This review was prepared for submission to the Ethnomusicology Forum journal in April but was never submitted as some my colleagues in the qin word felt I was inaccurately criticising Lieberman’s book translation the Mei’an Qinpu (that it didn’t include the jianzipu for the melodies which makes it rather ‘insufficient’ as a beginners teaching manual given that means the beginner must first learn to read staff notation to be able to play the melodies in the book (which in itself requires skill and understanding of how to play the qin in the first place in order to work out the fingering rather than simply guessing haphazardly) rather than learn the notation already described in the book to play the melodies (as is the case in traditional and modern qinpu)). In any case, it was a very minor criticism in the whole scheme of things but alas, I’m yet again threatened with ‘excommunication’ if I publish it formally in a peer reviewed journal regardless of freedom of speech or whether my criticisms are valid or not and all that. I could, of course, not mentioned that but then that would remove the context and in turn I must also ignore any other relevant peoples’ works in the process, which is renders the review weak and that is why I didn’t bother submitting it afterwards.
I’m posting it here for you to make your own judgement…
Standards of the Guqin: An English Language Introduction to the Chinese Seven-Stringed Zither
JUNI L. YEUNG
Toronto Guqin Society, Lulu.com, 2010
120 pp., ISBN 978-0-9866225-0-2
The Westerner who wishes to take up the guqin (or qin for short) is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to study materials in the English language for there are currently none that are comprehensive and complete available. There are the internet websites such as those of John Thompson (http://www.silkqin.com) and Judy Chang (http://peiyouqin.com/) that offer some assistance with the basics and has further exploration in other areas but these are not meant to be ‘teaching manuals’ per se. The closest in published format is Lieberman’s A Chinese Zither Tutor (1983) which is an English translation of the Mei’an Qinpu (1931). The book is based on his PhD thesis (1977) on the Mei’an Qinpu with a full scan of the entire manuscript but strangely the book itself completely excludes the qin tablature for all the melodies thus making it difficult for a complete beginner with no knowledge of music theory to learn the melodies in the traditional way (unless they somehow gain access to the PhD thesis to use the tablature, which is highly unlikely). This issue was addressed by Vigo’s Spanish translation (2008) of Lieberman’s book in which he reinstates the qin tablature thus restoring its intended pedagogical value and making it the first and only self-contained and complete Spanish teaching manual for the qin. Another publication of note is Binkley’s translation of the Yuguzhai Qinpu (2006) which has a section explaining the tablature and figure gestures. However, the Yuguzhai is primarily a teaching manual to construct the instrument and so does not include any melodies to learn from.
As for a complete English teaching manual, a discussion was started by Juni Yeung of the then Toronto University Guqin Association in 2006 (now the Toronto Guqin Society) on the North American Guqin Association’s mailing list (http://lists.guqin.org/listinfo.cgi/qinexam-list-guqin.org, 7th January 2006 19:07:41 PST) in which she expressed the desire to write a guqin teaching manual from scratch as such a book was in demand. However, no one was willing to take on such a project in Western qin circles as some believed that it was better to translate existing Chinese works from the likes of LI Xiangting (2004) and GONG Yi (1999) or that there is no one in the West that is ‘worthy’ enough to produce such a book [NB: after several years since the discussion took place, there still has been no attempt or motivation to translate any modern Chinese teaching manuals into English, even though there has always been a demand for it]. After several years of work on her own, this book is the result of her labours.
The book is set out like other modern Chinese qin teaching manuals where the first part contains all the basics and explanations on how to play the qin. The second part is devoted to the melodies. Unlike the other Chinese manuals, she also adds further information and raises important points that are often ignored or not required for Chinese readers. An example includes the distinction between guqin and guzheng. The first part is set out very clearly with straightforward explanations of the various aspects of the qin: the organology, performance aspects, detailed explanation of the notation and playing technique, tuning, maintenance and stringing, modern qin history and aesthetics, etc. The technical explanations are also punctuated with deeper discussions that maybe of interest in the future such as the discussion of Chinese musical theory in relation to the tuning names. Some of the explanations are set out to help the beginner further by going through a ‘thought or questioning process’ to slowly help them understand the mechanics instead of just presenting a list of facts and assuming the beginner will grasp them immediately.
The second part of the book deals with the main repertoire melodies that the beginner could learn. Each piece (in the modern staff notation above the qin tablature) is followed by the same thought and questioning process (‘lesson pointers’) to allow the beginner to examine and scrutinise their playing as well as giving hints on common sections and phrases that may impede the average beginner. The melodies are grouped into three sections; each section is different in terms of difficulty and tuning.
The last melody, Songxia Guantao (‘observing the waves under the pine’), is where Yeung decides to do something unique and which other books, including the Chinese manuals, do not go into at all: the actual process of dapu or transcribing original ancient tablature into a playable form. Following the score’s transcription that she herself has done, she gives detailed explanations of how she arrived at her current transcription, section by section, and gives tips and information on the technicalities of ancient tablature (such as the differences between the huiwei and the huifen positioning) which would be of help for a more advanced player doing their own transcriptions that all beginners must eventually do in order to progress in qin.
The style of the book is rather informal yet accessible for the beginner who maybe daunted by the formal style of other manuals. Because she has self-published this book, the format and image quality may not be up to a high professional standard like those in other mainstream published manuals (the staff notation is all done by hand and scanned onto the computer) but the images are clear enough to be followed accurately. The melody of choice for the dapu section maybe too advanced for a beginner to follow and a shorter piece such as Pingsha Luoyan (‘wild geese descending the sandbank’) would probably be more suitable or maybe another advanced piece should precede it to allow the beginner to get accustomed to the difficultly level. At times, Yeung seems to want to include as much information as possible with many opposing views on a given subject and this sometimes could be confusing or be overwhelming to the beginner.
Overall, the book is a significant contribution to the Western qin world where English teaching materials is sparse and it is a very useful teaching manual for beginners of the qin who may not have a grasp of the Chinese language that may bar them from taking up the guqin.
Binkley, James (trans.). 2006. Abiding with Antiquity: Translations from the Yu-ku-chai-ch’in-pu. Lulu.com.
Gong, Yi. 1999. Guqin Yanzoufa. Shanghai: Shanghai Educational Press.
Li, Xiangting. 2004. Guqin Shiyong Jiaocheng. Shanghai: Shanghai Music Press.
Lieberman, Fredric. 1977. The Chinese Long Zither Ch’in: Study Based on the Mei’an ch’in-p’u. PhD dissertation, UCLA.
__________. 1983. A Chinese Zither Tutor: The Mei-an ch’in-p’u. Washington: University of Washington Press and Hong Kong University Press.
__________. 2008. Un Manual de Cítara China: El Meian qinpu. Trans. and ed. J. M. Vigo. Barcelona: citarachina.org/Lulu.com.
Wang, Binlu. 2005. Mei’an qinpu. Beijing: Mei’an Qin Society, 1931; repr. with introduction, Beijing: China Bookstore.