When I think of China or Chinese culture, my mind inevitably goes to music. While there are a couple of ancient instruments, my favourite has to be the Erhu. Few things sound as haunting and beautiful as the Erhu in the hands of a master practitioner.
The sound of the Erhu is also something that sounds unmistakably Chinese, even to someone who does not know that an Erhu is a two-stringed, bowed musical instrument. For this reason, if I have to choose an item that to me represents the China’s ancient culture – I would have chosen something that represents the Erhu. Alas, I could not find such an object in the short timeframe I had at my disposal. I did however find this!
This is earthenware depicts a kneeling musician playing the Se (瑟), a very old form of Chinese zither – or Guzheng (古箏). Not to be confused with the Guqin(古琴)! The kneeling figure was part of a set, representing a troupe of musicians along with two dancers. They were found in the grave of a prince, presumably so that they could perform for him in the afterlife. The excavation occurred in 1989-1990, from Prince Chu’s(楚王) tomb at Tuolanshan(驮篮山), Xuzhou(徐州市), Jiangsu(江苏省). Music was a big part of court rituals, and the number of performers made available depended on a noble person’s rank. The earthenware itself dates from ca. 206 B.C. to 9 A.D. Western Han Dynasty.
The Se is sometimes said to be an older and larger version of the Guzheng, but what is the difference between the Guzheng and the Guqin? Well, for a start, the Guqin is smaller, has fewer strings and a deeper sound. The Guqin has also been considered a favourite of scholars and have been connected to persons such as Zhuge Liang (Kongming), and Confucius. Below is a dramatization of a moment out of the screen adaption of Romance of the Three Kingdoms from 2010. Here, Zhuge Liang performs his empty fort stratagem with the aid of a Guqin.
Now, if we were to listen to a performance of a Guzheng, we can both see and hear the differences in sound. Yet they both have the same unmistakably chinese feeling the Erhu has. Historically, the Guzheng is not, however, a female only instrument – or a “girly” instrument. Those notions are probably derived from current day popular culture i.e. Wuxia and fictional historical palace dramas.
One of the reasons I chose this earthenware figure, which was seen on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is because I have seen it so many times in popular media and fiction. For me, it represents not only what once was, but also something very modern. That it is beautiful to listen to does not hurt either! To me it is not strange that this instrument has been around in one form or another since the warring states period, and I do not think it is going to disappear anytime soon.