A Brief on early 21st Century Guqin Culture

From Standards of the Guqin, by Juni L. Yeung, p.50 (tentative).


Since UNESCO’s recognition of the music as a piece of Cultural or Intangible Heritage in 2003, the instrument has gone through a worldwide fad for learning this once elite practice closely related to personal refinement and transcendence. Despite the official narrative claiming that the number of guqin players are constantly on the decline (such as during the Opening Ceremonies of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing 2008, reporters were given statistics that less than 50 players remain), a new generation of young cultural enthusiasts and students are keeping the torch alive, if not burning brighter with new innovations and research results.

China has been taking an active stance in promoting the instrument and the tradition, while applying a modern conservatory examination and grading system across the nation. Despite large amounts of disagreements and protest, an examination level repertoire was first released in late 2003, and the first examinations were held in major cities across China in 2004. Examinations are held twice yearly, with recognition issued by the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and Beijing Guqin Yanjiuhui (Research association). The Level 10 recognition can be counted as bonus credits towards the National High School Examination System, used for the Chinese tertiary education application. This places the guqin on equal stature alongside with other instruments, Chinese or Western, in the education system.

The guqin used as an instrument of public competition has been attempted as early as 2002, and many instructors claimed that it was sacrilege to the non-competitive nature of the literati tradition. Their worries were proven especially when animosity between competitors (in person or online) materialized into the stuff of tabloid headers, creating the environment of “black smoke and swamp gas” that traditional guqin practitioners fear the most. To this end, there is still a significant portion of players who advise their disciples and students to not participate in competitions and the official examinations.

Guqin is also often related to the recent Hanfu Restoration Movement, as advocates for proper traditional (Han) Chinese dress promote themselves with demonstrations and practice of the Four Scholarly Arts, the first of which is this instrument. Increasingly during elegant gatherings people are witnessing participants are coming in the traditional y-shaped cross collar and wide sleeves of the scholarly robe and the tall caps, and sought to promote the Chinese as a wide and accepting culture, while maintaining a 5,000-year old tradition of the Mean and Middle Way.

Europe, North America

The Internet is the key source of general information, new theories, and intercourse between the global communities of players, who have organized themselves in major cities to share their music and insights with fellow players. The Internet has also allowed easier access to the older archives stored in libraries around the world to be widely available for audience and researchers alike.

There were various attempts on the digitization of Guqin tablature, but no widely recognizable consumer-based program is available. CAD-edited prints or scanned hand-copies, coupled with a five-line or number-staff are still the standard today.

            Toronto is one of the four most active guqin communities in North America, sharing the buzz with San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver. Other active communities outside the Chinese geographical area include England, Spain, Germany, and Singapore. The most prominent society in community involvement is the North American Guqin Association (NAGA), operating in the San Francisco Bay Area. Founded in 1997 and officially registered as a non-profit organization, the association and its director Wang Fei put on regular events, workshops, and seminars to increase awareness of the guqin in the local area, to which its greatest achievement was the recognition of “Guqin Day” on June 19 in Milpitas, CA.  

            The largest guqin society in Europe is the London Youlan Qin Society (LYQS). Similar to the North American Guqin Association, they hold regular gatherings and do some work in qin essay translation and piece interpretations. They have also collaborated with the Asian Music Circuit (AMC) and the Royal Academy of Music to invite masters from China to instruct students in weeklong summer camps. Outside of Britain, there are small groups across the entire Western Europe and Sweden. A feature of the European community is the amount of original research on the guqin, as well as translations of less-studied manuscripts published in various languages, including Catalan and Swedish.


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