Title: 古琴美学思想研究 (Research on Aesthetic Thoughts of the Guqin)
Supplicant: Miao Jianhua
Rank and faculty: Doctor of Philosophy
Residence: Shanghai Conservatory of Music
Mode: Examined thesis and viva voce
Year of publication: 2006
Dr Miao’s PhD thesis is split into two parts. The first part examines the aesthetical thought and nature of the relationship between the literati and the guqin, concluding with the future progress and path of the qin. The second part deals with the historical data in regards to mentions in historical accounts relating to the qin’s aesthetics. I have not read the second part as it is mostly a long list of quotes with commentary and much of this mass of information is summerised and collated in the first part. The first part is what is most important as it deals with Miao’s research and comments about the whole literati vs folk, ritual vs art issue. She comes up with strong evidence to suggest that the qin was essentially a ‘minjian’ instrument that is not of singular importance in the whole scheme of things but was then ‘stolen’ by the literati who put mystical and philosophical emphasis which lead to its almost total monopolisation of the instrument, initially liberal then turning highly conservative as the dynasties roll by. She asserts that the fate of the qin is intimately tied down with the literati and so with the fall of the literati in the 20th century, so would the guqin fall unless it be ‘rescued’ from the literati and given a lifeline based on the Arts and Humanities.
She starts by outlining the history of the qin and its designation in the whole scheme of things. But analysing historical documents like the Shijing and various pre-Qin texts, they suggest that the qin was very much an instrument with no attached importance. In the Shijing, there are various references that the qin was played by commoners and in ensembles with various instruments like the se, the sheng, etc. Essentially, it was not seen as a ‘sagely instrument’ or anything that it is know by us today. It was not ‘the head of the eight sounds’ or had it any association with self-cultivation.
However, from Qin and onwards, the literati took hold of the qin and eventually made it their instrument of choice. From then on, we see phrases like ‘the qin, it means to be restraint,’ ‘the sound of the qin can regulate the world’ and ‘the gentleman who is near the qin and se, he is to use it for ritual and not to delight the heart.’ Much of this came from the Confucians but by the Wei Jin period, the Daoists seem to have taken the qin as well; ‘that of which is the qin is the Way; and that of which is the qin is the instrument [to the Way].’
She outlines many other examples like how the qin embodies ‘harmony and ‘silence’ but she then highlighted two examples that were not in line with the Confucian-Daoist thinking of the qin. The first was Xi Kang and his argument that the qin should be an instrument of freedom and so the aesthetically direction of the qin must also be free (from restraint). The second is Yang Zhi’s proposition that ‘that of which is the qin is the heart, and that of which is the qin is to sing; so as to sing from the heart.’ These revolutionary ideas were overlooked by the majority of qin players and theorists.
She then puts forward that the qin was a mainly folk/minjian instrument during pre-Qin times. She cites from the Zhuochuan: Chenggong 9th year that ‘the music played is that of the native style’ and she says that this is evidence that the qin anf folk music had an intricate connection. She gives another example, that Qin Shihuang used also drums and harps together with the qin in his court. After the literati’s hold, the qin became increasingly restricted in its output material, restricting its material to ‘plain and harmonious’ and many aspects forbidden such as complicated fingering and sad music. Her main point was that the qin was initialy a liberal instrument of the masses that turned into an ultra conservative tool for an elite, from an artistic folk instrument to a ritual literati solo instrument.
Her next section devotes itself to the three main philosophies of China and their relation to the qin. The first is Confucianism and its aspect of restraint for the qin. This I do not need to explain further. The Daoist take is that of the heart and that the point of the qin was to be free and at one with nature. But Miao says that this was misinterpreted and changed into the idea that ‘big tones embody less sound’ and that qin music should be ‘plain and flavourless.’ The Buddhist take on the qin is that it is an instrument for mediation but Miao notes that there are only a handful of melodies tied in with Buddhism. The reason she explains later.
She explains that although the three philosophies have different takes on the qin, the goal is the same. For Confucians, it is to restrain the heart and to educate the world. For Daoists, it is to escape from the world and later to restrain loud and unnatural sounds. For Buddhists, it is to meditate and restrain desire.
In the next chapter she deals with the relationship between aesthetics and actual practice. The philosophical aesthetics created a plethora of melodies associated with the three philosophies. However, she notes that many of the melodies composed are made up of ideas and embody certain themes from them. There is very few if any ‘abstract’ pieces and these tend to be short pieces that are meant to be ‘proper melodies’ in their own right, i.e. the modal preludes.
She says that the criticism of ‘complicated fingerings’ has lead to avoidance of the transmission of certain melodies such as Guangling San. Xu Shangying further emphasised on the qin’s ‘pure, subtle, plain and distant’ tones and made the qin more restricted in its output.
In the next section, she outlines the contraditions of qin aesthetics. First she attacks the criticism of complicated fingering. She says that instead of fingerings getting plain and simple, they have in fact become more complicated; e.g. Xiao Xiang Shuiyun, Liu shu, etc. Also, many ancient melodies do have complicated fingerings in them and the list of fingerings cited in qinpu are large and complicated in themselves. She also criticises that notion that qin music is ‘elegant’ and the avoidence of ‘folk sounds.’ She cites Cai Yong’s Qin Cao with its examples of melodies that allegedly derive from folk backgrounds. Also she highlights Su Dongbo saying that ‘people of today say that the qin is elegant; they are wrong. From the beginning, the qin has fallen on the ears of folk/barbarian people. Today, those that are from folk/barbarian background are the huqin family of instruments and they are not from the mainland. And all these instruments have not been separated/sectioned off. Also, the pipa can be played solo as well as in Chinese and foreign ensembles and yet no one can separate it/section it off from such.’
She then attacks the whole idea that the qin is free from influence from other genres of music like Kunqu. She cites that Zhu Fengjie says that qin should not be played in the style of Kunqu but then he uses Kunqu terminology elsewhere in his writings. Another piece os evidence she gives is Yang Shibai who says that pieces like Hujia and Shui Xian have minjian influences and yet they haven’t lost their elegance and their results sound good.
In the next section she talks about the nature of the ‘literati qin’ and the ‘artistic qin.’ She explains that the ‘artistic qin’ was put down by the majority of qin players and that they preferred the qin to be about self-cultivation, self-entertainment and not to be used for profit or artistic means; putting the literati qin on top and the artistic qin at the very bottom. She argues for an artistic qin, using the ideologies of Xi Kang and Yang Zhi examples.