The Sound of History
The guzheng was once the most popular musical instrument in China. Now postgraduate Xi Yao Chen is working hard to make sure the ancient instrument gains new artists, while also keeping its traditional styles intact.
Xi Yao Chen
Waikato Institute of Technology, Master of Arts in Guzheng Performance
“You can have a high level of success when you teach people to use their own brains. The emphasis on critical thinking has helped me to achieve my goals.”
You probably won’t read about it in Rolling Stone, but after thousands of years the guzheng is still playing strong.
This ancient Chinese instrument has existed since the Warring States Period (475 BC). It rose to popularity during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) and by the time of the Tang Dynasty (619 AD-907 AD) it was the most popular musical instrument in China. Now postgraduate student Xi Yao Chen is working to preserve this instrument’s ancient heritage.
Even Chen doesn’t know exactly how the instrument first came about. According to a legend, there was a master of the se (瑟), a 25-stringed zither. He had two talented daughters who loved playing the instrument. Eventually, the master became too old, and wanted to pass his instrument to one of them. But both daughters wanted to have it. What’s a master to do? In the end, out of desperation, he decided to split his instrument into two. One daughter got 12 strings, and the other 13. To his amazement, the new instrument sounded mellow and even more beautiful than the original. The happy master gave the new instrument the name “zheng” by forming a new character from the symbols for “bamboo” and “argue”. The word “zheng”, therefore, means “argue” or “dispute”.
Xi Yao Chen was born and raised in a well-known Chinese music family in China. His grandfather was himself a famous guzheng master, one of the founders of the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing, and also the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. “My grandfather is the most well known music master in China, and both my parents are famous musicians, so I think this is my fate!”
In 2001, China’s Ministry of Culture and Arts started to fund a new arts competition. The China National Fresh Young Artists Competition selects the best young artists from around the country. When he first entered, Chen was only 16. “All other candidates were older than me. But I still won the Gold medal in the Beijing regional competition, and the Silver medal in the National competition. He had to put his contest-winning ways aside to come to New Zealand. “Since 2002, I have been teaching students here. The age group of my students in New Zealand has been from nine to 55-years-old. Most of them are migrants, originally from Taiwan, China and Malaysia.”
In 2008, with the support of the New Zealand School of Traditional Chinese Music and Performing Arts, Chen was invited to give guest lectures to Wintec music students about guzheng performance and traditional Chinese music theory. He was also invited by the British Council of New Zealand to join the “People in Your Neighbourhood” project with a bunch of New Zealand artists and the Urban Soul Orchestra from the UK. “I went to New Plymouth and performed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) International Festival, 2009.”
For Chen, the key to the New Zealand education system is its emphasis on critical thinking and independent research systems. “You can have a high level of success when you teach people to use their own brains. The emphasis on critical thinking has helped me to achieve my goals.” Chen’s postgraduate project sets out to explain why the traditional genre is important for today’s guzheng performers, and why this genre is an endangered species in modern China. He has targeted a number of areas, which he says have a huge impact on the disappearance of traditional genres of music. These include: modern teaching methods, the impact of new political rules, Western influence on Chinese education and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. By talking with established musicians and teachers he’s aiming to find some realistic ideas about how to encourage guzheng performers to learn and continue to work in traditional modes. “Nowadays, professional guzheng performers are different from the ancient Chinese musicians. Contemporary professional performers have grown up under the new education system, which means they value the accuracy of their playing more than their feeling of the music pieces.” Chinese national first-class musician Professor Li Bian agrees. “Contemporary guzheng performers have been taught to use exaggerated postures to attract the audience when they perform on stage, rather than attract the audience through their music.”
Chen’s work has been heavily influenced by Daoism and Ancient Chinese philosophy, just as both have influenced the evolution of Chinese music. In China, music is traditionally regarded as the harmony between heaven and earth and it is as important to understand the music spiritually as it is technically. “A player has to follow four different steps to become a musician. The fundamental step is to know the type of instrument you should use when you perform different styles of music; the second step is to learn the techniques and be able to understand the techniques; the third step is to understand the methodology of how to perform guzheng pieces such as the dynamics, contrast, expressions etc.; and the fourth step is to understand the true meaning of the music. When the player reaches this level, he will be a real musician.”