The guqin is an example of how a traditional art form can survive in a globalized environment. Sometimes globalization is a good thing, such as in the case of economics—in China especially the economy has grown very fast. But it can also be a very dangerous thing for an art form. . . . If something has been damaged or changed it will be hard to go back, so that is why I think maintaining the traditional way of the guqin is more important than expanding.
The guqin has such a long history, so let us start at the beginning. When approximately were the earliest qins found in China? How popular is the qin in China today?
The guqin is the oldest string instrument of China, with a documented history of about 3000 years. Other Chinese musical instruments that people probably have heard of, such as pipa, erhu, and yangqin, are very popular nowadays, but actually these instruments are not originally from China. They are from the Middle East. But the guqin is from China. It has been part of a tradition cultivated by Chinese scholars at least since the time of Confucius. It was very popular among the scholar class, but never a popular instrument with everyone. It was a skill required of scholars in ancient times. As a scholar, you were expected to be skilled in four arts, which were the quqin, the game of go, calligraphy, and painting. I think it is getting more popular now than it was before. Its popularity has grown rapidly since 2003 when UNESCO named it an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But still when compared with other musical instruments, for example piano or violin, it is popular with a very small percentage people in China. My personal opinion is that it cannot be a popular instrument, but it will never disappear.
How did you first become interested in the qin and what led you to start studying it?
I have studied the guqin with the great master Professor Li Xiangting of the Central Conservatory of Music since I was a child and have played for over 25 years. Everyone thinks that the guqin should be my career. In fact, I have worked in the United States and China in many fields–as a journalist, radio host, columnist, cultural consultant, art director, and multimedia producer–and have been very successful, but the guqin has never been a career for me. Playing the guqin is a way of life. I never want to it to be my livelihood. Perhaps that is the beauty of distance–that I have always fresh feelings for the guqin.
The guqin is not merely a musical skill, it embodies the entirety of Chinese culture and tradition. I pursued a major in Chinese Culture and Literature and later came to the United States pursue an MA in Multimedia. My studies helped me to deepen my understanding of guqin music and to promote it in a broader way.
I grew up in quite a traditional Chinese family, so we were raised by my parents in a very traditional way. My parents are very educated. I was born in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution and at that time everything related to old culture, thinking, behavior, and customs was forbidden. In the daytime, we praised the New China and the Communist Party and in the nighttime, which was my happiest time, we listened to the forbidden old stories that our parents secretly told us. I remember that every day our mom told us a different story. She was a musician and used to work in an opera house and so she always told old stories and legends. We grew up that way, so we knew a lot of legends and stories related to the guqin. One day, after the Cultural Revolution, I was visiting a museum when suddenly I heard an unusual type of background music–new but also very familiar. In that instant, my heart skipped a beat. I knew this was what I really wanted in life. Even now, I vividly remember that exciting moment. I told myself that I must learn to play it or I would die.
As soon as I discovered guqin music, I started on a long journey to find an instrument. I visited all of the local music stores and sent letters of inquiry to many instrument factories. I drew pictures of guqin and pretend that I was playing on the paper. I even tried to make a guqin myself. Finally, a salesman located a guqin for me after seeing me visit many, many times. I was so excited but also very disappointed–the price was incredibly high. At that time, China was still very poor and most families did not have any savings. My parents said nothing, but they sold all of their jewelry and antiques which had been handed down for generations and bought me a guqin–they knew that indeed was my dream. So, when I got my first guqin I felt that I owned the world.
After I got my instrument, I then needed to find a teacher. At that time it was not like now when you can find information on the internet. Everything relied on the radio. So, I used to always check the radio program schedule. My teacher Li Xiangting was often on radio programs about the guqin, so he was the number one person I had in mind when I was looking for a teacher. At that time I was very passionate and would get up very early. The guqin programs were always very early at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. I would have to get up early at 3:00 a.m. in order not to miss any guqin music.
My father’s friend was in the Central Conservatory of Music and was a neighbor of my teacher. We asked him to ask my teacher whether he could find a student to teach my sister and I. We were afraid to ask him because he was a big fish and a very famous master of the guqin and we were only little girls. My father’s friend told my teacher the story of how we tried to make a guqin. Actually, my teacher had a very similar experience when he first wanted to learn to play the guqin in the 1950s. He told my father’s friend, “I do not need to find a student to teach them, I will teach them myself free of charge.” From there on, my life was changed. It opened a door for me to view the world. Before I did not know what the meaning of life was or what I was going to do—I just liked to play and run. My teacher is not only my teacher—he is my mentor. Not only did I learn the skills of guqin from him, I also learned a way of life.
Please tell me a little bit about the activities of the North American Guqin Association (NAGA), including how you are using the internet to connect members.
I established the North American Guqin Association in 1997 when I came here. Actually, before I came here I had the idea. When I got my visa, I thought, “How can I continue my guqin playing?” When I was in China, I never thought that I needed to have a musical career or to teach the guqin—there was no such responsibility on my shoulders. When I came to the United States, in the Bay Area there was no one who played the qin. It seems that I am still the only one who teaches and performs now. I thought that it was a very heavy responsibility on my shoulders because it is what I learned from my teacher. He himself inherited the skills from his teacher.
When I came here to study multimedia, I thought, “The guqin is an old art form that needs a new technology to help promote it.” At that time the internet had just started so I put up my first Web site. I was just testing the new technology. After I published my Web site, in a very short time I got a response from England. A man named Julian Joseph wrote and said how difficult it was to find qin friends or a teacher. He had taught himself the qin for about one to two years. He said how exciting it was to find the Web site and how difficult it was to find people with the same interest. From there I found out that there are people similar to him in different parts of the world who cannot find qin friends. I found out that the internet is a very good way of connecting people globally who are interested in the qin. That is why I became serious about establishing a North American Guqin Association Web site to connect with different people. We were the first association to have a Web site—either in English or in Chinese–and we were the first guqin Web site. I was glad to see that people followed after I set this as a model. I think that it offers a lot of possibilities for getting to know people and the guqin.
The concept of NAGA is adopted from what in history was called a “qin society.” Originally with this type of society people would meet regularly and play the qin and talk about culture. It was actually a meeting place and it would also offer classes. Usually the head of the organization was the master player and teacher. The master and students formed the organization and had events. Later on they would probably have their own repertoire and book, and then become a qin school.
When I came here, I felt that since the Bay Area has a lot of stress I wanted to introduce this kind of traditional Chinese lifestyle to people. So I established NAGA, which offers classes and has gatherings and performances. In order to teach English-speaking students who do not have any other background in China besides an interest in the guqin, I come up with different courses. For example, I offer a poetry and guqin music class. Students not only learn the guqin, but at the same time they also learn some Chinese poetry. The guqin is a very good tool for learning about Chinese culture.
NAGA organizes guqin gatherings and invites guest speakers from different fields, like kunqu opera, calligraphy, and taiqi. We also invite scholars—for example my teacher and other qin players from different states and countries—to come to collaborate. In 2002, we did the first online guqin concert in history. At that time there was no YouTube, but we already were using live streaming video. China was applying then for UNESCO’s Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity designation for the guqin, so I thought that it was a good way for people outside of China to know this art form. Now that we have moved into the Web 2.0 era, I think about how to use the internet to market the guqin and NAGA. For example, we have a Facebook group and are on Twitter.
Recently, I did a multidisciplinary project called “From Beijing to San Francisco” and invited Li Xiangting to come here and collaborate with me for the Performing Diaspora Festival organized by San Francisco’s CounterPULSE. Even though I used different art forms and packaged guqin music in a new way, the content was still very authentic. I think that it is a very good way to reach a new audience. Before, the audience that I reached was comprised of people who have an interest in classical Chinese music or traditional Chinese culture. But now I want to expand my audience to people who are interested in dance or theater.
The guqin is an example of how a traditional art form can survive in a globalized environment. Sometimes globalization is a good thing, such as in the case of economics—in China especially the economy has grown very fast. But it can also be a very dangerous thing for an art form. As a musician it may be possible to become more recognized in a globalized world. I could have more performances if, for example, I collaborated with jazz, pop, or Western musicians or frequently appeared in such settings as Chinese New Year galas, clubs, or bars, but these are not the right settings—people may misunderstand what the guqin is. I need to maintain the guqin as a traditional art form and to maintain what I learned from my teacher. It is difficult to maintain a tradition, but it is very easy to damage it. After you damage something it can be very difficult to go back to the way it was. For example, many of the old siheyuan courtyard houses and the city walls of Beijing have been torn down to make way for big buildings. We wanted to move into the big buildings because the siheyuan were too old, but if people want to go back and move into newly built siheyuan it will be different from before. So that is what I am talking about. If something has been damaged or changed it will be hard to go back, so that is why I think maintaining the traditional way of the guqin is more important than expanding.
To learn more about NAGA’s activities and about the guqin visit them online at their website.
Interview Details: January 31, 2010. Phone interview. Sarah Lin Bhatia.
Images courtesy Wang Fei.