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.
|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|
|良宵引||Prelude to a Serene Evening||05-20-2012||06-03-2012|
|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|
|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||07-27-2014||…|