Studying the Guqin

Growing up in the Western classical music tradition, I primarily studied the violin and piano. My journey in studying the guqin, however, started merely as an interest—a quest to find that quintessential instrument. Depictions in old Chinese paintings, of the guqin player immersed in the serenity of nature, made a deep impression.

Not knowing exactly what that mysterious instrument was, I dabbled with the guzheng, pipa, yangqin, and several others. I had also read Robert Temple’s 1986 distillation of Joseph Needham’s work into one volume, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention. Temple describes the guqin as one where music harmonic theory and intervals were discovered.

The deepest impression, though, was made when I browsed the University of California Riverside library’s music section and came across Robert van Gulik’s 1941 treatise, Lore of the Chinese Lute. While a Dutch diplomat to China in the 1930s, he studied the guqin. In his book, he weaves an account and commentary of the guqin in Chinese literary thought, culture, and society.

As it is a relatively obscure instrument, the guqin deserves some introduction.

In his article titled Meaning and structure—the case of Chinese qin (zither) music, Frank Kouwenhoven writes, “The qin or guqin (‘old instrument’) is at once the most humble and most haughty of all musical instruments”—humble because it is rarely performed by for self enjoyment and that of a few friends, and haughty because it is reserved only for the learned scholar class and kept away from the masses. He goes on to write, “The preserve of a small elite of learned and philosophical men and women in China, the seven-string zither is itself associated with an atmosphere of purity, peacefulness and enlightenment, while in fact its repertoire is considered to encompass a far wider range of programmatical meanings and emotions. The qin serves principally as a road to spiritual enlightenment and self-improvement for players and listeners.” — British Journal of Ethnomusicology Vol 10/i 2001, 39–62.

I came across an actual guqin for the first time at a flea marking in Suzhou during my 1996 visit. Unfortunately, the instrument was completely unplayable. From there, I decided to build one, after Jim Binkley’s translation of 與古齋琴譜 (Abiding with Antiquity Guqin Manual, 1855). Using material from the web, I self-taught, and the first piece I learned was 平沙落雁 (Wild Geese Descending on Sandbanks).

In 1999, I traveled to Hangzhou to rotate at the Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital. In the meantime, I made connections with the West Lake Guqin Association. On September 16, Mr. KuangHua Xu 徐匡華 invited me to his home, where we exchanged stories and played 平沙落雁.

While learning several more pieces on my own—including 梅花三弄 (Three Variations of the Plum Blossom Theme), 流水 (Flowing Waters), and 陽關三疊 (Farewell at Yang Pass)—I was in desperate need for a real teacher. At the same time, I decided to make more instruments, because the surface buzz on my first instrument became more annoying. Seeing my web posts, Jim Binkley wrote me out of the blue, ask about tuning peg construction. I asked him about finding a teacher. Through his referral to Alan Yip, I got in contact with Mr. PuiYuen Lui 吕培源 in late 2010, meeting him at a Chinese orchestral rehearsal.

Between busy schedules, I finally started taking lessons. My first lesson from Master Lui was on April 22, 2012, beginning with the basics of reading notation and fingering.

The music, I’ve found, is more analogous to speech than music as we know it. The notation is without explicit rhythm, with very little cues regarding note duration and tempo; and the tablature is written like text, using specialized characters. I have come to think if it like reading a book. While cadence, speed, and tone of voice are not notated in ordinary text, a native reader implicitly knows. An effective reader brings the text to life. Likewise, guqin masters add life and meaning to the textual tablature notation.

Through the years, I have made face-to-face connections with other qin players: Tongxia Zhang 張桐霞 (Beijing), Jim Binkley (Portland), Alan Yip 葉沛霖 (Davis), Emerson Wang 王凱/博瀚 (Davis), Qiu Liang 梁球 (Foshan), JunYue Xu 徐君躍 (Hangzhou), Stephen Walker (Chicago), Shin-Yi Yang 楊信宜 (Boston). From the very beginning, this journey has been incredible.

Piece English Translation Begun Completed
仙翁操 The Transcendent Venerable One 04-22-2012 04-29-2012
湘江怨 Lament by the Xiang River 04-22-2012 04-29-2012
古琴吟 Chant of the Guqin 04-29-2012 05-08-2012
秋風詞 Poetry of the Autumn Wind 04-29-2012 05-08-2012
歸去來辭 Returning Home 05-08-2012 05-20-2012
良宵引 Prelude to a Serene Evening 05-20-2012 06-03-2012
酒狂 Wine Madness 06-03-2012 06-24-2012
極樂吟 Tune of Utmost Joy 06-24-2012 07-15-2012
陽關三疊 Three Repetitions at Yang Pass 06-24-2012 07-29-2012
玉樓春曉 Spring Dawn at the Jade Tower 07-15-2012 07-29-2012
鳳求凰 The Phoenix Seeks His Mate 07-29-2012 08-19-2012
秋江夜泊 Autumn Evening Moorings 07-29-2012 08-19-2012
風雷引 Summoning the Wind and Thunder 08-19-2012 09-23-2012
普庵咒 Chants of Pu’an 09-02-2012 09-23-2012
鷗鷺忘機 Seagulls and Forgetting Schemes 09-23-2012 11-11-2012
平沙落雁 Wild Geese Descending on Sandbanks 11-11-2012 11-25-2012
關山月 Moon over the Mountain Pass 11-25-2012 12-09-2012
長門怨 Lament at Changmen Palace 12-09-2012 12-30-2012
滄海龍吟 Tune of the Sea Dragon 12-30-2012 01-20-2013
憶故人 Thinking of an Old Friend 01-20-2013 02-24-2013
梧葉舞秋風 Firmiana Leaves Dance in the Autumn Breeze 02-24-2013 03-10-2013
神人暢 Harmony of God and Men 03-10-2013 03-31-2013
碧澗流泉 Flowing Spring of Jade Stream 03-31-2013 07-07-2013
洞庭秋思 Autumn Thoughts at Dongting 07-07-2013 09-08-2013
漁樵問答 Dialogue of the Fisherman and Woodcutter 07-21-2013 10-27-2013
梅花三弄 Three Variations of the Plum Blossom Theme 09-08-2013 10-27-2013
漁歌 Songs of the Fisherman 10-27-2013 12-29-2013
流水 Flowing Waters 02-09-2014 02-23-2014
烏夜諦 Evening Call of the Raven 02-23-2014 05-04-2014
欸乃 Ao Ai: The Boatmen’s Song 05-04-2014 07-27-2014
瀟湘水雲 Mist and Clouds over the XiaoXiang River



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