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Instrument of the sages
By Wang Yong

On November 19, China Guardian auctioned two modern guqin (古琴) — a traditional, seven-stringed zither — at a combined price of more than 5.8 million yuan (US$951,900), a record for the legendary instrument produced by contemporary master craftsmen. Both were made by Wang Peng, a craftsman born in 1966.

The plucked-string wooden guqin is a storied, refined instrument, favored by literati and religious figures for its subtle, ethereal sound.

Renowned as the instrument of the sages, it is famous for notes that linger, creating an air of tranquillity, detachment and reflection.

Playing guqin was one of the four attainments required of a scholar and gentleman, the others being calligraphy, painting and playing go.

One may argue that the auction price is hyped, since it’s far beyond the normal price for most modern craftsmen’s instruments, even those made by masters.

But the price reflects the trend of designer guqin becoming ever more expensive since 2003, when UNESCO proclaimed guqin — China’s oldest stringed musical instrument with a history of more than 3,000 years — as a piece of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

Prices also rose in 2008 when the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony began with an elegant guqin performance.

To put the trend into perspective, a piece of guqin made in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) was auctioned by China Guardian in the summer of 2003 for 3.45 million yuan but in the autumn of that year a Tang guqin of equivalent quality was sold for 8.91 million yuan, also at China Guardian.

The second guqin was again auctioned in 2011 for 115 million yuan.

That followed a 2010 auction of a Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) guqin for 137 million yuan, a record for an ancient guqin that stands today.

Prices of modern designer made-to-order guqin have also soared, more than tripling in less than a decade due to growing demand but limited supply. Only a few master craftsmen are working and they are the modern equivalent of Antonio Stradivari and his family of violin makers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Once burned and reviled

In an interview with Shanghai Daily last week, master craftsman Pei Jinbao, who is also a performer, reflected philosophically on the vicissitudes of the guqin’s value over time.

“It’s a kind of natural law,” he says at his home and studio in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. “So many quqin were burned to ashes (in the cultural revolution, 1966-76). They were worthless then. But things so subdued naturally bounce back.”

In those years, guqin was denounced as part of old, decadent culture associated with elite Confucian scholars. As Confucius was repudiated, so was the guqin, said to be his favorite instrument.

“Who would dare to play guqin then?” asks Wu Guangtong, another guqin master. Both Wu and Pei have been honored by the Suzhou municipal government as “inheritors of the art of guqin.”

“Whoever played guqin in those years was considered counterrevolutionary,” says Wu.

“My father was confined in a cowshed, where he could not play guqin, only practice finger movements in secret.”

His father was Wu Zhaoji (1908-97), one of China’s eight greatest living guqin players in the 1980s, and founder of the Wu Family of Guqin in Suzhou — a family famously devoted to guqin music and culture.

One day, “red guards” went to senior Wu’s home to seize his ancient quqin. The precious instrument, named Yu Ling Long (Exquisite Jade,) would have been burned, had it not been for Wu’s quick thinking. He improvised a song in praise of Chairman Mao, convincing the zealots that guqin was not necessarily a pernicious, counterrevolutionary instrument.

Now, Yu Ling Long is worth at least 80 million yuan, says Pei, an expert on  repair and appraisal. “By the age of 50, I had examined or repaired over 100 ancient guqin, mostly from the Tang and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties,” recalls Pei, who was born in 1954.  “Now I have lost count.”

Zheng Minzhong (1923-), a senior researcher of cultural relics at the Palace Museum, estimates that there are no more than 20 Tang Dynasty guqin in the world today.

Wu Zhao (1935-), a veteran guqin player and historian, says the Yu Ling Long was possibly made by Li Mian (AD 717-788), a prime minister in the Tang Dynasty.

Three dynasties — Tang, Song and Ming — witnessed the peak of craftsmanship.

Pei was lucky to have bought a Ming guqin in the 1980s, made by famed craftsman Zhu Gongwang (1477-1570). Zhu created a guqin shaped like a banana tree leaf, difficult to produce because of its many exquisite curves.

“Together, Yu Ling Long and my Ming guqin are worth at least 150 million yuan,” says Pei. Neither Pei nor Wu would consider selling.

For them, real luxury lies in the enlightened way of life associated with guqin, rather than its monetary value.

“Ancient Chinese life was 70 percent spiritual,” says Pei.

He cites Ji Kang (AD 224-263), a great thinker, musician and man of letters, who wrote “An Ode to Qin.” The guqin used to be called qin.

“More than 1,700 years ago, Ji Kang perfectly described an enlightened spiritual life represented by the guqin,” Pei says. Ji called the qin the “most virtuous instrument.”

“The Chinese art of life beyond food and drink was much richer and earlier than that in the West,” Pei explains. “And it was not just guqin. We had everything from guqin to calligraphy to furniture to flower arrangement.”

“We never thought of it as luxury. It was our way of being,” he says. “But playing and appreciating guqin is certainly a luxury way of life for the modern man.”

In Pei’s view, in the old way of life, people would always help each other, a good family would always prosper, and money was never worshipped.

Five years ago, one of Pei’s students asked to buy one of his guqin. “She wanted the best I had ever made (since the 1980s),” Pei recalls. “I sold it to her for only 10,000 yuan. Now I tell her: ‘If you no longer need it, sell it back to me for 300,000 yuan, and I’ll immediately sell it for 600,000 yuan’.”

Indeed, long before Wang Peng made his fame and fortune, Pei was already one of China’s two best guqin makers, but Pei has always kept a low profile. Some of his guqin were so superior that they were once auctioned as Ming Dynasty instruments.

Yang Qing, a renowned painter and guqin performer in Suzhou, compares Pei’s guqin to high-quality raw, aged Pu’er tea — the longer you play them, the better they are. She also belongs to the Wu Family of Guqin.

Her traditional landscapes are so famous that she has been urged to go on commercial tours, but she declines. For her, a quiet moment to herself is the ultimate luxury.

“At work or in public, you’re hopelessly exposed to noises, but at home, ensure your mind is pure,” she said when we visited her home last week.

My wife and a friend wanted to learn from Yang how to sing while playing the guqin — that’s another skill.

Unlike many guqin teachers who require payment and purchase of their expensive guqin, Yang was generous in teaching us the basics of singing as we played, during our first visit. She treated us as old friends.

The real luxury of guqin, as Ji wrote 1,700 years ago, is that even if you’re poor and lonely, you’ll find comfort in its celestial music.

Making of a qin

The best guqin are typically made of Chinese fir or parasol tree wood more than 100 years old.

The intricate construction represents the harmonious natural universe and its parts are highly symbolic.

The surface board is curved to represent heaven and the bottom board is flat representing earth. It is 120-125cm in length (3 chi and 6.5 cun representing 365 days).

Along the outside are 13 dots or hui representing 13 lunar months, each spot a harmonic position producing an especially ethereal sound.

Various parts are called the pillar of heaven, pillar of earth, mountain, dragon pond and phoenix pool. The strings represent flowing water.

Master Pei works for two years on each guqin, and produces no more than 20 in two years.

All have many coats of organic lacquer, intended to mute the natural resonance of the wood, so it is not too loud, and the sound is balanced and harmonious. The lacquer also acts as a preservative; the oldest guqin is more than 1,000 years old.

The guqin originally had five strings said to represent the five elements and, according to one legend, signifying the emperor, officialdom, the people, issues and physical objects.

Two emperors in the Zhou Dynasty (c 11th century-256 BC) each added a string, one to mourn his son’s death, one to motivate his troops in battle. Strings, originally silk, are today made of steel coated with nylon.

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