Arizona Museum Debuts Exhibition of Rare Chinese Musical Instruments

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by Savannah Shih

A set of ancient Chinese instruments has arrived in the United States for a special showcase at an Arizona museum. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix debuted its new exhibition highlighting these rare artifacts in March. The exhibit marks the first time these instruments will be displayed in the United States. The display was made possible by a collaboration between the Arizona museum and the Henan Museum, a national Chinese museum in Henan Province. The oldest instruments in the collection are tiny bone flutes made 9,000 years ago, while the exhibit also features 2,600-year-old bronze bells and 2,000-year-old ceramic figures of musicians and dancers. From these ancient works, the exhibition traces the history of China’s musical culture, highlighting each major period through the 20th century.

Aside from these new musical links, China and Arizona share significant cultural exchange. Arizona shares six sister city partnerships with Chinese cities, including one between Phoenix and Chengdu. The new museum exhibit will also likely draw Chinese tourists to the state, whose numbers surpassed those of European visitors last year. The Grand Canyon National Park, another huge tourist draw, is a sister park of Mount Yuntai National Nature Reserve in Henan.

Meanwhile, music has been a part of US-China relations since the normalization of ties in 1979, when an American violinist visited China for a series of concerts and master classes. The popularity of Chinese music continues to surge in the United States, further linking the two countries. Traditional Chinese orchestras have performed in states like Iowa, Illinois and New York, before embarking on US tours. Chinese artifacts have a similar history of warm reception by US audiences and have been featured at numerous museums. A Virginia museum showcased a collection of artifacts from the Forbidden City in 2014, while the Sanxingdui relics of Chengdu appeared at museums in California and Texas in 2015. Such music and art exchanges continue to serve as instruments of diplomacy between the two countries, providing a significant foundation for US-China ties today.

Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.