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January 14, 2020

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Telling a China story from heart of Kyoto

A drizzling night in Kyoto. A modern Japanese scholar. An ancient Chinese melody.

It was not a montage, but a rare meeting last week at Mr Fushimi Muka’s home where he treated us with a performance of guqin music. Guqin is the oldest plucked instrument in China, with a history of 3,000 years.

With a refined and mild manner, he played “Night Rain on a Deep River,” a melody first recorded in a Chinese collection several hundred years ago. The way he played reminded me of Confucius and latter-day Confucian scholars who regarded guqin not as a vehicle to vent one’s emotion, but as an instrument to internalize the world with unruffled mind.

At a time when more and more guqin players in China like to show off their “skills” with ostentatious gestures and drastic body movements, Mr Fushimi Muka impressed us with self-restraint and balance that Confucius had advocated as a music connoisseur.

Sitting on the tatami in his cozy home not far from a bucolic creek in Kyoto, Mr Fushimi Muka, a scholar on Chinese culture, played the classic piece for about eight minutes, and I could “see” with my mind’s eye what the composer had in mind: the elegant rise and fall of a legendary dragon through nature’s vicissitudes.

As Swedish sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist believes, Chinese guqin music patently reflects Chinese scholars’ preference to treat man as one with nature, not above it. Indeed, for thousands of years since Confucius allegedly composed the earliest known guqin melody “Orchids,” Confucian scholars had played the instrument not to please their ears, but to purify their minds from desires and achieve inner peace. In the case of “Night Rain on a Deep River,” a player is supposed to succeed in “acting out” a dragon at ease with nature, not in presenting a dragon disturbing the river or clouds.

Cultivating rightful mind

Guqin was listed as a world intangible heritage in 2003. My wife and I began to learn guqin 10 years ago. But over the years we have seen too many Chinese guqin players who would treat the instrument as if it were a guitar or pipa — good to hear but devoid of what guqin was made for.

In a classical Chinese dictionary compiled more than 2,000 years ago, qin (the ancient name for guqin) was defined as something to cultivate a rightful mind against mundane distractions, including addiction to worldly pleasures.

Before my wife and I went for a vacation in Kyoto last week, along with some friends from Beijing and Taiwan, I vaguely knew that Japan had a long history of guqin learning, but I knew little about how things stand nowadays.

We randomly searched the Internet and found Mr Fushimi Muka’s email. I wrote him, but got no immediate reply.

A few days later, he replied in a short written message in English, saying he was not proficient in speaking Chinese or English. Anyway, we met on a night a week ago. With the help of a WeChat translation app and our friend from Taiwan who speaks Japanese relatively well, we had a great time appreciating authentic Chinese ancient music flowing from the fingers of a Japanese scholar.

“I learned guqin because I love Chinese culture,” he told us.

In 2018, he visited Suzhou, Jiangsu Province and met local guqin players. In a yaji (refined party) at Yiyuan Garden, he played a guqin song composed in Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). In one photo of his performance he showed us, I spotted my own guqin teacher in the background! My teacher, from Suzhou, also appreciates the Confucian way of performance, that is, being balanced both in body and mind.

“How precious!” Mr Fushimi Muka said, referring to the rare friendship between guqin lovers from Japan and China.

At his home, he showed us a book on the modern history of guqin in Japan, which took his Japanese teacher about 40 years to compile. He specifically pointed to a cross-page illustration of how guqin culture has passed from generation to generation since a great monk in the 17th century brought it from China to Japan.

As a Chinese journalist, I take it upon myself to tell China stories well. I’ve learned from Mr Fushimi Muka that China does have good stories, but for them to spread near and far, a storyteller must understand them well in the first place. In the case of guqin, we should not mistake it for guitar or any other fancy instrument in our misplaced worship of worldly pleasures.


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