Daoism and the Guqin
2003-12-5 22:06:04      CRIENGLISH.com
Today we're going to be listening to Daoist influenced music for the guqin, one of the oldest instruments in China.

The qin is a bridgeless, seven-stringed zither which is about a meter long 每 and has throughout its history been intimately associated with the literati and scholars of imperial China. Because of this connection with literate China, the qin and its music is better documented than the music of any other instrument in China, and a wealth of information has been handed down through history in the form of dozens of treatises, essays, and handbooks 每 the earliest of which date from the 2nd and 3rd century ACE.

Among these handbooks is the 15th century Shenqi Mipu which records 63 pieces in notation. The SQMP or "The Secrets of Beautiful and Mysterious Melodies" was compiled by Zhu Quan, a son of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty and one of the Ming dynasty's many qin aficionados. Most of the pieces we'll hear today are first found in the SQMP which makes them at least more than 500 years old, and several of them were already several hundred years old when published.

I spoke to John Thompson, an American performer on the guqin who lived for many years in China and Hong Kong where he studied and researched the instrument. He's done extensive research on the music of Ming dynasty qin handbooks, and has spent considerable time reconstructing the music of the handbooks for modern performance. I asked him about the Daoist influence on the guqin.

John Thompson talking about some of the different Daoist influences for guqin.

Let's listen to the rest of "Discussing the Dao at Kongtong Mountain", a piece found in the 1425 handbook the SQMP or "The Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies".

The title of the piece refers to a fable from the Zhuangzi which later became a popular theme in Ming and Qing dynasty painting.

The story concerns the Yellow Emperor, the legendary founder of China and an important figure in Daoist legends. He goes to Kongtong Mountain to ask Guangchengzi, a legendary Daoist hermit, about using the Dao to rule the country. Guangchengzi, who at the time was rumoured to be 1200 years old, turns him away. So the Yellow Emperor goes and lives in a grass hut for three months. When he returns to Guangchengzi he asks about nurturing himself and living a long life. Guangchengzi then gives him a lecture about the Dao.

The music is in 10 sections with poetic titles such as "Alone knocking on the Entrance to the Way", "Totally involved in Daoist mysteries", "Nurturing Universal Peace", "Riding the wind in boundless space" and "Soaring in the Purple Clarity".

The music I'll be playing today is played by Wang Duo 每 a qin player from Suzhou in eastern China. The instrument he plays has silk strings as opposed to the metal strings common on modern instruments, so although the sound is more intimate, the recordings are quite noisy as the left hand moves about the fingerboard.

That was "Discussing the Dao at Kongtong Mountain", a piece found in the 1425 collection the SQMP or "The Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies".

The affairs of government in imperial China were handled by a class of scholar-officials who attained their positions through a series of rigorous examinations on Confucian doctrine. This group of scholar-officials along with their families, wealthy individuals and those with leisure time became the main consumers of traditional high culture and as we've heard, for this group the qin was thought to represent the highest achievement in music.

Throughout its history, the Qin has been deeply influenced by the two most prevalent philosophies in China, Confucianism and Daoism. While Confucianism served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of imperial China, Daoism offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. However neither Confucianism nor Daoism were ever strictly exclusive religions in the sense that one belongs to one religion in the West 每 the two philosophical traditions were very much complementary. While Confucianism's strict code of morality and insistence on social conformity placed severe constraints on its followers, in Daoism the individual could achieve self-expression; his intellect was free to wander at will. The man in power was a Confucian, seeking to save society. The same man out of power became a Daoist intent on blending in with nature around him. The active bureaucrat in the morning became the dreary poet or nature lover of the evening.

I asked John Thompson about the influence of Confucian and Daoist philosophy on the qin.

Let's listen to a short piece which takes up the prominent Daoist theme of escaping from society and living the life of a recluse among nature.

In his introduction to "Living in the Mountains", the collector of the 1425 handbook "The Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies" says the piece describes "a gentleman nesting in clouds or pine trees among the hills and valleys. Lacking desires, he and society have forgotten each other, and he does not drag worldly entrapments to himself, but in fact uses mountains as a barricade and clean flowing water as a (protective) moat."

The three sections of the piece are entitled "Camaraderie with the springs and rocks", "Using heaven and earth as a residence" and "Lying in the misty haze; making friends with the wind and the moon".

"Living in the Mountains" from the 1425 collection of music for the qin, the "The Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies", and if you've just joined us you're listening to China Roots on China Radio International and today we're listening to Daoist influenced music for the guqin, one of China's oldest instruments. The instrument has two small sound holes and is naturally a very soft instrument 每 in fact it's not uncommon to see paintings of a recluse playing a qin in the mountain who is so determined to achieve absolute quiet or stillness that they completely remove the strings of the instrument! So while all the music I'm playing today is of instruments with strings 每 I have decided to play recordings of an instrument with traditional silk strings which while making a more gentle and intimate sound than modern metal strings, is quite noisy as the left hand moves across the fingerboard.

Pieces for the guqin are most often divided into a number of sections 每 each with poetic or suggestive titles. Some example from the pieces we've just heard are Lying in the misty haze, making friends with the wind and the moon, Nurturing Universal Peace and Riding the wind in boundless space. When I spoke with John Thompson, I asked him whether the pieces were really programmatic, are they really meant to describe in music very specific stories or pictures.

The next piece we'll hear is called "Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream" 每 and the title refers to a story told in the earliest of Daoist classics Zhuangzi.

"One day about sunset, Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he turned into a butterfly. He flapped his wings and sure enough he was a butterfly...What a joyful feeling as he fluttered about, he completely forgot that he was Zhuangzi. Soon though, he realized that that proud butterfly was really Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was it a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi! Maybe Zhuangzi was the butterfly, and maybe the butterfly was Zhungzi?"

In his commentary to the SQMP or "The Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies", the collector of the edition wrote about the story and the piece;

Thus a gentleman who can attain the Dao shrinks that which has been created beyond objective existence, he uses his spirit to guide his life force, wandering pleasantly in a broad, quietly empty place, going along with all the changes in heaven and on earth, and being of one substance with the Universe.

The piece is in eight sections with titles like "Prophetic dream", "Changing into a butterfly" and "Guiding one's life force".

"Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream". The next piece we'll hear, Seagulls forgetful of motive, is about a fisherman and the seagulls he befriends whilst at sea每 and when I spoke to John Thompson, he said fisherman and woodcutters often crop up as symbols in Daoist poetry and art.

Seagulls forgetful of motive probably dates from the 17th century and the title refers to an ancient legend about a fisherman who befriends the seagulls on his trips to sea. One day his wife suggests he catch a couple of gulls to bring home, but when the old man goes out to fish, the birds fly high in the sky, unwilling to keep him company, aware that he has a motive. So the title reminds us we should live in harmony with nature and be without motive or intent.

That was "Seagulls Forgetful of Motive".

Spirit travel was a popular pastime of ancient Daoist philosophers and the next piece we'll hear is called "The Spirit Roams in Six Directions". The title refers to the points of he compass; north, south, east, west, as well as up and down, so the piece could also be translated as the "Spirit Travelling around the World". The title of the piece refers to a legend about the Yellow Emperor, the legendary founding father of China.

The story is first found in the early Daoist text Zhuangzi, in which the Yellow Emperor studies Daoism from the sage of Kongtong Mountain 每 the same story and mountain as the first piece we heard today 每 "Discussing the Dao at Gongtong Mountain". After studying the Dao for some time, the Yellow Emperor mounts the vapours and his spirit is seen to roam the universe.

The commentary in the SQMP or "Secrets of Beautiful and Precious Melodies" says the origin of this tune is in lofty antiquity, but the more lofty the tune the fewer those who appreciate it. This means those who play it are few and listeners are rare. Only those who consume mist and feed on the sun can describe this.

I'm afraid we're coming to the end of this week's edition of China Roots. Comments and suggestions for the show are as always very welcome 每 you can send us an email to chinaroots@crifm.com or leave comments in the comments box on the front page of CRI's website www.crienglish.com. Many thanks to John Thompson for joining us on China Roots, and also for his many useful suggestions for this edition. For more information about the qin, you can visit the John Thompson's excellent website www.silkqin.com. I'll leave you today with one final piece of music for the guqin. The piece is called "Cranes Cry in Nine Marshpools" 每 and the title is taken from one of the poems from the Shi Jing or Classic of Poetry, China's earliest collection of poetry which is around 2000 years old. The collector of the SQMP had this observation about the piece and cranes he in his home.

Sometimes they would look at their shadows and dance together; other times they would fly up together and cry back and forth. But it was only at certain appropriate times. As for dancing, when they felt a heavenly breeze they would dance in order to shake their feathers (and clean them in the wind); (as for crying out), when they raise (their heads) and to look at the Milky Way and see the divine, then they would cry out. If it wasn't the appropriate time they wouldn't cry out; if it wasn't the appropriate time they wouldn't dance.

People know that cranes are birds with a divine spirit, and thus someone created this composition. (Sheng Tin)

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