Guqin, a seven-stringed zither, has a history of more than 3,000 years. In ancient China, it was extolled as the highest form of instrumental art. Yet in modern China, few people can play the instrument. It was only by chance that an American man named Joshua Wickerham encountered the guqin in Shanghai and learned how to play.
Normally the guqin is black. Thirteen hui dots are placed beside the strings to indicate the position of sounds. It has no frets or bridges and can produce incredibly subtle shades of tone and color. Designed to be a kind of solo meditation, it became part of a tradition cultivated by the Chinese literati, and an instrument associated with philosophers, sages, and emperors. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the guqin music to be a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Joshua’s encounter with the guqin
I know the guqin because of the Yuefu Guqin Shop in Shanghai in late 2003. I was walking down Fenyang Rd. by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and I saw a curious shop with a thatched roof. When I looked inside the window, two gentlemen were sitting at an ornate table drinking tea.
They saw me and motioned for me to come inside. It was like I was entering a different world. There were interesting sounds coming from the stereo and the tea smelled great, so I sat down. Then I noticed that the walls were lined with a very unique instrument. I asked what they were and they said "guqin." Since I didn't know what those characters were back then, I had to look them up in my dictionary.