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UNESCO Highlights
Special> Living Legacies> UNESCO Highlights
UPDATED: October 29, 2012 NO. 44 NOVEMBER 1, 2012
Guqin Style
Classical instrument maker keeps tradition alive
By Ma Li

Exquisite production

In order to get that perfect acoustic effect, Miao collaborated with a professor at the Beijing Forestry University (BFU). Together they carbonized wood and effectively removed the resin residues from within, thereby improving the wood's sound penetration.

"Without the resin residues, the sound is much better," said Miao. "It is a pity that our ancestors didn't know about this removal technology. This is a big leap in guqin making."

Inside the small studio, there are various guqin-making tools on display.

"I made all these tools. You can't find tools like these at the market. The wooden handles look familiar, don't they? Actually, they are made of old billiard cues. And the knives, including gravers and scrapers, are made of scrap steel. All of them are treasures formed from waste."

Miao's hand-made tools are used by many students at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and BFU.

His apprentices learn the entire production process from Miao, who works with each of them one on one, step by step. His highly personalized approach enables the students to master the steps of guqin production, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the instrument.

Not all students are required to pay a fee for classes at his studio. Some college students were given lessons for free, and some monks were given food and accommodations at no charge. Miao has taught over 100 students.

Since he completed his first in 2002, Miao has crafted hundreds of guqin. Beginning last year, he limited production to 10 per year.

"This small number doesn't mean my product is not desirable. I value quality over quantity. I want to make the instruments better, with the best material and top-notch production skills. I also want to leave myself more time, helping more people master guqin production skills. Doing so ensures our cultural heritage won't be lost."

The dream sound

Inside the studio, a man indulged in playing the guqin. He played while singing a song based on an ancient Chinese poem. His name was Wang Zhiqiang, one of Miao's students.

When he met Miao more than a year ago, Wang was already a senior guqin teacher at the China Nationalities Orchestra Society before learning how to craft the instrument at his studio.

Wang was deeply attracted to this musical instrument when he first heard guqin music. "I was born in a rural area. When I was a child, we had no television, so we could only listen to the radio. One day, I heard a piece of music from the radio and felt it was so beautiful. My grandma told me it was guqin music," said Wang.

"Years later, we bought a television. When I watched the classic TV series Romance of Three Kingdoms, the scene where military adviser Zhuge Liang (181-234) played the guqin fascinated me. At that moment, I told myself how wonderful it would be if I could play such a piece of music like him."

With this dream, he left his mountain village and joined the army. He was later transferred to the China Nationalities Orchestra Society in Beijing. And it was then that his contact with guqin began.

"I didn't have the opportunity to learn how to play guqin from famous musicians until 2006. I was so lucky and I've always been grateful for this," said Wang.

Indeed, his life has changed tremendously thanks to this musical instrument. What's more important, his life has been further enriched by the art of guqin making.

From a poor young man overwhelmed by confusion and helplessness when he first came to Beijing to a man who is now well off, Wang's life has greatly improved. He still, however, hadn't fully realized his life's dream.

"After meeting Miao, I knew what I had to do. So I started learning how to make guqin. I poured my entire heart and soul into making them. Maybe because my effort wasn't enough, the first several ones I made were unsatisfactory. The music they produced was far from the sound in my childhood memory," said Wang.

He was thrilled every time he created a guqin, but soon felt it was not up to par. He started over again, focusing on the next one.

"My dream is to make a guqin exactly like the one I have dreamed of," said Wang.

And so he carried on, determined to make a guqin until he captured the music of his memory.

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