Throughout history there have been numerous idioms and adages with the word “instrument” in them, including “playing the lute to a cow” (to fall on deaf ears), “burning zithers and cooking cranes” (to ruin something perfectly wonderful), and “the lute and psaltery are in harmony” (conjugal bliss). The “instrument” referred to in all of these sayings, however, is not any instrument that most contemporary people are familiar with, but actually the guqin — an ancient seven-string Chinese zither. For instrument makers and collectors, each guqin is alive and possesses its own unique personality.
Currently underway, the Museum of World Religions’ exhibit “Chinese Zither throughout the Ages: The Art of the Guqin in Taiwan” has around 30 of the zithers from well-known collectors on display. Wu Wen-li, head of the museum’s media and marketing department, says that nearly all of the guqin on display are new instruments that were made in recent years. Besides introducing guqin-related sayings and explaining how the instrument is made, there is also an area set up that simulates the actual experience of playing the guqin.
With well over a thousand years of recorded history, there is actually a lot of knowledge to take in when learning the guqin, including names, forms, its musical notation, and the entire process of making the instrument. Anatomical terms were used for the names of the various parts of the instrument, including its head, forehead, the nape of the neck, shoulders, waist, tail, feet and gums. There are as many as 100 different types of guqin, which can typically be distinguished by how the curves are designed at the “nape of the neck” and the “waist.”
The overall measurements of the instrument have also been standardized over the years. The length of the instrument is supposed to be three chi (0.96m), six cun (1.92cm) and five fen (16mm), signifying the 365 days of the year, while the width is supposed to be six cun, symbolizing the six he (coordinations), or up, down, east, west, south and north. The top of the guqin is arched to represent the heavens, while the bottom is flat, representing the earth, alluding to the belief that “the heavens are round and the earth is square.” The top of the guqin has 13 emblems, which not only represent the notes of the octave, but also symbolize the 12 months of the year, including the largest one in the middle — the seventh emblem — representing the intercalary month on the lunar calendar.
The museum has teamed up with Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Religious Studies, Fu Jen’s Tsung Hsuan Guqin Society and the Taiwan Tzung Hsuan Taoist Culture Research Society in organizing the exhibit. But what does the guqin have to do with religion? Wu says that the instrument, aside from being used to play music, has also served a spiritual purpose throughout history, being used to purify the mind and promote good qi in the body, which from a modern perspective gives the instrument a certain religious significance, similar to how yoga and taichi originated from traditional religious practices. The museum’s Web site is http://www.mwr.org.tw. The exhibit will be on display until Jan. 20 next year.
(Liberty Times, Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat)