Guan Pinghu’s Affection for Guqin
He is a Chinese guqin player who created the Guan School style of performance. After years of study and research, Guan revived many ancient music pieces.
Yu Boya in the Spring and Autumn Period (770– 476 BC) was good at playing guqin, a seven-stringed plucked instrument, while Zhong Ziqi was good at listening to it. Whatever Yu thought of, Zhong would never fail to understand.
It is amazing how they think alike. When Zhong died, Yu broke the strings and vowed never to play again.
Adapted from the friendship between Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi during the Spring and Autumn Period ( 770– 476 BC), guqin ( a Chinese sevenstring bridgeless zither) piece “Liu Shui” (“flowing water”) is now looking for its bosom friend. In August 1977, a recording of “Liu Shui” performed by Guan Pinghu ( 1897– 1967, a leading player of the guqin) was chosen to be included in the Voyager Golden Record, a gold- plated LP recording containing music from around the world, which was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager spacecraft. It is the only excerpt of Chinese music included on the disc.
Beijing Dongsi Shisantiao was formerly known as Huizhaosi Hutong. Guqin master Guan Pinghu once lived at 17 Huizhaosi Hutong where he created many pieces of music. Guan has been dead for 50 years, but where is his bosom friend who will continue creating great guqin pieces?
Learning from Others
Guan Pinghu was born into a family of artists in Beijing on March 4, 1897. His ancestral home was originally in Suzhou, Jiangsu. His grandfather is a businessman in Suzhou, and his father Guan Nianci who was good at painting and guqin was expelled from his family for loafing around. When the court recruited painters during the late Qing Dynasty ( 1644– 1911), Guan Nianci stood out from the competition and was admitted to the Palace. One day, Empress Dowager Cixi ( regency: 1861– 1908) summoned him to paint and spoke highly of his painting. Therefore, Guan Nianci was promoted as the director of the Ruyi (“wishful”) Panting House. Guan Pinghu's mum was the maid assigned to Guan Nianci by Cixi. With enlightenment from his father, as well as multiple influences by his family, Guan Pinghu has been fond of painting and guqin since childhood. However, when he was 13, his father died and his family declined due to changes in the dynasty.
After the death of his father, Guan Pinghu continued practicing guqin, and his skills kept improving. In 1912, Guan joined the Jiuyi Qin Club, and learned from Yang Zongji for nearly two years. Guan received strict fingering and transcription training during this period, and began to perform some more advanced pieces.
Zha Fuxi ( 1895– 1976, a leading player and scholar of the guqin) once recorded an important experience of Guan Pinghu in his essay “Qintan Manji” (“essay about guqin”). “In 1925, Guan travelled westward and met Monk Wucheng at Pingshan. Guan acknowledged Wucheng as his master, and studied fingering skills from him. After spending four to five months practising, Guan changed his performing style.”
Once, Guan returned to Suzhou, and heard people talking about Monk Wucheng of Fujian Wuyi School who was living in a temple at Tianping Mountain. Guan immediately rushed to the mountain to pay a visit and learn new skills from him. Along the way, an elderly farmer warned him about bandits, but he continued his trip anyway.
All of a sudden, Guan heard clear and meledious music from a guqin in the distance. He followed the music to locate the performer in the dense woods. The music came from a redwall temple. Looking through the wooden doors, Guan saw an elderly monk sitting under a pine tree in front of the hall playing the guqin. With flexible and sound fingering skills, the monk played a melody. Guang knew that the piece was “Long Xiang Cao” (“soaring dragon”) of the Guangling School. When the monk finished performing, Guan entered the temple and told the monk sincerely that he wanted to learn from him. The monk looked at Guan and introduced himself as Wu Cheng. Guan was extremely surprised and immediately acknowledged Wucheng as his teacher. Under his guidance, Guan was committed to learning the performing style of the Wuyi Qin School.
After learning from Wucheng, Guan left Suzhou and went northward. At the age of 31, Guan wwent to Jinan, Shandong to visit the Taosit priest Qin Heming of the Sichuan School and learn how to play the typical piece “Liu Shui.” Since then, “Liu Shui” has become most representative of Guan's repertoire.
After learning widely from the Jiuyi School Yang Zongji, Wuyi School Monk Wucheng and Sichuan School Qin Heming, Guan researched further about guqin arts and integrated folk music. Guan gradually formed his own style through integration and innovation. Guan started the Guan School, which specialises in fingering and phonological expression.
Enjoying in Adversity
When Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. This reflects the epitome of Guan's life.
Guan lived poor before 1949, so that he had to teach and repair the guqin during the day and paint at night to support his family. At that time, Guan lived in a small room less than 10 square metres in Huizhaosi Hutong. There was a thin wooden bed at the corner of the room and faded bedding on the bed. The old wooden table with two drawers near the window was used to place his guqin. At other times, it was hung on the top right of the wall.
However, poverty did not hinder Guan's passion for guqin. He often played it all night long. When it was cold in winter, he would do some exercise in his room from time to time to keep warm so that he could continue playing.
Aside from playing, Guan was also skilled at making and repairing them. The precious Tang (AD 618–907) and Ming ( 1368– 1644) guqins called Dasheng Yiyin and Longmen Fengyu respectively housed in the Palace Museum were repaired by Guan. After repairing these ancient guqins, Guan joked, “Well, they can be played for another 500 years at least!” Even with superb skills, Guan once worked as a painter at the Palace Museum to make a living, and walked from north to south Beijing to sell folding fans.
Guan cherished guqin even more than his own life. The Tang guqin Qingying has red and black body covered with snakeskin patterns, which makes a loud and clear sound. In order to protect this valuable guqin, Guan experienced danger. In the winter of 1946, after Guan went to the radio station for broadcast at night, he took a tricycle back to his apartment. When the tricycle rode along the Chang'an Avenue, a truck appeared all of a sudden, and they met head- on. Due to the narrow road and high speed of the truck, the tricycle was knocked to the ground. At that moment, all Guan worried about was the guqin. Although he was thrown out of the tricycle, the guqin was tightly kept safe in his arms. Years later, when Guan's student Wang Di got married, Guan gave Qingying to her as a wedding gift.
Even though he led a poor life, Guan sought joy amid sorrow. Yuan Quanyou, a cultural relics connoisseur and collector, Wang Shixiang's wife, used to learn to play the guqin from Guan. Wang recalled that Guan was good at cultivating plants, goldfish and insects. At that time, Guan planted southern fruit trees in his yard, where they grew well under his cultivation. In addition, Guan loved keeping goldfish, grasshoppers and other insects. Aside from these hobbies, Guan excelled at painting flowers, characters and other subjects on gourds with baking- hot needles.
Accomplishing a Mission
The establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 brought major changes to people engaged in art. Although Guan had been committed to guqin, he got half the result with twice the effort during the past decades. At the thought of the superior conditions and environment created by the People's Republic of China, Guan always said that it was impossible for him to imagine. He was determined to work harder to reward his motherland for her kindness and generosity.
In 1952, 55- year- old Guan ushered in a great turning point of his artistic life, serving as an associate researcher at the Institute of Folk Music of the Central Conservatory of Music where he began research on the guqin according to the music score.
“Jieshidiao Youlan” (“secluded orchid, in stone tablet mode”) is the world's oldest and only surviving melody written by Liang Qiuming during the Southern Dynasty (AD 420– 589), but it doesn't record pitches or rhythms, so its abbreviated version of later generation of players left more space for artistic creation. With the same music score, musicians may perform in different styles.
Guan had his own unique view on the seemingly messy melody, saying, “The music is like a large plate with many pits of different sizes on it. Each pit is placed with a bead suitable for its size. Players may feel at a loss at the very beginning, and all the beads leave their places. The players are supposed to keep shaking the plate to keep the beads in the pits where they belong. When the beads return to their pits, the process of transcribing the music will be completed.” The transcription had to be constantly refined until Guan was satisfied.
“Guangling San” (“san- type melody from Guangling”) describes the story of Nie Zheng stabbing the Han King during the Warring States Period ( 475– 221 BC), which music is presumed to be forever lost after the death of Ji Kang ( 223– 262, also known as Xi Kang, a Chinese author, poet, Taoist philosopher, musician and alchemist). Few people could play the melody and it took Guan two and a half years to transcribe the melody. The musical notation of “Guangling San” is different from that of the qin melody of the late Qing Dynasty ( 1644– 1911), with limited reference materials at the time.
After reading some books on qin, Guan began to exercise fingering, and then study how to apply it in performance. As Guan kept improving his playing skills and understanding of the guqin, he amended the melody several times. Two years later, Guan managed to play the nearly 30-minutelong piece containing 45 parts. His magnificent, smooth, impassioned and bitter style appropriately expressed the emotions in “Guangling San.”
Guan was always concerned with national music. Aside from performing and recording discs, Guan was committed to sorting previous music and transcribing new music. After “Guangling San” and “Youlan,” Guan sorted other classical pieces such as Li Sao ( The Lament), sparing no effort to promote guqin art.
In December 1956, Guan wore a traditional Chinese gown and played the famous piece “Liu Shui” on the Tang Dynasty qin Qingying at Lianyi Tang ( Hall of Ripples), in Beihai Park. The Central Studio of News Reels Production shot a film for Guan, and the film became the earliest Chinese guqin video. Although the video is short, it is the only record of Guan, the most important guqin player in the 20th century.
Attached Emotions to Guqin
Guan seldom spoke about his family. His three children either disappeared or died around 1949. The tragedy of losing young loved ones was a big blow for Guan. His only son has never been heard of since 1948. One year later, his eldest daughter who studied at Tsinghua University passed away. His second daughter died of illness in her journey to the south.
Guan attached his emotions to the guqin, and most of the musical pieces he played were melancholy, such as “Guangling San,” “Youlan” and “The Lament,” expressing disappointment and depression. His performances had a beauty beyond sadness hidden inside, turning mourning into introverted emotions. Listeners can understand if they listen carefully.
In 1965, his wife Zhao Yizhen died, causing a devastating blow on Guan and he was in low spirits all day long. The things which could comfort him were the guqin and liquor. Guan drank down sorrow, and was soon hospitalised due to excessive drinking. Guan died of liver disease on March 28, 1967.
Witnessing the late Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China ( 1912– 1949) and the People's Republic of China, Guan completed his journey through poverty but he was rich in artistic achievements. He made great contributions to the study of guqin by sorting ancient guqin music, creating a unique performance style, and researching fingering techniques. Thanks to Guan, many ancient musical pieces can be passed down to later generations. Guan Pinghu deserves the reputation of “the master of modern study of guqin.”
Renowned Chinese guqin performer Guan Pinghu
Guan Pinghu's album Li Sao, issued by China Record Shanghai Company, affiliated to China Record Corporation