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Anglo-Japanese Society of Wessex

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Cheng Yu — pipa and guqin recital

Tue Jan 13th 2009, 1:15–2:00 pm ◀ This event has finished
Bristol Cathedral, College Green, Bristol, BS1 5TJ

Cheng Yu

Cheng Yu is an internationally renowned pipa and guqin virtuoso and former soloist at the China Central Orchestra of Chinese Music. She attained BMus. (Xi'an Conservatory of Music, China), MMus and PhD (SOAS, University of London) degrees in pipa performance and in ethnomusicology. She is the founder of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble (1998), the London Youlan Qin Society (2003) and the Silk String Quartet (2006). Born in Beijing, Cheng Yu learnt the pipa from the age of 7 and graduated with distinction at the Xi'an Conservatory of Music. In 1987, she was selected as a pipa soloist in the prestigious Central Orchestra of Chinese Music in Beijing. Since the 1990s she has been based in London and currently teaches the pipa and guqin and researches at SOAS, University of London. She appears regularly at various venues in the UK, has held concerts in over 40 countries worldwide and has released 5 solo albums and many collaborative CDs. Her pioneering project to recreate the 5-stringed pipa (lost since the 8th century) has won awards from the Arts Council of England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Women in Music. The world premières of the 5-string pipa in London (2005) and in Seoul, South Korea (2006) and Taipei, Taiwan (2007) were highly acclaimed. She is currently teaching the pipa and guqin at SOAS. For more details please see and contact her at

The pipa is a fretted lute with 4 strings. It is a close relative of the European and Middle Eastern lutes and came to China from central Asia through the Silk Road in the 4–5th century. During the Tang period (618-907), the pipa gained favour over the elegant guqin and often served as a lead instrument in the music of the sophisticated Tang court. The earliest existing pipa score — Tempyo biwa-fu of a Sino-Japanese source — dates back to 738 AD. The pipa shared with the guqin an important role in the self-cultivation of the elite, scholars and aristocracy of the imperial dynasties. Pipa music is famed for its unique richness of expression. Four contrasting styles in the traditional solo repertoires are distinguished: civil (wen), martial (wu), suite (da), and individual (xiao). Civil pieces are often slow, poetic, and refined, expressing the beauty of nature and intimate feelings, while martial pieces are frenetic, dramatic, and often vividly depict a battle or historical event.

The guqin or qin (pronounced chin) is an unfretted zither with 7 strings. Its harmonics, glissandi, vibrati and deep resonance create an expressive, contemplative and sophisticated soundworld that was much loved by literati throughout its history including Confucius, poet Li Bai and Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong. The prefix gu- means 'ancient', indicative of a long known history stretching back over 2,000 years. The qin became the favourite instrument of the literati and imperial aristocrats who played it for self-cultivation and associated it with Chinese chess, calligraphy and brush-painting. The qin boasts several thousands ancient manuscripts include essays on philosophy, music theory, temperaments, aesthetics as well as scores. The notation of the guqin is perhaps the world's oldest written solo instrumental music and the earliest manuscript You Lan ¨The Solitary Orchid, is dated 589 AD. Despite the guqin having the largest collection of surviving notation (over 3,000 pieces) among all China's instruments, very few have actually been reconstructed or brought back to life. In 2004, guqin music was designated as 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity' by UNESCO in order to raise the awareness of the importance of guqin arts.


  1. Wild Geese Descending on the Sandy Beach (1634, guqin)
    This qin piece has been collected in over 70 qin music manuscripts in different versions. The score first appeared in the Guyin Zhengzong (Genuine Ancient Music) score collection in 1634. It depicts wild geese resting on a sandy beach in the cool of late autumn during their southward migration. According to legend, geese were messengers used to carry letters, and are symbolic of feelings of loneliness and separation. The music conveys a sense of nostalgia, and of the closeness between human beings, wildlife and nature.
  2. Flowing Water (1425, guqin solo)
    The tablature first appeared in 1425 in Shenqi Mipu (Spiritual and Mysterious Scores). The music vividly depicts various movements of flowing water from a gentle trickle to a powerful waterfall. A famous story associated with the music dating back to the pre-qin period (221–206BC) portrays a deep and close friendship between the qin player Boya and the woodcutter Ziqi grounded in their artistic communion and appreciation of qin music. Unable to bear the loss of his companion, Boya smashed his qin at Ziqi's graveside and never played qin again. In China, even today, a particularly close and sympathetic friend is described as a person "who knows one's music".
  3. White Snow in Sunny Spring (1762, pipa, suite style)
    This suite piece was first published in the 1762 Yisuzi pipa score. It portrays the scenery in spring, when all of nature is fresh and vibrant. The subtitles are: Standing above the rest, The breeze through the lotus flowers; The crescent moon; Contemplating life's mysteries from a Jade pedestal, The iron policy of the gong; Music escaping from the Daoist Temple, Sound of an Eastern Crane.
  4. Flute and Drum at Sunset (1790s, pipa, civil style)
    This piece was first seen in the Ju Shilin Pipa Score, which appeared in the 1790s. The music depicts an enchanting spring river scene in southern China: the changing colours of the setting sun accompany the gradual disappearance of the fishermen's boats. Its sections are entitled: Sound of Bells from the Riverside Tower; Moon above the Eastern Hills; Breeze over the Stream; Shadows of Flowers; Distant Clouds and Waters Merge into One; Fisherman's Evening Song; Waves Lapping at the Shore; Homeward Boat.
  5. Ambushed on Ten Sides (1818, pipa solo, martial style)
    Although the earliest tablature is found in Hua Qiuping's pipa score dated 1818, a vivid description of a performance of the piece was recorded by a Ming dynasty literatus during the 17th century. It portrays the epic battle between rival armies led by Liu Bang and Xiang Yu in 202 BC, which resulted in the founding of the Han dynasty. The piece graphically depicts both the sounds of the battle and the moods of heroism and despair. The individual sections are entitled: Setting up Camp; Beating Drums; Sounding Horns; Firing Cannon; Calling Rosters; Manoeuvring troops; Laying Ambush; the Skirmish; the Major Battle; Farewell to Concubine Yu; the Suicide; the Rout.
  6. Dance of the Yi People (1965, pipa solo)
    This popular composition by Wang Huiran (1965) depicts a joyous gathering of the Yi people dancing with music on the mountainside at their annual torch festival. Its inspiration, like that of many modern Chinese pieces, is a romantic view of the 'minority' tribes of south-west China. The gentle, graceful melody in the high registers and the fast, dynamic melody of the lower registers portray the contrast between the energetic young men and the shy and bashful girls.

Cheng Yu's CD of pipa and guqin music is available at today's concert at £10 each.

Venue: Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral (photo: Adrian Pingstone)

Bristol Cathedral is situated in the middle of the city at the bottom of Park Street. It was founded in 1140, but was built gradually over a period of 700 years. The Cathedral hosts numerous events and concerts throughout the year. Many of these are open to the public, and some are free, including the regular lunchtime concerts on Tuesdays.

Visit the Bristol Cathedral website.


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