The guqin and earth’s greatest hits
by Peter Micic

Listening to the Qin," attributed to the northern Song emperor Huizong (r.1101-1126).

In 1977 NASA sent Voyager I into deep space to explore the great beyond. The spacecraft contained a 12-inch copper disc titled “Sounds of the Earth,” featuring “greetings from the People of Earth in 60 languages, and natural sounds such as ocean surf, thunder [and] chirping birds.”

Representing China among the 50 musical examples from around the world was a piece for the seven-stringed zither (guqin) called Flowing Waters (流水) performed by the late guqin master Guan Pinghu. The reason for this choice was explained by the Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung: The seven-stringed guqin “has been part of Chinese culture since the time of Confucius…[the piece] is a meditation on the human sense of affinity with the universe…all kinds of people, on every side of [the] political division, would be moved by such a choice.”

The guqin has a documented history dating back to the second millennium BCE. It has no frets or bridge and can produce incredibly subtle shades of tone colour. It became part of a tradition cultivated by the Chinese literati, and an instrument associated with philosophers, sages, and emperors.

I have long admired the performance space of the scholar-recluse and the guqin found in Chinese scroll paintings, seemingly removed from the snares of the “dusty world.” He might be in a pavilion that opens onto a lake or on a precipice facing upward toward the skies. Whether a solitary player or performing to a small group, kindred spirits have gathered to explore and affirm their place in the universe. Like the solitary herdsman described by Christopher Small, who plays his flute to guard his flock in the African night, the guqin player, “is in effect, saying to himself and to anyone who may be listening, Here I am, and this is who I am.”

A powerful affirmation indeed. For the guqin player, it’s paramount that the listener is truly mindful and present. If there is deep listening (the performer is always the principal listener), there is no need to attach a “sign” or title to a piece since both performer and listener are perfectly “in tune.” The affinity of the guqin player and listener is well known in the story of Bo Ya who found the most ideal listener in his friend Zhong Ziqi. But when Ziqi died, Bo Ya broke the strings of his instrument and vowed never to play again. The Chinese expression ‘dui niu tanqin’ (‘playing a zither to a cow’) describes the exact opposite of someone who doesn’t listen or understand. You will find the expression rendered into English as ‘preaching to deaf ears,’ or ‘talking to a brick wall,’ but there are many more colourful idiomatic expressions to approximate someone who just doesn’t get it.

In 2003, the guqin was selected as part of UNESCO’s ‘oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ (see this Unesco webpage).

From October 16th to the 19th October, there will be a series of workshops, lectures, exhibitions and concerts to celebrate the centennial of the guqin master Wu Jinglüe organized by the Central Conservatory of Music and the Music Research Institute, China Academy of Arts (programme information)

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There are currently 2 Comments for The guqin and earth’s greatest hits
by Peter Micic.

Comments on The guqin and earth’s greatest hits
by Peter Micic

Hey, Peter, nice to read your informative piece here. How are things?

Guqin and Pipa are my favoriate Chinese musical instruments.

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