Appreciating Chinese Guqin music

Guqin is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument (wiki). Although the instrument is of simple structure, the music it carrys can express complicated feelings. Just as the Chinese phrase “meaning beyond the strings” (弦外之音) says, careful appreciation of Guqin music gives us not only pleasure but also meditation about life.

There are ten most famous Guqin music pieces. Here I pick three to represent three different categories of Guqin music. Interested readers can see here (english website) and here (Chinese website) for more information about Guqin music.

The first one is Ping Sha Luo Yan (wild Geese Landing on the Sandy Beach), which purely depicts the beauty of nature. I’d imagine a group of wild geese flying in a clear Autumn sky when listening to the music. They are not in a hurry. They are moving at their own pace to their destination. There appears a sandy beach. They quitely land for a rest. The flowing melody symbolizes the vast sky and the motion of the wild geese. The friction of the strings mimicks the voice of the geese. It should be noted that wild geese flying in the sky was often used by Chinese poets as the symbol of their ambitions and the ideal.

The second category involves anecdotal contexts in Chinese history under which Guqin music was composed. Let’s take Guang Ling San as an example. The music was based on a story of a Guqin player assesinating the king for revenge. A variety of emotions are shown in this piece. Sometimes the music is tough and shows the internal struggle of the Guqin player; while sometimes the music displays a gentle and pleasant feel which perhaps depicts the love of the Guqin player to his father.

Lastly, some pieces of Guqin music praise a particular quality embodied in a nonhuman object (plant being the most often choice) and express the moral pursuit of the composer. For instance, Mei Hua San Nong (Three Variations on Plum Blossom) describes how the plum blossom strives to survive the coldness of winter and praises its persistence. Essentially the author conveyed the message that the literati should maintain a high moral standard and hold on to certain noble values. The word “San Nong” (three variations) is a musical terms referring to the structure of the notes. The varying style shows the plum blossom in static setting as well as in motion (in the wind, maybe) and adds more flavor to the music.

In recent years, there has been a trend of reviving the classic Chinese values, such as kindness to others and care for the old. Hopefully the youth will have increasing access to the treasure of Chinese ancient music and will enrich their mind by appreciating it.

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