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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Changing China leaves guqin behind
Traditional Chinese musicians
Traditional music is rapidly falling out of favour
As China develops, many of the country's cultural tastes are become more Westernised - and this includes the country's music.

But this is having a major impact on the popularity of some of the country's more traditional instruments - prime among them the guqin, 3,000 years old and at the heart of China's classical music tradition.

With only a handful of performers and teachers, the guqin - with its long resonant strings and slender wooden body - is hanging by a slender thread as it seeks to survive in a modernising environment.

"When I play it I feel as though I'm trying to catch something that's hovering elusively in the air," Dai Xiaolian, one of the tiny number of people who still teach the instrument, told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"I feel as though all the burdens of daily life are removed from me, so that's why I particularly love this piece."

Pop explosion

Western music is rapidly taking over in many of China's rapidly-developing and expanding cities.

Demand for CDs is huge - so much so that some 90% of CDs are pirate copies.

From the seven strings exquisite music rises
As if it were the sighing wind amid the pines
This is the ancient sound that I love beyond all
Yet one can scarcely find true players any more

Tang dynasty poem on the guqin
Meanwhile the guqin, with a history dating back 3,000 years and intimately bound up with other art forms, is being lost to China's past.

"Playing the guqin was one of the accomplishments which a scholar gentleman needed to have, along with playing Chinese chess and being skilled in calligraphy," said Lin Youren, a veteran performer and teacher.

"The Chinese name guqin itself means ancient stringed instrument and evokes the country's classical culture of understated brush painting, calligraphy and scholarly poems."

The link to China's cultural past has been most celebrated through poetry, often with concern for the fate of the soulful instrument.

Indeed, one poem lamenting that "one can scarcely find true players anymore" dates back over 1,000 years to the Tang dynasty.

"In the Tang dynasty the fashionable thing was ethnic music from the central Asian tribes - people didn't want to listen to the guqin," Lin Youren explained.

Beijing
China's modern society is leaving the guqin behind
"Just like today people are crazy about music from the west, but because the guqin has always been an instrument which people played for their own pleasure, not for performance, the art has survived."

But the onslaught of modernisation and westernisation in Chinese culture over the last century has been a powerful one.

As the most potent symbol of the classical musical tradition, the guqin has suffered badly.

However, some maintain predictions of its demise are premature.

"I spend most of my time introducing the guqin to students who are fascinated by it and teaching it as a secondary subject to those who learn other instruments," teacher Dai Xiaolian said.

"But for the first time in over a decade, this year I have found one student wanting to specialise in the guqin."

A modest breakthrough of hope for the future - but perhaps one that reflects the character of this subtle and elusive instrument.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Lin Youren talks to Francis Markus
"Playing the guqin was one of the accomplishments which a scholar gentleman needed to have"



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