Xiao Dong Wei’s Livonia Home Is a Celebration of Music and Chinese Culture

Known for her playing of the ancient Chinese instrument known as the erhu, among others, Xiao Dong Wei has carried on a musical tradition in her family that goes back generations.

The Artist Next Door illuminates and celebrates Detroit area artists from a variety of cultural backgrounds and disciplines to enhance awareness and understanding of our communities and cultures.

Erik Paul Howard
Erik Paul Howard

The sound of an ancient Chinese instrument gently filling the home of Xiao Dong Wei is a typical morning for this Livonia-based master musician.

She has many instruments to choose from, but today she’s playing the guzheng in her practice room. It’s the Chinese version of a zither, a type of stringed instrument attached to a thin, wooden body. The strings can be plucked or strummed or played with a bow.

“I called it the grand piano room before I actually had a grand piano in this room before,” says Wei, who lectures at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The entire room is covered with musical instruments. Some of them are more recognizable in the Western world like an acoustic guitar or an electric bass. Most of them, however, are more traditionally Chinese like the pipa, which is often referred to as the Chinese lute.

While she can play all of them, what she is known for is playing the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle.

She says her Chinese neighbors know what she does for a living, but the others on her suburban block? “Probably not,” says Wei, whose lifelong love of music has turned into a successful career.

Along with her teaching gig, she was selected for a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the performing arts in 2012, one of the highest honors for area musicians. She’s performed as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Listen: Xiao Dong Wei performs an array of ancient Chinese instruments in her Livonia home.

Wei says she has been training as a musician since she was 5 years old, performing in front of massive crowds back home in China, where she spent her teen years studying as a musical conservatory.

“There’s one photo of me performing in a stadium,” says Wei. “You can see the people in the background.”

Erik Paul Howard
Erik Paul Howard

Music runs in the blood of Wei’s family. There was plenty of opportunity for the young musician to perform thanks to her father, who organized entertainment for the worker’s union in China.

“My dad plays many instruments. That made a big difference for me to be able to touch other instruments and see my dad doing that. It opened my mind,” says Wei. “My grandfather worked in a temple and with his brother, they played music there.”

Carrying on that musical tradition has served as a major inspiration for her over the years.

“What’s important for us is to make our parents proud all of our life even without realizing it,” says Wei. “Our parents and our mentors, too. The third one? That would be your audience.”

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host of "In the Groove" on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.