The story appears on

Page B2

November 23, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Guqin, a Chinese zither evoking sound of a mist, makes a comeback

TO tai chi master Guo Huaisheng, music floats from a guqin (a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family) like mist while melodies run from a piano like rainfall.

"A great pianist can mimick the sound and image of a mist arising from raindrops splashing on the ground. A guqin evokes the sound and image of a mist deep in mountains," he says.

Guo, 47, was not pitching piano against guqin as if one was inferior to another. In fact he's a connoisseur of piano and many other musical instruments, Chinese and Western.

But as a tai chi master, he says only guqin is the musical equivalent of tai chi. "Tai chi and guqin are both inherently like a mist. Their power springs from their softness."

A piano key usually produces only one note, often with a short lingering sound, but a guqin string has 13 major notes and each note has many variations depending on subtle finger movements. In several tests of frequency spectrums, Guo found that a guqin has a much longer lingering sound than a piano, a violin or a harp.

"Even if your ears can't hear it, a guqin's lingering sound, measured by its frequency spectrum, resembles that of a cannon," Guo says.

He is one of a group of people in Shanghai who, having weathered the vicissitudes of life, are now enchanted by guqin, a 3,000-year-old seven-string Chinese zither, for its capacity to capture and captivate the heart of a hermit enlightened in Confucian and Taoist values, especially those that encourage man to be at one with nature and at ease in adversity.

For thousands of years before the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), guqin was a favorite, indeed soul mate, of most Chinese scholar-officials and men of letters.

Confucius (551-479 BC) was a great guqin player and was said to be the author and composer of China's first guqin song, titled "Orchid," in which Confucius, whose moral teachings then fell on the deaf ears of most state leaders, compared himself to a noble orchid left untended and mixed with wild grass at the roadside.

Wang Wei (AD 701-761), a great Confucian scholar-official of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), was dubbed China's poet Buddha for his devotion to Taoist and Buddhist meditation, particularly in the latter half of his life.

One of his popular poems pictures himself in a state of retreat. Here's my tentative translation:

Alone I sit in you huang li,

Plucking the strings of my qin.

In joys and sorrows I sing,

Yet who will understand me,

But the moon clear and clean?

In Wang's time, guqin was called qin. Gu, literally meaning "ancient," was added in modern China in reference to its history. You huang li literally means "a deep and quiet bamboo forest."

Be it with Confucius or Wang Wei, guqin was more than just a musical instrument. Its graceful tone -- often soft, remote and merrily melancholy -- meshes well with Confucian values of moral integrity and mental balance.

For that reason, Confucian scholars in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) regarded guqin as a moral force against obscenity and extravagancy. The "cultural revolution," however, swept guqin into historical oblivion along with Confucian thoughts -- both were downtrodden as part of "decayed feudal culture."

"At that time, you could only play guqin in secret. Once found, your guqin would have to be thrown into the fire," recalled guqin master Qiao Shan, who is now art director of a nice guqin school named after you huang li and seated in a quiet French-style building in the roar of Shanghai.

Only one year old, the school on Huaihai Road has attracted nearly 500 students. It will open a branch in Pudong New Area at the end of this month in the midst of a quiet revival of guqin culture in the city.

It's "a quiet revival" because the number of guqin fans are still dwarfed by piano or violin fans not just in Shanghai, but across China.

Guqin suffered a double whammy in the past 40 years, the "cultural revolution" being the first. The second came from a culture of conspicuous consumption that gripped many money worshipping Chinese in the past 30 years.

"Few people were able to appreciate guqin in the past few decades because their minds were jumbled," says Zhang Wei, general manager of Shanghai Heng Yuan Xiang Knitting Wool Co Ltd. Both Zhang and Guo now study guqin with virtuoso Qiao at You Huang Li school.

Born in 1970, Zhang learned classical guitar at college but now he finds guqin is quieter and closer to a Chinese state of mind.

"I believe that classical Chinese culture is in the blood of every Chinese man and woman, only that we may not always be conscious of it," he says.

Like a sparkle in the dark, guqin was inspirational in Zhang's sudden discovery of a hidden half of himself -- the half that calls him to be closer to nature and deeper in meditation.

Asked why many other businessmen, though rich already, remain single-minded in their pursuit of material comfort, he says they don't understand the art of balance.

"There's a marginal effect," he says. "At a certain point, the more you invest (in wealth accumulation), the less you gain."

Li Longhua, also born in 1970, says: "Our economy has grown exponentially, but our spiritual life is lacking." A senior manager at Hershey China, he also studies guqin at You Huang Li. He studied business management and worked in Australia from 1988 to 1998.

"I was thirsty for Chinese culture at that time. While many Westerners went to bars, discos or gyms to let go of pressure, I would seek harmony in my soul," he says. Now he has found the very peace of mind he yearns for in guqin music.

Dai Qian, a student in Shanghai who is applying for finance study in Britain, is quite good at playing piano.

"But learning guqin enables me to be a Chinese in a truer sense." She's been studying guqin with Qiao for about a year.

When Qiao, born in 1962, graduated from the China Conservatory in 1985, she didn't expect guqin would be as popular as it is now.

In the 1980s, Chinese mainland was abuzz with pop songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Few understood guqin. When she moved to settle in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, Qiao was amazed to see that Hong Kong was a fertile ground of traditional Chinese music. Later she went to Taiwan to perform guqin to the unexpectedly warm welcome of local audiences.

"It was then that I realized what I had studied at college was a treasure indeed," she says. Her confidence in guqin increased after she gave a concert in Vienna Golden Hall in 2005.

Some audience members were moved to tears as she hummed an ancient Chinese poem to the melancholy melody of a classic guqin song. After the performance, she asked one of them who spoke German: "Did you understand what I sang in Chinese?" He answered: "It's the music that moved us, just like Beethoven can touch the heart of a Chinese whether he or she understands the lyrics."

"When foreigners listen to guqin music, they may not know Confucius but they would say the sound of guqin is very Chinese," Qiao says. "Guqin music is China's classical music. It's like what Franz Schubert and his Trout Quintet mean in the West."

In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed guqin as an intangible heritage of humanity. Neither my wife nor I knew that when we signed up as Qiao's students half a year ago. Now we often practice till dawn, our minds somehow soothed in a bamboo breeze that comes from the ancient past.


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