Guqin strikes chord with Huang Wenyi

Ex-businesswoman from Beijing fell in love with the seven-stringed instrument,quit her job anddedicated herselfto playing and teaching

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 7:46am

For those unfamiliar with its rich history, dating back more than 5,000 years, the simple-looking guqin and its seven strings may not strike a responsive chord.

But in the eyes and hands of Huang Wenyi, the instrument is regarded as the "father of Chinese music", long favoured by scholars and literati, including Confucius.

The elegant device and its beautiful music appealed to Huang, 58, when she was a child. But it wasn't until about 14 years ago, when she was building her career as a successful businesswoman in Beijing, that she revisited the instrument and began to truly appreciate it. So much so that she eventually quit her job to dedicate more time to playing and teaching the guqin, as well as promoting its rich culture in modern China.

How did you start learning how to play the guqin?

Growing up in Beijing, I fell in love with guqin music when I first heard it as a child. But I never touched the instrument until the late 1990s when a friend told me that she knew Yu Qingxin, a professional guqin player with the China National Orchestra. Since then, I have learned some basic playing techniques.

Did you make it your profession?

I studied architectural economics at Renmin University. After graduation, I worked in an institute of architectural design, and in 1991, the Shangdi Information Industry Base was set up in [Haidian district] Beijing. I became one of the pioneers there. In 2003, I was invited to join a private property company as its general manager, to develop real estate projects in the city. We built several commercial and office buildings in Beijing. I'm still a certified national senior economist. I have had a very successful career. As the general manager of a property company in the world's fastest-growing economy, I suffered a great deal of pressure at work and needed to find a way to relax and release all of my tension and anxiety. Guqin music gave me that.

So I spent almost all of my spare time learning and playing the guqin. In 2006, I asked to be a consultant for my company, so I could have more time to do what I really enjoyed.

I know that, traditionally, teachers are very important elements in learning guqin, because it has different schools and styles. And generally, the best teaching is done one-on-one. Did you find a good teacher?

I was very lucky. In 2003, the guqin was added to Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and there were many guqin-related activities and events in Beijing. I had a chance to meet Gong Yi , one of the real guqin masters in China. I started following him. Since he lived in Shanghai, I flew from Beijing to Shanghai once a month for lessons on playing techniques. I really learned a lot from Gong's vast experience.

What did you do after learning how to play the guqin?

In 2004, I met Wang Peng , a guqin instrument maker, and we set up a guqin workshop called Juntian Fang in an apartment that I own. This workshop became a place for all guqin lovers, because in the following years, aside from selling guqin instruments, we invited many famous players to perform, give lectures and teach there. This included Chen Leiji, who played guqin music at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games [and used an instrument made by Wang]. In 2007, I started three years of studies for a master's degree in guqin at the China Conservatory of Music.

My teacher was Wu Wenguang , another guqin master. Wu earned a doctoral degree in music in the United States; he is good at both Chinese and western music theories. This not only helped me to lay a solid foundation in Chinese music knowledge, it also made my playing technique more professional.

Tell me about your Wenyi Guqin House. When did it open?

In 2007, my business partner Wang moved to Daxing district because the market for guqin instruments was booming, and he needed a much bigger place. I changed the name of my workshop from Juntian Fang to the Wenyi Guqin House and became the sole owner.

From 2008, I dedicated myself to the workshop, aside from studying at the conservatory. I compiled my own guqin lesson book for my students, and it includes 20 pieces of the most influential guqin music, with detailed notes on playing techniques. I also recorded a CD of these pieces, so my students can use it as a learning tool and playing reference.

In 2010, I formally left the property company and became totally free from working. I'm not pressured to make a living thanks to my success at the property company, so I could spend all my time on the guqin.

How many students do you have?

I started teaching others to play guqin in 2006. Over the years, I have taught about 70 students. Most of my pupils are graduate students, or even post-graduate students, from nearby Peking University. Right now, I have about 16 students, six of them are working towards doctoral degrees at Peking University. I give them one-on-one classes once a week. One of my students has followed me for five years, since she was a graduate student, then a post-graduate, and she now works at Peking University.

I hope [in the future] that more people will get to know the guqin and fall in love with it.

Huang spoke with Simon Song