In 1934, writer/director Wu Yonggang’s silent film Shénnǚ (The Goddess) was released in China. Critically praised and popular among audiences, it was and remains an exemplar of China’s first cinematic golden age. The tale’s favor endured long after its release.
Yet, some three decades after its premiere, Yonggang’s film was effectively written out of Chinese history. The 1966 Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, did not look favorably upon a story with a prostitute as its lead character. As a result, subsequent generations barely knew of its existence, much less found any opportunity to see the work.
Such was the case for Asheville-based musician Min Xiao-Fen, who moved to Western North Carolina in 2020. Born and raised in China, Min says she was unaware of the film until the 1990s, after leaving her native country.
Decades since her discovery of The Goddess, Min’s fascination with the forbidden tale has resulted in White Lotus, an original score for the film. The album debuts Friday, June 25. Min will celebrate with a live performance set to the film at The Orange Peel on Wednesday, June 30, at 8 p.m.
Prior to immigrating to the United States in 1992, Min performed as a soloist with the Nanjing National Music Orchestra for over a decade. Her primary instrument was and remains the pipa, a plucked, four-stringed traditional Chinese instrument dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.).
Upon her arrival in the U.S., Min developed an intense obsession with popular culture — past and present — due to previous restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. In addition to working with artists across multiple disciplines and genres — including Chen Yi, Carl Stone, John Zorn and Björk — Min discovered the work of Buck Clayton. A jazz trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra, Clayton was responsible for introducing Kansas City swing to 1930s Shanghai.
Through her research into the bygone era, Min uncovered The Goddess. She was moved by its realistic depictions and characterizations, and the lyrical beauty of the silent onscreen images.
Copies of the film circulate illicitly in China, but even today, says Min, “you don’t see [The Goddess] officially” there. According to the musician, a story about a gangster forcing a woman into a life of prostitution is still considered “a little bit too pornographic” for the Chinese government.
Music and silence
Like White Lotus, Min’s previous five albums have forged connections between seemingly different aesthetics. For example, her 2017 album, Mao, Monk and Me celebrated the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk by interpreting the American jazz legend’s works using traditional Chinese instrumentation.
Against that backdrop, White Lotus seems a natural step. Accompanied by jazz guitarist and 2021 Guggenheim Fellow Rez Abbasi, Min plays pipa, guqin (a stringed bass instrument) and ruan (a Chinese banjolike instrument), with occasional vocals. She explains that while she composed the suite of songs as a modern-day accompaniment to the silent film, the album versions of the 12 pieces are designed to stand on their own.
But there’s something extra special about experiencing the original compositions in the context of a screening of The Goddess, says Min. “With a film,” she explains, “you can’t play whole pieces.” Some scenes, for example, are too short and require only brief excerpts of a song; others are more complex and require restraint.
As an example of the latter, Min points to a key scene in The Goddess, featuring the unnamed protagonist defending herself against the gangster. “She grabs a bottle. And the moment she hits the guy’s head, I decided: silence,” says Min. “Just let the action speak.”
Several seconds go by. When the man falls to the ground, dead, the music starts again.
Min smiles. “You can’t do that on an album,” she says.
WHO: Min Xiao-Fen with Rez Abbasi, White Lotus album release
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Wednesday, June 30, at 8 p.m. $10 advance, $12 day of show