This is how I opened my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism:
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)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.
The scene was still largely amateur, with aficionados of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) taking part in “refined gatherings”. The stories of some of the leading characters are interwoven with those of the Music Research Institute, the Beijing Qin Research Association, the 1956 national project (with its definitive recordings), and political movements. This is a monument to an aesthetic world that since the 1980s’ reform era has been eclipsed by glossy conservatoire professionalism.
Always trying to move beyond disembodied sound-objects, I seek to evoke the place of musicking in the lives of qin players through the first fifteen years after Liberation, punctuated and eventually engulfed by campaigns—click on the links below for essays on
- Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): an otherworldly figure, revered not least for his dapu recreations of early tablatures, an activity that thrived in the 1950s
- Wang Di (1923–2005), Guan Pinghu’s devoted disciple, making a bridge both to the reform era and to
- Zha Fuxi (1895–1976): his role in the 1949 Uprising of the Two Airlines, his remarkable 1956 survey with its numinous recordings—and NB this qin-erhu duet from 1962
- Pu Xuezhai (1893–1966), descendant of the Manchu imperial clan: more classic recordings, and his disappearance in 1966
- Yue Ying (1904–74): an affluent youth, motherhood, and her moving 1972 recordings—perhaps the only audible remains of the qin in the PRC for the whole period from 1963 to 1978.
Women constituted a significant minority among qin players, as illustrated in the posts on Wang Di and Yue Ying, as well as Yuan Quanyou. The story of Yue Ying makes a poignant coda to the series.
See also qin tag. For a stellar gathering of masters of qin and zheng zithers, click here.