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”. More


June 2019
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