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In Side Out (秀外慧中): A fusion of east and west

Mark Levne (L) and Fu Han (R) with Ji Xiaojun, famous CCTV anchor in his program Crossover for introducing traditional Chinese musical instruments in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of Fu Han

When I first met Mark Levine (马克力文) at the Peking University where he was presiding a lecture series on “Foreigners in Chinese Revolution”, the 65-year-old American impressed me as a devoted college professor, being serious, enlightening and attentive to every small question his students had.

After the lecture, Fu Han (傅涵), a charming young lady with professional appearance, came to me and introduced herself as Mark Levine’s performing agent, and through her, I got to know the other side of the man’s life—a rising performing artist who has been to hundreds of live shows including the Avenue of Stars (星光大道), one of the most popular TV programs in the Chinese mainland.

“American country music is Levine’s life-long love, so he never stops playing guitar and composing tunes,” said Fu, a registered performing arts agent who received a Master’s degree in cultural event planning from the Renmin University. At the same time, she also expressed her own love for music, “Having grown up in a musician’s family, I love everything related to Chinese traditional musical genres.” 

It seems the duo have done a good team work because Mark has risen all the way from an obscure performer to the status of “Almost Famous” and is known to the Chinese people who are into American country ballads. But by working together, they have achieved more than just that. 

A good partnership

Several months later, I met the two at a pizza house near Minzu University where Mark works as an English teacher, to interview them as a vocal duo named as “In Side Out 秀外慧中”.

“I play er-hu (二胡) and Mark play guitar, and we can both do vocals,” Fu said. Actually they have been invited to some really big events like the widely-known Zhangjiajie International Music Festival featuring folk music of different nationalities.

“I like the idea of mixing the east and west. It becomes something different—a new kind of music that could be quite enticing,” said Levine, who has lived in China for eight years, “My living experiences in China bring me inspiration. In America, I composed two or three tunes without lyrics per year. Very few had lyrics as I could not think of what to say for lyrics; but in China, I have composed over 60 songs, and I always feel the urge to share my experiences and feelings through music.”  

Levine and Fu have worked on some new and old tunes composed by Levine, and the result is a perfect union of soothing western-style guitar balladeering with the poetic naturalness of Chinese minority folk traditions. As Levine put it, “The crisp western guitar and melodious two-stringed er-hu could create layers of harmony that amuse and delight.”  

Levine and Fu got to know each other in the spring of 2007. And since their first encounter at Minzu University campus, the two became loyal friends to each other quickly and then established the later cooperative relationship.

“He is a musician, and I was at the time in the program for a Master’s degree in cultural events planning. When I graduated, he asked if I would you like to be my agent, and I thought why not, considering he’s such a talented musician,” Fu recalled, confiding that, in fact, she wanted to become a performer herself.

Fu grew up in a family of music-lovers who have gathered a collection of all kinds of traditional Chinese musical instruments. “I began to play er-hu when I was four, although I actually like all kinds of traditional instruments like cucurbit flute (葫芦丝) or zhongruan (中阮).” According to Fu, she and Levine appeared Crossover, an English TV program anchored by Ji Xiaojun (季小军) in 2011. They appeared on a program to introduce some kinds of traditional musical instruments rarely known to both foreigners and Chinese. And when Levine was on stage for the Avenue of Stars, Fu acted as his er-hu accompaniment.

True love for China 

Levine began to learn playing guitar from a friend of his mother when he was only nine. “One year later, she told me there was nothing she could teach, and I started to further learn from another teacher, also a family friend. When I was 16, I became a guitar teacher myself,” recalled Levine, “People may say ‘I used to play guitar’, but for me, I never stopped playing guitar and it’s been over 40 years.”

After he moved to China in 2005, music became more important than ever for him, because through music, he gets to communicate with people about his Chinese experiences. “My Lovely Asian Eyes”, “Mood from the Chinese Countryside”, “Don't Forget the Migrant Workers”, “Beijing Winds”…all the songs help him share stories about living in the unique oriental country which used to be alien but now a home for him. 

According to Levine, his Chinese experiences always bring him inspiration. “My country ballads tell the story of China, about the places I’ve been, people I’ve met, things I’ve seen, events that are happening and problems that exist. There are funny ones, serious ones, love stories, happy stories, unhappy things…”

China is his source of inspiration. “I agreed to write a book about my experiences in China for the New World Press (新世界出版社). The book is not about me, but about China and Chinese people. I’ve met different people here—some are quite famous, while some are common people from all walks of life, including migrant workers or farmers,” said Levine, who agreed that China and its people would remain a draw for him for the rest of his life.  

Levine said he used to be a shy person. “My students in China have a hard time believing it. And actually, if I was still the person I used to be, I would not come to China. Now, I’m constantly learning and becoming a different person, because I always know, by being shy, you are going to miss a lot of opportunities,” Levine said, “So, in my late 30s, I decided to change.”

“First thing you have to do is to decide that you want to change. Then you have to fight with yourself everyday for the rest of your life to stick to that commitment. Tell yourself, ‘no, that used to be me—but not anymore’,” said Levine, who is now leading an exciting life in China, his arena for being a more real and better self.

In the end, I asked, “Would you feel tired by all the challenges you need to face in China?”

“I get tired when I stop,” he answered, “ I feel happy now every day I could wake up to have a lot to do.” 

Levine told me he has a wonderful son, a great daughter-in-law and a loving grandson. “I   enjoy the time I get to spend with them. We talk every one or two weeks online and they would pay me occasional visits here in China,” he said, “I don't sit around feeling bad that we are not together all the time, because the focus of my life is to start by appreciating all the good things I have including a good family. Often people focus on what they don't have. That is not me.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fu Han (By Liu Kai)

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