The Resonance of Music
The Chinese guqin (a plucked, seven-stringed instrument in the zither family), chess, calligraphy and painting are the four essential forms of art that a Chinese gentleman in ancient times was required to master. The Chinese guqin, in fact, was a musical instrument that a Chinese gentleman would travel with in ancient times and that probably explains why a Chinese guqin was commonly associated with virtue, wisdom and gentility.
The music composed for the Chinese guqin manifests the profundity of Chinese culture, as it exudes a peaceful, graceful, noble and broad-minded style and transports its audience to an elevated and ethereal world. In ancient times Chinese gentlemen were marked by their high moral values and virtues and by their sincere efforts of doing their best in everything, including learning to master the Chinese guqin. There are many inspirational stories about Chinese gentlemen learning to play the guqin.
Shi Wen lived in the State of Zheng during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BC). Shi Wen decided to seek discipleship under the famous guqin musician Shi Xiang when he heard that Shi Xiang's music was so appealing that birds would dance to its rhythm and fish in the pond would leap in tempo. Shi Wen then went to Shi Xiang's residence in the State of Lu to seek discipleship.
Shi Xiang agreed to take Shi Wen as a disciple and started by teaching him to tune the guqin and find the keys. However, Shi Wen's fingers were so stiff that he couldn't play one single score after three years of learning. Finally, Shi Xiang declared, "You lack talent for music and concentration in practicing." Shi Wen replied, "It is not that I cannot tune a guqin or find the keys. It is not that I cannot play a complete score. I am not concerned about just tuning, sheet music or rhythm. My true ambition is to express my heart with music! Before I can truly express my heart with music, I will continue to hesitate to touch the strings. Master, please give me more time and see if I can make some progress!"
In serenity, Shi Wen practiced daily and tried to feel the music with his heart while continuing to cultivate his mind. After a while, he went calling on Shi Xiang, who asked, "How is your playing these days?" Shi Wen replied confidently, "My music and heart are one now. Please allow me to present my music to you." Thus Shi Wen began to play the guqin. At first, he played the strings of Metal sound (according to the ancient Chinese Theory of the Five Elements, including Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth) and the music exuded the feeling of autumn. (In the Theory of the Five Elements, metal corresponds to autumn.) Shi Xiang felt as though a gentle autumn breeze was caressing his face and the scenery was turning into autumn gold.
Next Shi Wen played the strings of Wood sound, which exuded the feelings of February. (In the Theory of the Five Elements, Wood corresponds to spring.) Shi Xiang felt as though he heard a warm spring breeze in his ears and nature began to grow.
Next, Shi Wen played the strings of Water sound and expressed the feeling of November. In a short while, Shi Xiang felt as though he was surrounded by frost and snow and the rivers were frozen.
Next, Shi Wen played the strings of Fire sound and expressed the feeling of May. Shi Xiang felt as though summer had arrived, the blazing sun was as if it was on fire and all the snow melted.
Before the music came to an end, Shi Wen played all the strings and made them intertwine in harmony. All of a sudden, Shi Xiang felt a gentle breeze and auspicious clouds in the sky gathered towards them. He felt as though an elixir had descended from heaven and a clear spring emerged from the ground.
Shi Xiang was absolutely delighted with Shi Wen's music and exclaimed, "You played wonderfully! You have transported me to your world of music and expressed true beauty!"
Shi Wen later became the most famous musician of his era in the State of Zheng.
The moral of the story is that the key to mastering the arts does not depend solely on skills, but on comprehending its meaning. Shi Wen set a good example for studying the meaning of music and persevering in elevating his virtue and quality of enlightenment. Lofty music does not come from mastering the strings. A true musician does not deliver music, but delivers his heart through the music. Everyone can deliver music, but that's the lowest realm of art. The highest form of art comes from one's heart. It's a realm in which only those who pursue it with a pure heart will understand. The significance of the Chinese guqin has surpassed music and become a symbol of traditional Chinese culture and ideal personality because only a true gentleman will be able to deliver his morality through the guqin. Truly beautiful music will echo in the hearts of the audience, for the musician touches the soul of the audience with his pure and beautiful mind.