The Beauty of the Guqin: Upright and Profound
The guqin is a plucked seven-string musical instrument. It has a long history and profound cultural meaning. Ancient literati and officialdom used it to express their willingness for self-improvement, family harmony, benefiting the people, and seeking peace for society. Thus, the guqin became symbolic for intellectuals. In Liji (an ancient collection of Chinese writings), it is written that "an intellectual does not casually part with his guqin or se [another stringed musical instrument]." Confucius once said, "Develop sentiment with Shijing [an ancient collection of poems], act according to ethical standards, and reach maturity in harmony with music."
The art of guqin focuses on idealistic beauty--highlighting inner meaning rather than magnificence in format. Its understanding exceeds the boundary of music, embodying the harmony between mankind and nature, heaven and earth, and concepts of body and soul. It is therefore a tool for self-improvement, enlightenment to higher realms, and civilizing people across the board. People often spoke of the Virtue of Guqin or the Tao of Guqin. The Rituals of Guqin, an ancient book written by Cai Yong, states: "In ancient times, Fuxi created the guqin to safeguard oneself from the deviant and stay away from lust, so that one can improve rationally and return to the origin." In Yueji, an ancient collection of Chinese writings, it is written: "virtue, is the root of sentiment; music, is the flower of virtue." High level music is a manifestation of Heavenly Law. When someone appreciates such music, he or she is morally civilized and mentally elevated.
In ancient times, a gentleman had to practice the guqin with an upright mind and heart in order to reach harmony of body and soul. Many intellectuals well-known for their ability to play the guqin were of high virtue and ethical standards. Dwelling in a picturesque place and practicing the guqin with sincerity, respect, and a peaceful mind enables one to reach harmony with nature and to be enlightened to a higher level. This is just what Jikang, an ancient Chinese intellectual, described in a poem:
"seeing swans returning,
plucking the five strings.
indulgence in peace with nature,
mind floating into higher way."
Even amidst a chaotic environment, one can still maintain a peaceful and pure mind, practicing the guqin without disturbance. As Tao Yuanming, another Chinese intellectual from ancient times, described:
"Living in the human world,
No noise coming by.
One may ask how to achieve this?
Calmness accompanying lofty mind."
Guqin practice is largely dependent on one's mind. A pure mind leads to upright music. An elevated mind leads to profound music. Such meanings will further touch the heart of a listener, echoing the virtuousness and grandeur carried in the music. As a matter of fact, practicing guqin and all arts are like this.