Chinese sanxian

‘Notes accompanying this very well-made instrument tell us that this sanxian was bought in Johannesburg where it had been “used in the time of Chinese labour on the Rand”. At some stage, the neck was broken and repaired with fine woven brass and copper wire in a way that recalls contemporary Zulu baskets woven from brightly coloured telephone wire, and the repair marks it as South African. The wire weaving now forms a splint around the neck of this instrument. The sanxian (literally ‘three strings’) is a precursor of the Japanese samishen. It consists of snakeskin-covered body, neck and three strings. It is used by storytellers and in Beijing opera performances, a form of traditional Chinese theatre which arose in the late 18th century, and combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, martial arts and acrobatics. We have three of these instruments from different parts of China all collected in Johannesburg. This sanxian marks the absence of the early 20th-century Chinese migrant labourers to South Africa, because, as many will know, they were sent back to China in 1910 by the newly formed Union of South Africa driven by xenophobic ‘yellow peril’ instincts that were in keeping with the wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that spread across the Western world in the early 1900s. Chinese immigration was banned under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904. These instruments suggest that there must have been Chinese music clubs active in early Johannesburg. Later a Chinese opera company visited Johannesburg in the 1920s and Kirby might have acquired one or two instruments from them too.’

– Michael Nixon