The Art World of Guqin
In the movie Hero, Jet Li said “Sir, please play another song.” The musical instrument seen
and played during the fight in the weiqi courtyard scene is a guqin, the Chinese seven-stringed zither.
As the old adage goes "The sage-kings used its tone to order the world. It is the tool for cultivating character and nourishing the fundamental nature. Such is the qin." 琴之為物, 乃聖
Guqin, also called the seven-stringed zither, is China's oldest stringed instrument with a history of some 3,000 years. Attested by early literary sources and corroborated by archaeological discoveries, this ancient instrument is inseparable from Chinese intellectual history, particularly during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).
Represented as China's foremost solo musical instrument tradition, Guqin playing developed as an elite art form practiced by noblemen and scholars in intimate settings. Furthermore, Guqin is one of the four arts -- along with calligraphy, painting, and an ancient form of chess -- that the old Chinese scholars were expected to master.
Gu古means "old" and qin琴means "musical instrument.”Historically, Guqin was rendered
as qin in most ancient texts. Because of its long history, the old musical instrument has in the last 100 years been widely called Guqin.
Guqin is a long and narrow sound box made of wood, 130cm long, 20cm wide, and 5cm thick. It has seven strings and thirteen marked pitch positions. By attaching the strings in ten different ways, players can obtain a range of four octaves.
The three basic playing techniques are known as san (open string), an (stopped string), and fan (harmonics). San is played with the right hand and involves plucking open strings individually or in groups to produce strong and clear sounds for important notes. To play fan, the fingers of the left hand touch the string lightly at positions determined by the inlaid markers, and the right hand plucks, producing a light floating sound. An is also played with both hands: While the right hand plucks, a left-hand finger presses the string firmly and may slide to other notes or create a variety of ornaments and vibratos, resulting in delicate and expressive sounds.
Guqin is a typical musical instrument, representing both Chinese philosophy and traditional musical culture. It combines a vast repertory of refined melodies and playing techniques. According to tradition, twenty years of training are required to attain proficiency. The fingering techniques are known as recital, rubbing, plucking, concentration, floating notes, and harmonious notes (same measure, five measure, and octave). When Guqin is played, one can easily get the message of the traditional cultural values of clarity, fineness, simplicity, and far-sightedness.
The Origin of Guqin
Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-history — 伏羲
Fuxi, 神农Shennong and Huang Di, the "Yellow Emperor" — were involved in its creation. Nearly
almost all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the factual origins of the qin, although this is now presently viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and related instruments have been
found in Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng from about 2,500 years ago. The exact origin of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades.
Famous Guqin Music Pieces
Chinese music is believed to date back to between 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, based on the discovery of more than 16 bone flutes unearthed in Henan province. The flutes were identified as instruments made in the Neolithic Age.
Over time, musical instruments have diversified, and most can be divided into four categories: plucked string instruments, percussion instruments, bowed instruments, and wind instruments. Among them, guqin (plucked seven-string musical instrument of the zither family), pipa or Chinese lute (four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments), erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instrument) and flute are the most famous ones. Most of Chinese classical music pieces feature these four traditional instruments.
The famous Guqin music pieces are High Mountains and Flowing Water高山流水,
Guangling Melody广陵散, Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank平沙落雁, Plum Blossom
Melodies梅花三弄, Dialogue between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter渔樵问答；Eighteen
Songs of a Nomad Flute胡笳十八拍 and so on.
According to expert research, most of the original music of these pieces has been lost, and the existing ones are composed by posterities under famous titles or allusions for a more powerful influence. Nonetheless, these classical pieces are extremely valuable, and one can embrace the Chinese culture and history by listening to or studying them.
Guangling Melody, named for its popularity in Guangling area (today’s Yangzhou of Jiangsu province), is a grand masterpiece played by the Guqin in China. It originated from the Qin (221-207 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties and had been lost for a time, but later it was tidied up and its score was composed by Guan Pinghu, a famous Chinese Guqin player according to the melody recorded in Magical Music Score (1425), which made this wonderful Guqin melody back to the world.
The content of Guangling Melody came from the Guqin melody Nie Zheng Assassinating King of Han, which mainly described a solemn story that Nie Zheng, son of a swordsmith in the Warring States Period, committed suicide after stabbing the king of Han in order to avenge his father. The main body of this music focuses on the change of Nie Zheng’s emotion from hate to indignation, which profoundly portrays his unyielding willpower to avenge regardless of violence.
The fame of Guangling Melody has a close relation with the personage in the Wei-Jin Period (220-589) - Ji Kang, who is one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. He was revered by his contemporary for he was well versed in poetry and prose and playing the musical instrument, especially in performing Guangling Melody. Afterward, he suffered from a false charge and was sentenced to death. For fear that Guangling Melody lack of successors, he requested to perform Guangling Melody on the spot just before execution, which made Guangling Melody ranked as a masterpiece through the ages.
The tune of Guangling Melody is boiling and bountiful, which directly expresses the struggling spirit of people under repression against the tyrant, with a high ideological value and artistic value. It is not only the essence of Chinese ancient music, but also an important representative of Chinese ethos.
Guqin in Chinese Paintings
Guqin music is calm, simple, soft, and elegant in style. Yet, it is often misinterpreted by those first-listeners as motionless. In fact, Guqin music sounds most wonderful in the dead of night, when its peaceful beauty is given a vivid display.
To understand this music fully, one should not simply pay attention to its tunes, but comprehend it on spiritual level as well. Guqin music is formed and evolved under the deep influence of both Confucianism and Daoism. It values elegant and orthodox music while demeaning folksongs and obscene music. This well reflects the Confucian doctrine of mean and morality. At the same time, it also pursues the ideal of dao based on Lao Zi's philosophy. This is embodied in the charm of this music, which is simple, extricated, and edifying.
In fact, the spirit of Guqin music gives expression to the soul of the Chinese nation. It, together with other national treasures of China, adequately reflects the true composition of the people and the culture. No matter literary classics, music, or painting, they all possess a unique soul, i.e., the soul of China. So it’s not hard for one to witness the essential charm and beauty of Guqin music in the traditional Chinese paintings of all ages.
There is a famous painting called Ting Qin Tu听琴图. The painting is created by Zhao Ji, the
eighth Song Emperor (Hui Zong), who is famous for the painting of flowers and birds. Although he is also good at figure painting and landscape painting, the records of these paintings are rare. Ting Qin Tu is one of the figure paintings drew by Zhao Ji, which is very precious. In the painting, the main character is playing Guqin sitting bolt upright. Besides him, three listeners are intoxicated by the beautiful music. The four figures are depicted vividly and lively, each with a unique style.
The Aesthetics of Guqin
When the qin is played, a number of aesthetic elements are involved. The first is musicality. Normally, some players would pluck the string very lightly to create a very quiet sound. For some players, this plucking isn't necessary. Instead of trying to force a sound out of the string one should allow the natural sounds emit from the strings. Some players say that the sliding on the string even when the sound has disappeared is a distinctive feature in qin music. It creates a "space" or "void" in a piece, playing without playing, sound without sound大音希声之境. In fact,
when the viewer looks at the player sliding on the string without sounds, the viewer automatically "fills in the notes" with their minds. This creates a connection between player, instrument and listener. Since the music is more player-oriented than listener-oriented, and the player knows the music, he/she can hear it even if the sound is not there. With silk strings, the sliding sound might be called the qi or "life force" of the music. The really empty sounds are the pauses between notes. However, if one cannot create a sound that can be heard when sliding on a string, it is generally acceptable to lightly pluck the string to create a very quiet sound. How did ancient Chinese people play Qin?
Modern guqin has seven strings. However, it had 25 strings in earlier days, giving players far wider scopes of expression. In ancient China, guqin was considered a holy instrument, bearing an intelligence of its own. An apparent example is a story with Confucius. One night, Confucius was playing guqin in his room, when Yan Hui, a disciple, entered. Yan detected some menace in the sage’s tune, as if of murderous intent. Yan mentioned it to Confucius, who answered: "When I
played, I saw a cat chase a mouse, and hoped it would catch it. The want to kill swam into my
performance." Confucius, adept at music, considered guqin the most important instrument in his age. Learning how to play guqin was compulsory in his teaching.
Western music composes seven musical notes "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si". Chinese traditional music only uses five musical notes "do, re, mi, sol and la". The five notes correspond with the Five Elements "Soil, Metal, Wood, Fire, and Water". In the absence of "fa" and "si", Chinese musical scale goes without half-tone. As a result, Chinese traditional music is less likely to create unstable and unharmonious sound or chords.
A lot of taboos are associated with guqin. It shall not be played in extremely cold or hot circumstances, in days of gales, heavy rains, sudden thunders, or blizzards, days of funeral and burial, in occasions other music instrument is played, or in trivial atmospheres. Before stroking qin, a player should have a bath and change clothes. He should also burn incense and keep in company with a good friend. He shall play guqin when all the conditions are met. Guqin in Modern Society
In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed China's ancient Guqin music art as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity。
The Olympic Opening Ceremony was a unique opportunity to introduce Chinese culture to the rest of the world. Furthermore, a vital element of the ceremony was its music, which featured many traditional Chinese instruments.
At the Opening Ceremony, Chen played guqin with many other instruments for specially-written musical scores. These other instruments carry equally profound meanings in Chinese culture.
Nowadays, there are fewer than 1,000 well-trained guqin players and perhaps no more than 50 surviving masters. The original repertory of several thousand compositions has drastically dwindled to a mere 100 works that are regularly performed today. The guqin's traditional function as a means of cultivating moral and intellectual character has almost entirely disappeared. Consequently, this once-complex holistic tradition has been reduced to a professional performance art.
A major research program will be launched to study the existing Guqin instruments, repertories, notations, and manufacturing and playing techniques. In order to safeguard the philosophical and musical culture related to Guqin, the action plan endeavors to improve the financial and material situations of the practitioners by awarding lifelong scholarships. Young performers will be trained through newly established university-level courses in the art of Guqin taught by recognized masters.