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Guqin: The First of China's Four Ancient Arts
Latest Updated by 2005-05-24 17:45:55

In ancient China, there were four artistic skills considered to be the trademarks of the literati, qin, qi, shu and hua, or the seven stringed zither, the game of go, calligraphy and painting.

During the Spring and Autumn Period of 770 B.C. to 476 B.C., the famous musician Boya played the qin to Zhong Ziqi, who was a humble woodcutter but a great listener. As Boya focused his music upon Mount Tai, Ziqi would say, "wonderful, as grand as Mount Tai." When Boya began to play a passage denoting swift streams, Ziqi would exclaim, "Vast and swelling, just like flowing streams." Simply put, whatever Boya devised, Ziqi described.

This is a popular legendary story about the qin, or guqin, of China. "Qin" means zither, and "gu" means ancient, so this instrument is now commonly known as the guqin. Throughout Chinese history, the guqin has found itself involved in many important stories and events, which confirm its place at the heart of Chinese culture. Zhao Xiaoxia, from the China Central Music Conservatory, explains how this tradition helps even today's guqin learners.

"Most pieces of guqin music that have been preserved up to the present are ancient ones, which boast various historical and cultural backgrounds. When I was taught the guqin by my teachers, I also broadened my horizons and knowledge concerning traditional Chinese culture."

The guqin, or seven-stringed zither, is China's oldest stringed instrument, with a history of some 3000 years. Historically, the guqin has been viewed as a symbol of high culture, as well as the instrument most able to express the essence of Chinese music. There is consequently a great deal of symbolism surrounding the guqin. The instrument measures 3 Chinese feet and 6.5 Chinese inches, to represent the 365 days of the year. The upper surface is rounded, to represent the sky, and the bottom is flat, to represent the earth. The five strings of the earliest guqin stand for the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Upon the death of Bo Yikao, son of Zhou Dynasty Emperor Wen, the Emperor added a sixth string to the guqin in mourning for his son; thus the sound of this sixth string is sorrowful. The seventh string was added by the second Zhou ruler, Emperor Wu, to inspire his soldiers as his country went to war; thus the sound of this seventh string is very resonant.

The aforementioned Zhao Xiaoxia has studied guqin from the age of nine, when she was first asked by her teacher to put her ear to the body of a guqin, and simply listen. She immediately fell for the instrument, and later entered China Central Music Conservatory, where she receives instruction from many experienced teachers.

One of her teachers is Li Xiangting, a celebrated guqin artist and guqin research scholar. He tells us why the guqin has traditionally been regarded as the most important of the four ancient arts.

"The guqin's position at the top of these four arts is due to its long history and the significant role it has played. As soon as it emerged during the Shang and Zhou dynasties - that is, around 3,000 years ago - it quickly became an important cultural symbol of the nobles and scholars. Confucius says that without studying poetry, a gentleman should never talk. He also says that without special reason, a gentleman should never stop practicing the guqin. From this you can see that, for the literati, the guqin was given an importance as significant as poetry."

According to Li Xiangting, many guqin music pieces are reflections of Confucianism, in teaching people to be sincere, kind and sympathetic. Some of them also tell people to love their homeland, their family and their friends. All in all, the guqin appears to embody the many righteous thoughts of ancient China's intellectuals.

However, this hobnobbing with nobles and scholars has caused the guqin to be labeled as too lofty to provide entertainment for ordinary people. There is even a Chinese idiom, the phrase "too highbrow to be popular," which derives from another story involving the guqin. In modern society, it's generally thought that the guqin is still a highbrow musical instrument that can't adapt to the tastes of the majority. Many people even picture the guqin as an instrument played by hermits, who keep themselves isolated from worldly affairs.

Despite the prevalence of this point of view, Li Xiangting doesn't agree, and believes that the guqin is misunderstood in its cultural role.

"From the book, 'A Complete Collection of Poems throughout the Tang Dynasty,' I've found more than 1,000 poems connected with the guqin, which reflect how this musical instrument has permeated every aspect of social life, including gatherings, farewells, happy occasions and sad occasions. So it's definitely not the case that only a person who retreats from society or becomes a hermit can play the guqin."

Yet Li Xiangting does concede that in comparison to instruments like the guzheng or pipa, the word guqin does hold some relatively high cultural connotations. The guqin is also rarely used for pure entertainment, which may partly explain why people cling to the notion that it's a product of highbrow society.

Actually, technically speaking, the playing skills of many other traditional Chinese musical instruments have attained, or even surpassed, that of the guqin, but artistically speaking, the guqin still boasts the highest achievements and deepest meanings.
In 2003, the art of guqin was included on UNESCO's Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage List, giving a great boost to an ancient art form which is not just confined to China. John Thompson is a guqin lover from America, who has been practicing guqin for years.

John explains how this musical instrument has imparted him with so much more than just musical knowledge, "If you listen to the pieces I play and look up on my website you would see, with each piece of the music, there is a lengthy introduction. The introduction mentions the poetic references and artistic references. Qin was the instrument of the Chinese literati, and the literati arts include Chinese painting and Chinese poetry. So you find the same themes covered by both poetry and painting. So it's very interesting to play a melody and to look at a painting that has the same theme."

Editor: Wing

By: Source:CRI web edition
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