra at Home

Find more educational activities, playlists and at-home performances from the Minnesota Orchestra musicians on our new webpage!




  • This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
    This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
  • Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra
    Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra