Chinese tones

Updated: 2013-04-07 11:49

By Li Aoxue (China Daily)

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Her interest sparked by Mandarin classes at a Confucius institute in Nairobi, Ruth Njeri found her way to a singing appearance on one of China's most popular TV shows. Li Aoxue sits down for the whole story.

Ruth Njeri's first taste of public singing came at the age of 6 as leader of a children's choir in her homeland Kenya. It was a small taste of what was to come. The young Njeri would go on to become one of the first Africans to sing on stage at China Central Television's annual Spring Festival gala show, chunwan.

Chinese tones

Ruth Njeri has developed an interest in traditional Chinese singing and painting. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

"I love singing as it brings happiness when I perform," Njeri says. "But to sing on the stage at chunwan could become my lifetime memory as I know not too many people can have the opportunity."

Chunwan began in 1983 and has become an event watched by families across the country on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year. "It has become quite internationalized year by year - this year they even had Celine Dion," Njeri says.

She recalls the event being packed with performers - many of whom became her friends - and having the atmosphere of a traditional festival.

"I know Spring Festival is one of the most important festivals in China, and no matter how far people live away from their hometown, they go back to reunite with their family."

Families celebrate holidays in much the same way in Kenya, says Njeri, whose hometown is Nairobi.

"We have about 50 people for the celebration," she says.

Njeri, 27, is in the second year of a postgraduate degree in international relations at Tianjin Normal University.

She arrived in China in June 2006, after coming first in a Chinese government-organized language competition in Kenya called Hanyuqiao. Her reward was funding from the Chinese government to study in Tianjin.

"We know little about this country compared with Western countries such as the US and UK, so China was very mysterious to me.

"I found many Chinese enterprises were established in Kenya, and some traditional Chinese hospitals have begun to operate," she says.

She pursued her interest in China by taking Mandarin classes at the Confucius Institute in Nairobi.

"It was quite crowded the first day, but because of the difficulty of Chinese, only 20 of 60 participants stayed until the last class."

Njeri's patience and persistence in learning Mandarin paid off in April 2006 when Hu Jintao, then China's president, visited Kenya. Because of her progress in Chinese, she was selected from the Confucius Institute to meet him.

"I was quite nervous meeting him, and I heard my voice trembling while talking to him. He is actually a nice person who is very approachable and likes to chat with young people."

Njeri completed her studies at Nairobi's Confucius Institute in June that year and moved to China to pursue a degree in language and literature at Tianjin Normal University a month later.

Chinese tones

Njeri sang with leading folk music artist Li Guyi in this year's CCTV Spring Festival Gala show. Ruth Njeri has developed an interest in traditional Chinese singing and painting. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

"I didn't know much before I came here. I thought every girl wore a qipao every day," she says.

With an image of China shaped by a documentary on traditional buildings and martial-arts movies, Njeri was surprised by the country's level of modernity. Seven years on she is now more like a local and has developed interests in traditional Chinese painting and singing.

"I love Chinese traditional painting as I consider it as an elegant thing. The process of doing it is quite peaceful and different from other painting that requires a lot of color. Traditional Chinese paintings can be done with only three tools - writing brushes, an ink stick and xuan paper."

Njeri also appreciates the restrained and graceful style of Chinese folk singing.

"I like singing as I was influenced by my grandma, who is a lively person and quite good at singing," she says. "I remember when I was a child, I was brought by my grandma to sing in the church every Sunday."

Despite her interest in singing and her performance at chunwan, Njeri has no plans to make singing a career.

"It would be under a lot of pressure if I wanted to become famous as a singer, but right now I am quite relaxed and enjoy it as a hobby as I consider people ask me to do something I love."

When her studies end in July, Njeri plans to return to Kenya. In the long term, she hopes to return to China to develop an African street in Beijing where people can experience African food, culture and entertainment.

She also hopes to work in some capacity to connect China and Africa. "Many foreigners in China say they would like to become a bridge to connect two countries, but we need to understand our own culture and Chinese culture in depth," she says. "I have not been home for seven years, and I need to go back and catch up. "

Contact the writer at liaoxue@chinadaily.com.cn.

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