*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*
Zha Fuxi in 1974 or 1975, shortly before his death.
For this third post in my series on qin zither players in Beijing under Maoism, I’ve been learning more about the great Zha Fuxi 查阜西 (also known as Zha Yiping 查夷平, 1895–1976). A forthcoming article in Zhang Zhentao’s own series on the Beijing qin scene will doubtless provide valuable insights, but I’ll go ahead and offer my own preliminary thoughts, conscious that I may need to revise them in due course.
After the Communist revolution of 1949, amidst radical social change, a constellation of master musicians and scholars gathered at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing in an extraordinary flowering of research. Under the wise leadership of Yang Yinliu, working closely with his cousin Cao Anhe, scholars began documenting the riches of regional folk musical cultures all over China. And at the same time a distinguished group of qin players and scholars flourished—including Guan Pinghu, Pu Xuezhai, Wang Mengshu, Yuan Quanyou, Xu Jian, and Wang Di; nearby at the Central Conservatoire was Wu Jinglue.
At the forefront of this stellar group was Zha Fuxi. His own articles are collected in Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui 查阜西琴学文萃 (1995; 815 pages). On John Thompson’s website, a major resource for all aspects of the qin, his exposition of Zha Fuxi’s work (starting here) makes a valuable guide (for a basic outline, see Chinese wiki).
What I barely realised until I read an article by Xie Xiaoming was Zha Fuxi’s youthful political activism—he joined the Communist Party as early as 1924. While he is lauded within musical circles, it’s almost as if accounts of his life gloss over this aspect of his life, which one might expect to feature quite prominently.
A native of Hunan in south China, Zha Fuxi began learning the qin in 1908. But by contrast with the other-worldly Guan Pinghu, he was fully engaged with the social trends of his youth. From 1913, in the lawless times after the fall of empire, he attended middle school in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi, becoming interested in new democratic revolutionary trends, and taking part in student movements.
After studying briefly at Peking University in 1920, Zha Fuxi was drawn back south, spending periods in Changsha, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Guangzhou while pursuing his (patriotic) interest in aviation. He joined the Communist Party in 1924 at a time when it were still collaborating with the Nationalists, but after the Mari mutiny in 1927 he was briefly imprisoned. Making his way from Hankou to Shanghai, he continued to rise through the aviation ranks.
Meanwhile he was still studying the qin. A disciple of the Hunan qin master Peng Qingshou, in Shanghai he befriended Shen Caonong, with whom he co-founded the Jin Yu qinshe 今虞琴社 society in 1936. After the Japanese invasion in 1937 Zha Fuxi and many colleagues relocated to Chongqing; he took part in activities opposing the occupation. By 1943 he was Deputy Manager of the Central Air Transport Company.
Zha Fuxi spent much of 1945 and 1946 in the USA, meeting the qin community there, giving lectures, seeking early tablatures, and making recordings—some of which have been reissued on CD and online, such as Yuge, Xiao Xiang shuiyun, and Oulu wangji.
From August to November 1949, in the Uprising of the Two Airlines (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here), following Chiang Kai-shek’s demand that all commercial airplanes should be flown to Hong Kong to facilitate their transfer to Taiwan, Zhou Enlai enjoined senior airline officials—including Zha Fuxi—to refuse the order.
Anxious about the imminent Communist victory, many mainlanders were indeed fleeing to Taiwan, and in Zha Fuxi’s own sphere many more would have been keen to do so. Zha Fuxi spent little time in the new-look airline company before transferring to the MRI to devote himself to qin studies. I can’t quite decipher the elements in this move: perhaps his artistic leanings came to the fore under the new regime as his career progress in aviation was frustrated.
Few of his fellow qin players at the MRI can have felt much sympathy with the socialist system, even if they had to toe the line. Unlike some of the older generation, Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu were comfortable wearing both Western suits and Mao jackets; yet they too remained loyal to the traditional world of literati culture that now seemed threatened by Party ideology. Indeed, given the tenuous position of such an elite genre as the qin under the new populist regime, Zha Fuxi’s early support for the Party, his involvement in the airline uprising, and the connection with Zhou Enlai, must have helped protect him (and by extension, the qin) over the following years.
After Liberation, Zha Fuxi’s MRI colleagues plunged into fieldwork on regional folk genres. The culture of the “exploited labouring masses” might seem a topic that the new regime would welcome; but in practice, with such traditions embedded in local ritual life, scholars found themselves walking a tightrope of “feudal superstition”. Xie Xiaoming’s article, perhaps embroidering somewhat, also stresses Zha Fuxi’s immersion in folk music during his early years in Hunan.
In Beijing, one of his early projects in 1952–53, with Yang Yinliu, was to be influential. They visited the former monks of the Zhihua temple to document the shengguan ensemble music that accompanied their rituals. Zha Fuxi’s letter to them shows his distress at their reduced circumstances, and his exhortations turn out to based on genuine proletarian sympathies.
Meanwhile the MRI scholars also persisted in paying attention to elite genres—both historical sources and living literati traditions like the qin. And traditional “refined gatherings” of qin aficionados continued, even thrived. Meanwhile under Party guidance, public performance on stage was a price that the leading qin players of the time had to pay, trading intimacy for exposure; from 1954 to 1955 Zha Fuxi was part of an ensemble giving performances in ten major cities (see under Guan Pinghu).
The 1956 fieldwork project
Zha Fuxi was well aware that there was far more to the qin than Beijing and Shanghai. Already well-travelled, from early in 1954 he had conceived an ambitious project to document qin players all over China. This came to fruition in 1956, when Zha Fuxi formed a team with the younger MRI students Xu Jian (b.1922) and Wang Di (b.1923) (“guqin special cadres”, as his report quaintly describes them), travelling to over twenty cities over a hundred days from April to July to document the playing, instruments, and tablatures of eighty-six qin players. They also visited libraries and museums in search of instruments and early documents.
As Zhang Zhentao observes in his article on Wang Di, this was the first thorough fieldwork in China on urban ethnomusicology—admittedly focused on one small segment of the population, rather than surveying urban cultural life generally (cf. Archive Chinese recordings).
Zha Fuxi, with Wang Di and Xu Jian, interviewing a Daoist priest, Chengdu 1956.
Source: Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui.
A cryptic caption: “Interview on Daoist ritual on behalf of Cao Anhe”. Cao Anhe had done fieldwork in Sichuan before Liberation; I presume she accompanied Yang Yinliu on his visit to Qingchengshan in 1942 (Yang Yinliu [jinian ji], pp.88–93). Perhaps this was the very priest whom Yang Yinliu had visited, or perhaps Cao Anhe simply asked Zha Fuxi to document Daoist ritual while he was there. Daoist and Buddhist clerics commonly played the qin, but we don’t know if this priest was among them.
Zha Fuxi’s report, written in 1957, deploys the obligatory style of the time, with some quaintly bureaucratic, statistical language (cf. “reading between the lines” in my review of the monumental Anthology).
Zha Fuxi had already expressed his sympathy with the plight of the former monks from the Zhihua temple. Now that he had official support for the qin project (the following quotes are from John Thompson’s rough translation, with my minimal revisions),
Before setting out, the Arts Bureau had told me the government was concerned about circumstances regarding the livelihood, cultivation, and health of any old, impoverished, or sick qin players, and wanted a report of our understanding. As to the people whose qin playing was being recorded, the Musicians’ Association had instructed me that even before paying them any fees, I should actively give them financial assistance.
He goes on:
The Chinese Music Research Institute instructed us that our visits should record such materials as documents and artefacts for the qin and ancient music, and establish the necessary communications and research relations with qin players and lovers of ancient music. Thus the subject of our work became not only the recording of qin pieces …
While the ethos of the qin was still based on the amateur ideal, Zha Fuxi notes a small minority of seven “professional” players, including Guan Pinghu and Wu Jinglue. On the variable technical standards of the players recorded, he comments:
In order to understand the location of the problem, one must make a connection between the situation of qin players’ self-cultivation and their living conditions. Examining our fieldnotes on the eighty-six qin players whose playing was recorded, one can understand that most of them had neglected the qin for twenty to thirty years, and after Liberation they had not picked it up again until they received encouragement from the general and specific national policies on culture and the arts [Discuss…]. Many of them didn’t even begin to practise until after the Musicians’ Association charged me last year to go and invite them to make recordings, and thus one inevitably finds defects such as faulty intonation, rusty finger techniques, and disjointed rhythms. This is the result of a decline in national culture brought about by the social environment of the past several decades [that sentence revised by SJ].
There had indeed been a certain hiatus in activity during the troubled times after the Japanese invasion in 1937 and the following civil war. But whether consciously or not, in such passages Zha Fuxi adopts a very common sleight-of-hand in Maoist historiography, that Chinese culture has been languishing throughout the Republican era, only to be rescued by the enlightened Party—a view easily refuted by all the evidence (e.g. ritual groups in Shanghai, Xi’an, and so on—as in Stewart Lee’s taxi driver, “You can prove anything with facts“). The great loss began after the 1949 “Liberation”—one on which the 1956 project now inadvertently shone a light.
For all its patriotic clichés, this passage also contains a sincere core:
A young music worker in Xi’an, after hearing these three types of recordings of ours, said to me that in the past she had always considered national music to be inferior to Western music, and could not imagine that the motherland had such great and expansive pieces for plucked strings; when adapted into national instrumental music style this could become a distinctive symphonic music. She said that not only had she now gained interest in Chinese music and built up her faith in it, but it had further aroused her love for the motherland!
That same summer Yang Yinliu led a team on an extensive survey of folk and ritual music around Hunan.
For Zha Fuxi’s national project, apart from the selected tracks eventually included on the celebrated 8-disc set, note also the complete recordings issued since 2016 (here and here). This playlist contains a selection of 35 pieces from the set, opening with three played by Zha Fuxi himself:
Zha’s own playing is the theme of the 3-CD collection Zha Fuxi qinxue yishu 查阜西琴学學藝術 (ROI, 2016)—again, note John Thompson’s discussion (for the publication of the recordings, see also this interview with his son). This collection on YouTube has a selection:
- Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Xiao Xiang shuiyun 瀟湘水雲):
Apart from instrumental pieces, qin songs made a rich field for Zha Fuxi (for his own research on the topic, click here; cf. the work of Wang Di).
- On this track Zha Fuxi sings and plays Thrice Parting for Yangguan (Yangguan sandie 陽關三疊):
(Near the end of my tribute to Yang Yinliu, do also listen to his moving arrangement of this piece as a Protestant hymn!)
- For the qin song Sigh for Antiquity (Kaigu yin 慨古吟), click here;
- and for a sung version of Evening Song of the Drunken Fisherman (Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答), here.
The 1956 fieldwork project provided further material for Zha Fuxi’s magnum opus Cunjian guqin qupu jilan 存见古琴曲谱辑览 (1958, with 1,011 pages by my reckoning!) on qin tablatures and the history of the repertoire.  And in 1963 he produced the first volume of the Qinqu jicheng 琴曲集成, which after resuming in 1981 became the definitive 30-volume anthology of early qin tablatures.
From January to May 1958, on the eve of the Great Leap Backward, Zha Fuxi played qin solos on tour with the China Song and Dance Ensemble in the Soviet Union and Japan. On returning he spent the next three months taking part in rectification campaigns of the Qin Association and Political Association. Once the Leap began in August, new pieces for qin and ensemble were dutifully composed—an ephemeral innovation. Zha Fuxi wrote Dayuejin gesheng zhen shanhe 大跃进歌声震山河 in praise of the Leap (among many new pieces on the theme of bountiful harvests, such as Zhao Yuzhai‘s 1955 “Celebrating a bumper year” for the zheng zither); Guan Pinghu and Wang Di arranged The East is Red. In December the Qin Association featured this new repertoire on TV.
Apart from such necessary kowtows to authority, I’m unclear how the Beijing qin community weathered the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Leap, along with the severe food shortages that ensued; they toed the line while keeping their anxieties to themselves.
Qin masters gather at a Beijing teahouse, 1959
—with no hint of the severe social crisis of the period.
At front: Zha Fuxi with Yao Bingyan;
behind, Wang Di (with braids), Chen Changlin, and a beardless Wu Zhaoji.
By 1962, during the brief lull between campaigns, Zha Fuxi recorded a numinous duet with Jiang Fengzhi on erhu fiddle.
My own qin teacher Li Xiangting (b.1940), then a rising star of the younger generation and a pupil of Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue, notes the gathering official suspicion of the qin from 1963. Still, the Beijing qin community still kept active until 1964, with Zha Fuxi regularly hosting gatherings. For a moving evocation of stressful conditions over the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, I again recommend Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.
The Four Cleanups and the Cultural Revolution
I can find little material on Zha Fuxi’s life after the 1963 Four Cleanups campaigns and the violent eruption of society in the Cultural Revolution. Many of his colleagues suffered grievously from the assaults of revolutionaries, with qin players an inevitable target of young Red Guards.
Zha Fuxi seems to have been paraded by the Red Guards as the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966; but even after the worst violence subsided, by 1969 most of the MRI staff were sent down to the 7th May Cadre School farm in Tuanbowa (Jinghai, Tianjin municipality) for labour reform.
I doubt if Zha Fuxi’s connection with Zhou Enlai now helped protect him to any significant extent;  but from at least 1973, behind closed doors, as campaigns continued to rumble, a select group of qin scholars managed to resume their research, after almost a decade of silence, with the discreet protection of the Ministry of Culture—under the unlikely patronage of the leftist Yu Huiyong, promoter of the revolutionary model operas.
And in other (literal) fields too, the regime required some of the leading MRI scholars to research the ancient instruments now being revealed at archeological sites. In 1971 Yang Yinliu was recalled to Beijing from rustic exile to document the new excavations from Hubei for the Palace Museum. In 1972 he was sent to Changsha with Li Yuanqing and Li Chunyi to study the Mawangdui site, whereafter he was officially allowed to return to Beijing. Throughout this period Yang continued working on his Draft history of ancient Chinese music. Huang Xiangpeng (b.1927), another outstanding scholar of early Chinese music, was only released from rural labour in 1975.
After the revival of traditional culture that followed the death of Mao and the downfall of the Gang of Four, both Yang Yinliu and Huang Xiangpeng resumed their work keenly, though their health had deteriorated seriously. Yang died in 1984; and Huang was fully involved in the flowering of research until he died in 1997.
“Life and death are a matter of fate“. During the Cultural Revolution, distinguished masters had been driven to suicide throughout the cultural world. Of Zha Fuxi’s qin colleagues, Pu Xuezhai disappeared mysteriously in 1966, and Guan Pinghu died in 1967; others were lastingly traumatised. Zha Fuxi survived until 1976—before he could rejoice in the revival, when senior qin players such as Wu Jinglue in Beijing, Zhang Ziqian in Shanghai, and Wu Zhaoji in Suzhou emerged to renewed acclaim.
As with the whole literati class, Zha Fuxi’s accommodation with Maoism was complex. Meanwhile he compiled an extraordinary corpus of material on the history and living practice of the qin, enriched by precious recordings—a monument to an aesthetic world that has been marginalised by the glossy conservatoire professionalism of the scene since the reform era.
 Incidentally, in n.11 here, John Thompson mentions Qi Yan Hui, “apparently a 20th-century adaptation for guqin of a melody that until 1937 only existed in the oral tradition of other instruments”. I wonder if this suggests a link with the version common in the suites of shengguan ritual ensembles (see e.g. under Xiongxian).
 Pace Xie Xiaoming, Zha Fuxi can’t have become Deputy Chair of the Chinese Musicians’ Association in 1969, when such institutions were paralysed—John Thompson’s date of 1962 (perhaps from Xu Jian’s history of the qin) is more plausible.