Guqin is a plucked, seven-stringed instrument that dates back more than 4,000 years. Li Zejun, who has studied, produced and taught people to play the instrument, says guqin has become an indispensable part of her life.
Listening to the melodies produced by playing the guqin can keep one calm, she says. Li summarized her understanding of guqin in a presentation, entitled "Mirror Illusion and Guqin." She also developed a therapy, "Zen of Guqin," during which she played the guqin and used its sounds to make listeners feel relaxed and peaceful. She hopes more people, especially from the younger generations, will appreciate the charm of guqin.
Li loves guqin. She has dedicated a lot of time and energy to making more than 100 of the traditional Chinese instrument. "You have to love it very much if you want to do it well. Or else, you will never get what you truly want," she says.
Li was full of energy as a young girl. "I had quite a few hobbies … Besides music, I loved sports. I used to play basketball, football and tennis," she says.
Li majored in the zither (a traditional Chinese musical instrument that consists of two sets of strings stretched over a flat box) when she was in college. She developed her interest in both Chinese and Western musical instruments. She learned to play several instruments, including the piano, guitar and erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument).
One day, she was impressed by some beautiful melodies as she listened to a famous musician, Gao Zicheng, as he played the guqin. "I felt as if the sounds produced by the guqin touched the bottom of my heart. The renowned musician suggested to me that I should learn guqin, so I shifted my major."
Twenty years have passed since Li first listened to a live guqin performance. She says the beautiful sounds during that performance linger in her mind.
Very few people in China learned how to play either the guqin or zither during the 1990s. Li began learning how to make a zither, and later a guqin, in 1998. At that time, it was difficult to buy a quality guqin or zither, so musicians had to make the instruments by themselves. "A person who plays a guqin or zither sometimes has to look for a good instrument throughout his/her life," Li says.
She explains that she was "taking a risk" when she first tried to make a guqin by herself. She had to overcome a lot of difficulties during the process. When she learned how to play the guqin, her tutor guided her and gave her detailed instruction. When she tried to make a guqin, though, she did not have a tutor to explain "where to find suitable wood for making the instrument" or "how to process a piece of wood into the instrument."
Li thought she could ask a carpenter for help; however, it turned out that the carpenter had no idea how to make a guqin. So, she had to figure out, by herself, how to transform a piece of wood, so it would produce beautiful sounds, and how to finish the instrument's surface. It took her 10 years to produce her first guqin, which looked plain and simple.
Historical records indicate the guqin dates back 4,300 years. There are several models of the traditional instrument, including Fu Xi, Jiao Ye and Zhong Ni. Each model has its own shape, and each guqin has its own name.
"Our ancestors, in ancient China, had a saying, 'plum blossom wife and crane child.' That means people compare a beautiful plum blossom to one's wife, and they compare an elegant crane to one's child. Similar to this metaphor, ancient musicians considered the guqin to be their best companion, which accompanied them throughout life. They gave their instruments names and wrote poems to appreciate the instruments," Li explains.
In her opinion, each guqin is unique. "Every guqin is made from wood taken from a different tree. Trees may have experienced different changes in the environment … A guqin maker's ideas and skills are different from that of another maker. So, each guqin has its own story," Li says.
China launched the Shenzhou IX spacecraft into space in 2012. The spacecraft broadcast three guqin melodies as it orbited the earth. A Chinese musician used a guqin, made by Li, as he performed the melodies to be broadcast from space. Li also made the instruments that were used to perform the guqin melodies that were broadcast during the Shenzhou X and Shenzhou XI misions in space.
Li says guqin music can create a tranquil atmosphere, in which listeners feel calm and peaceful. To help people learn basic information about the guqin, and to help them better appreciate the instrument's charm, Li has prepared a presentation, "Mirror Illusion and Guqin," and she has given many lectures at universities and in companies. In recent years, Li has concentrated on promoting a music therapy that adopts the sounds and melodies created by playing the guqin.
She feels content when she thinks about how music does not have boundaries between countries. People at home and abroad can both appreciate the charm of the guqin. "Once, I met a foreign student who majored in film music at a college in the United States. The student played the piano very well. After I taught him some basic notes and playing gestures of the guqin, he was able to play a short melody, like countryside music … The student said the sounds produced by guqin were so appealing that he would not feel bored even if he spent a whole day playing the instrument," Li says. She adds she was excited to have helped teach quite a few foreigners how to play the traditional Chinese instrument.
She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, last year. On the second floor of the museum, there was an exhibition area decorated as a traditional Chinese quadrangle courtyard. A guqin was placed on a table in the courtyard. "I hope every guqin will be treasured by people who will love this instrument throughout their lives. This traditional instrument has existed for thousands of years. It needs our love and protection," Li says.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly August 2018 issue)