《北齊校書圖》Organizing the Historical Archives, 556 AD (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Whether it is the unique and aesthetic sound qualities of the guqin which attracted millenniums of the Chinese scholarly class to this ancient musical instrument, or it is the self-select nature of the literati looking for a channel to express themselves, the symbiotic relationship between the guqin and its practitioners is abundantly apparent, as witnessed in allusions to the instrument in countless historical records and literature. To claim that the guqin is interwoven into and forms an inseparable part of Chinese history, philosophy, religion and literature is far from a hyperbole.
A quiet instrument with low tones, the guqin is naturally suited to instill a mood of serenity. Poems, paintings and guqin melodies have been the favorite means for Chinese scholars throughout history to express their love of nature – in fact, it was not uncommon for many such scholars to be versed in all three. These art forms were also common escapes for the same scholarly class who chose to withdraw from the politics of public life or escape persecution and retreat into the solitude of nature, where they indulged themselves with the Four Arts of Chinese Scholars – qin (guqin), chess, literature and painting. It was in such settings – in total harmony with nature and in their self-imposed, hermitic exile, or in exclusive company where all shared similar philosophy, morality, world views, and, better yet, love for the Four Arts – where gugin music was played in privacy to captured audiences, whether they were humans with mutual trust and admiration or, lacking such, trees and birds in the woods.
Often times, playing of the instrument would be accompanied by rituals, from taking a long cleansing bath and putting on a guqin gown specifically for the occasion, to burning of incense during the performance. Whereas the significance of a cleansing bath has been greatly diminished with the advent of modern convenience of central hot water systems, guqin gowns and incense retain their ritualistic roles to this day.
Perhaps as a consequence of the type of players the guqin attracted and their aforementioned personal circumstances, guqin musicians made little attempt to court popularity. Rather, these philosophers and sages deliberately steered away from the great unwashed and, instead, tried to appeal to the spiritual sides of one’s sensibilities.
Little wonder then, ancient guqin music – modern pieces are relatively rare – might be hard to appreciate at first for the uninitiated.
For modern day listeners who are accustomed to music designed for entertainment or to evoke strong emotional responses with their fast beat and highly simulative sounds, guqin music might come across as plain and boring. However, for those who seek refuge from hyper-stimulation and yearn for something which appeals to the inner soul, guqin music serves such aesthetic purposes and connects one with nature as well as the deeper meanings of life and religion.
For those who have grown weary of the bombardment of stimuli from their surroundings or wish to escape present day social discourse, increasingly intolerant and partisan and amplified by the ‘social media mob’ thinly masked by online anonymity, guqin music is an oasis where one can roll back the dial from multiple beats per second to multiple seconds per beat. It is like pulling the car off the highway, where one is passing by landscapes at a hundred kilometers an hour, to the side of a country road and taking an aimless stroll along a country path, where the buzzing about of the bees can be heard and the gentle swaying of the flowers by an occasional breeze can be felt – all on a human scale.
By switching off message notifications on one’s phone and immersing oneself in guqin tranquility, one can step away from the roaring thunders of a raging waterfall, even if for a brief hiatus, and slow down and listen to the melting sounds of spring snow into a gentle, trickling stream – drip by drip.
As for the pushback that guqin music is too slow and nothing happens, well, isn’t that the point?