Guqin – A Glimpse of the Scholarly Tradition Behind the Music

Sherwood Chen - Posted on 15 December 2009

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Master guqin artist Wang Fei (right) and apprentice Kwan Wong (left) sit with their guqin in Wang's Union City home studio.

By North American Guqin Association

The guqin (or qin), a seven-stringed zither, is China's oldest stringed instrument, with a documented history of about 3,000 years. It became part of a tradition cultivated by Chinese scholars and literati since the time of Confucius. Its reputation rests not only on the rich and diverse musical expression it is capable of, but also on the fact that it has been revered as a symbol of Chinese high culture – the essence of Chinese thought and philosophy are integral to the qin repertoire itself. The guqin came to be viewed as one of the "Four Old Evils" and was the only musical instrument to be banned during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the practice of playing the guqin and the instrument itself became endangered. In 2003, UNESCO declared the art of the guqin a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

There are very few teachers who teach the guqin as a scholarly tradition today, even in China. Guqin master Wang Fei is one of these few.  Wang Fei and her apprentice Kwan Wong, both residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, are current participants in ACTA’s 2009 Apprenticeship Program. Wang Fei is the founder and director of the North America Guqin Association, a non-profit organization that promotes guqin culture in the Bay Area and beyond through local events and its informative website. She began studying with Professor Li Xiangting, the world’s leading guqin master, in Beijing in 1985. Kwan Wong, who holds a BA in Music from the University of California, Berkeley, began his study with Wang Fei in 2001.

The apprenticeship is designed to provide a comprehensive survey of guqin culture as well as musical training through three complementary courses: Private lessons which emphasize an extensive review of the fingering technique and the traditional repertoire; Cultural classes which cover a wide range of cultural topics essential to a deeper understanding of guqin culture; and the Guqin and Chinese Poetry Class in which Kwan served as the teaching assistant, and had the opportunity to observe directly how students were taught. One of the main objectives of the apprenticeship is to keep alive not only the traditional means of transmitting a traditional Chinese art form, but also the way traditional values – as embodied by the close relationship between master and apprentice – are transmitted.

Teachers in ancient China enjoyed a very high social status – the title “Shifu”, which literally means “Teacher and Father”, suggests that teachers have as much responsibility in a person’s upbringing as a parent, and they are respected as such. Guqin music is an ancient scholarly art form with 3000 years of history. The teacher-student lineage is an important aspect of the heritage, since the tradition has been transmitted from generation to generation. Anapprentice learns about qin culture through frequent contact with the master – a lot of learning is done through casual conversation, analogy, and discussion about other art forms such as poetry, calligraphy and brush painting.

Wang Fei said, “I was trained in such a traditional way under a great traditional master. It opened my mind and influenced my life, to my great benefit. My teacher was teaching me not only skill on the guqin as a musical instrument, but was also a mentor, teaching me how to behave, how to think and a way of life. ” Wang Fei wants to keep this tradition alive in her teaching especially in this apprenticeship program. “I hope to use the guqin as a vehicle to promote Chinese culture and introduce the scholar’s way of life to America, to improvepeople’s lives for the better and show Chinese Americans like Kwan that they have a heritage that they should be very proud of,” Wang Fei reflected.

“Can a student learn without a teacher?  Yes, it is possible in the beginning.” Wang Fei suggested introductory video programs and textbooks by master players as a viable alternative if a student could not find a local qualified teacher, but she warned beginners against spending too much time on the internet, since there is a lot of inaccurate information out there. The guqin is not only a scholarly art, but also a living tradition.  There is nothing that can replace the master-apprentice relationship.

“Can a student learn without a cultural background? Yes, it is also possible in the beginning, since music is a universal language. But a serious student who wants to learn any traditional art must learn it the traditional way and try to respect the culture. It is not possible to become a real guqin master by treating the guqin solely as an art form and disregarding the cultural background essential to its aesthetics,” Wang Fei commented.

Although Kwan had been studying the guqin for eight years, his knowledge of qin culture was still rather limited in comparison to a master’s encyclopedic knowledge. As part of the apprenticeship, Wang Fei prepared a series of cultural lessons – lectures on topics that range from guqin aesthetics, qin songs and the history of qin schools, to the cultural and historical context of individual pieces – in order to fill the gaps of the apprentice’s knowledge.

On December 3rd, 2009, Kwan acted as an interpreter for world leading guqin master Li Xiangting’s lecture at the prestigious Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley. Afterwards, many people came to Kwan to express their appreciation and to praise his knowledge and expert interpretation. Wang Fei said, “I am glad to see how well Kwan handled the task this time. This was like an exam at the end of his six months of cultural classes, since most attendees were Chinese culture experts – scholars and academics – but they all praised his work.”

How to make the art of the guqin traditional come alive, especially in the West? One of most important things to do is to teach guqin students correctly according to the tradition, and train some of them to become qualified guqin teachers to teach future generations.

Every week six to eight enthusiastic students, all of them beginners who had only been studying guqin for a few months, met at Wang Fei’s teaching studio in Union City for the Guqin and Chinese Poetry Class. As teaching assistant, Kwan helped new students and observed how the master taught and demonstrated.

After months of intensive hard work, Kwan led some of the beginner students, who he had helped to train, in a public performance at the “Music of Confucius” concert presented by the North American Guqin Association at the Milpitas Community Center on June 21, 2009. The auditorium was filled to capacity with an appreciative audience of three hundred, and it was an exhilarating experience that the beginner students are not likely to forget. Perhaps they have even inspired a few in the audience to embark on their own journey of guqin study.

 “I remember reading a quote by Amy Tan, ‘As soon as my feet touched China, I became Chinese.’  Although I was born and raised in a traditional Chinese family in Hong Kong, I have never felt more Chinese than when I placed my fingers on the strings of a guqin for the first time. It is as if I, too, instantly became Chinese by touching a musical instrument that generations of Chinese scholars and philosophers including Confucius had played,” said Kwan.  “I am very grateful that I found Wang Laoshi (Laoshi is a respectful way to address the teacher in Chinese) eight years ago and have the opportunity to participate in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program. In the future, I hope I can use what I have inherited from Wang Laoshi to pass down the authentic guqin tradition to the next generation.”

For more about the guqin and to listen to and watch guqin music, please visit North American Guqin Association’s website.

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