Nestled under plane trees and a thatched roof on Fenyang Lu near the Shanghai Conservatory of Music is a shop unlike any other in the city. Most passersby mistake it for a teahouse, but free tea is only the beginning of what one can savor in its timeless confines. For this place is Shanghai’s first and only shop devoted specifically to the appreciation and study of the world’s oldest written musical tradition, an instrument known to moderns as the guqin（古琴）, or “ancient stringed instrument.”
Lu Wensheng, a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and owner of the guqin shop, said his motive for opening the shop a year and a half ago was so he himself could learn the features of the guqin.
“I hope this shop can introduce people to the very special sound of the instrument and change their attitude toward music in general,” he tells Shanghaiist over a cup of tea in the shop. “Very few people know very much about the guqin.”
The guqin‘s three millennia of evolution never pushed it toward the popular. Songs are composed of fingerings, not notes. A precise vocabulary of hundreds of characters dictates motions of the hands. Its original silken strings resonate deeply with nature, but never create much volume. As museums worth of Chinese art depicts, the qin is better suited to quiet contemplation in a bamboo forest than the concert hall.
Ancient Chinese knew this zither as simply the qin. Along with the game of Go, calligraphy and painting, this was one of the four arts that scholars mastered. Confucius was an expert qin player and used it for moral self-cultivation. And like anything associated with the olds, guqin culture was nearly wiped out during the last century. But instead of the 20th Century being the guqin‘s last, it was prelude to a renaissance.
Because of the culture’s near extinction, most of the guqin‘s thousands of songs do not have a living link to the present and are unplayable. Current playable songs number only in the hundreds. So the major undertaking for researchers is “excavating” the old, dead songs. Depending on the length of the song, each song can take a master between three months to two years to excavate.
About half of the current “living” songs were recorded in 1954 when the government gave scholar Zha Fuxi a mandate to find and record guqin masters. His team went to fifteen places and in a whirlwind 100 days recorded 224 pieces by 75 players. If you buy a recording of old guqin music, it is most likely from this survey.
Hard as it is for the guqin to break into the realm of the popular, Mr. Lu in the shop sees a natural progression.
“The guqin is a hobby. It takes a lot of time, but it’s not hard to play. Beginners must focus on the same things as masters.”
Mr. Lu largely credits the guqin‘s renaissance to the United Nations, which designated the guqin a world heritage culture in 2003, but he also says it’s a matter of economics and interest. “We could pour this cup of tea into two glasses and share it that way, but you can’t do the same with a guqin. It takes time for the culture to develop.”
Like any traditional Chinese art form, innovation is not a priority. Competence is a virtue. Just as a Chinese art student learns to paint by copying a master’s work, so it is with the guqin. Every song is seen as having evolved to a certain level of perfection over the millennia. Even players of ten years have reservations about changing scores. So it may be a few years before we hear guqin accompanying electronic music, but with the level of interest we’re seeing today, that sort of experimentation is sure to come.
Until then, a cup of tea and the sound of this unique ancient instrument is a pleasant way to while away an afternoon, especially on the last Saturday afternoon of every month, when students and teachers of the guqin shop gather for an informal concert and critique. Just make sure you’re with someone who can speak Chinese before you head over to Fenyang Lu.
Shanghai Guqin Shop, 10 Fenyang Lu, near the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Look for the thatched roof and large wicker lamps. Thirteen week beginner and intermediate classes are RMB 850. Classes meet once a week usually on a Saturday afternoon or weekday evening and are held behind the guqin shop. Five students and one master per class. Individual classes available upon request. Basic Chinese reading ability is required to read guqin music.
Sound clips and extensive guqin information
that’s Shanghai article on guqin
Photos by Hugo Hu (胡承伟).