My Chinese Heart | Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

ByYang Ning and Zhang Jiani April 20, 2024

Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

Cheng Yu, a virtuoso of pipa (a fretted lute with four strings) and guqin (a seven-stringed Chinese zither), has been living in London, the United Kingdom, for more than three decades. Cheng, founder of London Youlan Qin Society, is committed to making guqin popular among Westerners.

Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

Sailing Dream 

Cheng, who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, is founder of both the UK Chinese Ensemble and London Youlan Qin Society. She is also a researcher with the Chinese Music Department, University of London, and research supervisor, for students majoring in pipa and guqin, with the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London. 

Cheng is a five-time winner of the British National Arts Fund. She has performed with Lang Lang, the prominent Chinese pianist, Tan Dun, the renowned Chinese-American composer, and the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Cheng moved to London in 1990, to study for her Ph.D. at the University of London. To her surprise, the School of Oriental and African Studies did not have a single department related to Chinese music. 

Cheng resolved to help non-Chinese learn about guqin, which is first among the four ancient Chinese arts. Guqin, go, calligraphy, and painting were regarded in ancient China as the four arts that a person had to study to become a learned scholar, because those four arts cultivated one's mind and disposition, in various ways. 

Guqin has a history of more than 3,000 years. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed China's ancient guqin music a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. 

Thanks to Cheng's tremendous efforts, the School of Oriental and African Studies agreed to establish a department of Chinese music. After her graduation, with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, Cheng began teaching pipa and guqin at the school. 

Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

Cheng recalls how difficult it was to find suitable venues to stage guqin performances, and to attract large audiences, in the early days. Westerners tend to judge music in terms of its rhythm and sound, she says. Once, ahead of her performance with a Western band, a member of that band told Cheng the sound of the guqin was too soft and peaceful to play on stage. Later, the band's member marveled at the beauty of guqin's unique sound, as Cheng played it with acoustic effect. 

Many Westerners have shown great interest in guqin, Cheng notes. "King Charles III is one of those people. He has visited London Youlan Qin Society, and he granted it financial assistance," Cheng says. 

After the founding of London Youlan Qin Society, on July 13, 2003, Cheng reached an agreement with the School of Oriental and African Studies to hold theme summer camps and yaji (ya meaning elegant, ji meaning gathering, an ancient tradition among Chinese literati, with a history of more than 1,000 years, during which scholars and artists get together to drink tea, write poems, appreciate art and enjoy music) activities. As part of the activities, renowned Chinese and foreign guqin masters would be invited to give lectures and performances. 

"We have been holding yaji gatherings, on various themes. It is like an informal salon in the West that provides a forum for guqin and Chinese music lovers to perform, and to discuss music, as well as its associated philosophical and cultural aspects," Cheng says. 

An increasing number of people have attended guqin-related lectures and concerts organized by London Youlan Qin Society.

Sharing and promoting Chinese traditional instruments and music with Westerners gives Cheng the utmost joy and fulfillment. "This is something that I enjoy doing. It enables Westerners to appreciate a culture that is unique and different from theirs," she says. 

Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

Effective Teaching 

London Youlan Qin Society is not only trying to bring guqin into the public's vision, but also to inherit and carry forward the historic culture of guqin. "Guqin has its life, and it goes beyond a musical instrument. Behind each guqin, and each music score, is a cultural memory and a legendary story," says Cheng. 

During her classes, Cheng tells her students the stories behind the music scores, and she guides her students as they feel the emotion of the music. After that is accomplished, she teaches them how to play the instrument. "Only when we grasp the emotion the music wants to convey, can we give a performance that makes people empathize," Cheng says.

The combination of education and entertainment in her class has aroused the interest and longing of her students toward Chinese culture, and especially guqin music, going above and beyond expectations. 

Cheng and members of London Youlan Qin Society were invited to prepare and stage a concert, with the theme, A Dream of Red Mansions, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, in Bulgaria in 2019. 

Members of the society, and other prominent figures of performing arts, practiced for more than a month. 

In addition to the guqin, the concert included a performance of Kunqu Opera, the creation of traditional Chinese paintings, and the recitation of ancient Chinese poetry. 

The concert won great acclaim from the audience for its sound combination of guqin performance and the culture of the classical Chinese novel. 

Given Cheng's well-prepared courses and colorful way of teaching, her students have become more interested in guqin music. To Cheng's surprise, one Western student designed his neckties into the shape of guqin. Later, London Youlan Qin Society chose a guqin-shaped necktie to be one of its logos.

"I am touched that we have a lot of followers and supporters. I hope we can create a better future for our society," Cheng says. 

Virtuoso Spreads Guqin Culture in UK

Seeking Innovation 

"Guqin is a lively art. We should have the determination and courage to inherit and carry forward the traditional Chinese art," Cheng says. 

Cheng has led members of London Youlan Qin Society in adapting folk music, songs from TV series, and popular music, widely known by Westerners, into guqin music. 

During a commemorative activity, held in Trafalgar Square, London, in the summer of 2023, Cheng and London Youlan Qin Society left a deep impression on the audience while performing a guqin show involving the Song of Crouching Dragon, a song in the Chinese TV drama Romance of Three Kingdoms. 

The TV drama was produced based on the novel of the same name, which is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. 

Cheng has sought closer cooperation with leading Chinese pianists and popular Western music bands over the combination of guqin and modern musical instruments. 

To encourage Westerners to have their children learn guqin, Cheng has worked with Beijing-based China Nationalities Orchestra Society and the School of Oriental and African Studies to establish a grade-based, guqin-testing system. 

The first grade-issued, testing-and-competition event was held on the sidelines of the first International Chinese Music Festival, in London, in August 2023. 

"The test will help students gain a better understanding of their level, and it will encourage them to seek constant improvement in their guqin-performance skills," Cheng says. Students' grading certificates will be counted as their academic scores, and the students will be able to apply for a scholarship on that basis, she adds. 

London Youlan Qin Society has established its online presence on various social-media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Bilibili, to spread guqin and traditional Chinese culture in the West. 

"We will keep moving forward to promote the inheritance and development of guqin culture in the international community, and to help more people to appreciate the charm of guqin," Cheng says. 


Photos from Interviewee

Source: People's Daily Overseas Edition

(Women of China English Monthly March 2024)


Please understand that,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by