The story appears on

Page B1 - B2

July 5, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Guqin - the art of life

IN ancient times, mastering the guqin was one of the four accomplishments of a refined man, and one of the modern masters, Pei Jinbao, carries on the tradition. He speaks to Wang Yong of simple living and celestial harmonies.

You couldn't tell me apart from the farmers if I were in a field, nor could you tell me from the workers if I were in a factory," says Pei Jinbao, one of China's most distinguished masters of its most revered musical instrument, the guqin (plucked seven-string Chinese zither).

Pei, unlike many maestros who put on airs, is unaffected, gently joking about himself as he welcomed me and my wife to his home by Stone Lake in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, two weeks ago.

Wearing a pair of cloth shoes, simple clothes and a radiant smile, 57-year-old Pei impressed us (both merely guqin beginners) as a humble and honest uncle, rather than a famous and much sought-after musician. We had never interviewed Pei, head of the Wu Society of Guqin, but he graciously shared his time and his thoughts.

In Chinese, guqin literally means "ancient qin," but in ancient China, it was simply called qin, a musical instrument Confucius and latter-day Confucian scholars would play in meditation.

It is said the guqin has a spirit and can be angry or pleased; it's shaped like a person, with head, body and foot, and some ancient masters slept with their guqin beside them.

In 1986, Wu Zhaoji (1908-1997), a professor of math and a guru of guqin and tai chi, launched the society together with his favorite student Pei and other friends.

"Wu" is both the family name of Wu Zhaoji and the old name of the area around what is now Suzhou.

For Wu, his offspring and his disciples, guqin is an art of life, not a mere musical instrument.

To them, guqin is a musical carrier of the traditional Chinese wenren spirit of integrity, simplicity and humility.

As I wrote earlier ("Guqin musicians seek peaceful state of mind," Shanghai Daily opinion, May 17), wenren has no corresponding term in English.

The convenient translations as "man of letters," "literati" or "intellectual" don't capture wenren's connotation of a refined man who never assumes airs.

So simple and humble is Pei that even one of his students once mistook him for a factory painter.

Pei owns a family-run elevator company and mainly overseas its painting workshop.

One day, a student who had never met Pei before went to visit him in his factory while he was dressed in ordinary work clothes and busy painting.

"When he saw me, he asked me who was Pei Jinbao," Pei recalls with merriment. "He was really shocked when I told him I was."

That's typical Pei, modest and down to earth. "I never buy branded clothes," Pei says. "They're not in my blood."

Nor are they in the blood of his daughter, Pei Qinzi (qinzi literally meaning "child of guqin").

Born in 1988, she has been immersed in the simple pleasure of qin qi shu hua (guqin, go, calligraphy and painting), the four skills of a person of refinement. At times, she helps her father in the family business.

"In a way, she lives in a wealthy family, but I've never seen her flaunting wealth like many other fu er dai (rich second generation) people of her age," says Wu Mingtao, grandson of Wu Zhaoji and a rising star of guqin.

Pei Qinzi began to perform Peking Opera at age 6 and guqin at age 8.

"When she was only 5 or 6 years old, she would weep upon hearing me singing and playing "Yang Guan San Die," a guqin song adapted from a famous Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poem about farewell to a dear friend," recalls Pei. "She could even pick up from where I stopped. From that I knew she was in it for life."

On May 21, the father and the daughter duet performed "Yang Guan San Die" at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center to a packed auditorium. Their mild and magnetic voices took me back to a bygone world of friendship between gentlemen.

The mild and gracious manner of Pei Qinzi as a daughter and an artist has a lot to do with her family education on art and life.


Contrary to education in a conservatory where students learn music theory, history and how to reproduce melodies, a traditional family school often requires a student to reflect the spirit of his or her own in performance.

In the Wu Society of Guqin, schooling is one-on-one. A student sits face-to-face with a master and mimics his finger movements bit by bit. No notation is available because reading music would only distract from a student's ability to catch the spirit of his teacher.

"My father appreciated tranquillity, so he prefers to pluck a string inward rather than flick it," says Wu Guangtong, the son of Wu Zhaoji and vice president of the Wu Society of Guqin. "It's half nail and half flesh if you pluck a string, and that makes a soft sound. It's all hard nail if you flick a string."

By contrast with some guqin players who move with the music and perform with grand gestures and flourishes, Pei and others of the Wu school are absolutely still, their hands moving economically.

Notations, especially Western notations, do not help in learning guqin, Pei says, adding that they fail utterly to catch the free and flexible finger movements of a master.

Mimicking finger movements of a master is just one mark of traditional one-on-one guqin education."Guqin is a great accomplishment, far beyond a few melodies," Pei says. "Traditionally, people learn guqin for four reasons: self-entertainment, making friends, demonstrating one's abilities and simply reflecting in quiet."

So it's part of life, or indeed, an art of life.

On the first Sunday of every month, the Wu Society organizes a yaji or refined party in the Yi Garden built in the 19th century. "Everyone is welcome to play in the party, whether or not they're from the Wu Society," Pei says.

On the third Sunday of every month, the Wu Society organizes a meeting in another venue where guqin lovers talk over tea about guqin and life.

"On both occasions, it's tan qin," Pei explains. In Chinese, "play" and "talk" are both pronounced as tan. In Pei's words, regular tan qin is a wenren way of life, in which guqin culture survives and thrives over thousands of years.

"You can't promote guqin culture by shouting slogans," Pei says. "As you tan qin, you unconsciously carry on guqin traditions, much like an earthworm unconsciously softens hard soil while burrowing for food."

Pei Qinzi is lucky to have been born into Pei's family. What she learns about guqin is far more than an average student does in an ivory tower. The regular activity tan qin is unique to the Wu Society of Guqin.

"I had never thought of learning guqin until I met master Pei," says Gu Ying, a young policeman from Wuxi, a city near Suzhou. "With master Pei, I learn not only how to play guqin, but also how to be a good person. He's an example of simplicity and humility."

Gu began to learn guqin with Pei around 2006. "My job as a policeman is demanding, but whenever I get here (Pei's home), I feel soothed," he says. "It really doesn't matter how well you can play, what matters is the process of learning, which is a way of life."

In Gu's view, the traditional Chinese wenren class has disappeared, but the wenren spirit remains and can be awakened in an environment free from pressure and material interests.

Give and share

"In the good old days, there was no commercial interest between a guqin teacher and his students," recalls Pei. "When master Wu Zhaoji taught me guqin, he taught me for free," he says, and master Wu was known for giving guqin to worthy students. Money was never exchanged.

Pei, who began to learn guqin with master Wu in 1983, has lived his mentor's art of life. He takes pleasure in giving and sharing.

As one of China's best guqin restorers, he repairs the instruments, including priceless ancient ones, for free.

As one of the best guqin makers, he is ready to share his secrets. "In ancient China, guqin makers had nothing to hide from others, they shared experiences. But now, few people except those in Hong Kong would share their secrets," Pei says, referring to commercial rivalry.

As a master guqin player, Pei has taught many students for free. Of course, he does have income from a family business. But in some cases today, he says, free education may not work well because there're many more students than in the old days, and some students won't value something until they pay for it.

At the end of the interview, Wu Guangtong showed us a precious qin made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Pei showed us one made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), both of which are priceless.

Touching them gently, Pei muses, "Qin is the master, man is a guest. One hundred years later, qin remains, but man perishes."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend