Monday, February 08, 2016

Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters

In an earlier post, 'Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers', I discussed landscape imagery in Song dynasty music for the qin (Wade-Giles: ch'in).  The ch'in, a type of zither but sometimes confusingly referred to as a lute, is the great instrument of Chinese history, played by scholars, emperors and poets.  There was T'ao Yüan-ming for example, whose fondness for it, along with books and wine, I once referred to here (T'ao was the founder of 'fields-and-gardens' poetry).  Indeed, 'T'ao was ultimately so imbued with ch'in music that he removed the strings from his instrument, writing that "I have understood the deeper meaning of the ch'in, why should I need the sound of the strings?"  This may help to explain why certain inaudible effects executed on the ch'in are admired, as both the performer and the educated listener can imagine the sounds even when they cannot hear them.  T'ao's statement also provided an excuse for later scholars who owned an instrument but could not play it.'

 Uragami Shunkin, A Portrait of Uragami Gyokudō, 1813

This quotation actually comes from a book about a Japanese ch'in player, Uragami Gyokudō (1745-1820).  In Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters: The Arts of Uragami Gyokudō, Stephen Addiss covers not just his music, but also Gyokudō's poetry, calligraphy and landscape painting.  It was music that came first though, as Minagawa Kien made clear in the preface to a collection of Gyokudō's poems, suggesting that this ability on the ch'in enabled Gyokudō to evoke the 'craggy and vast'.  In this he resembled the ancient Chinese ch'in player Po Ya, who could convey in his music the qualities of 'Tall Mountains' and 'Flowing Waters'.  Kien was referring here to a story in the Taoist text Lieh-tzu that became proverbial as an example of the understanding between friends.  Po Ya's friend Chung Tzu-ch'i was so in tune with his mind and music that he always knew what Po Ya was thinking when he played.  When Chung Tzu-ch'i died, Po Ya broke the strings of his ch'in and never played again.

Uragami Gyokudō, Snow Sifted Through Frozen Clouds, c. 1810

Gyokudō epitomised the bunjin ideal: an amateur artist who painted 'without knowledge of the six laws', who loved to play the ch'in but did not 'know the rules', who read for pleasure and detested scholarship.  Nevertheless it is easy to imagine that as the years went by his daily work as an official would have been increasingly tiresome.  In 1794 political circumstances prompted him to resign and devote himself entirely to the arts.  He seems to have had no regrets.  In 'Shutting My Gate, I Play the Ch'in' he writes of having left his concerns behind.  In another poem he finds that 'fifty years have passed / like a whistle in the wind,' and now 'among the short-tailed deer, / I strum my ch'in.'  Elsewhere he describes  himself like a figure in a painting: an old man playing his instrument as night deepens, illuminated by a moon above Dragon Mountain.   Or he can be found listening to the autumn wind in the forest trees and chanting his poems to the accompaniment of a waterfall.
You ask the plan of my life?
At roof's edge a strip of clouds,
inside the walls a ch'in.

Stephen Addiss performing 'Hito - Man's Nature' by Uragami Gyokudō


Mike C. said...

Never mind "air guitar", "air ch'in" is clearly the superior entertainment, requiring no actual music.


Streve Addiss said...

I love it, "Air Qin" forever!

Steve Addiss