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

More Guqin=/=Guzheng from China

Another instance of Chinese students more correct and knowledgeable than their teachers.

For those interested in the original please see Baidu Guqin Tieba located http://tieba.baidu.com/p/1205771597.

P.S.: Congrats to TorGuqin website for over 70,000 hits in 2 years!

Our wits may be running dry…

Shen Xinhai (1855-1941). "停琴仕女圖" (Portrait of a Servant-lady Pausing from Qin-playing). Created in 1898.

 When this site was first founded, our basic mandate was to prove that “Guqin =/= Guzheng”, and we’ve made an (de)motivational poster gag about it. For that, TorGuqin would like to thank the Facebook International Qin Society for their collective effort on pitching in witty and snarky comments on the behaviour.

Courtesy of Mr. Muka Fushimi of Kamakura Qin Society, here we have yet another specimen ripe for such a play. However, we haven’t come up with a line that delivers enough punch. We want you to think up of a line to show your love of this totally boring transcendent tradition and pack a punch at it!

Here’s what we have so far:

Shuengit Chow: ‎:) what most “forced to play the qin” students are like most of the time, very honest painting.
title of painting: “I love guqin”. 🙂 [TL: Yes…zzzzzZZZZZZzzzz]
John Thompson: She really wants to play but her little sister is snoring too loudly. << [TL: I’m sure that’s a boy there…]
Juni L Yeung  “An Ox’s Mind – The censer does nothing!”

So, give your wits a little sharpening, and scribble your ideas in reply below!

Reading Reflections: Cecelia Lindqvist’s Qin (Part I)

Source: (Chinese transl.) Lindqvist, Cecelia. Qin (ZH-TW title Guqin de Gushi). Owl Publishing House (in agreement with Albert Bonniers Forlag), Taipei. (C) 2006,2009.

Translations below by the commentator (Juni Yeung).


p.42 (on learning Chunxiao Yin): “A piece of cake, a thought, since I have played the harpsichord for over twenty years, and the twin-stringed lute for another six.

But the reality was quite different – Every note on the guqin must be played unto perfection – many of the sounds are harmonics, with the right fingernail having to quickly brush by the strings to let it vibrate, while letting the left hand slightly touch the string and let the harmonics slide out from the stopped vibrations.

I went back home to practice, and started from the beginning at Beijing Guqin Research Association again. This went on in a cycle.”

Learning harmonics and having them pronounce correctly seem to be the relish of many qin players’ anecdotes, as they are perhaps the most difficult technique to grasp. However, for me, it’d be mastering expression on the pressed strings – for while Heaven lasts long and Earth abides (cf. Laozi), the “sound of Mankind” is still the most intricate and manifesting. Oh the diversity! Being a human is not easy – especially when compared to the functions of Heaven and Earth and its capabilities.

To continue:
“When we later finally began playing sections from some guqin pieces, I felt a big sigh of relief. But, learning progress is indescribably slow. We felt our way ahead, and after a few weeks, I asked Wang Di if I can have a few scales or excercises to bring home to practice. She didn’t get me – this isn’t just because of my stuttering Chinese. I tried to explain: Chords, scales, practice etudes, majors and minors, the whole gamut, practicing all my fingers! Just like learning to play the piano.

She looked at me in shock – how could you do this to an instrument? Do you really do this in your country? Do you not respect your musical instruments?
I thought that was probably the  first time I truly understood the reputation of the qin in Chinese culture.

Using the guqin to practice scales is of course a denigration to the instrument. The  nature of it is said to be unique. One single tone is enough, if it is played at the right time and at the right place. To play out a tone perfectly is not its goal, the key is in the qin player able to express through music his/her understanding of life [humanity]. Guqin is not the product of keyboard music, but a mirror to the soul.”

The irony is, beginning with Shen Caonong’s “Guqin for Children”, and later in Li Xiangting and Gong Yi’s books, these “training exercises” did become a reality. Coupled with mass-classes (as opposed to the one-on-one tutelage as Lindqvist received), the spirit of the qin is all but romantic pursuit by the young students of this generation. Not to say that this method doesn’t exist anymore, but “industrialized” qin pedagogy leaves the “product” (the hoards of middle-class children and teenagers) half-baked and out in the cold, to their own devices to seek for traces of the traditional spirit and romance among peer circles and online (itself a cold, harsh, and dirty place).

This is why I never bothered with “practice lines” in Standards of the Guqin, and said that the closest thing to “technical exercises” is in tuning the instrument itself. If one wishes to improve on basic technique, we’ve got Xianweng Cao and other fun little vignettes designed for building technique, while not being a total bore with mechanical repetitions of the same movement for a bajillion times.

Moving on: from page 53 to 54:
“The most enticing of guqin pieces, such as Meihua Sannong (Three Variations of the Plum Blossoms), I thought they were vivid and simple, so I didn’t spend much time practicing them. Asides from that, I actually heard Wang Di and Guan Pinghu play pieces I appreciate even more, such as Pingsha Luoyan, Ao Ai, Boya Diao Ziqi, and Hujia Shiba Pai. Wang Di thought they were too hard for me.
‘These types of pieces we usually wait until the third or fourth year before letting the student play it’, she said, ‘why do you like them so much?’
I attempted to explain my understanding of European Baroque music to her: Gregorian Chants, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Dowland’s “Tears” and those classic pieces considered the pinnacle of Middle Ages lute repertoire – not to mention J.S. Bach’s Unaccompanied Viol suites. They are quite different from guqin music, but have many similarities. I said that I was no novice, and talked about those beautiful music. I had a friend from Sweden bring me a tape recording to let her get my point. We also imported a huge Grundig tape recorder from Hong Kong to listen to it.
She was later convinced. One day she brought in the 1634 manuscript for
Pingsha Luoyan, which describes a flock of great geese, flying towards a sandy shore on a cold autumn day to rest and then fly away again. The story had nothing extraordinary, but it was a beautiful piece of music.”

Pingsha Luoyan is now an intermediate-level piece according to the guqin examination repertoire from 2006 and again confirmed in 2010, while Meihua and other pieces she mentioned lay much higher – again, because on a technical aspect, the latter pieces are indeed more challenging. However, how does an ‘industrialized’ qin tutelage quantitatively measure their clients’ progress on ‘spiritual development’? That is, if a piece like Pingsha is used as a standard measure of ‘transcendent behaviour’.

This is why I list “Pingsha Luoyan” in my advanced tutorials, not intermediate. So far, I haven’t really “taught” anyone it, for no student hath reached thus far, and I myself am reluctant to play it, questioning myself whether I am really at that level.

‘Standards’ Book Launch: Sept.30 @ Musideum!

From Musideum Newsletter, Sept. 2010: 

Juni L. Yeung will launch her new book, Standards of the Guqin, at Musideum on September 30, with a performance on Guqin and a reading of excerpts from her new book. 

 Date/time: Sept 30 (Thurs), 7PM.
NEW: The Facebook Page outlining the information

Admission $20.
Admission with Book $58. 
Books purchased in advance for this event will be autographed by the author.
>>>Please call 416 599 7323 to order a book in advance and make a reservation for the event. <<<

Details (Press read more):


Yaji Report: Cham Shan Temple, June 20, 2009

TorGuqin Cham Shan Temple Gathering, June 20, 2009.

TorGuqin Cham Shan Temple Gathering, June 20, 2009.

 On the rainy afternoon of Saturday, June 20, 2009, 10 members from TorGuqin gathered outside the main temple hall of Cham Shan Temple for a scheduled homage tour of the various deities and the projects held by the temple to spread Buddhism in Eastern Canada by establishing branches of major temples in China here.

Because of the nature of the sacred site, no pictures were taken. This tour began at 2:15 PM and proceeded until about 3:00 PM.

We later set up our equipment at Prajna Hall behind the main temple and featured a poem by our resident poet, Mr. Chow Yat-shing. We also informally shared some of our new books in private collections, including a copy of Wu Wenguang’s interpreted scores of the entire Shenqi Mipu.Here is the list of performances:

Juni Yeung, Songxia Guantao in Yanlulou Qinpu (1766), on silk strings.

 Michael Keith, Improvisation on a theme of the Temple, on nylon-metal strings

Alex Tsang, Qiusai Yin (also titled Saoshou Wentian or Shuixian Cao). As performed in the style of Wu Shaoji.
Yat-shing Chow, Yangguan Sandie as recorded in Guqin Quji.
Yanyan Zhu, Pu’an Zhou in unique style, based on the Mei’an score.
Alex Ryazanov, Songyu Beiqiu in Xilutang Qintong (1549)
The gathering ended at 5:30 PM, where some members joined for a dinner at Asian Legends Restaurant (Wei-xiang Chuan) afterwards.
Here are some more pictures:
Also a group photo. See who's different?

Also a group photo. See who's different?

Listening. Note that half of the attendees were in Hanfu.

Listening. Note that half of the attendees were in Hanfu.

Dapu’ing Songxia Guantao: A report

The hellish mess that comprises of a musician's nightmares unto daybreak.

The hellish mess that comprises of a musician's nightmares unto daybreak.

*re-released, final complete*

Back in sometime early 2008, Charlie Xu and I were invited by Christopher Evans on the Facebook Guqin group to dapu a “lone version piece” – a guqin melody by  the name of “Under the Pines, Watching the Waves” (Songxia Guantao), which “onlyexists in the manuscript Yanlulou Qinpu, published in 1766.” Albeit nine sections long, Christopher believed it would be an easily manageable and hoped that it would be fully interpreted in half a year and could get underway practicing soon.

How wrong we both were.

My sincere apologies for promising that so quickly. Exactly one year About 368.5 days after the question was asked, the dapu is complete. Most of the time was spent happily (or frustratingly) procrastinating on other things like starting this blog, Mabinogi, homework essays, and relatively futile articles on other topics that nearly made its way into an academic journal, but didn’t on grounds of pathetic office politics and email squabbles.

In the coming sections, I will be giving a full detailed report on the identifying and explaining the process and challenges of dapu, and give a reasoning to my musical interpretation and analysis in this 18th-Century score. For those who just want the score to download and play, it is available for download in five links after you click below.


No guqin gathering in February!

Duanqiao Chanxue

Hangzhou's 8 views: Duanqiao Chanxue

In light of the frequent gatherings (almost once every half-month instead of one), as well the instability of the weather and upcoming school schedule, there will be no guqin gathering until the beginning of March!

For those who are interested in listening to guqin music more around Toronto, please be sure to check out UTChinese Magazine’s New Year Concert on Saturday, Feb.7﹐ 2009! It will be held in the MacLeod Auditorium of the Medical Sciences Building, and doors open at 7PM! Tickets are $10 for regular and $20 for VIP seats, available from the UTChinese Booth in Robarts Library, 2nd Floor.

However, we are planning a different event – if you are interested in matching Chinese couplets (對聯), we are running an impromptu challenge – all who are interested in joining this challenge (one person gives the top couplet, you respond to it, and write a new one) can email me to join in. The address can be found under the Guqin section.

On a personal note, I was recently hit with the Norfolk virus and I had great pains lasting through it, even on four types of medication. Please mind your personal hygiene and cleanliness at all times!

Review of Gathering, Jan.09; video updates

 Thank you to all those who attended the New Year’s yaji! The atttendence for this event was 6, and we went overtime in playing pieces and showing the newest progress in TorGuqin! More

Winter Solstice Gathering 08 – Review

Despite the heavy winds and the THREE snowstorm warnings, 10 of us were able to converge and celebrate the going of a year and from here on, our daylight hours begin to increase again!


TorGuqin Gathering, Nov.9, 2008 Review

Thank you to all who have attended our gathering today, it was a great turnout of over 10 people! (Some people had to leave early and weren’t in this group photo, but don’t worry – we’ve got you other pictures!) Let’s review some of the happenings today.


Standards of the Guqin: A TorGuqin project

University of Toronto Guqin Association (UTQA) - The first name of TorGuqin, est.2005.

University of Toronto Guqin Association (UTQA) - The first name of TorGuqin, est.2005.

Back in the autumn of 2005 to 2006, new guqin associations sprang up in North America and Europe like new bamboo shoots after a spring rain. At the same time, Internet activity for all kinds of Chinese art were boiling with activity in China, but since they were all in Chinese, many interested in the culture were left out in this new wave of movements with outdated Sinological sources in English.

Such is still the case today for the guqin, even though John Thompson and Jim Binkley have made most of their painstaking translation and research open for the public to refer to. My student Alex has noted on several occasions people are asking him where and how to learn guqin, or to find sources on the subject. While pointing to the two scholars aforementioned, there is still something missing from it all, and it’s still not open-sourced.

I am a supporter of the Creative Commons license, and the English guqin textbook project I named “Standards of the Guqin” began in 2006, with the intention of providing an open-sourced resource to ensure that in our age of digital information, all who wish to obtain this knowledge, can.


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