Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s Guangling san.
In this little series on the qin zither in Beijing under Maoism, I have introduced Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi. Wang Di makes a kind of bridge between those two great masters, as well as between them and the reform era since the 1980s.
As solo instrumental performers, women have come to dominate in the conservatoires since the 1990s; but in the 1950s the celebrated performers were male, with few exceptions (notably Min Huifen on erhu: e.g. the CD set of archive recordings). Even the pipa lute and zheng zither, now mainly the preserve of women, were known largely through the playing of men.
However, women have long constituted a substantial minority among qin players (see here). In modern times, they were notable in the Republican era. After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Di 王迪 (1923–2005) was among several female students gathering around Guan Pinghu at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, including Yuan Quanyou, Shen You, Yue Ying and her sister Yue Xiangyan. They all came from strong literati backgrounds. And for an iconic figure in the Hong Kong qin scene, see Bell Yung, “Tsar Teh-yun at age 100: a life of qin music, poetry, and calligraphy”, in Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009).
Wang Di’s early life
Less promoted than some of her contemporaries, Wang Di is best known as the devoted disciple of Guan Pinghu. A companion with Zhang Zhentao’s article on the latter is his
- “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) (here, or here).
Born in Beijing in 1923, Wang Di sought out Guan Pinghu soon after hearing him on the wireless when she was 13, becoming his pupil. His living conditions were poor; she fed him when he came to her house for lessons, and helped support him.
Wang Di took part in the activities of the Beiping Qin Study Society from 1947. That year she briefly studied chemistry at the Université Franco-Chinoise in Beijing, “resolving to become a Chinese Madame Curie”, as Zhang Zhentao puts it. But illness soon made her forsake chemistry for the qin, studying from 1948 at the Guoli Beiping yishu zhuanke xuexiao 国立北平艺术专科学校, precursor of the Central Conservatoire, where she was kept on after graduating in 1953.
Having introduced Guan Pinghu to the MRI scholars in 1951, Wang Di was soon to serve as his assistant there. By contrast with Zha Fuxi, well-connected aviation executive, until the 1950s Guan Pinghu’s circumstances were lowly, and he now found himself with a regular salary, paid to do the work he loved.
All this was far from the peasant life now being extolled by the new regime. Alongside the groundbreaking fieldwork on regional folk traditions, somehow the MRI created a spacious ivory tower where research on elite genres (not only the qin, but early history) could be avidly pursued.
After the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会 see Cheng Yu’s article) was formed in 1954, a siheyuan courtyard-style dwelling in Xinghua hutong near Houhai lake made a regular home for its activities.
One aspect of the work of senior masters like Guan Pinghu was the process of dapu, recreating early qin tablatures; this soon became “fixed” in dingpu transcriptions of Wang Di and others, aided by recording.
In 1956 Zha Fuxi enlisted his young students Wang Di and Xu Jian to join him for an iconic survey of qin players in cities throughout China (see under Zha Fuxi). Whereas Zha Fuxi was already well travelled, this was Wang Di’s first opportunity to meet masters from all over the country.
On their return, the First National Music Week was held in Beijing, a prestigious event. Guan Pinghu and Wang Di were among the guests received by Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai at Zhongnanhai; Zhou even invited Wang Di to dance.
Through this period the association made minor concessions to the political agenda of “reform”, composing some new pieces. Most of these were transient, with the important exception of metal strings replacing silk.
Wang Di had planted a pumpkin in the association’s courtyard, which managed to grow to impressive proportions. In 1960, as food shortages were hitting hard, onlookers watched her with envy as she took it home. As Zhang Zhentao observes, women’s frugal domestic tasks like growing vegetables and needlework took on significance for the qin community; Wang Di could now relate this to the sorrows expressed in ancient melodies. In my post on Guan Pinghu I’ve described Wang Di’s successive changes of abode from the late 1950s.
A foreign pupil
After the 1949 revolution, the few Europeans studying music in China were mainly diplomats. Robert van Gulik had studied the qin profoundly before Liberation, whereafter he continued his work from afar; Věna Hrdličková researched narrative-singing in the early 1950s.
Cecilia Lindqvist studying with Wang Di, 1961. Source.
In 1961, just as society was recovering briefly from the hardships of the Great Leap Backward, Cecilia Lindqvist (林西莉, b.1932) (wiki, and Chinese version; silkqin; see also here and here) came to Beijing with her husband, cultural attaché at the Swedish embassy, and went on to become a renowned Swedish sinologist. She began studying the qin with Wang Di early in 1961. Lindqvist’s 2006 book (succinctly titled Qin; Chinese translation 2009) includes sections on her studies with Wang Di and the Beijing Guqin Research Association.
When she returned to Sweden in 1962, the association presented her with a Ming-dynasty qin (!!!) and recordings of the master players (heard on the CD with her book).
After Wang Di died in 2005, in 2010 her daughter Deng Hong 邓红 toured Sweden, making a 2-CD set of her own recordings, with notes by Lindqvist.
The Cultural Revolution
Remarkably, research on the qin managed to persist behind closed doors through the Cultural Revolution.
But by 1969 Wang Di, along with most of her colleagues at the MRI, was sent down to the May 7th Cadre School (Wuqi ganxiao 五七干校) at Tuanbowa in Jinghai, south of Tianjin (among several online accounts of conditions there, see e.g. here).
Zhang Zhentao evokes Wang Di’s life at Tuanbowa. Men and women performed the same tasks, like driving, tilling the fields, chopping firewood, mixing cement, and so on. During house-building, it was quite an art to toss adobe bricks up to the worker on the scaffolding above: the person standing below had to aim towards the receiver’s head, so that they could catch it; if they aimed for the hands, it might fall short. Wang Di excelled at this skill, and after returning to barracks she demonstrated it to her daughter, though it would soon become redundant for urban dwellers.
After the reforms
With the revival of tradition that followed the overthrow of the Gang of Four, some qin masters soon began making a reputation on the concert stage. But Wang Di remained unassuming, keeping away from the public eye; still working quietly at the MRI, she was content to continue representing the heritage of Guan Pinghu.
Following Zha Fuxi, Wang Di also became an authority on the dying art of qin songs. She began publishing her long-term research on the genre as early as 1982 (see here).
From 1991 she made a few visits abroad; and from 2003 she became involved in the Intangible Cultural Heritage project on the qin. But closest to her heart was preparing the CD set of recordings of Guan Pinghu.
In this series I’m focusing on a tiny literati elite that suffered terribly under Maoism. At the same time, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the peasantry who comprised the vast majority of the population endured even worse tribulations, despite the exalted new status that ideology now bestowed upon them.