The playing of guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument, seems to be dying out and to protect and preserve its cultural heritage relevant departments have applied for a special heritage listing with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO.
“As we are intoxicated with contemporary western music and applaud renowned foreign musicians, do we think of guqin, the traditional Chinese musical instrument faced with extinction?” inquired Wu Zhao, a researcher with the Music Institute of the Chinese Art Academy.
To salvage and preserve this cultural heritage, relevant departments have actively applied for listing guqin, a seven-stringed zither, as “a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” Now UNESCO has confirmed its qualification, so it is expected to become the second masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage in China, following Kunqu. Though this will not immediately reverse the declining trend of guqin, it will comfort guqin art lovers.
Guqin art dates back 2,000 to 3,000 years. The Book of Songs, the earliest collection of Chinese poems, including 305 poems of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), recorded that a “man of honor will not desert qin and se (two stringed musical instruments which play in great harmony) without reason.” It was thought an essential artistic accomplishment of the literati of the past dynasties was to be able to play guqin. With social development and culture change, guqin seemed on the verge of extinction but today, as people’s understanding of traditional art improves, guqin is played more than ever and some conservatories have even opened guqin classes.
However, too much innovation can prevent the faithful inheritance of traditional music. Now only a few over 60 can play guqin according to its original flavor. If no effective measure is taken in salvaging and preserving guqin, this original art is likely to die out with their passing.
In 1977, when the US spaceship Voyager was launched in search of intelligent creatures outside the solar system, a gold CD, which is expected to run for 100 million years was placed on board. Two pieces of music thought to “represent the artistic level of humans on earth” were included, one is the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the other the Chinese guqin music, “Flowing Water.”
“No other musical instrument can compete with guqin in representing traditional Chinese culture,” said Cheng Gongliang, a guqin expert.
In May 1986, he held 13 one-man concerts in Germany and performed nine guqin scores including “Pingsha Luoyan” (Wild Geese Descend to Sandy Shores), “Yi Guren” (Thinking of An Old Friend) and “Xiaoxiang Shuiyun” (Mist and Cloud over the Xiang River). The beautiful oriental music greatly interested German audiences. Leading media of Frankfurt praised the music as the “sound of nature” flowing from the fingers of Cheng.
Wang Zhichu, deputy director of the Music Institute of the Chinese Art Academy, said that there are 150 guqin score books handed down, containing 3,000 guqin scores. However, only 10 percent of them can now be played, for the others haven’t been studied and transformed into numbered musical notations. The transformation work is an important part of protecting and salvaging guqin; it is very difficult and needs assistance from various sectors.
Experts urge to better protect the elderly guqin players and encourage them to teach more students. Sound and video-recording technology will be employed to preserve the guqin art. While collecting the primary guqin scores, experts and students will also do some innovation work. In addition, a special fund will be set up.
(China.org.cn translated by Li Jinhui, April 2, 2003)