Zhang Jianhua: Illustrious career of a guqin maker

Guqin maker Zhang Jianhua Photo: courtesy of Zhang Jianhua

Many of the filmgoers who have watched director Zhang Yimou's martial arts blockbuster Hero may well remember the scene featuring an elderly man playing a traditional Chinese instrument in the courtyard while two knights-errant fighting in the parlor. Some of them may know the instrument is called guqin, but few have an idea about how it is produced.

Zhang Jianhua, 63, is one of Beijing's four famous makers of guqin, an ancient seven-stringed zither-like Chinese instrument which has existed for more than 3,000 years. In 2003, the guqin music art was proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

"Guqin is an ancient Chinese instrument that has the longest history, and was one of the four arts, along with chess, calligraphy and painting, which literati and noblemen yearned to master," said Zhang, who currently runs a private guqin manufacturing studio in Beijing.

With a range of four octaves, guqin has three typical sounds: sanyin (scattered sound), the ground frequency produced by plucking a string individually or in group with the right hand, fanyin (harmonics), a light and mellifluous overtone created by plunking a string with the right hand while gently tapping with the left hand the string at specific note positions indicated by the inlaid markers called hui, and anyin (changing sound), a variety of vibratos made by plucking a string with the right hand while a left-hand finger pressing the string firmly and sometimes sliding to other note positions.

There are 91 harmonics that are commonly used and indicated by hui, and there are more than 1,000 different playing techniques with or without tablatures.

"A string will produce all kinds of sounds if the player touches different positions of the string with different playing skills. Fanyin is called the sound of heaven, sanyin is called the sound of earth and anyin is called the sound of people. Making these sounds harmonious with each other requires a guqin maker to have superb manufacturing skills," said Zhang.

The Beijing-based guqin maker sees the making of guqin as a more complex process than any other Chinese instruments, as it requires "a set of high standards in choosing materials and craftsmanship". The sound chamber of guqin, which is totally different from guitar, is produced by connecting the surface board, or the sounding board, symbolizing the heaven, with the bottom board representing the earth. The slightly rounded surface board is usually made of tongmu (Chinese paulownia), while the bottom board is commonly made of zimu (catalpa ovata), said Zhang.

"The sap and moisture of the wood must be fully removed, otherwise it will stifle the sounds," stressed Zhang, adding that he has been pulling out all stops to obtain old wood to produce guqin because the natural dehydration of the wood guarantees perfect sounds.

Zhang describes guqin as the perfect combination of heaven, earth and human beings, saying that the 13 hui inbuilt on the surface board represent 12 months plus a leap month in the Chinese lunar calendar. According to tradition, guqin originally had five strings, representing the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Later, King Wen of Zhou Dynasty added a sixth string to mourn his son. King Wu of Zhou Dynasty, the successor of King Wen, added the seventh string to motivate his troops to battle with the waning Shang Dynasty.

Despite his high reputation in the guqin manufacturing field, Zhang did not inherit the art. Before serving a state-run instrument manufacturing factory in Beijing from 1988 to 1999, Zhang was sent to work in the countryside of northeastern China's Heilongjiang province during the Cultural Revolution, when guqin was forcibly categorized as one of the Four Olds, referring to old customs, old cultures, old habits and old ideas the authorities deemed as having poisoned the minds of people for thousands of years.

However, the years in the countryside gave Zhang an opportunity to work as a carpenter and maintainer, which he said laid the foundation for his future guqin making career.

In 1999, he left the instrument manufacturing factory and started his own business to produce guqin personally amid the deepening of the market economy, which led to the closure of a host of overstaffed state-run instrument manufacturing factories and started the trend of private instrument workshops.

"When I worked in the Beijing instrument manufacturing factory, I just followed the orders of the superior to make guqin based on its basic sound generating and vibration principles, with materials assigned by the government. The implementation of the market economy brought the golden opportunity to start my own business," said Zhang, who had won the first prize in making guqin in the category of the youth in the Beijing factory.

The year 2000 marked a significant year for Zhang to push his guqin manufacturing career to a higher level, when he made acquaintance with Zheng Minzhong, China's foremost expert on antique guqin working for the Palace Museum in Beijing. Because of his connection with Zheng, Zhang was lucky to have access to antique guqins made in the dynasties of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing.

"The direct contact with the antique guqins enabled me to really understand the mystery of guqin and how ancient artisans manufactured guqin, which is constructive to improving my production skills," said Zhang.

Zhang shot to fame in 2003, after he spent four months to repair a broken antique guqin made by Zhu Zhiyuan in the Yuan Dynasty. After precisely estimating the length of the broken part, Zhang successfully brought the dying guqin back to life and made it look like what it used to be by using old wood and skillfully agglutinating the surface board and the bottom board without sacrificing the inner structure.

"The repair work also gave me a commanding view of the inside of the antique guqin, which is helpful to my future production work," noted Zhang.

Zheng, the antique guqin expert from the Palace Museum, has once written in a professional magazine that Zhang's excellence of reinstating the broken guqin was a "miracle" in the guqin repair history in China. The repaired guqin unexpectedly "stood the stress of the steel-made strings" and its sounds "remained unchanged" under the condition of high temperature difference, wrote Zheng.

"I do not care about how many people know me well. I care about the quality of my guqin and whether it can meet the demands of musicians," said Zhang.

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