[Blog] On Chinese Qin and Chan Buddhism Literature: A Lecture by Dr. Huqun Li

By Maggie Mitchell and Sarah Fink

Photo courtesy by Carol Lee (UBC FROGBEAR)

On March 14, 2019, Dr. Huqun Li, associate professor at the School of Humanities at China University of Political Science and Law, delivered his lecture and performance, “On Chinese Qin and Chan Buddhism Literature: to learn from the performance of Guqin” at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Li presented his lecture in Mandarin and Weiyu Lin, an M.A. student at the University of British Columbia, provided supplemental translation in English. In addition to sharing his research on the cultural history of the qin (or guqin: ancient qin), Dr. Li also performed a selection of four qin compositions. These musical pieces highlighted the qin‘s multiple roles in Chinese culture: from its Confucian heritage, to its importance in later literati cultures, and its artistic and meditative nature which suited Daoist and Buddhist practice. Dr. Li began the lecture by introducing the physical properties of qin as an instrument. He went on to explain the formation of its music traditions within Chinese culture, and its relationship with Chan Buddhism in particular.

Dr. Hunqun Li welcomes the attendees to his lecture.
Weiyu Lin, UBC M.A. student, translates for Dr. Hunqun Li.

This ancient stringed instrument is deeply symbolic, Dr. Li emphasized, both through its music, cultural connections, and through its physical characteristics. Dr. Li used his own qin to demonstrate how the qin’s shape and markings symbolized the human body and paralleled the earth and sky with its rounded top and flat bottom, among many other symbolic qualities of the qin. Dr. Li also showed the qin’s unique music notation system. Because this notation system only tells the player which note to play, the rhythm is left to the player’s personal interpretation and allows for flexibility within each musical piece. With this introduction to the basics of the instrument itself, Dr. Li turned to the qin’s role within religious and literati traditions.

Dr. Hunqun Li explains the symbolic qualities of the qin in relation to its physical characteristics.

Dr. Li elaborated on the qin’s connection to China’s literati culture and Confucian values. The tradition maintains that Confucius himself played the qin and sang poetry to accompany it. He taught his students to play the qin as well in order to cultivate themselves and master Confucian performance. To reflect the qin’s Confucian roots, Dr. Li performed a piece with 5,000 years of history titled, “The Chant of Returning Home.” This piece included lyrics that closely followed the slow, flowing melody of the qin. Chinese literati culture upheld the Confucian qin playing tradition. It played such an essential role in literati activities that it was considered one of four main literati activities. However, literati qin playing emphasized the performance over the instrument itself, using it in the broader education system to cultivate individual virtue, and creating an ideal “virtuous sound.” Until the twentieth century, many literati were able to play this instrument. Despite its decline, various groups are attempting to revive qin playing and celebrate its close relationship to China’s literati history. Dr. Li’s next piece, “Running Water,” demonstrated how literati qin playing transmitted not only images of nature, but also the quality of the mountains and rivers the piece represents. This qin-only technique made a wider use of the qin’s melodic range, hovering between notes and using a looser rhythm.

Dr. Hunqun Li explains the meaning of Chinese characters for “music” and other associated terminologies.

Though most of its cultural ties are to the literati and elites, qin playing also became associated with religious cultivation. The quiet and secluded environment that many qin players preferred lent itself well to Daoist ascetics’ practise. As Dr. Li explained, “qin music also carries the simple and tranquil spirit of Daoist culture.” Dr. Li’s next qin performance titled, “Loving and Living a Good Life of Mountain Seclusion,” featured a sparser melody with quiet slides up the body of the qin.

Despite the Buddhist vinaya’s prohibition against playing music, many Buddhist masters also played the qin. This was not only due to Buddhism’s close relationship with literati culture, but also because many monastic qin players considered mastery of the qin as a form of meditation and an expression of truth, as well as a way to glorify the Chinese Buddhist sangha. According to Dr. Li, some Chan monastic lineages began to play the qin in the Northern and Southern dynasties and continued this tradition through teaching their own students, which later flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties. Dr. Li noted that this tradition is still alive today, as he recounted from his meeting with qin-playing monks. A “qin Chan,” where qin playing becomes part of Chan practice and meditation, encourages mindfulness and self cultivation. Monks who master the qin, Dr. Li surmised, are almost always masters of Chan as well. Dr. Li’s final qin piece titled, “Master Pu-an’s Incantation,” reflected Chan Buddhism’s close relationship with the instrument. This piece was a small selection from a larger Buddhist qin collection, the Qin Score of Withered Wood Chan, which not only assembled traditional qin pieces and new compositions but described qin-playing theory in relation to Chan meditation. Dr. Li’s chosen section was a challenging piece, characterised by long-held ringing chords.

Dr. Hunqun Li performs the “Master Pu-an’s Incantation” composition.

Dr. Li is not only interested in the religious and cultural history of the qin, he is also actively involved in reviving the playing of this ancient instrument. In 2001 he founded a qin club at Peking University to practice literati traditions and aesthetics. Many universities are now doing the same by creating clubs and departments to encourage qin playing and literati culture revival. Dr. Li believes that university students in particular can benefit from playing the qin, for it nurtures their minds and helps them find meaning among philosophy’s mechanistic systems. As Dr. Li pointed out throughout his lecture and performances, playing the qin involves more than making music—it allows for expression through wordlessness and quiets the mind.

A recording of the lecture can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3mzP5thFVI&feature=youtu.be

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