THE haunting sounds seemed to take the listener on a journey in time, back to the Chinese dynasties of the past. Four young musicians were responsible for creating this atmosphere of ancient days - they were the contestants in the recent Zheng Advanced Competition, held as part of the Hongkong Schools Music Festival. Plucking the strings of the zheng, the players conjured up poetic visions of landscapes with weeping willows, clear blue streams and distant mountains. The students played almost like professionals, and demonstrated a deep love for the traditional Chinese stringed instrument. The winner of the competition was Lau Shui-kit, 16, a fourth-former of St Francis Xavier's College, who began learning the zheng six years ago. ''I was in the choir of the Music Office, which picked me to learn the zheng,'' Shui-kit recalled. The student was clearly very happy about his win. Shui-kit said he never worries about his audience when he performs. He believes traditional zheng music conveys its message in its own particular way. ''There are no time boundaries with music,'' the student says. The adjudicator was Ms Cheng Chuen-ying, a music lecturer with the Hongkong Academy for Performing Arts and the Chinese University of Hongkong. Ms Cheng said she was impressed with Shui-kit's performance, ''especially considering the fact that his left hand was hurt and bandaged.'' She praised the student's good intonation, and said it was a close contest between Shui-kit and first runner-up Michelle Ng Yue-wei. Yue-wei's intonation faltered at one point, and this gave Shui-kit the advantage, she added. Ms Cheng said that on the whole the students had a good grasp of mood in the musical pieces they played. But closer attention to detail would have ''created better pictures with the music,'' she pointed out. Ms Cheng emphasised the importance of correct intonation. ''It is critical, because the moment a note goes off key, it affects the entire piece,'' she explained. The music lecturer was nevertheless impressed by the contestants' technical ability, adding that ''the standard was very high, considering the players are only secondary students.''