SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Track 5: Flowing Water (China)

Cheng Yu

Flowing Water (Classic Guqin Music)

The tablature notation of this piece first appeared in the Spiritual and Mysteries Score (Shengqui Mipu) in 1425, which was collected by Prince Zhu Quan, 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The piece itself, however, has a far long history as recorded in a touching story that dates back over two thousand years. The famous bur apparently esoteric Bo Ya, would often play alone, resigned to being the only one that recognised his music as representing the classic images of Chinese art - mountains and water. Then, one day, a stranger by the name of Ziqi approached him as he sat playing under a pine tree, having recognised the images conveyed by the music. This artistic communion proved the foundation of a close friendship, which deepened until Ziqi's death. Unable to bear the loss, Bo Ya smashed his Guqin at his companion's graveside, never to play again. Even today in China, a particularly close, sympathetic friend is described as 'knowing one's music'. The music depicts many different movements of flowing water from a gentle trickle to a powerful waterfall.

Performer: Cheng Yu

Cheng Yu was born in Beijing and was taught the Pipa (4-stringed lute) by her father from the age of 7. Her outstanding talent in Pipa performance and interpretation of Pipa art has been widely recognised. She has won several top prizes in Pipa performance including the 'China Youth Competition on Traditional Instruments' at the age of 13, and the 'excellent performer' award at the China Traditional Instruments Competition in 1983. Having studied the at the Pudong School of Pipa with her father Cheng Junming and Lin Shicheng, she spent 7 years at Xi'an Conservatory of Music in north west China to master the important Pinghu school of Pipa and to study the Guqin (7-stringed zither). In 1987, she graduated with distinction and worked as a Pipa soloist in the China Central Orchestra of National Music in Beijing. Since 1990, she has been based in London.

She has performed throughout Europe, Asia, Canada, and the USA, and has worked with such organisations as WOMAD, Arts in Action and Real World. In 1995, she completed her MMus in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, and is currently researching for her PhD in Xi'an's old ensemble music exploring the intricate relationships between the living music, historical sources and religious contexts. She is the founder of the UK Chinese Ensemble (established in 1990) and teaches Pipa, Guqin, and Chinese Ensemble class at SOAS.

Instrument: Guqin

The Guqin was called Qin before Tang (618-907). It is an unfretted zither with 7-strings, and has an unbroken history of over 2,000 years. Its physical form had already been standardised by late Han (25-220), several centuries before the Pipa had been introduced to China. Historically, it has enjoyed the privilege of being a favourite art of the literati and imperial aristocrats, along with Chinese chess, calligraphy and ink-painting. Such historically famous figures as Confucius, of the Warring States period (475-221 BC); Ji Kang (223-265), one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove'; Bai Jiuyi (772-846), the Tang poet; and the Song Emperor, Zhao Kuangyi (976-997) have all been lovers and practitioners of the Guqin.

Even more remarkable than the survival of valuable Qins from ancient periods, is the unique notation which is, perhaps, the world's oldest solo written instrumental music. The earliest surviving manuscript is the 'Elegant Orchid in the Mode of Jieshi' dated 589 and the tablature going back to at least the 12th century. Despite the Guqin having the largest collection of surviving notations among all China's instruments (over 3,000 pieces), very few have been reconstructed. Furthermore, there are hundreds of surviving ancient written works on Guqin theories, aesthetics, musical temperament and philosophy which are themselves highly complicated and abstruse. While the Guqin has been regarded as the most sublime of China's ancient music, it is in grave decline in modern China due to its traditionally esoteric place in Chinese culture and neglect in recent years. Nevertheless, its beauty, depth and delicacy is timeless.