Video: Former Mandarin Major Now Builds US-China Relations With a Banjo

Abigail Washburn at Asia Society's National Chinese Language Conference in Los Angeles on May 8, 2014.

She assumed the audience wouldn't get her, at first. After a mesmerizing, a cappella rendering of the traditional American hymn “Bright Morning Stars,” she quipped: "You’re probably thinking to yourself right now: 'This girl really likes old American music. What is she doing here?'”

Indeed, could the 1,200 Chinese language educators and supporters in the room have guessed that this banjo-playing artist on stage in front of them is as comfortable opening her mouth to recite a poem in Mandarin as she is belting out an American folk song? Probably not. But when Abigail Washburn (a TED Fellow and NPR favorite) plucked the first string of her claw-hammer banjo and sang her first note, it wouldn't have mattered if her songs were in Latin. Her powerful words reached every ear, her music moved many hearts, and soon we were rapt, hanging on to every word of her story.

As a student in the late 1990s, Washburn majored in east Asian studies and Mandarin, spent time in China, and was soon ready to pursue a degree in international law at Beijing University. But then she encountered American bluegrass music, unearthed a new talent, and auspiciously rerouted her career. Now a fixture on the Nashville music scene, she has since toured in China and frequently collaborates with Chinese and American musicians, in addition to performing solo and with her husband, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Speaking at the National Chinese Language Conference in May, Washburn regaled the audience with her earliest experiences in China, her discovery of American bluegrass, and her eventual fusion of both worlds.

Demonstrating that she has been a student not only in China but also in her home country, Washburn gave us a lesson in the history of her instrument and traditional American music. Living in China and learning the language was in fact the catalyst for her deep immersion into this aspect of American culture: "If it wasn’t for China, I wouldn’t know any of this about America. If it wasn’t for China, I wouldn’t have found out what I think is so beautiful about my own country."

Now Washburn works to share American music in China and Chinese music in the U.S., to distill the common beauty within both traditions. She has said that she hopes "cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence.” She told us: "I’ve toured China probably 14, maybe 15 times, and I’ve collaborated with hundreds of musicians, Chinese musicians, and I’ve seen the power of music to transform. I’ve seen the power of music to change people’s hearts, and therefore change their minds."

Washburn tells her story so much better than I can. Watch and listen.

About the Author

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Eleise Jones is Assistant Director of Content and Digital Strategy for Education at Asia Society.