Fall from Grace? Looking at Opinions Towards Contemporary Qin Culture

To be Elegant, or not to be Elegant?

A modern public qin studio lounge, adorned with qins and other instruments used in opera, with a station for ceremoniously preparing tea.

The primary trait in filtering Chinese culture to its elite essence is the element of Ya (雅), commonly translated as “elegance”. What does this Ya entail? Let us compare it with its antonym, Su (俗). Where Su is widely accepted and loved by almost everyone, Ya is appreciated by a select few (usually of recluses and the educated); where Su strives to please the senses, Ya has a totally different aim — to “rectify” the senses by transmission of ‘sagely teachings and spirit’ to develop an elevated state of conscious realization of the human condition, coupled with a desire to remove oneself from the delusions of human social deceit. Where Su is artificial and man-made to refinement, Ya is considering the unadorned natural being as refinement and prefection unto itself.

This year, a widely circulated saying that claimed the following:

“The New Four Major Vulgarities [Su] of Capitol City [ie. Beijing]” (京城新四大俗):

学琴学古琴,// Learning qin [ie. musical instrument] equals to learning guqin,
开店开会馆,// Opening a shop, a clubhouse is of choice.
学佛修密宗,// Practicing Buddhism, Vajrayana [Tibetan] is the Way,
喝茶喝普洱。// And Pu’er is the drink of all teas.

Old is new, elegant is the new vulgar?

Another version goes:

弹琴弹古琴. // Learning qin [ie. musical instrument] equals to learning guqin,
喝茶喝普洱. // Pu’er is the drink of all teas.
手机用苹果. // With a cellphone bearing the Apple mark,
画室当会所. // The art studio is the clubhouse.

Numerous netizens have replied and reposted some version of the above statement with commentary on how this is true in not only Beijing, but across all urban centres in China and even beyond. These venues and objects were by and large restrictive and exclusive practices by the wealthy, prestigious, or the educated elite, but with the state and international recognition, commercialization and speculation followed. What was once the greatest expressions of Ya, is now “infested” with the hordes of “vulgar merchants and commoners”, all to willing to open their spending accounts or personal piggy banks for a taste of what was for previous generations something almost mythical in nature.

It is little wonder why the qin became such a popular instrument among the Chinese nouveau-riches and bourgeoisie today, and why many “old guard” traditionalists with historical lineages tend to look down on these newcomers, whom they consider as “poor of everything but money”.

Anthropologists Maria Tam and Nan Hongyan published an essay following an investigation of the changing scene of guqin culture over the period of 2004 to 2008. [1]  Tam points out that from the standpoint of the traditional literati, the picture of current changes in the guqin field is a grim and darkening one. Whereas in the past, the monetary value of the qin object itself was unspoken of for “ideally, the qin was a daily necessity of the literati and cannot be bought or sold, for it is the vessel [embodiment?] of the teacher’s character, knowledge, refinement and ideals…but nonetheless the commercial nature of the qin has always existed, in economically developed regions its commoditization is especially evident” [2], Tam notes that the current market exists for pure commodity speculation: “With market value, the focus of the people are no longer tuned in on the timbre or the legend behind the instrument; we often only care how much money it is worth, to the degree that we may not even pay notice to whether it is a ‘good’ qin.”

Throughout Tam’s essay, she interlaces field study interviews conducted by Nan Hongyan toward qin makers, qin students in group classes, and qin teachers on pedagogies which contrast (if not a total reversal) from traditional method. In the interview at a qin group lesson, we are presented with three students at varying levels of skill but all expressing a negative feedback (eg. “looks/heard as difficult, didn’t learn much, don’t enjoy class” etc.), and in turn denouncing the system as an ineffective and inaccurate way of how ‘modern’ methods of pedagogy mutilate the interest into a profit and performance-driven enterprise. [3] No counter-example was given, however, at a more similar situation compared to traditional teaching or enjoyment of qin music, for example a student actually enjoying class at a 1-on-1 tutorial or at a gathering itself, where conservatory and lineage players alike perform in a social, un-pressured setting.

To further her position on affirming the irreplacibility of the oral tradition among literati-qin players, she indicated:

Scholars believe, traditional Chinese literati methods of teaching guqin is an oral one. For example Hong Kong player Lau Chor-Wah states: “All music, even after writen scores are settled, will require oral transmission. Guqin’s special trait is a [written] manuscript of techniques, but its fingerings all the more require oral transmission, and can only be transmitted by oral and spiritual transmission (kouchuan xinshou) generation after generation. A digression of transmission would only mean its mutation.
Yip Ming-Mei has further description on this oral and spiritual transmission, as she pointed, “[…]in playing face-to-face, the teacher unreservedly hands his/her own technique and style to the student…this method can be said that…teacher-student transission is done through the medium of music alone.[…][4]

A qin group session. All students practice on their own in the same room simultaneously, and may play in synchronization to the teacher in front.

Her counter-example, an undisclosed Nanjing teacher, taught students more difficult pieces from the start, arguing that rather than fixing to ‘beginner-level’ pieces, “any piece can be used as an introduction piece, as difficult techniques can be dealt with as one encounters them…the most important thing is not in this, but rather how to nurture your concept of the way of qin,” (p.186) was not to argue against oral or literati transmission, but as an alternate proof that the study of the qin focused primarily on cultivation.

Tam reinterprets Fredrik Barth’s theories on ethnic boundaries where identity is constructed not by inherent qualities or content but boundaries of social class or strata for the guqin world: “…in order to establish a literati-qin player identity, there mut be a ‘non-literati-player’ identity. The cultural [i.e. refinement] prerequisites towards students would be a most effective discrimination measure.” (p.189) She then proceeds to explain the necessity to this move as a trait among civilian lineage qin players emphasizing traditinal literati tastes and interests to contrast and compete for the definition of the culture from the conservatory-based ones, suggesting that the move is a defensive one.

Summarily, Tam alludes to the distinct divide between the wen-ren literati and the musician ‘commoner’ as social class differences, measured by the currency not of technique or skill, but in the number and quality of social and genealogical connections to other mutually-recognized players of said scholar-qin player circle. While Tam and Nan actively observed complementary commercial activities and sartorial preferences, there is an undertone of difference between these two strata in each of their approach. The ‘old traditional’ group was described in Nan’s field note example to “like to wear Tangzhuang during class instruction, as well…sell redwood furniture on the side” (p.174), while the newer class was portrayed as:

In these qin studios, ancient-styled furniture adorn the place, hanging some Chinese paintings, plum vases, gongfu tea etc. to give an air of serenity. Certain qin studios even exemplify their “ethnic Han traditions”, and in their yajis require participant to wear “ancient Han clothing (gudai hanfu). These various “traditional” operations’ purpose, is to exemplify its owners’ antiquarianism, to complement the “ancientness (gu)” of the gu-qin, to ensure the authenticity and real-ness, and the studio master’s legitimacy in lineage (daotong).[5]

Tam’s obvious failings to observe the current discourse between the ethnic-univseralist philosophies embodied in the Hanfu-Tangzhuang debate has led to a serious misinterpretation in thinking that the Hanfu-supporting faction (perceived as a trait of the ‘new-player’ camp, due to its relative novelty compared to the other) is a competition with the Manchu-based design in antiquarianism (as most Chinese usually do not see the ethnic divide but a temporal divide, that Han clothing simply ‘preceded’ the Manchu one), rather than as a symbol of a neo-liberal, post-colonialist social movement striving for ‘the truly authentic’ Chinese character.

It is most unfortunate that Tam’s portrayal of the Other in her essay consummately produces the image of a young, nouveau-riche or bourgeois urbanite with the desire of learning qin, for the sake of external prestige (be it high school credits, social status, etc.), but perhaps lacking (sometimes to a severe degree) true knowledge or cultivation in Chinese tradition (knowing “only guqin” and lacking training in other arts, say poetry or Classics; and lacks the mannerisms and courtesy of a well-learned person), and may perhaps be ‘strangely antiquarian’ (coupled with the last description, the Chinese unfortunately has the idiom of “Duke Ye’s Love of Dragons” to criticize the situation). When such people spend their hard-earned capital and now ‘buy’ their way into this once exclusive club, not only are the forces of ‘the learned aristocracy’ and ‘the commoner (former) proletariat’ are involved in this power play, but much more complex patterns in competition for leadership in defining (or re-defining) the image of this “Chinese culture’s Traditional Lineage (daotong)” into the future.

Yet, when we look beyond the guqin world (and perhaps, the hanfu one as well), we are faced with the looming question of hundreds of thousands of Chinese youth who largely fit the above description, all wanting a taste of what his/her ancestors can only dream or aspire to. Rather than simply look onto our current development of consumerism and influx of ‘lower-(education) class’ as the death of the qin tradition and even the literati class itself like Tam, Lau, and others, we should be wary that rather than the death of the concept of the literati, it may be simply be the death of their concept of it. Further topics worthy of individual contemplation might be, to begin, how to satisfy the sheer quantity of people and quality of the education they demand to have them become this ‘literati’ status? How much ‘less elite’ and ‘less excluive’ will this social class become in the future? What will a larger demographic base for this class bring in terms of thought and influence? What in-house reforms will happen with a complete shift of ideology within this social strata (eg. a “Hanist” one)? Partial shift?

It is an uncanny reference that Tam made in defining the old and new qin players as different social classes, for the class struggle and China often allude to evident, if not outright violent, conflicts.

Rather cower and sigh in the passing of ‘the last of the literati’, perhaps we should look forward with hope and dedication, that this uncertain future class of ‘literati-to-be’ and ‘literati-want-to-be’s do healthily and properly develop into a group worthy of continuing the Chinese spirit, and reaching new heights no previous generation, era, or epoch has ever gone before.


  1. Tam, Siumi Maria 譚少薇 and Nan, Hongyan 南鴻雁. “To Where is the Guqin Going? Chinese Contemporary Tradition of Guqin, Consumerism, and Literati Recognition” (《古琴往何處去﹖中國當代的古琴傳習﹐消費主義與文人認同》), in Lau Chor-Wah 劉楚華, Essays on Qin Studies: Traditions of the Guqin and its Human Ecology (《琴學論集﹕古琴傳承與人文生態》). Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 2010. pp.171-194)
  2. ibid., p.177
  3. pp.174-176
  4. p.184-185
  5. p.184

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Satsuki Shizuka 五月靜
    Mar 29, 2018 @ 14:51:13

    See a newer study by Omid Burgin (2017): http://www.omidburgin.com/productions/academic_articles.html


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