Timeless tunes

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-10-03

Timeless tunes

Cecilia Lindqvist studied guqin, a Chinese zither, under some of the best masters of the instrument in Beijing in the early 1960s. It was an education that allowed her introduce the guqin's unique sounds to audiences on the international stage. Sun Ye reports.

When the two friends of some 50 years saw each other for the last time, at the older woman's deathbed, they spoke about a seven-string plucked instrument, guqin.

"Her final question was, 'Is there anything you'd want to know about the instrument?'" recalls 82-year-old Swedish Sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist of that 2005 meeting on a wintry afternoon, tears welling in her eyes. Her friend and instructor, Wang Di, passed away four days later.

It's only appropriate that the final subject the two friends spoke about would be guqin, the 4,000 year-old instrument that brought them together and has been the focus of Lindqvist's lifelong study.

Lindqvist, former chair of the Sweden-China Association and professor of Stockholm University and Beijing Language and Culture University, finished writing her book, Qin, several months later.

The book was released in 2006 and promptly won one of Sweden's biggest literary prizes, the August Award. The book details guqin music as well as "civilization's fate, feelings and dreams" and recently was added to the required reading list for Chinese middle-school students. Its revised second-edition is due out this spring.

Lindqvist, student of famed Swedish Sinologist Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren, who is well-versed in piano, lute and several languages, came to China at the age of 28 in search of a different kind of music. "Western music, like Beethoven, is too masculine," she says.

It was 1961, and her Peking University language classes were still taught with "Proletariat around the world, unite!" as example sentences. Times were so bad that she had to sustain herself on intravenous drips of protein while the rest of the university students peeled twigs off trees for food.

But she would be grateful for the following two years and remember them as "wonderful times", as she spent them at the Guqin Research Center, a courtyard that housed the country's most celebrated guqin players. Wang Di, who was then in her late 30s, became her instructor.

Lindqvist fell for the guqin, whose sounds are "a combination of absolutely fascinating rich mixture" that run from airy twinkling to dithering tomes.

But it's not just another exotic instrument.

There are no scales or etudes to get used to. One starts with one of 100 tunes that still exist. One has to take a bath before playing. There are rarely any chords. The scores have no marked tempo. The essence is the mentality, the ideals of noble characters and graceful bearing. It's the expression of upper-class scholars.

Lindqvist says Wang taught her that " (Guqin) music is a way to get your heart to open and connect with nature". She says Wang "felt sorry" about the stringent and practical Western ways.

"I began to understand that this is something else," Lindqvist says. "It's for your inner peace, it's for all the things in life and nature."

Before they sat down to play, Wang would tell the stories, temperaments and scholarly manners behind the tune. Guqin was traditionally played by scholars in ancient times to express themselves. Most renowned guqin tunes have been handed down through the generations. To play them as the original composer intended, it is important to know the mood, feeling and history behind the music.

Lindqvist would continue to tell the stories of the guqin all over the world.

As the first and only student at the research center, the master guqin players banded together to present her with a one-of-a-kind farewell gift, a live recording of some 20 tunes played by the masters (among them Guan Pinghu, Zha Fuxi and Fu Xuezhai, whose music was sent to space on the Voyager) so that she wouldn't forget.

When she returned home to teach (she has been teaching literature, history and Chinese, incorporating the latter into the Swedish school system in 1971), she played the disc to her art history students until she lost it. The disc was found last year, and was included in Qin.

The book, which she spent 15 years researching, was a tribute to her teachers.

It was also a document for future generations. "When I wrote the book (in the 1990s) I was absolutely sure guqin will never survive, because nobody was studying it," she says.

Now, she has changed her mind and is convinced the instrument will last. Not only because it became a World Intangible Cultural Heritage item and many others like her are actively promoting the art worldwide, but also because it has a staying power that withstands the test of time.

Zheng Minsheng, the guqin scholar of the Palace Museum recently brought 10 guqin for Lindqvist to see. Most of them were - much like her own Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) instrument - regal, historical, beautiful and rich with hundred of years of experiences.

One of them is very good but new. "Imagine. In 500 years this will be absolutely marvelous," Zheng said.

"It's extremely moving," Lindqvist says with a little sigh. "We don't usually have that perspective, for something will get better and better in the hundreds of years long after we are gone."

She also believes that Chinese culture, with its ample share of ups and downs, will always be consistent and will live on.

She has visited China almost every year since the 1970s, for many China-related projects, including her archaeological study of oracle-bone characters. China: Empire of Living Symbols, a book that uncovers the evolution of a few hundred Chinese characters, is her other August Award winner. She has also worked on TV documentaries about the life of women in various parts of the country, a study on the art of paper-cutting in Shaanxi province, a chronology of Lunar New Year posters and more.

"I came to China in 1961, thinking the two years would only be a parenthesis in my life," she says. "But I was caught and it fundamentally changed me."

In recent years she has curated several guqin concert tours in Sweden. Lindqvist seldom plays in public.

In hushed silence, listeners would fill up auditoriums to overflowing. They crammed into the venues to see Lindqvist relate the moods and stories behind the tune (from flowing reeds to the creaks of an oak), and then the guqin music would be played by Deng Hong, Wang Di's daughter. Just as it was in the 1960s.

The highly acclaimed tours have resulted in a studio recording. And it couldn't be more aptly named.

It's called The Sound of the Soul.