Pre-21st Century Guqin History and Aesthetics

From Standards of the Guqin by Juni L. Yeung, pages 45-48 (tentative).

Traditional Aesthetics for Guqin Music

Guqin has been tied with the Yin-Yang School of thought from the earliest records of history as the representative of silk (plucked string) instruments, as well the symbol of the five sounds on each of its strings. By determining which string (or tone) dictates the melody, one can determine the subject of the message the musician is trying to convey. For example, anecdotes of Master Wen of Zheng (Shi Wen 師文) and Master Kuang (Shi Kuang師曠) of Jin both cautioned their kings not to listen to music of the Shang pitch (and later the Jue and Zhi pitch), and caused season-changing chaos as they were forced to play anyway. This relation between tone quality and the rest of nature is a backbone of Chinese musical philosophy, and as much as later composers denied such fantastical tales and refused to believe it, the system is still often cited in full at the preface or as part of music theory in manuscripts.

A turning point in Chinese music came when Xi Kang (or Ji Kang, 嵇康, 223-262CE) wrote two major essays: The Qin Fu《琴賦》, praising that no instrument can produce music as transcendent as the qin; and the essay Shengwu Aile Lun《聲無哀樂論》, or “On Absence of Sentiments in Music”, suggesting that the previously mentioned relation between sound and emotions and other external factors to be a purely artificial construct, hence moot. Xi himself noted at the end of the essay that there was no way to thoroughly discard the notion of music being emotionally provoking, and called for listeners to seek internally for more intrinsic reasons of sentiments and decadence rather than putting the blame on music.

After Xi’s era came over two centuries of chaos, as the Chinese empire was broken up by foreign barbarian invasions, and when the Sui and Tang dynasties created the cosmopolitan culture of the Second Chinese Empire, Chinese court music (such as the ones played by Masters Wen and Kuang) fell largely out of favour for foreign tunes. Poet Liu Changqing劉長卿 (709-786? CE) lamented in the poem Playing Qin 《彈琴》:

冷冷七絃上﹐On the rang-ranging of the seven icy strings,

靜聽松風寒。I silently listen to the image of cold wind whistling by the pines.

古調雖自愛﹐Although ancient tunes are my passion,

今人多不彈。Most do not play them in this time of mine. (Transl. Juni Yeung)

A major change in guqin culture during the Second Empire is the instrument becoming less as a part of the ritual orchestra and more as a solo instrument, preferred by the literati and clergy. Scholars praised the instrument as the sole defender of “ancient rituals and music”, as court music became forgotten in the practical tradition in the palace, its remnants scattered in oral traditions across the civilian realm. Sometime in the 10th Century, a person named Chen Chuo陳拙 devised a system of writing guqin music that reduced what used to take an entire sentence of words to describe into one compact symbol – jianzipu減字譜. This system has greatly encouraged written records of pieces and demystification of the exclusive master-disciple oral tradition, as well greatly legitimizing it as a scholarly study rather than artisanship of lowly musical “workers”.

This “elegant” scholar versus “vulgar” musician dichotomy escalated and conflicted from the Song Dynasty until mid-20th Century, with the scholars-players criticizing professional players and their complex pieces as “the deviant music of Zheng and Wei” (implying the notion ‘empire-breaking’), believing that guqin composition and performance should focus on the notion of “great music is sparse with sound 大音希聲”. Professional players and sympathizers of alternative traditions countered with the rebuttal of scholars overlooking the importance of proper theoretical knowledge when learning music especially as elite as the guqin, which carries the burden of transmitting the remnants of the earliest Chinese tradition.

During the heights of the Ming Dynasty, the scholarly tradition won the majority voice in dictating the principles of “elegant art”, including painting, calligraphy and qin. Two famous essays listing the qualities of guqin performance are essential readings to any qin student then and present – The Sixteen Methods of Qin Sounds (Qinsheng Shiliu Fa 《琴聲十六法》) by Leng Xian 冷謙, and the more famous Qishan Qinkuang 《谿山琴況》 by Xu Shangying 徐上瀛.

The Qishan Qinkuang 24 qualities of qin performance are: harmony和, serenity靜, purity清, profoundness 遠, antiquity古, un-desiring 澹, simplicity恬, grace逸, elegance雅, beauty麗, bright亮, lustrous采, clean潔, sleek潤, rounded圓, firm堅, grand宏, fine-detailed細, slippery溜, brisk健, light輕, heavy重, unhurried遲, and fast.

Of these qualities, four are particularly highlighted and praised as the key qualities of the highest degree of refinement: Purity, harmony, un-desiring, and elegance. Minor variation with words from homonym switches or popular sayings exist, which adds in features such as intricacy, and blandness also had a significant effect to guqin music as a “profound and meditative” music of “few sounds” today.

Ever since the literary inquisitions of Kangxi and Qianlong by the Manchu Qing regime in the late 17th to early 18th century, the way how pieces are composed and manuscripts compiled have greatly changed. Complex right hand movements and similar left hand movements are broken down into simpler denominators, with finger positions now written in an “exact” decimal (huifen) system rather than shorthand that denotes “between xx and xx position” (huiwei system). Feeling the threat of Western powers and sweeping social corruption, conservative qin players after the Opium War (1842) felt that “decadent” and “lascivious” music had to do with the downfall of China. They felt that in order to rectify the Qi energy of the empire, the music must comprise of the five proper tones – and set out a movement to “correct” pieces which contained heptatonic notes to anhemitonic-pentatonic ones.  Coupled with Kangxi and Qianlong’s revision to the imperial standard of tonal studies compendium Lülü Zhengyi which dismissed Zhu Zaiyu’s 12-tone equal temperament (which Western music adopts today) as false, replacing instead a non-practical, dysfunctional 14-tone scale (to which musicians scoff at, but some scholars abide by on paper), the tradition of the qin, as well as Chinese music on a whole, have been greatly deformed and damaged. This is why when Ming dynasty scores were re-examined in the 1970 to 80’s, performers and listeners alike were surprised by the deliberate use of heptatonic progression and non-pentatonic modes, breaking the stereotype of Chinese music as a “strictly pentatonic” one.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, asides from the abrupt termination of research that began a few years earlier, the instrument (and the artisanship for creating its parts) came under threat of losing its tradition. Since the qin was an instrument for the court and later the literati, it was considered one of the prime targets of destruction. Students and teachers alike had to switch over to other instruments. Even after the Revolution, there was an unease with the instrument’s image and there were attempts at ‘converting’ the instrument to give it more ‘modern appeal’. Examples include adapting the qin to use ‘modern’ nylon-wrapped metal strings for a brighter sound suited to large public performances, and transposing tunes from other instruments and the Revolutionary cause to be played. The most visible legacy of this era would undoubtedly be Li Xiangting’s new compositions Three Gorges Boatsong (Sanxia Chuange三峽船歌) Building a Road in a Blizzard (Fengxue Zhulu風雪築路), Gong Yi’s Song of a Plum Garden (Meiyuan Yin梅園吟) and Loulan Verse (Loulan San樓蘭散) with daring style and technique borrowed from other instruments like the pipa, guzheng, and ruan.

With the onset of modern reform, guqin aesthetics went in two directions: One is to retrace its lost heritage from studying surviving handbooks and resurrecting obscure pieces back into performance via the dapu interpretation process, while the other looks beyond its cultural borders to seek interaction and collaboration with international music traditions. Today, we see Chinese citizens aspiring to live the scholastic life of the literati enjoying qin played in private studies and upper-class teahouses, high school and university students pick it up as an extracurricular activity or a way to reconnect to their roots despite their busy lives. Musicians like Li Xiangting, who among others, are experimenting with fusion music and improvisation, and discovering the qin’s appeal in meditation and spa music field, for its recuperative properties. Musicians from China and beyond have attempted (some quite successfully) new methods of construction (such as new lacquer and wood types, electric pickups and amplification, and a new tuning device), as well using the qin in popular music. In Fujian, a local techno-rock band is comprised of a guitarist, bass, drums, and electrically-amplified qin. A Singapore group uses several qins tuned on different tunings and arranged on a rack as an alternative to a synthesizer. With the age of the computer, there are various attempts at digitizing jianzipu into a new method for storing the score, and ultimately for playback. With the boom of Chinese computer users and the onset of the Internet, qin culture has entered an explosive new environment and development direction into the 21st Century.


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