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March 25, 2016

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Home » Feature » Beats of History

A woodcutter's understanding

AS an old saying goes, the seat of a gentleman is always accompanied by books on the right and a guqin on the left. Guqin, a seven-string instrument, enjoyed great popularity among ancient scholars in China, and is still widely popular today.

Most scholars used to insist on a particular ceremony before playing, such as washing their hands, burning incense and clearing their minds, according to Professor Liu Hong at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Rather than to entertain crowds, most guqin players in ancient China played the instrument just for themselves, as a way to express feelings and searching for inner peace.

“Unlike most folk music calling for interaction between the audiences and players, a guqin player in the old times didn’t expect much understanding, or in many cases, needed no audiences at all,” says Professor Liu.

Yu Boya, a particularly talented musician in the Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC), once improvised on his guqin when traveling on a boat. He discovered a woodcutter listening to him in the distance with full attention.

“I was hooked by your melody. I heard high mountains and the river running through,” the woodcutter told Yu.

Yu was thrilled that Zhong Ziqi, the woodcutter, had such a precise understanding of his music. Yu made an appointment with Zhong that he would play the same piece, “Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water” for him next spring at the same place.

But Zhong passed away soon after, and Yu cried at Zhong’s tomb since he lost the only man who knew his music. In despair, Yu crashed his guqin at Zhong’s tomb, and never played guqin again.

There is no particular passed-down piece named “Lofty Mountains and Flowing Waters,” yet two separate pieces namely “Lofty Mountains” and “Flowing Waters” composed based on the story still kept great popularity among guqin players and amateurs today.


Click the links below to enjoy the music.


‘Lofty Mountains’ (《高山》)


‘Flowing Waters’  (《流水》)



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