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July 5, 2011

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Guru of guqin and tai chi

MANY guqin performers these days are show men and show women who wear bright costumes, sway with the music and pluck strings with great flourishes, grand gestures and uplifted hands.

But that's not the Wu school, the old school - it's just the tranquil music, no flashy show. Performers themselves sit still, like their music, their hand movements are minimal and economical.

The Wu school is named after its founder, guqin guru Wu Zhaoji (1908-1997). Wu also refers to the area around what is today Suzhou in Jiangsu Province.

Master Wu was a rare musician because he combined the spirit of guqin with the spirit of tai chi.

He applied the subtle power of tai chi to the performance of guqin as few other masters could; that helps explain why his music is so ethereal. The movements and the music were a perfect fit.

Despite decades of adversity, first during conflicts and war in the 1930s and 1940s, and then during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Wu was able to maintain peace of mind and heart, which is evident in his music that is detached from mundane worries.

Wu was born into a family of traditional Chinese musicians. His father was versed in guqin and his mother played xiao (a vertical Chinese flute).

At the age of seven, Wu already played erhu (two-string fiddle) and other traditional musical instruments.

At age 20, he began to learn guqin and tai chi.

Unlike most traditional Chinese guqin players who deemed Western music superficial, Wu appreciated Western classical music, an appreciation gained in church schools.

Indeed, during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), Beethoven's Fifth Symphony inspired his creative interpretation of a famous piece of ancient guqin music.

In 1984, he was invited to perform guqin in Italy and it was a great success.

He graduated from the chemistry department of Soochow University in 1931, but didn't have a regular job until after 1949. He became a math professor, first in high school, then in university.

In an article written in 1985, Wu said: "Our ancestors always regarded qin (meaning guqin) as a great accomplishment of nobility. Indeed, qin was the foremost requirement for a refined person, followed by qi (go), shu (calligraphy) and hua (painting)."

But why is qin always listed first among accomplishments?

Wu Guangtong, son of Wu Zhaoji, told me in person that his father had explained the priority to him: "Qin is about self-enlightenment, so it's free from conflicts. Qi is about conflicts, so it comes second. Shu and hua can be sold for commercial gain, so they come last."

Huang Yaoliang, an 82-year-old disciple of Wu Zhaoji, recalls: "Master Wu never charged students guqin. He even gave his own favorite pieces of guqin to deserving students. He was so generous in helping others that he left little savings after he passed away."

Wu Guangtong says: "My father always taught guqin and tai chi and repaired clocks and watches for others for free."


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