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John Blofeld hears a qin
From John Blofeld, City of Lingering Splendour, 1961. 1
Beijing Cloudy Mountain Villa Qin Group, 1930s 2  

Blofeld gives the following account of hearing the qin player Wu Guantian3 during a visit he and a young Manchu friend named Zhu Degu made one Sunday morning during the mid-1930s to the hutong home in Beijing of a Professor William Luton, who had been living in China for over 30 years.

When Blofeld arrives, Luton welcomes him but is worried he will upset the atmosphere with introductions.

"Hush. Come in. Come in. But very quietly, please. For God's sake don't talk. I've got Wu Guantian here. He's in the middle of his performance.'

At these words, everything...became clearer to me. All Beijing knew of Wu Guantian as the greatest living master of the seven-stringed qin - an instrument beloved of the ancients and now so rarely played that I knew its appearance only from pictures. All the same..., on entering the house, we were greeted by silence. There was not the faintest sound of music; nobody and nothing stirred. Luton...led us across the room, still on tiptoe and with a finger glued to his lips. It was not until we had passed through another doorway into a much smaller room that I really began to understand.

The little room was occupied by several people sitting in attitudes of absorbed attention. In the centre a tall, thin old man with a wispy moustache sat bent over a qin lying on a low pearwood table in front of him. I must have been half-way through the door before I realized that he was engaged in plucking from it the sweetest sounds imaginable, for the silken strings gave forth notes softer than the buzzing of a single bee!

His audience consisted of six or seven scholarly-looking old gentlemen dressed in gowns of dark-coloured silk suitable to autumn - deep shades of blue, grey and bronze. Paying no attention to our entry, they sat upright or leaning slightly forward, legs held modestly together under their gowns and hands generally at rest upon their laps. I could have taken them for Taoist immortals rather than human beings. To Pekingese gentlemen of their generation, restless movement and over-casual postures had been made impossible by habits instilled into them from earliest youth....

Zhu and I sat down gingerly on the end of a small divan already occupied by a cherubic old man....Suppressing a smile, I gave my whole attention to the music and was presently entranced. Beneath the maestro's hands, the seven silken strings throbbed and vibrated, producing clusters of infinitely soft notes, now swift, now slow. While his left hand darted up and down the length of the horizontal qin with quick bird-like movements, the inch-long fingernails of his right hand ceaselessly caressed the strings as though five plectrums were being agitated simultaneously. Impossible to describe that unearthly music! It was woven of sighs and murmers, the tinkle of jade ornaments, the wind in the pine-trees, the whispering flight of pigeons. It was ancient and remote, like ghostly music echoing faintly through the silence of a haunted grove, yet not so much melancholy as sweetly solemn with now and then a hint of gentle gaiety...."

When the melody ended Wu Guantian introduced himself to Blofeld. Blofeld has Wu describing the melody he had just played as one that was

"inspired several hundred years before by a flock of herons seen rising from the banks of a frozen river and flying across the snow-bound fields."

He then played one more melody, which

"portrayed the melancholy of a warrior riding home after serving twenty years in the barren wastes beyond the Great Wall. At first delighted by the green of the young corn, the blue smoke rising from cottages undisturbed by war and by the familiar sounds made by chattering village girls washing clothes in a stream, he is later distressed to find how few of his boyhood friends are left to welcome him home...."

Blofeld also quotes a poem related to each of the two melodies.4

In his preface Blofeld wrote,5

"Every incident set forth in these pages actually occurred; the characters one the other hand are sometimes real and sometiems composite. I have employed the methods of fiction only to reconstruct conversations or to refurbish settings fading from my memory."

The book was written over 20 years after the events, so Blofeld might well not have remembered the exact name of the player, or the precise descriptions of the melodies he heard.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. From the Shambala reprint, pp. 75/6. Spelling changed to mainland pinyin. Blofeld incorrectly calls the qin a lute, presumably after Picken.

2. Beijing Cloudy Mountain Villa Qin Group 北京嶽雲別業琴集 Beijing Yueyun Bieye Qinji
This photo probably has no direct connection with Blofeld's account, but it includes the sort of qin player Blofeld describes, so it perhaps helps with the atmosphere. It is from Jinyu Qinkan (1937), reprinted in TKW, Qin Fu, p. 1166. On pp. 1187/8 is an account of the group, mentioning a number of names, by someone who calls him or herself 碧窗裏人; nothing is mentioned particular to the present account. In addition, the writing at the top of the photo is perhaps the names of the members, but it is illegible.

3. Wu Guantian
Neither the information connected to the Beijing qin group above, nor Xu Jian's chapters in Qinshi Chubian on the recent and contemporary eras, seem to mention someone who could be Wu Guantian. In sum, I have not been able to find any further information that would help identify Blofeld's "greatest living master of the seven-stringed qin."I have not been able to trace this name.

4. I am not familiar with any qin melodies that concern herons (蒼鷺 canglu), or that describe a warrior meeting the scenes described in this passage.

5. Op. cit., pp. 14-15,

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