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Guqin and Chinese Philosophies


Since emerging from its early forms some 4000 years ago, the guqin has been an inseparable part of everything that defines ancient China – her equally long history, multiple disciplines of philosophy and religion, literature and culture.

When it comes to philosophy, thought and religion, the qugin has become an instrument for a believer, through playing, to attain a higher level of understanding. At the same time, the guqin melodies are heavily influenced by and a reflection of the mental orientations of the composers and performers who, more often than not, are practitioners of such ideologies.

It is worth noting that Chinese philosophies and religions do not quite fit with the conventional definitions of their Western counterparts. They are more like a set of ideologies for governing a country, interacting with others, regulating the family, and cultivating one’s character. In that sense, the term ‘thought’ would be more fitting.

Three thoughts have dominated China for the past 3000 years: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.


Founded by Confucius (551 – 479 BC) during the period of the Warring States, Confucianism was briefly suppressed after the First Emperor of Qin united the country, but flourished and became the dominant thought after the fall of Qin. It bears little semblance of a conventional religion, as its institution is not a separate church but rather the existing institutions of state, society and family, etc. It encompasses a set of social and ethical codes for different roles within a social hierarchy, such as the relationship between rulers and subjects, teachers and students, and family relationships. Participants should understand to which defined roles of human relationships they belong and should behave according to the set of accepted values and behaviors for such roles. Collectively, a unified and stable social fabric can thus be stitched together up and down the entire social hierarchy.

Further to the promise of a harmonious society where everyone treats each other with respect and knows where he/she is in the social hierarchy and the roles he/she plays, Confucian teachings enshrine a stable and enduring social order which, incidentally but consequently, favors the status quo. As a result, the fact that Confucianism was favored by the state and its ruling class is a little less than surprising.

Not only was guqin music played during important rituals held in imperial courts, the guqin also played an educational role in helping a refined person exercise self control. Confucians’ emphasis on balance and moderation (the Doctrine of the Mean, or 中庸 ), when applied to guqin music, helped define the mainstream preferences and judgment on its artistic beauty in which the primary emphasis was on harmonization. Translated to sounds and melodies, that means the distinguishing features of guqin music was the sound of moderation, as in “not too light and not too heavy”.


Equal in importance as Confucianism in Chinese thinking is Daoism (or Taoism), the roots of which can be traced to the 4th century BC and, in particular, to the teachings and writings of philosopher Laozi and later on Zhuangzi.

Daoism, in the broadest sense, emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao, the principle which governs everything that exists in the universe. By accepting and yielding to the laws of nature, a Daoist believes a peaceful and carefree life can be achieved. As such, Daoism advocates simplicity, passivity and little government, a set of human characters which complement and contrast that of the Confucians characterized by a moral and duty-conscious character and an involved and purposeful character.

As someone who venerated nature and pursued realms of ‘dispassion’, Laozi advocated a musical style that is “so bland” and “without flavor”, promoting the spirit of nature, doing without ado, and of embodying the Dao. His thoughts and also those of Zhuangzi are reflected in various aspects of thinking about guqin artistry, and their influence has been long-lasting and profound.  They settled the guqin’s unique artistic style of lasting appeal, quietude and elegance, stressing overtones, and pursuing spiritual creative realms.


Buddhism spread into China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), and its doctrine was quickly embraced by the masses and was highly esteemed by the literati. Buddhism and Chinese culture assimilated and blended with each other, which led to its rapid development. The appearance of the Chan (Zen) sect in particular, had a profound influence on the lifestyle pursuits, literary and artistic creativity, and aesthetic tastes of the traditional literati, with the result that Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism (the “Three Teachings”) became the three pillars of traditional Chinese culture.

Many who practiced the religion believed that Zen meditation and learning the guqin were subject to the same rules, both requiring “sudden enlightenment” in order to transcend the self and transcend the mundane world to arrive at the ultimate realm. For them, the process of learning guqin parallels the Zen method of “seeking the Dao through calming the mind” to realize detachment from all things. As in a Buddhist goal of attaining Buddhist principles through purifying the mind, a guqin performer should also take the “purity of the mind” approach through first purifying the fingering, eliminating all irregular and mixed sounds, to eventually reaching “The sparser the sounds, the longer lasting the meaningful charm,” to enter the realm of “profound subtlety”.

Gentleness and Mildness as Artistic Norm

No matter whether one takes the doctrine of Confucianism, Buddhism or Daoism as his/her starting point, there may be different views regarding such things as the function and purpose of music, but concerning the aesthetics of musical arts, their overall characteristics are identical. Their artistic norms were “gentleness” and “mildness”, and they took old-style simplicity, elegance, mildness and gentleness as the highest standard of beauty, rejecting trendy, vulgar, gaudy, seductive music.  This universally shared norm determines the formation and standardization of guqin art.

The Humanistic Spirit

Throughout the life of scholar-officials, no matter whether they pass the Civil Service Exams and enjoy the peak of success, or spend their life scurrying in mediocrity; no matter whether they enjoy the pleasure of having empathetic friends, or suffer the solitude of loveless longing; no matter whether they roam far horizons in search of Truth, or renounce the pen for the sword on the frontier, the guqin always expresses what is in the heart of educated people, conveys their thoughts, becoming their spiritual companion and guardian of their soul.

The most fundamental reason why the guqin became the most beloved instrument of educated people in ancient China is that the guqin’s unique cultural characteristics conform to the ideological foundations and self-conduct models of China’s educated people.

That is to say, the interchange of Confucian and Daoist ideologies needs no toppling or re-doing of mindsets, only a shifting back and forth, so people can rather nimbly choose between the lifestyle paths of “offering themselves in service to society” or “nurturing themselves living as a recluse”.

When ambitions could be fulfilled, they embraced Confucianism, got involved in society, became government officials, and optimistically pursued their goals. When ambitions were thwarted, they venerated Daoism and renounced society to live in seclusion, withdrawing to engage in self cultivation. Or perhaps they might achieve quietude beyond that of the Daoists to enter into the Zen Buddhist world aloof from the struggles of society. Among the educated people of ancient China, this gave rise to the behavioral model called “Confucianism for orderly times; Daoism for self-cultivation; Buddhism for nurturing the mind”.

Symbiotic Relationship

As a result, the symbiotic relationship between the guqin and Chinese philosophies and religions, primarily Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, in the country’s long history is deep rooted. On the one hand, the musical instrument becomes the instrument of choice for the educated class to express oneself and cultivate one’s character. On the other hand, the three mainstream thoughts ensure that moderation and subtlety become the widely accepted standard of guqin art.


Note: This article is significantly sourced from The Way of the Guqin.
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