Guqin melody Flowing Water goes back a very long time, having been referenced in historical literature such as LieZi (《列子》) and LvShi ChunQiu (《呂氏春秋》) dating back to the Spring Autumn Period (722 BC to 481 BC). This song was played by famed guqin player BoYa to his cherished friend ZiQi, who understood and appreciated the meanings BoYa tried to convey through his music. The enduring bond between the player and listener was captured in a fabled story of friendship, borne out of music, which is cherished and praised to this present day. Formerly part of a combined song called High Mountains Flowing Water, the song was broken up into High Mountains and Flower Water during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The official collection of Flowing Water first appeared in ShenQi MiPu during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD). Versions which survive to this day are predominantly later versions.
Taking full advantage of the vast array of guqin fingering techniques, Flowing Water is a uniquely expressive piece describing the difference actions of flowing water through its life cycle. The melody starts off with an elusive and subtle beginning, much like water drops from melting ice and morning dew seeping through cracks and dripping over rocks as they gently gather into small streams high up in the mountains.
The tempo then picks up with clear harmonics, just as a swirling brook gathers pace on its way down, brushing over smoothened rocks and pebbles with the swiftness and energy of delightful youth. Up above, the traveling clouds and standing trees silently bear witness to the water’s opening chapter of life, occasionally sending raindrops and falling leaves as little messengers to the murmuring surface of the brook, heralding the first steps of a dynamic journey these millions of youths are about to embark.
The melody reaches a climax as the raging river shows off its zenith of life. Roaring torrents and cresting waves storm past the river banks, threatening to jump up and snatch anything standing in their way, and voice their thundering chorus of fearless invincibility, offering no room for subtlety and delicateness.
From there, the thundering roars retreat and eventually come to a peaceful finale, as the river matures and slowly snakes and winds its way into the vastness of the ocean. The sounds of soothingly gentle waves, glistening with millions of moon beams, weave a canvas of nocturnal serenity as the song draws to a close.
In 1977, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft by NASA embarked on an infinite journey into outer space in search of intelligent life forms. Among the souvenirs brought along by the spacecrafts was a Voyager Golden Record, a gold plated CD containing human music from around the world. Thanks to the advocacy of guqin scholar Wen-chung Chou, Flowing Water, performed by guqin master Guan PingHu, was the single piece of Chinese music included in the recording. “Singing Phoenix”, made during the South Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 AD), was used to perform the song.
BoYa: Shining Star of Guqin
The fabled story of an enduring friendship built upon music took place during the Spring Autumn Period. Yu BoYa (俞伯牙，Yu is the last name) was an official of the royal court of one of the warring states named Jin (晉) and the most renowned guqin player of the time. How BoYa acquired and honed his guqin skills is interesting in and of itself and worthy of a detour.
According to historical records, BoYa cut his teeth following his instructor Lian Cheng over a period of three years. Despite BoYa having fully acquired the technical skills of guqin, his instructor felt that his student’s music lacked feeling. One day he suggested to BoYa that he learn how to play with feeling by following the teacher’s own instructor who lived on a remote island. Upon arriving on the island by boat, the teacher told BoYa to stay behind while he rowed off to fetch the new instructor.
For several days BoYa was left behind by himself on the island with no sight of his returning teacher. Isolated and despaired with no other soul around, all he heard and experienced was the roaring sounds of breaking waves on the shore, the quietude of rustling leaves in gentle breezes and chirping birds in the deep woods, and the squealing of seabirds hovering in the sky. It was then when he realized what his teacher intended to do – cultivate his inner feelings. Relaxed, he took out his guqin and began to play and sing. Soon after, his teacher returned in his boat.
From that day onwards, BoYa’s musical skill transcended to yet another higher level, and he became the greatest player of the time. Historian XunZi (荀子) once praised that his music was so captivating that even horses paused from eating to listen to him play.
Perhaps because of the highbrow nature of his music which drew a meager chorus, BoYa often lamented the dearth of listeners who understood his music. After becoming a celebrity, he was once invited by the king of Chu, apparently a music lover, to perform at the royal palace. During the performance, BoYa observed the king’s behavior and concluded that he did not know music, let alone appreciate the inner feelings of his performances. He sighed and said, “Is there anyone in this ocean of people who appreciates my music?” Abruptly, he stopped his performance and walked out of the palace.
Through High Mountains Flowing Water Found the Friendship of Music 高山流水遇知音
During Mid-Autumn Festival one year, BoYa was on a diplomatic mission to the State of Chu on behalf of the king of Jin. While sailing along River Hanyang, he ran into a fierce storm. Unable to move forward, the stranded BoYa got ashore and waited out the storm in the nearby woods near Hankou (modern Wuhan). At some point the rain stopped and the sky cleared. Silvery moon beams shone through the clouds and set a mood of serenity in the surroundings filled with the freshness of air cleansed by the rain. Inspired by the picturesque setting, BoYa took out his qugin and started playing in his boat.
Thoroughly immersed in the scenery and his melody, BoYa was startled out of his dreamy retreat when he noticed someone was hiding in the shadows. In his shock, he overused the strength of his finger and caused one of his guqin strings to snap. Annoyed and embarrassed, he shouted out to the distant darkness and asked who was hiding in the shadows. To which someone replied, “Excuse me for being inappropriate, but I was stranded by the rain. I heard some beautiful music and was thoroughly absorbed by it.”
BoYa looked in the direction of the voice, and saw a man dressed like a woodcutter, with a hat over his head and straw rain cape over his body, standing in the shadows and holding onto a shoulder pole. Curious, BoYa asked if he understood what he was playing. To which the woodcutter replied, “Please forgive my ignorance, as my music knowledge is quite limited. Just now I think you were playing Returning Gaze With Teary Eyes. You were at the fourth verse when the cord broke. I hope I guessed it right.” BoYa was pleasantly surprised that the woodcutter named the song correctly. Seeing that the woodcutter was polite and proper, he invited him onto his boat.
BoYa asked the woodcutter if he would be able to describe the songs he played. The woodcutter said, “Music comes from the inner soul. The sounds reverberating from the cords are a reflection of what you feel in your mind. A true listener, of course, would be able to pick it up.” Encouraged, BoYa replaced the broken cord. After a brief moment of settling silence, rolling sounds began to come out of his fingers. The woodcutter, upon listening to the music, sighed and said, “Sounds of towering peaks…like high mountains.” BoYa was slightly shocked, but decided not to respond but continue to play along. At some point, the woodcutter said, “Gently flowing sounds…like a running river.”
Overwhelmed with joy, BoYa stood and formally introduced himself: “Indeed I had high mountains in mind when I played the first song and running river in the second. You really understand my music. May I ask your name? ” The woodcutter told BoYa his name was Zhong ZiQi （鐘子期）. To BoYa’s shock, ZiQi also happened to be a well known official in the royal court who grew weary of the corrupt society and decided to quit politics and lead the simple life of a woodcutter. The two were overjoyed by this chance encounter and talked all night. From then on, they became good friends and often arranged to travel together.
The two friends cherished their friendship and wished they had met sooner. BoYa was especially delighted to have found someone who appreciated his music, often mentioning to him that life would have been extremely lonely without his music friend. The two tremendously enjoyed the time spent together and dreaded the moment they had to depart. As part of every farewell, they never failed to set the date for their next meeting.
Several years later, BoYa returned to the pre-arranged meeting place, looking forward to seeing his good friend again. To his horror, he learned that ZiQi had passed away some time ago. Devastated by the loss, BoYa came in front of his grave and howled. Exhausted from his grief, he took out his guqin and played the music they used to share. As the music slowly came through, he was overcome with anguish, realizing that there would no longer be another person in the world who would understand his music. And, without finishing the song, he pulled apart the cords and smashed the guqin in front of his grave, saying to himself, “Dear friend, your brother will never again play guqin.”
Since then, the sounds from BoYa’s guqin forever vanished from this world, leaving behind only the touching story of a friendship built upon the love of music. Over time, the phrase “high mountains flowing water” also evolved into a Chinese metaphor for enduring friendship. To commemorate their fabled encounter, a memorial called the Lute Platform (古琴台, also called BoYa Platform) was erected during the Song Dynasty where the two were believed to have first met near Hanyang (part of modern day Wuhan). The platform was ravaged multiple times, but was managed to be fully restored during the Qing Dynasty. It is nowadays one of the tourist highlights in the area.
The yearning for friends who truly understand each other and who one can share is not only a desire of past scholars which dissolved with the passage of time. The need for friends who mutually resonate each other’s feelings remains as strong in modern days, beneath the veneer of an over-abundance of online followers, ‘likes’ and apparent outpours of ready approvals.