TIRED of the urban hustle and bustle, my wife and I took a week off last month and went to Mount Wuyi, in northern Fujian Province. We brought our qin (a seven-string plucked instrument) with us, emulating the ancient Chinese literati who would lose themselves in nature amid the company of soothing music.
With a low and ethereal tone, the qin had been a literati’s spiritual companion since Confucius’ time, as it’s imbued with Confucian and Daoist ideals of balance and benevolence. Closer to our own times, however, the qin was classified as a “feudal” musical instrument and became a taboo object during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). Many ancient qin were burned and people dared not play them openly.
The instrument’s big moment of revival came only in 2003, when the United Nations listed it as part of the world’s non-tangible cultural heritage. But even today, many Chinese people still cannot tell the qin from the zheng — a 21-string musical instrument that’s much louder.
So we were really surprised, on our first day at Mount Wuyi, to meet quite a few local “converts” to qin music.
A young man, a mutual acquaintance, received us at the railway station — about three hours from Shanghai by bullet train. After taking us to a small farmer’s inn and a casual dinner nearby, he and his wife invited us to a downtown teahouse. Knowing that we play the qin, they told us that there was a qin in the teahouse, but only for decoration — no one there actually knew how to play it.
Unexpected soul mates
As we entered the nicely furbished teahouse, a qin displayed on the wall greeted our eyes. The young couple and the owner of the teahouse are old acquaintances, so I was encouraged to take the qin off the wall. It was dusty and the strings were too raw and rough to move without causing pain to my fingers.
I used a piece of cloth to clean it, and managed to play a few famous ancient melodies, like “Pu An Mantra” and “Flowing Spring on Stones,” in the presence of six or seven people, all of them tea connoisseurs. Everyone was quiet. After I finished playing, a woman in her early 20s, who is a tea artist, said she liked the serene sound of the qin. Our friend said it was his first time to hear someone play the qin so close to him. He then wrote a poem in praise of the qin’s “heavenly” sound.
Two days later, he brought us to a tea factory situated in misty mountains, where we found a soul mate in its top manager, a 40ish man who has been in the tea business since he was a teenager. “It’s great to listen to qin music while having tea. Maybe it’s because tea has taught me to have a cool and simple mind,” said the man, surnamed Zheng. “Without a cool and simple mind, one can hardly discover the true taste of tea. I would say that anyone who truly loves tea will also love the qin.”
In some ways, my story echoes professor Zeng Chengwei’s in the 1970s, as recorded in the book, “The Oral History of Qin Players in Sichuan,” edited by Dr Yang Xiao, the first oral history about qin players in China.
‘Calm and courageous’
According to the book, Zeng learned the qin from his grandfather Yu Shaoze (1903–1988), a qin guru, and now teaches the qin at Sichuan Conservatory of Music.
“In 1976, Chengdu (capital of Sichuan Province) was frequented by earthquakes, so people in our neighborhood set up temporary tents and slept therein,” he recalled. “In deep nights washed by moonlight, I would sit up and play the qin on a makeshift desk, only to find that everyone was up and listening, quietly. Grandpa told me that the qin could cultivate a nobler character. I wondered why. Grandpa replied that the qin could make one calm and courageous enough to face one’s true self.”
Zeng did not say whether those listeners eventually became qin fans, as my young friend in Mount Wuyi did (he asked us to buy him a qin and has now begun to learn it), but he did make it clear that the qin is not just a musical instrument that pleases the ear only. Instead it’s a carrier of traditional Chinese values that sows the seeds of balance and benevolence in the listener’s mind with ethereal tones from unusually long strings and highbrow melodies in praise of nature and naivety.
Yu Wenyan, daughter of Yu Shaoze, said her father was actually quite “fashionable,” being versed in English and Western music. He played piano, pipa and xiao (vertical bamboo flute). But to him, none of these had the depth of the qin, Yu Wenyan said.
According to Zeng, the qin was a spiritual companion not just for Confucian scholars, but also for Daoists and Buddhists. In fact, his family tradition of the qin was linked with Zhang Kongshan, a Daoist qin guru from Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan. Zhang’s version of “Flowing Water,” performed by Guan Pinghu (1897–1967), another qin master, was sent into space by US NASA in 1977 as a Chinese representative of Earthly sounds.
Since 2003, Zeng and his students have been helping Mount Qingcheng restore its qin tradition by teaching local Daoists how to play. In 2006, he played “Flowing Water,” wearing the habit of a Daoist, and the audiences all took him as a true Daoist. Once he performed in Hong Kong in similar attire, and an audience member asked him which temple he was from.
“I replied that I was a roaming Daoist with no regular residence,” he said. “In retrospect, I was right: My qin art originates from a Daoist school at Mount Qingcheng, so it’s not exaggerating to say that I’m someone who goes around in the world of art, seeking the Dao (the Way).”
Like many other qin players interviewed in the book, Zeng took it upon himself to spread the qin art. He went to Britain four times at the invitation of Britain’s Asian Music Center between 2004 and 2009 to lecture on the qin. “Our audiences included students, engineers and civil servants, and they came from Britain, the United States, Germany, Canada and Japan,” he said. “Communication was perfect, although we spoke different languages.” In 2012, he and his son were both invited to London to further spread the knowledge about the qin.
Pleasing more than ears
To my joyful surprise, the qin, which has long been confined to a small literati class, is increasingly welcomed by ordinary people who long for an escape from an over exposure to sensual pleasures in a consumerist environment.
It does not have to be that everyone should learn to play the qin; it’s enough that the qin is there if someone feels like listening to it. It will prosper if only it remains true to itself — this will mean retaining its role as a soul soother, instead of becoming just any other musical instrument to please the ear only.
Certainly, there are different views. In the oral history book, some think it is first of all a musical instrument, and there’s no need to “burden” it with “too much of the literati tradition.”
Here’s the value of the book: It lets a hundred flowers blossom. Only agreement to disagree can lead to enlightenment on how we can best appreciate the ancient art of the qin.