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December 27, 2009

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Thai princess shows a royal love for China and science

THAI Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol is talented. Not only is she an award-winning scientist, but she is also an accomplished musician with a passion for the Chinese instrument guzheng. Her recent Shanghai performance delighted fans, Yao Minji reports.

The world has plenty of royal families who perform various functions and support numerous good causes in their respective countries.

But, perhaps, there are few royals as intriguing as Thai Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol. She is an award-winning scientist working to find a cure for cancer, a cultural ambassador between Thailand and China and also an accomplished musician. Her favorite instrument is the Chinese zither, known as the guzheng, and she is the only royal in the world who can play it.

The 52-year-old princess has recently stopped in Shanghai to perform with a full symphony orchestra at Shanghai Oriental Art Center in Pudong New Area.

Mahidol's passion for the melodious guzheng started 10 years ago while she was on a cruise along the Lijiang River in Guilin City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"I was attracted to the guzheng at first sight," she tells Shanghai Daily in an exclusive interview after the concert. "It's such an exotic instrument. The shape and the sound of the guzheng are both unique and it conveys the rich culture of China."

At that time she was already a concert pianist, having learned the piano from the age of five.

The princess is the youngest daughter of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Her latest official visit to China began on December 12. The two-week trip included three performances, one in Beijing, another in Guangdong Province and, of course, one here in Shanghai.

The performance, her second in Shanghai after one seven years ago, was called "Thailand and China: Two Lands One Heart Concert."

The repertoire includes five songs including "Clouds Underneath the Moon" and "Yi Tribe Dancing Song," which is a sweet melody and one of her favorites. "Thailand and China: Two Lands One Heart" is the night's theme song and was written specifically for the concert.

The other two songs are new to the princess. One is "Thai Tribe," an ancient Thai song rearranged for guzheng and a symphony orchestra, while "Spring in Lhasa" is a fine example of Tibetan music.

Mahidol says she always feels a little nervous when performing in China.

"It is definitely a lot of pressure for me to perform guzheng in China since it is a Chinese instrument," says the princess, who will also give a guzheng concert next month in Thailand. "So I tried my best to play it well."

Perhaps she has no reason to feel such stage fright as the audience on this occasion truly enjoyed the show.

The princess started learning the instrument from a skilled teacher from Lanzhou City, Gansu Province soon after she returned to Thailand after that trip to Guilin a decade ago. She says she squeezed time from her packed schedule to study the sophisticated techniques required to master the guzheng. When she first started, she often spent three hours on the instrument every day, the princess recalls.

Over the years, her interest in the instrument has never faded although she has had less time to practice. When she received a Chinese government invitation to perform in March, she says she hadn't practiced for two years. She considered the opportunity to perform a good excuse to begin practicing again. Mahidol says she practiced three to five hours a day since accepting the invitation to perform in China. She also came in November to rehearse with the orchestra.

Her keen interest in the instrument means the guzheng is the most recognized Chinese instrument among Thai people.

"My whole family is interested in music," the princess says. "I was born with an interest in music. When I get stressed from my science research, playing the guzheng can help me relax. On the other hand, when I get bored from practicing, my research adds color to my life."

The princess is a professor of chemistry and toxicology. She joined the faculty of Mahidol University in Bangkok in 1985.

Her special research interest lies in cancer treatment. The princess is working on identifying active elements in Thai herbs that can fight cancer because "it is now the No. 1 killer in Thailand."

She has received various awards for her work as a scientist including UNESCO's Einstein Gold Medal and most recently, the Windaus Medal from the German Chemical Society and the University of Georg.

Mahidol says she puts her research ahead of her artistic pursuits because she needs to be organized due to her packed schedule that also includes royal duties.

The princess is also the president of Chulabhorn Research Institute, which was named in her honor. Its mission is to "utilize science and technology to improve quality of life."

The institute plays a key role in bringing together Thai scientists from around the country to collaborate on projects. The Bangkok-based institute also seeks funding and scientific exchanges with international organizations.

The princess says she is lucky that her parents have always been supportive of her interest in science.

"My parents have always wanted me to become a scientist because science and technology have significant roles in the development of a country," she says. "I was encouraged to enter the field by my parents and they have been very supportive of my research."

A frequent visitor to China, the princess has also brought Thai scientists from the Chulabhorn Research Institute for exchange programs in China. Visiting cancer hospitals and research institutes have always been a part of her visits here.

Besides her royal duties and activities, the princess gives regular lectures in chemistry and toxicology at various universities. As her research and classes come first, she spends most of her time preparing for classes. And she says she is glad to be treated as a "normal" professor by students and colleagues.

Of course, her duties as a royal also require her attention and she goes out of her way to make time for various charity projects.

Mahidol has recently become chairperson of the Princess Mother's Medical Volunteer Foundation, a project that offers free medical care for people in Thailand's rural areas, especially in remote border regions.

The project covers 51 provinces and the princess plans to visit every one of them within two years.

For the talented princess, trips to China also give her a chance to indulge.

She says she always looks to add to her guzheng collection, which now totals seven, when she visits China.

The Ancient Guzheng

Guzheng is a traditional Chinese instrument with a history dating back more than 2,500 years.

The instrument usually has movable bridges and 21 strings and a variety of techniques are used to create its unique sound.

Its name translates as ancient zither although it is often referred to as the "oriental piano."

The guzheng's melodious sound is said to have inspired many wise men throughout history.

The instrument is difficult to master and a lack of skilled teachers means fewer young people are learning to play the guzheng these days.

Many often confuse the guzheng with guqin, which is a zither with less strings that gives a deeper sound.


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