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A Classic Through Eternity
2004-10-27 11:09
FIVE years ago, an ancient Chinese air was beamed to outer space as a PR exercise. To humankind, music is a universal language, so the tune seemed an ideal medium for communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. So far there has been no response, but it is believed that the tune will play for a billion years, and eventually be heard and understood. The melody is called High Mountain and Flowing Stream, and it is played on the guqin, a seven-stringed classical musical instrument similar to the zither.

Background to the Air, High Mountain and Flowing Stream

Composed over 2,000 years ago, High Mountain and Flowing Stream is one of the earliest Chinese airs. It describes lofty mountains, and pine forests blowing in the wind as clouds swirl in a valley below, while streams converge at a thundering waterfall and flow down to the sea. In intimating a beautiful natural landscape, the music gives free rein to the player's expressiveness.

The tune is based on a story.On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival about 2,000 years ago, Yu Boya, a high state of Jin official during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), was on his way back from the State of Chu. Deciding to stop for a while, he moored his boat and began to play his guqin. Suddenly a string broke. This alarmed Boya, as he thought it might signal the arrival of an unwelcome guest, but on stepping onto the bank he found that a woodcutter had been listening to him play. To Boya's surprise, the woodman knew a great deal about music and the guqin. He thereupon played another tune -- High Mountain and Flowing Stream, to see how much the woodman understood, and was astonished by the full explanation of the air's musical conceit that followed. He then laid down his guqin, bowed to the woodman, and asked his name. The man introduced himself as Zhong Ziqi. Boya was happy to meet such a soul mate, and the two became sworn brothers. Boya urged Ziqi to leave his home and seek a government post, but Ziqi refused, insisting that he could not leave his parents. Boya gave Ziqi gold in the hope it might improve the quality of his friend's life. On parting, the two promised to meet at the same place the following Mid-Autumn Festival. Ziqi used the gold Boya had given him to buy books, and read them each night after spending the whole day cutting wood. He thus did his best to live up to Boya's expectations and serve in the government. The tragedy of the story is that Ziqi soon spent all his energy and died of exhaustion at just 27 years of age.

A year later, Yu Boya fulfilled his promise, but Zhong Ziqi was not at their appointed place. Concerned, he went to Ziqi's home, and was told that his friend had died 100 days previously. Boya was filled with such remorse that he fainted. On coming round, he went to Ziqi's tomb, and played a short tune as a tribute to his friend. He then smashed his guqin into pieces, making up his mind never to play the instrument again. Soon after, he resigned his post and took Ziqi's parents to his home, where he supported them until their death.

It was not Ziqi's musical talent alone that impressed Boya, but also his personality. The same was true of Ziqi, who respected Boya's musical skills, and also liked him as a person. Theirs was an unconventional friendship, as in the Chinese feudal society of 2,000 years ago it was unheard of for a high government official like Boya to become sworn brother of a common woodman.

The story of Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi has always been associated with the haunting High Mountain and Flowing Stream air. Composer Yu Boya made every effort to perfect his skills, one of which entailed living on a remote island for ten days, and facing the ocean as he played and sang in exaltation of nature and the inspiration it gave him. It is little wonder this tune is still known and loved by so many people, 2,000 years later.

The Human Concept of the Guqin

The contemporary guqin has seven strings, but in earlier times it had 25, giving the player a far wider scope of expression. In ancient China the guqin was considered a holy instrument, with an intelligence of its own. An example of this is apparent in a story about Confucius. One night he was playing the guqin in his room when his disciple Yan Hui entered. Yan sensed a certain menace about the tune he was playing, as if it were the carrier of murderous intent. On mentioning this to Confucius, his master answered: "As I played, I saw a cat chase a mouse, and hoped that it would catch it. The intention to kill was reflected in my playing." Confucius was adept at music, and considered the guqin to be the most important instrument of his time. Learning how to play was a compulsory aspect of his teaching.

There are various taboos associated with the guqin. It should not be played in extreme cold or heat, or when there are gale force winds, heavy rains, sudden thunder, or blizzards. Neither is it played when there has been a death, if other music is playing, or in an atmosphere of trivia. Before taking it up, the player should be appropriately bathed and dressed. He must also burn incense, and be in the company of a good friend. Only then may the guqin be played.

The power of the guqin is exaggerated in many Chinese literary works. It was a feature of wars throughout Chinese history, and gallant Chinese swordsmen regarded it as a weapon. For instance, during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), the Kingdom of Shu underwent a series of defeats by the Kingdom of Wei. On one occasion the Wei general, Sima Yi, advanced with his armies to the gate of a Shu city, unaware that there were no Shu soldiers within the city to protect it. On seeing the Wei army advance, however, the Shu military advisor Zhuge Liang had gone to the gate tower, taking with him two pageboys, who drank wine as he played his guqin. As he listened, Sima Yi found himself in a quandary. He tried to tell from the nuance of the music whether the city was truly empty, or if Shu soldiers hid within it. Hearing its tranquil tones, he decided this was a trick of Zhuge Liang's to tempt his army into an ambush, and so ordered a retreat. The ruse helped the Kingdom of Shu to avoid another defeat and ultimate destruction, and was inspiration for the folk opera, The Empty City Trick, which is still performed today.

There are other famous guqin tunes. Guanglingsan, a story of revenge, is one. During the Warring States period, Nie Zheng's father, a swordsmith, delayed casting a sword ordered by the King of the State of Han, and was executed. Nie Zheng was determined to seek revenge. He practiced his guqin playing and sword fighting skills until he had achieved mastery of both. He then went back to Han in disguise. His excellent guqin skills attracted the King, who ordered him to come to the royal palace and perform. As the King listened, rapt, Nie Zheng took out the dagger secreted in his clothing and stabbed him to death. He then committed suicide to avoid involving any of his other family members. The beginning of the tune expresses sympathy for the grieving Nie Zheng, and later reflects his hatred for the king, and decision to take revenge. The final part is in praise of his spirit as he faces death without fear.

In ancient China, the guqin was an instrument played mainly by those of noble birth. Among the 3,000 or so guqin tunes that have been handed down, the majority are works by the then ruling class, expressing their aspirations.

The first guqins were made about 3,000 years ago. They were very simple, with just one or two strings. As aesthetic concepts flowered and playing skills improved, the instrument changed. By the 3rd century the guqin had seven strings, and was very similar to the instrument played today.

The body of the guqin constitutes a wooden voice box about 110 cm long. It is 17 cm wide at its head, and tapers to 13 cm at its bottom end. The upper surface is made from tung or fir wood, and the back, in which there are two holes of different sizes, from catalpa. On the instrument's upper side are seven strings, on which the player makes notes with his left hand, and plucks with his right.

The most famous guqins have their own names, such as Haozhong and Raozhong of the Warring States Period, and Luyi and Jiaowei of the Han Dynasty. These four are regarded as the best guqin ever in China, the last of which, the Jiaowei, refers to Cai Yong, a famous musician of the Eastern Han Dynasty. On hearing an unusual sound emitting from the burning firewood on which food was being cooked, he quickly ran over and pulled a tung log out from the fire. Soon after he asked an expert to make a guqin out of it. The quality of sound from the instrument was extraordinary, but its bottom end was a little scorched. Cai Yong hence named it Jiaowei, meaning burnt tail.

Chinese people think of the guqin as an intelligent instrument. True or not, love of nature, and music that celebrates it, makes life more beautiful.

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