Today in modern China, the zither, also known as the guqin, has lost its popularity crown to Western instruments such as the piano and violin. It is estimated that fewer than two thousand people play the instrument today.
The zither, which dates back 3,000 years in Chinese history, was considered a symbol of Chinese high culture.
It was one of the four classical arts that Chinese scholars were expected to master, together with calligraphy, painting, and an ancient form of chess.
[Huang Yi, Zither Student]:
“I think the main obstacle for the guqin comes from popular music and musical instruments. I think for us to say something is popular it has to be linked to a point in time. We might say that the guqin is outdated now, but it was popular at a point in time in history. It’s just that it’s no longer popular now.”
There are only few schools across the country that teach the zither, as it has become harder to find teachers.
[Hu Yingkun, Founder, Yuanyin Guqin School]:
“Nowadays, there is no status for the guqin. It only got a little bit better in recent times. Playing the guqin as a profession is tough. The music conservatory cannot allocate the guqin students they selected. They cannot enter bands because the guqin is a very independent instrument.”
The seven-stringed zither is a flat instrument with 13 marked pitch positions and measures just over one and half meters long.
Craftsmen say it takes on average about half a year to make one zither, as everything from the selection and processing of wood to the painting of its surface could affect the tonal quality of the instrument.
[Wang Mingqian, Zither Production Manager]:
“The guqin is not suitable for production on a mass scale, by many workers in many workshops, it’s impossible. It can only be produced slowly. It is impossible for its development to suddenly spike overnight.”
The zither is played with the right hand plucking the strings as the left hand slides along the strings to vary the pitch.
Traditionally, the guqin is played solo, but is sometimes accompanied by a flute or other instruments.
In recognition of its supreme importance to Chinese culture, in 2003 UNESCO declared the art of the zither a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. (NTD TV)