Guan Pinghu’s Af­fec­tion for Guqin

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wang Hui­hui, pol­ished by Png Yu Fung

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

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