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A small lineage of artisans is reviving the ancient art of pigeon whistles in Beijing

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Forget dogs and cats - the pigeon is a beloved pet in China. And for centuries, owners tied lightweight whistles to their birds. But as cities grew, the spectral music these instruments produced nearly died out. NPR's Emily Feng reports on a small lineage of artisans bringing the ancient art of pigeon whistles back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGEON WINGS FLAPPING)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Master craftsman Zhang Baotong is too old these days for the nimble craftsmanship demanded of pigeon whistles, but he still keeps a robust flock of the birds on his central Beijing rooftop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGEONS FLUTTERING)

FENG: For many a Chinese man, keeping pigeons is a lifelong love. For Zhang, his love began in the 1950s thanks to a neighbor.

ZHANG BAOTONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says his neighbor was Tao Zuowen, one of the eight Qing Dynasty pigeon whistle masters. Tao was a learned man and had beautiful calligraphy, so Zhang practiced his brushwork with him. It was during these lessons that Zhang became obsessed with the bamboo and gourd pigeon whistles Master Tao made, which today can cost a devoted collector thousands of dollars a pair. Master Tao, a devoted Buddhist, never married nor had any children, so he eagerly took on Zhang as his apprentice. Zhang shows me the round pumpkin-shaped bamboo whistles that were Master Tao's signature design.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

FENG: Zhang blows across the narrow slits of bone protruding from the whistle's main body, just like reeds from a bagpipe. These whistles are tied to a pigeons back, and they're played when the wind rushes across them. Another common type of whistle looks a lot like a pan pipe, with two to five reeds bound together.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

FENG: In general, the more reeds you can fit onto a single lightweight whistle, the harder it is to make and the more treasured that whistle is.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Zhang says when he was a younger man, pigeon whistles were ubiquitous. Raising pigeons was also serious business. A family was judged by the pedigree of their pigeons and the quality of their whistles. The hobby dates back to the 10th century. Legend has it, the whistles were first used by ancient militaries to send coded messages before they became a pastime closely associated with traditional Beijing culture. That made them a target when the Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Zhang says he helped a neighbor smuggle hundreds of valuable whistles to a safe place, and his family was also among those persecuted in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. He describes how young communist supporters called Red Guards confiscated his family home and ransacked it, literally digging into its foundations, looking for evidence of alleged political treachery. But in the last four decades, the whistles have made a comeback.

COLIN CHINNERY: There's still a lot of traditional culture alive in the city.

FENG: This is Colin Chinnery, an artist who spent some of his childhood in Beijing.

CHINNERY: It's not like in a museum or in a concert hall. It's actually in the city. You can see them in the parks. You can see them in the corners of the city, like next to a busy street.

FENG: Chinnery co-founded Fen Sonic, a new sound museum opening in Beijing, and he has a fondness for the melancholic trill of pigeon whistles.

CHINNERY: However, they are in the process of disappearing, and mostly not because the culture is irrelevant or too old or these people are dying out. It's not true. It's not time yet. It's mostly because of regulations.

FENG: Regulations aimed at urban noise control. But at the top of his new museum, Chinnery has asked master craftsman Zhang to build a pigeon coop, and each day the museum will put on a performance of whistles.

CHINNERY: So even though the sound of pigeon whistles has all but disappeared from the Beijing soundscape, if you come to Fen Sonic, then you can hear it on a daily basis.

FENG: But the museum isn't opening until next year, so to hear a full chorus of whistles in action, I had to leave Beijing and drive into the Karst Mountains of nearby Hebei Province to visit one of Master Zhang's apprentices.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLES BLOWING, WINGS FLAPPING)

FENG: Hou Chunlin, age 68, is by now a master craftsman, too.

HOU CHUNLIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he's been making whistles for more than 50 years, first carving them as a hobby while traveling on the road as part of a state song and dance troupe. Then he apprenticed with Master Zhang, and now he's taken on more than 10 apprentices of his own. Whereas Master Zhang, a former engineer, brought an exacting level of precision to his whistles, Master Hou is a brass musician, so he prioritizes the quality of their sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

FENG: And he brings a musician's ear to his craft.

HOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Every flock is like an orchestra, he says. You need a bass, a woodwind section, the blare of trumpets and the higher pitches of flutes. Then he carefully ties the lightweight whistles onto the back feathers of six pigeons and shoos them up into the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGEON WINGS FLAPPING)

FENG: They catch a breeze.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLES BLOWING)

FENG: And they circle higher and higher, their wings flapping in perfect unison. And the haunting, wavering notes of their whistles fill the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLES BLOWING)

FENG: Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.