From the Ancient Melody “High Mountains and Flowing Water” to the Development of Guzheng and Artistic Realm of the Harmony Between Heaven and Man
by Dr Lunlun Zou

  1. Introduction

Music is our spiritual food, it is fascinating and influences our underlying ideology. It makes us strong inside, full of self-confidence and sense of accomplishment, and inspires our inner positive energy. It is a mentor to our soul.

  1. Allusions of the Most Historically Famous Chinese Musical Composition “High Mountains and Flowing Water” (Gao Shan Liu Shui)

During the Spring and Autumn Period, there was a man named Yu Boya who was proficient in musical theory and showed exceptional skills in playing the musical instrument. He was a legendary virtuoso of guqin. When he was young, Yu was intelligent and loved playing guqin and later became a student of the best guqin player of the time. He made remarkable progress and had almost mastered the instrument. However, Yu felt that he still wasn’t a real guqin virtuoso and could not bring to the perfection of guqin performance and use it to freely express his feelings. Knowing about his thoughts, Boya’s teacher brought him on a boat to Island Penglai in the East Sea, leaving him to appreciate the natural view and listen to the sounds of the waves. Looking around, Boya became enthralled by the beautiful melodies created by the sound of the sea waves crashing on the rocks below and the squealing of seabirds hovering in the sky and the wonderland of the lush and green mountain forest, as if entering a fairyland. A strange and wonderful feeling emerged, and Yu found myriads of harmonious and melodious music from the nature swirling in his mind. He took out his guqin and began to play, blending the beauty of nature into his music. Boya experienced an unprecedented inner feeling. His teacher told him, “Now you got it. You have mastered the real virtuosity of the instrument by learning from nature.” From that day onwards, Boya’s musical skill transcended to yet another higher level.

When Yu was playing by the water one day, he told his attendant, “As I’m playing the qin today, the sounds are exceptionally clear. I believe someone is listening. Find that person please.” The attendant quickly brought a woodcutter. Full of enthusiasm, Boya played the musical instrument for him. When Boya played a piece conveying the magnificence of high mountains, the woodcutter exclaimed: “Wonderful! Sounds of towering peaks… magnificent and dignified, like Mount Tai!” Yu then played a piece depicting the vigor of rushing water, the woodcutter responded, “Wonderful! Vast and mighty… like great rivers and boundless oceans!” Overwhelmed with joy, Boya said, “Intimate friend! You are really my intimate friend!” That woodcutter was Zhong Ziqi. The two became the best of companions ever since. They made an appointment to meet again at the same place the following year. The next year, Boya arrived as scheduled, but Ziqi did not show up after a long wait. Boya was trying to look for him along the way Ziqi went back home last time. Along the way, he asked an old man about Ziqi’s place. To his surprise, the old man was Ziqi’s father. He told Boya that Ziqi had passed away half a month ago due to illness accumulated from woodcutting and studying and due to his poor family circumstances. Ziqi was worried about Boya waiting for him, thus exhorting his father to inform Boya on this day of their appointment. Devastated by the loss, Boya came in front of his grave with the old man and took out his guqin and played the music they used to share. After finishing the song, he smashed the guqin and vowed he will never play again. Since then, the sounds from Boya’s guqin forever vanished from this world, leaving behind only the touching story of a friendship built upon the love of music. Over time, the phrase “high mountains flowing water” also evolved into a Chinese metaphor for enduring friendship. To commemorate their fabled encounter, a memorial called the Lute Platform was erected in later years. It is located east of Gui Mountain and west of Yue Lake, becoming one of the tourist highlights in Wuhan. Legend has it that the Chinese music of works are mostly improvised, the flow of emotion. 

  1. Various Versions of “High Mountains and Flowing Water”

Among the guzheng works, there are five kinds of music scores named “Qupai” in three major Zheng Schools in Henan, Shandong and Zhejiang. In fact, so many versions of “High Mountains and Flowing Water” also reflect the important supporting role of “cultural lineage” and humanistic accumulation on national music from another level.

The tune of “High Mountains and Flowing Water” was originally two separate compositions, which is clearly visible in guqin performance score. This is quite a bit of the taste of the yin and yang balance pursued by Daoism. Playing the qin for health preservation was a traditional path of self-cultivation for literati in ancient times. Before playing the qin, one would first burn incense and wash their hands. At the end of a piece, the mind becomes clear and the person feels at ease. Among the widely circulated and most influential repertoire of the Zhejiang Zheng School, the piece “High Mountains and Flowing Water” employs unique expressive techniques to present the harmonious interplay between the stillness and motion of the high mountains and flowing water in a dialogue-like manner. The majestic and towering mountain ranges are depicted as a continuous and beautiful landscape. It is safe to say that this version, among the various versions of different Zheng Schools, most vividly describes the harmony between the high mountain and the flowing water. For example, the introductory and first half sections utilize a playing technique of pizzicato with two octaves separating the high and low notes, portraying the ancient and solemn grandeur of the mountains and creating a sense of vastness as if one were gazing into the distance from a high vantage point. The second half section employs a series of 16-notes with octave jumps, along with different dynamics of strumming and glissando techniques, vividly expressing the elegance of a flowing stream and the intensity beneath a waterfall, evoking a sense of grandeur in the mountains and vastness in the flowing water. The ending employs several clear and transparent harmonics techniques, drawing the listener into the situation of tinkling mountain springs and gently splashing water, gradually fading away amidst the mountains. The entire piece is well-structured, contrasting, and profound in artistic conception, like a landscape painting in front of everyone.

  1. Similarities Between Chinese and Western Description of Nature

In the history of western music, there have been many composers who drew inspiration from nature. Take Gustav Mahler as an example. He was once the Director of the Vienna Court Opera and later served as the Director of the New York Philharmonic, crossing the ocean for his career. Due to his extensive commitments in conducting, he could only spare a small portion of his time for composition. In order to avoid disturbances and to find inspiration, Mahler specifically built a separate composing hut by the lake, where he could work alone. One day, Mahler’s friend and conducting assistant Bruno Walter came to visit him. Walter quickly became enamored with the scenery and Mahler told him, “Actually, all these landscapes are present in my works.” This revelation greatly shocked Walter, and from then on, this statement left a deep impression on him.

Some people may ask, can we really hear the sounds of nature in musical instruments? Plato believes that “music comes from human imitation of natural sounds”. In fact, in western music, numerous examples can be cited: Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi in Baroque period imitated the singing of birds in his masterpiece “The Four Seasons”. Johann Strauss II, known as the Waltz King of Austria, imitated the sound of thunder in his “Thunder and Lightning Polka”. French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Animal Carnival” is an imitation of various animals, and “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is a renowned piece that showcases scenes of buzzing bees through various instruments and rapid playing techniques, and so on.

  1. An Introduction of Guzheng 
  1. Brief History of Guzheng

Guzheng is an ancient Chinese plucked zither with a history of over 2,700 years. It was popular in the Qin region (today’s Shaanxi) before the Warring States Period. The earliest literature about guzheng can be found in Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian”. It reocrds that Li Si, the Primier of Qin State, wrote to Emperor Qin Shihuang, “People in Qin used to pat on their buttocks and sing songs happily, blowing the urns, knocking on the potteries and playing zhengs. All the music is authentic music of Qin!” This is the earliest historical record of guzheng. Modern people call the musical instrument “guzheng” due to its ancient history (gu means ancient in Chinese).

  1. Evolution of Guzheng

The development and changes of guzheng can be seen from the number of its strings. The earliest record in “The Book of Rites and Music” states, “Zheng, five strings, small.” It refers to guzheng with five strings, which has been lost. In the Tang Dynasty, most guzheng had twelve or thirteen strings. The Tang Dynasty was a flourishing period for Chinese culture and arts, and playing guzheng was very popular. As a result, it was gradually introduced to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other places. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the number of zither strings increased to sixteen. In modern times, guzheng has developed to have twenty-one or twenty-three strings. However, for the needs of composers, twenty-one-string guzheng is commonly used. Therefore, today whether in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, or overseas, most people play the twenty-one-string guzheng.

  1. Characteristics of Guzheng’s Tonal Quality

Guzheng inherits the five notes of the Chinese pentatonic scale, namely, gong, shang, jue, zhi and yu, which corresponds to the traditional Chinese five basic elements of the universe, namely, metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The performance of guzheng signifies the union of heaven, earth and man. Therefore, the sound of guzheng is quite pleasant, stable, and harmonious. It is renowned for its ethereal sound, often referred to as “the sound of nature”.

In its earliest stage, guzheng strings were made of cow tendons and played directly with fingers, similar to the playing style today. Later, with the continuous innovation of human progress and development, when silk became prevalent, guzheng began to use silk strings, resulting in a softer sound and increased tension. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, steel wire was introduced to China, and guzheng began using steel strings, producing a brighter, resonant sound with durable and sturdy strings. However, steel strings are prone to rust and can cause discomfort when they come into contact with fingers due to increased friction. Therefore, in modern times, improvements were made by wrapping the steel strings with silk to reduce excessive sharpness in the sound and the friction sensation on the fingers. This achieves durability, transparent sound, controllability, and finger protection. This type of string is still used in guzheng today.

  1. Accessories of Guzheng

Guzheng players nowadays often wear finger picks to meet the requirements of modern works and match the improved playing speed of the instrument. In the early days, guzheng players primarily wore picks on the right hand, either three or four, while the left hand did not wear any. This was to accurately achieve the unique playing techniques of the left hand, such as pressing, glissando, rolling and tremolo, and bring out the incomparable taste of the instrument. Moreover, the left hand can display more delicate postures and reflect the player’s profound playing skills.

  1. Guzheng’s International Journey
  1. Guzheng’s Heritage in Hong Kong and Macao

When talking about guzheng in Hong Kong, many people will think of the article “On Listening to Louis Chen’s Zither”, which was a compulsory article for the Chinese language subject in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) from 1993 to 2007. Due to its abstinence and difficulty, it has been a topic of discussion and debate among countless students. It seemed that every Hong Kong student who experienced the examination could empathize with it. The academic and educational circles have been constantly discussing and dissecting this poem, making it the most analyzed poem in Hong Kong’s contemporary poetry. Perhaps because of this poem, many people developed a sense of mystery towards guzheng. In fact, Mr. Chen Leishi intended to connect with others through the instrument. How could he have anticipated that the music of guzheng would garner more attention and become a more common instrument in movies and TV shows in Hong Kong and Macau?

  1. Guzheng’s Journey to the International Stage

In 2013, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority included Dr. Zou Lunlun, a guzheng performer, in the English exam for the Hong Kong Secondary School Diploma Examination. Dr. Zou provided a summary and analysis of guzheng’s history in English on her website, including explanations of its structure, sample images, the benefits of learning guzheng, and her personal introduction, etc. This became a topic of discussion among Hong Kong students and parents, and many people visited Dr. Zou’s website to learn more, once again leading to the upsurge of learning guzheng in Hong Kong and Macau. It also became a professional reference on guzheng presented in English in the international online community. In addition, numerous artists set off the project of opening guzheng concerts overseas, making efforts to promote the art and culture of guzheng by performing classic pieces. This laid the foundation for guzheng’s international expansion.

  1. Guzheng’s Representation in Chivalry Novels

In Hong Kong martial arts novels, it is often said that martial arts will make friends. Let’s take a look at the scenes of making friends with music in Jin Yong’s works. In “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer”, Qu Yang and Liu Zhengfeng, two rival sects, became friends through music. Before their deaths, Liu Zhengfeng and Qu Yang played a piece of “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” with qin and xiao. The book wrote: “The world has already heard this tune, and you and I have played it. In this life, what is there to regret?” Their friendship based on the same passion for music deeply moved the hero Ling Huchong. We have to say, Mr. Jin Yong’s portrayal reflects his profound understanding of the story of High Mountains and Flowing Water. “Emotions are expressed with the utterance of the words, and when the simple utterance is not sufficient, there comes the prolonged expression. When that prolonged expression is not sufficient, there come the sigh and exclamation. When these are insufficient, unconsciously there come the need for songs…” In fact, from the perspective of music aesthetics, music is abstract, devoid of semantic meaning, and expressionless. For example, Ji Kang’s essay “Music Has in It Neither Grief nor Joy” and Hanslick’s “On the Musically Beautiful” focus on the autonomy of music. However, it is just through music that one can create touching and tear-jerking stories. “High Mountains and Flowing Water” is precisely such a piece that uses music to portray friendship and express understanding between kindred spirits.

  1. The Transcending of Time and the Unity of Heaven and Man

From music, we can traverse time and communicate with the ancients. When we immerse ourselves in listening to and performing an ancient melody, our spirituality will be brought into the distant time and space, and people seem to be trapped in a realm of artistic conception, experiencing the world of ancient times. Music takes you on a journey through dream-like mountains and rivers, exploring the tunnel of time.

During his youth, Confucius learned to play the zither. At first, he taught himself, and it wasn’t until the age of fifteen that he had a true teacher. Confucius learned the zither from Master Xiang. As he began to learn, Master Xiang found that Confucius was progressing rapidly and was truly a genius. He said, “Now your playing is quite fluent, you can go on.” Confucius replied, “I may have learned the melody, but I haven’t learned the skill.” The skill refers to the rhythm, string intonation, dynamics, and other fine details. After a few days, the teacher felt that Confucius’s technique had improved even more. His music was harmonious to people’s ears, so the teacher said, “You have learned the art, you can go on.” Confucius said, “Although I have mastered the skill of playing, I have not yet grasped the thought and emotion of this piece of music.” Many days later, the teacher came to listen to his playing, and was captivated by his beautiful playing, he asked, “You have grasped the thought and emotion of this piece of music, will you learn a new song?” Confucius, however, said, “Wait! I have yet to understand the person behind it.” This means that Confucius not only wanted to know the name of the composer but also the essence of the person who could create such a brilliant piece. So, as Confucius played again and reached a moment of enlightenment or deep concentration, he sighed and said, “It was someone large in size and looking far off at the sea, like the king of four countries.” This man was contented with profound thoughts, and had high hopes and ambitions. “If it isn’t Wen Wang, who else could it be?” Upon hearing this, Master Xiang immediately jumped up from his seat, stepped aside, and bowed again to Confucius, saying, “You are truly a sage. This melody is indeed Wen Wang Cao.” This is what we often say: the poem and painting are within the melody, and the melody reveals the person. To truly understand a person, we must see their appearance and grasp their meaning. This profound meaning manifests as an image, which is the true comprehension of the heart. Confucius’ approach to learning the zither includes: 1. Deliberate practice, striving for excellence with a focused mindset. 2. When playing the zither, concentrate the mind, allowing oneself to merge with the music, leading to sudden enlightenment and inner insights. 3. Through the daily practice of playing the zither, temper one’s willpower and cultivate one’s character. This is the starting point for self-cultivation in Confucianism. The ultimate goal is to achieve harmony between the zither and the soul, and to reach the state of unity between heaven and man.

Therefore, no matter how the world experiences joy, sorrow, love, and hatred, there is always a transcendent power that allows you to endure in a state of uncertainty. The only thing that accompanies this power is music.

Author: Dr. Zou Lunlun 

Director of the Hong Kong International Music and Art Academy 

Academy Fellow of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University 

Guzheng performing artist

May 2023