The qin zither under Maoism, 1: Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu, 1954.

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singers, shawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here).

So in this first post in a mini-series focusing on the Beijing scene, I look further into the life and work of the great Guan Pinghu 管平湖 (1897–1967). John Thompson’s page on his exhaustive site is based on the CD set Guan Pinghu guqin quji 管平湖古琴曲集, well annotated and handsomely illustrated—I have only the original 2-CD set (1995), but Thompson refers to the expanded 4-CD edition (2016). See also e.g. here.

Besides the rich material of Wang Di 王迪 on her master, the great Wang Shixiang also wrote a fine tribute to Guan Pinghu. And my long-term fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 is not just a diligent chronicler of folk genres, but has also written eloquently about the qin. His articles

  • “Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根: 管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3 (serialised online in three parts)
  • “Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生, Mingjia 名家 49 (2013),
  • as well as a forthcoming essay on Zha Fuxi,

are both detailed and stylish, reflecting on the changing times in the qin world and society at large. The stories of these great players overlap, as they will in my series.

* * *

In the aesthetic of the imperial literati, “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) went hand in hand. Guan Pinghu followed in the footsteps of his father Guan Nianci 管念慈 (d.1909), a renowned painter who also played qin; he was in the retinue of the Guangxu emperor.

GPH paintings

Paintings by Guan Pinghu. Source.

Guan Pinghu rose to prominence among the stellar qin zither masters who gathered in Beijing before and after the 1949 “Liberation”.  From 1912 he took part in the Jiuyi qinshe 九嶷琴社 qin society founded by Yang Zongji 楊宗稷 (Yang Shibai 楊時百, 1865–1933). In 1938 he formed the Fengsheng qinshe 風聲琴社, and in 1947 the Beiping qinxueshe 北平琴學社, whose core members included Zhang Boju, Pu Xuezhai, Yang Boyuan, Wang Mengshu, Wang Shixiang, Guan Zhonghang, Zheng Minzhong, Yue Ying, and Wang Di.

Through the 1940s, apart from teaching qin at several institutes, Guan Pinghu spent time teaching painting at the Beiping jinghua meishu zhuanke xuexiao 北平京華美術專科學校, a forerunner of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He was among the artists consulted by a team from the academy in 1955–56 for their survey of ritual painting in Beijing.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s ethos was remote from the image of the “exploiting classes”. Oblivious of worldly cares (a theme on which Zhang Zhentao’s article is especially eloquent), he was quite at odds with the new values of both the Republican and Communist eras. His family life was inauspicious: he was apparently separated from his wife, and of his four children three died in the early 1950s, while the fourth was a wastrel. As Wang Di recalled, by the late 1940s he was living alone in a bare little apartment, scraping by on a modest income from selling his paintings and teaching his few disciples. Among these, his female pupils Wang Di, Shen You 沈幼, and Yue Ying 乐瑛—all from affluent families—took responsibility for looking after him, utterly consumed as he was by the world of qin.

After Liberation
In those early days the Music Research Institute (MRI) was part of the Central Conservatoire, then still based in Tianjin. In April 1951 Wang Di took Guan Pinghu on the train there to take part in a recording session of several qin masters on the initiative of Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu. Wang Di told them of his difficult circumstances; indeed, seeing his dishevelled clothing the concierge was reluctant to let him in, taking him for a beggar.

So when Guan Pinghu was recruited to the MRI the following year, he attained a much-needed security, receiving a handsome monthly salary of 177 yuan. He was given a little room that served as study and bedroom, allowing him to immerse himself in the qin along with a distinguished group of senior music scholars around Yang Yinliu, whose sense of mission he shared.

In 1953 Wang Di became his assistant. The following year they moved to Beijing with the MRI, first to a building known as the “ten rooms” (shijianfang 十间房) and then to Xinyuanli in Dongzhimenwai, which remained the MRI home until the 1990s.

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s
realisation of Guangling san.

We should pause to admire the remarkable energy of Yang Yinliu and his team in those early years: alongside his ongoing historical research, in addition to his 1950 return to his old home Wuxi, in north China he did seminal fieldwork on the “songs-for winds” band of Ziwei village in Hebei, the Zhihua temple in Beijing, ritual groups of Xi’an, and narrative singing, while continuing his research on Daoist ritual in Wuxi. In 1953 others at the MRI embarked on a project on folk-song in north Shanxi.

On the basis of the Beiping qinxueshe, the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会) was founded in 1954 (see Cheng Yu’s article); the Ministry of Culture took over a siheyuan courtyard dwelling in Xinghua hutong, near Houhai lake, to serve as the association’s tranquil base.

Guan Pinghu and Wang Shixiang shared a taste not only for antique furniture but for the rich street culture of birds and flowers in old Beijing; Wang writes eloquently of how Guan Pinghu spent money he could ill afford to rescue an injured grasshopper, likening its chirp to the lowest open string on his Tang-dynasty qin

While the soul of the qin still resided in the “refined gatherings” (yaji 雅集) of aficionados, the qin now also began to be heard on the concert platform. From October 1954 to January 1955 Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, with erhu player Jiang Fengzhi and pipa player Li Tingsong, gave prestigious performances in ten major cities, before vast audiences.

Despite the unpromising conditions of the unfolding of collectivisation, socialist dogma was still not so rigid as to outlaw the former literati class. Yang Yinliu and his team were just as concerned to document elite culture. Meanwhile vocal genres remained active, such as narrative-singing and opera—still lively folk scenes apart from the new state troupes.

Dapu and transcription
While many qin players were quite content with quite a small repertoire handed down from master to pupil (cf. north Indian raga), such as Geese Landing on the Sandbank (Pingsha luoyan), some of the leading masters were keen on the process of dapu 打譜, seeking to recreate pieces from early scores that had long fallen out of common practice. Guan Pinghu was at the forefront of this movement, along with the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan (see Bell Yung, Celestial airs of antiquity, and here).

PSLY 1

Opening of Wang Di’s transcription of Pingsha luoyan as played by Guan Pinghu, Guqin quji vol.1 (1982).

The repertoires of qin players had always been transmitted within particular regional styles. Notation plays a very minor role in most Chinese genres—none at all in some. But for highly literate qin players, tablature is an essential part of the learning process. Throughout history, right until the 1950s, players relied on direct transmission from master to pupil, aided by the tablature, which made an ambivalent record: over-prescribed in terms of pitches and fingerings, it allowed for considerable latitude in rhythmic interpretation.

GLS qinpu

GLS WD scoreOpening of Guangling san: Shenqi mipu (1425) and Wang Di’s transcription.

But in the 1950s, along with the circulation of recordings, the process of “fixing” the performance with composite transcriptions in Western stave notation and the symbols of traditional tablature began leading to a certain standardisation. This applied even to the newly recreated dapu pieces, some of which now entered the repertoire. The 1956 fieldwork of Guan Pinghu’s MRI colleague Zha Fuxi (see my forthcoming post) both revealed the great regional variations in repertoire and set a standard for establishing a “national” canon. It is rather hard to think back to the 1950s, when qin players had a very different mental image of their repertoire.

qin hui 1956

Members of the Beijing Guqin Research Association
on a trip to the Yiheyuan, 1956.
Front row, from left: Wang Zhensheng, Yang Qianqi, Guan Zhonghang;
middle row, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Cao Anhe, Guan Pinghu;
back row: Luo Zhenyu, Zha Fuxi, Wang Mengshu.
From Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) 楊陰瀏 (紀念集) (1992).

From 1956
In the summer of 1956, while collectivisation was causing hardship and desperation in the countryside, Yang Yinliu led another field survey in Hunan (here and here). Meanwhile Zha Fuxi led a remarkable project to document qin players over the whole country (more to follow in a later post in the series!).

Urban society was still relatively unscathed. But the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957–59), along with the Great Leap Backward and the famine (from 1958), caused great suffering. While I’ve found few instances of Beijing qin players being rusticated during this period, Guan Pinghu’s close friend Wang Shixiang was branded a “rightist” in 1957, bearing the stigma for twenty-one years. Lin Youren, just starting his study of the qin at the Shanghai Conservatoire, was sent down to rural Anhui for three years to support the desperate peasants.

Wang Di was ever devoted to taking care of Guan Pinghu in both his artistic life and material needs. In 1957, when the MRI prompted her husband to take leave of sickness, Wang Di had moved out of the institute (then still in the “ten rooms”) with her family. At first they lived at the spacious old family home of Yue Ying in Huazhi hutong, near the base of the Beijing Guqin Research Association. Yue Ying (to whom I’ll devote a separate post) was another female disciple of Guan Pinghu, and she invited him to live there too, as the Great Leap Backward was unfolding. Though the cities were protected from the severe famine in the countryside, Beijing dwellers suffered from food shortages; well-connected Zha Fuxi had baskets of eggs delivered to Yue Ying.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s new prestige was confirmed by an invitation to perform at Zhongnanhai for Chairman Mao, Zhu De, and Chen Yi.

In the early 60s Wang Di’s family moved to the bustling trading and entertainment quarter of Dashalar just south of Tiananmen (on which, note Harriet Evans, Beijing from below). But the redevelopment of the celebrated Rongbaozhai studio forced reluctant inhabitants to move to the Hepingli district further north; since Wang Di’s Dashilan apartment was safe from the developers, she agreed with one such family to let them live there while she moved into their own new dwelling in Hepingli. There she took care of Guan Pinghu. They were like a family—her two daughters called him Grandpa Guan (Guan yeye 管爷爷).

GPH and students

Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

Here we might also appreciate the fictional treatment of family travails through these years in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

New campaigns
Traditional culture was able to revive during a brief lull in the early 60s, spurring further energy in fieldwork and publication. But then the Four Cleanups campaign from 1963 presaged the agonies of the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from all the struggle sessions, murders, and suicides when the Cultural Revolution erupted, Guan Pinghu was among many who met their deaths at the time as an indirect cause of the rampages of the Red Guards. Pu Xuezhai, who also embodied the elite values of qin and painting, disappeared mysteriously in 1966.

Even qin masters hitherto in good standing with the regime like Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue were assaulted. Guan Pinghu was terrified as he witnessed the public humiliation of his peers. Long partial to erguotou liquor, he now sought refuge in the bottle, lying disoriented on the bank of the old city moat. Afflicted by liver cirrhosis, his health declined severely.

When he died on the 28th March 1967 he can hardly have imagined an end to all the destructive campaigns. Yet by the 1980s folk and literati genres were thriving again, and Guan Pinghu became a legendary figure, his pupil Wang Di masterminding the CD set that was finally published in 1995.

Recordings
There’s a precious film clip here of Guan Pinghu playing Liushui in late 1956, with Wang Di looking on. In 1977, on the recommendation of Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung, his Liushui was to be immortalised by being sent into orbit with the US spaceship Voyager 2.

GPH CDs

The classic resource is the ROI CD set. Guan Pinghu is also well represented on YouTube. Here’s the most celebrated of the ancient pieces that he recreated from Ming-dynasty tablatures, Guangling san—whose subject (to refine the image of the qin as tranquil contemplation!) is the righteous assassination of an evil ruler (among much discussion, note silkqin, and another article by Wang Shixiang):

Thrice Drunk in Yueyang (Yueyang sanzui 岳陽三醉) is inspired by the classical theme of inebriation (to be discussed in a separate post!):

For Guan Pinghu’s version of Pingsha luoyan, see here.

* * *

Unlikely as it may sound, the first fifteen years after Liberation were a Golden Age for musicological research. As to the qin, it’s not exactly that it enjoyed a renaissance: regional societies had thrived through the Republican era. But given the new ideology after Liberation, the intensity of research and gatherings under Maoism was remarkable.

We may now feel nostalgic for the old world of “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting”; but it was still embodied in the iconic masters who were active under Maoism. Like household Daoist Li Manshan (jinfei xibi 今非昔比, at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20), my nostalgia is not so much for distant imperial grandeur as for the 1950s.

And while countless lives, and precious old instruments, were destroyed in the 1960s, it’s remarkable how many managed to survive to lead the revival since the 1980s’ reforms (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Today, despite a broadening of the appeal of the qin deriving partly from the internet, the refined cultural backgrounds of former generations have largely been marginalised by the narrow conservatoire specialisation of younger students (see e.g. Bell Yung, cited here). Music is never just music.

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