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Reviewed by:
  • Chine: “Le pêcheur et le bûcheron”: Le qin, cithare des lettrés (China: “The Fisherman and the Woodcutter”: The Qin, Zither of the Literati)
  • J. Lawrence Witzleben (bio)
Chine: “Le pêcheur et le bûcheron”: Le qin, cithare des lettrés (China: “The Fisherman and the Woodcutter”: The Qin, Zither of the Literati). Performed by Sou Si-tai, with Georges Goormaghtigh. Geneva: Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire, Musée d’ethnographie, 2006. VDE-Gallo VDE CD-1214. CD with liner notes (23 pp.) in French by Georges Goormaghtigh, with English translation by Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff. Website

Generations of ethnomusicologists and their “world music” students have learned to appreciate the mysteries of the 7-stringed Chinese zither qin (or guqin, “gu” meaning “old” or “ancient”), but as recently as the 1980s, this was an instrument more often read about than actually heard, and even in major Chinese cities and music conservatories, serious students were few and far between. In recent years, the instrument has experienced something of a renaissance. The selection of “The Art of Guqin Music” by UNESCO in 2003 as one of its Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity was a source of great national interest and pride, and several prominent qin players have since been designated as “National Treasures.” Even before this, CD recordings of qin music had begun to proliferate; simply put, digital recording technology has made the low volume and subtle timbres and inflections of this instrument audible to an extent never before possible, even to the most attuned listeners.

Since the 1950s, Hong Kong has been perhaps the most important locale for the preservation and dissemination of qin music, for at least three reasons: first, it has been spared the waves of revolution, revisionism, and political correctness that have engulfed qin culture on the Chinese mainland; second, it is the location of two record companies (Hugo and ROI) that since the late 1980s have each released dozens of compact discs of qin music, including copiously documented anthologies of older recordings and new recordings of many of the top living players; and third, it has benefited from the legacy of Mrs. Tsar Teh-yun (1905–2007; in pinyin romanization, her name would be written as Cai Deyun), a Shanghainese émigré (born in Zhejiang Province) who over more than 5 decades of private teaching inspired the fervent enthusiasm of her disciples including Lau Chor-wah (Liu Chuhua), Tse Chun-yan (Xie Junren), her biographer Bell Yung (Rong Hongzeng; see Yung 2008), and the performer featured on this recording, Sou Si-tai (Su Sidi).

After spending more than 2 decades as a teacher of Chinese art, Sou Si-tai now devotes himself to music (he is also an accomplished player of the Chinese bamboo flutes, specializing in the qin xiao and the dizi accompaniment for Kunqu operatic singing), and based on the performances heard on this fine recording, qin aficionados should welcome his career change. Here, Sou plays his own handcrafted instrument, outfitted with silk strings. Although truly experienced performers may miss the tone quality attributed to instruments that have aged [End Page 144] over centuries, the sound of his instrument is full and resonant, and given the vast number of recordings featuring metal/nylon-stringed qin, it is a pleasure to have a good-quality contemporary recording of a silk-stringed instrument. In particular, both Sou’s ability to sustain long passages of notes articulated by the left hand alone—as in the opening of “Pu’an Zhou” (The Incantation of Monk Pu’an)—and recording engineer Renaud Miller-Lacombe’s ability to capture these nuances are praiseworthy.

The performances include several of the most popular standards: “Yi Guren” (Thinking of a Friend)—translations follow those in the liner notes, the aforementioned “Pu’an Zhou,” “Shui Xian Cao” (The Immortal by the Water), “Meihua Sannong” (Three Variations about the Flowers of the Plum Tree), and “Yuqiao Wenda” (Dialogue of the Fisherman and the Woodcutter). Two others (1 and 4) are somewhat more obscure and one (10) is an extremely brief sixteenth-century melody resurrected by Sou. Interestingly, in contrast to the common assumption that successive...


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