Never heard about the ‘guqin’ before? You probably saw many of them in century-old paintings depicting life in Chinese courts. The guqin is indeed a seven-stringed zither, a feature of China thousand-year old culture.
With a history of over 3,000 years, the guqin, hailed by some people as “father of the Chinese music”, has long been in the centre of China’s musical life. It had attracted sages like Confucius and even emperors, leaving famous melodies for Chinese audiences such as “High Mountain” and “Flowing Water”.
For millennia, any educated Chinese elite was expected to be proficient at playing guqin, along with game of go and Chinese chess, calligraphy and painting. However, the contemplative guqin has lacked an understanding audience and been eclipsed by showier musical instruments during much of the 20th century, including Western imports like piano and violin.
The guqin does now experience a revival, as reported by China news agency Xinhua. Modern craftmen are now looking to create the instrument such as Dong Jinyun, who tried fist to craft guqin with a kitchen knife at home nine years ago. “It was quite tough at the beginning because I didn’t know how to make it,” Dong told Xinhua.
The moment Dong was mesmerized for the first time by what he called “the great sound of nature and inner peace” from masterpieces of guqin, he decided to start his musical odyssey.
To craft the guqin, Dong collected every design and information he could get from libraries, museums and the Internet. But the few and vague description made him nail-biting.
It took him more than three months to go through all the difficulties and cut his first instrument, unpolished and unpainted, which professionals said could only make a sound and was not qualified for performance.
The self-taught journey was nothing easy. Dong travelled as far as Shanghai, Jiangsu and Shaanxi in China’s east and west to learn from guqin-making and playing masters. He also visited timber markets across the country for precius wood such as cedar from which the instrument is crafted.
Dong quickly became a carpenter filling his toolbox with axes, saws, chisels and abrasive paper, and later a musician who can fluently play many famous guqin pieces.
Four years ago, he moved his studio from his living room to a workshop with a floor space of 1,100 square meters in suburban Kunming as his craftsmanship was getting more exquisite. With more than 100 working steps to follow, he spent more time crafting a fine piece — at least 18 months for each instrument.
“The key to making a guqin is patience,” Dong said.
So far, he has made more than 200 instruments that weigh 3.5 to 4 kg each, including his cedarwood master work that mixes particles of agate, pearl, cinnabar, turquoise, red coral and lapis lazuli with raw lacquer. He set the price for the instrument between 25,000 to 50,000 yuan (about 3,750 to 7,500 U.S. dollars) each. Guqin has been a luxury and favored by collectors since ancient times.
In 2010, a guqin owned by Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) of the Northern Song Dynasty fetched 137 million yuan in an auction in Beijing, setting the highest record ever for a musical instrument. Another guqin of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was auctioned off for 115 million yuan in Beijing in 2011.
As guqin is regaining popularity in China, millions of people are pouring time and money into the instrument. Dong estimated that there are about 30,000 guqin lovers in Yunnan Province alone.
“Guqin creates a bonding between the musician and the audience,” Dong said, citing the story of musician Boya and woodcutter Ziqi back in the Spring and Autumn Period between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C.
According to historical records, Boya was playing a guqin in a forest when a passing Ziqi stopped to listen. As Boya strummed the sound of clouds, Ziqi saw them billowing; when Boya conjured a waterfall, Ziqi saw it cascading.
Years later, when the woodcutter died, Boya knew no one would so intuitively comprehend his music as Ziqi did. So he smashed his instrument and quitted playing ever after.
So deeply embedded is the guqin in the Chinese culture that it mirrors the past of the country and the nation’s all-encompassing moral philosophy that cherishes a lifestyle of moderation, self-cultivation and decorum.
“The sound of guqin can bring us inner peace,” Dong said, “it’s hard to imagine what the Chinese culture would look like without guqin.”
Now 44, Dong is eager to pass on the guqin-making craftsmanship to the younger generation. “Devotion and determination are what we need to inherit our cultural heritage,” he explained to Xinhua.