The interview transcript was later published in Creating a Global Cultural City via Public Participation in the Arts: Conversations with Hong Kong’s Leading Arts and Cultural Administrators, by Dr. Patrick Lo, Wei-En Hsu, Stephanie H.S. Wu, Dr. J. Travis and Dr. Dickson K.W. Chiu.
Nova Science Publishers • ISBN: 978-1-53619-719-8
An interview with Kelwin Kwan, Vice President and founder of Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society, by Dr. Patrick Lo
Patrick Lo (PL): Self-introduction – can we begin this interview by first introducing yourself, for example, what did you study in the university? Do you come from a family of musicians, performing artists or creative-minded people?
Kelwin Kwan (KK): I am an architect by profession; I am a Qin musician who makes my own musical instruments as hobby.
The Qin 琴 (also known as Guqin 古琴) is a Chinese plucked string instrument. For three thousand years, Qin music has remained the most revered form of art amongst the Chinese intellectuals. The making of the Qin musical instrument is a creative art formally called Zhuóqín (斲琴). It is an extension of the aesthetics of Qin music to the realm of music instrument creation.
The form of Zhuóqín preserved in Hong Kong was perfected during the Wei Dynasty (386–534/535 A.D.), passed down virtually unchanged through generations of Qin musicians for at least 1800 years.
Since 1997, I have been an apprentice of Qin maker Master Choi Chang-Sau (蔡昌壽). Under Master Choi’s guidance, I spearhead the conservation of Zhuóqín in Hong Kong since 2011. In 2014, our art of Zhuóqín was inscribed on China’s List of National-Level Intangible Cultural Heritage; Master Choi and Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society were entitled Protected Units of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage at the National Level. Then, in 2018, Master Choi was further enlisted as a Representative Inheritor of the art of Zhuóqín at the National Level.
Master Choi Chang Sau is the third generation of a family of musical instrument makers and is the owner of Choi Fook Kee Musical Instrument Factory of Hong Kong. Although his family taught him the craft of over two hundred kinds of musical instruments, the craft of the Qin was unknown to the family. During the post-war years, the Qin was an extreme rarity. No one in the family had actually seen one.
Then, in 1949, a man knocked on the door of Choi Fook Kee Musical Instrument Factory to seek help repairing his Qin. The man turned out to be Qin master Xu Wenjing (徐文鏡) of the Zhejiang Qin School. Master Choi Chang-Sau, 18 at the time, was fascinated by the complex craft and creative freedom of making a Qin. After much persuasion from intellectual friends, Master Xu finally accepted him as his only apprentice to inherit his art of Zhuóqín. The pair eventually crafted eight Qins together.
A Qin is essentially a lacquerware, consisting of a wooden hollow body coated in traditional Chinese lacquer mixed with antler ash. But unlike mass- produced musical instrument, each Qin is uniquely designed and shaped, signed and dated by its creator.
Over its three thousand years of history, the Qin has gathered a broad spectrum of followers. At its earliest recorded history in the Book of Songs (circa 11th to 7th centuries B.C.), strumming of the Qin was part of solemn prayers calling for cosmos harmony. Confucius considered the Qin an essential tool for cultivating an educated soul. Since the Wei period, Taoism adopted the Qin to express freedom of the mind. Since the Tang period, Zen Buddhism adopted the Qin to express the moment of the soul. In time, the Qin became the most revered art of the Chinese Literati, ranking first amongst the Four Arts of China before the game of Go, calligraphy and brush painting.
During the turbulent 20th century, the Qin suffered an unprecedented decline. As Qin music was condemned in the Mainland during the Cultural Revolution (1965–1976), Hong Kong became one of the art’s last refuge during the 1970s. At the time, Hong Kong’s Choi Chang-Sau, the only Zhuóqín apprentice of Master Xu Wenjing of the Zhejiang Qin School, suddenly came to be known as the last professional Qin maker in the world. Despite the minimal demand for the instrument, Master Choi endured hardship to safeguard the survival of the art, and devoted his life to teaching the art of Zhuóqín to Qin players since 1993.
PL: At what stage in your life and how did you develop a passion and a love for the Chinese musical instrument, Qin?
KK: When I was at primary school grade 3, I purchased a comic book on the life and teachings of Confucius, who turned out to be a master Qin musician and composer. I learned that the songs compiled by Confucius in the Book of Songs 《詩經》 were sung to Qin music. I became quite inspired to learn the art. But at the time, Qin music was condemned in the mainland by the Cultural Revolution, which brought a devastating halt to the art that lasted for more than a decade. It was not until the late 1980s when I was able to purchase a Qin made by a musical instrument factory in Shanghai, shaped in the traditional Zhongni style 仲尼式. I took this Qin to North America, where I spent my entire adolescence and young adulthood. At a time when I had hardly any chance to speak a word of Chinese, this Qin was the only Chinese cultural identity I could cling on to. Without a teacher, I simply played whatever tune in my head with it, every night. And I could easily forgive its shortcomings: it had a piercing attack, a hollow tone and a chokingly short sustain – despite the higher string tension made possible by its modern nylon-coated steel strings. And its action caused much pain to the fingers when played. The technicians who made the Qin obviously never played the music, and probably never even encountered anyone who did. This was very understandable and forgivable. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the decade that followed, Qin culture was obliterated in Mainland China and must be rebuilt from scratch. Even our finest luthiers in the Mainland could only rely on the principles of other string instruments to rebuild the forgotten Qin. The result was a Qin that sounded like an oddly shaped fretless steel-string guitar. But it was still a restart.
Then, in 1992 during a vacation in Hong Kong, I made a spontaneous visit to the Joint Publishing Bookstore in Central. I walked up three flights of stairs to browse books in its Kung Fu section, only to run straight into Master Choi Chang-Sau’s once-in-a-lifetime Qin exhibition there. For the first time, I encountered true-to-tradition Qins in a myriad of design styles. The curves, the proportions, the details, the lacquering – every Qin exhibited in the room stood like a giant elder smiling at me. The impact on me was beyond words. I took a business card of Master Choi and kept it safely in my wallet for the next five years.
In 1997, I left New York to settle down in Hong Kong. The very first thing I did upon arrival was handwriting an apprenticeship application to Master Choi. Within a few days, Master Choi asked me to visit his workshop, where he accepted me as an apprentice with a prerequisite condition.
“You must learn to properly play the Qin first,” he said, as he introduced me to Qin master Dr. Tse Chun-Yan who happened to be in Master Choi’s workshop. “Dr. Tse is one of my Zhuóqín apprentices. Before you begin learning Zhuóqín, you should ask him to teach you how to play the music.”
So, that was the luckiest day of my life. I found two of the most important teachers of my life at the same time.
PL: What motivated you to found Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society?
KK: Qin music suffered a great decline in popularity in the turbulent 20th century, due to the Westernization of China as well as the decline of political dominance by the Qin’s traditional patron – the Literati ruling class. In 1954, China’s Ethnocultural Music Research Academy conducted a nationwide survey, reporting fewer than a hundred active Qin players remaining in the entire nation. By the Cultural Revolution, Master Choi Chang-Sau was known to be the last professional Qin maker in the world.
Qin music remained an extreme rarity in China in the two decades that followed. Despite the minimal demand for newly crafted Qin, Master Choi continued handcrafting new Qins purely for the love of the art, financed meagrely by an exporting business of violins, guitars and popular Chinese musical instruments such as guzheng, pipa and erhu. China’s last unbroken line of the art of Zhuóqín survived here in Hong Kong only because of Master Choi’s perseverance and love of the art.
In 1992, Master Choi was diagnosed with cancer. Worried of the extinction of Zhuóqín, many master Qin musicians came to Master Choi to seek apprenticeship. Luckily, a year later, Master Choi was cured. Since then, he has devoted all his life to transmitting the art of Zhuóqín to Qin players.
In 2011, Master Choi supported my proposal to found an academic institution dedicated to the safeguarding and transmitting of our line of Zhuóqín to future generations. Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society (蔡昌壽斲琴學會) was founded as a non-profit society of Hong Kong.
PL: For people who are not familiar with this musical instrument, could you describe the characteristics of the sound quality produced by Qin to our readers?
KK: Qin music is most distinctive for being very quiet. Once I conducted a decibel volume measurement of the Qins I made, side-by-side against my piano at home. It turned out that at the same pitch, the softest ppp note playable on my piano registered a higher decibel reading than a strongest strum playable on my Qins with silk strings. But quietness does not mean weakness in sound. Rather, a good Qin produces lengthy, gentle resonance without a loud attack. Quiet notes of fàn 泛 (the harmonics), sàn散 (open strings), àn按 (pressed strings) must be clear and evenly voiced with minimal effort of fingering.
PL: Why purposely make an instrument that is nearly inaudible?
KK: The answer lies in the purpose of Qin music. Unlike most music we hear at the concert hall today, the Qin is an introverted musical instrument – it is a musical instrument for the player to listen to his or her own soul. When we talk to ourselves, we do not need to raise our voice. Rather, we need a quiet environment and a relaxed mindfulness – like when we are driving alone. And like a driver’s seat, the Qin’s form factor allows its player to lay his hands down in complete relaxation, manipulating the strings with minimal effort and freedom. As Qin music scores purposely omit notation of speed, volume and durations, the player is given complete freedom to listen to the previous note before responding with the next. The result is a playing that reflects the player’s feelings of the moment, rather than mimicking the composer’s intention. A seasoned player may play a same verse mechanically on tempo or loose beyond rubato – all depending on his mood. Coupled with the physical freedom of effortless fingering, this mental freedom allows the seasoned player to let go of himself and readily enter a state of mindful trance. Inner feelings, thoughts, flickering memories and reflections on the human condition are presented through miniscule differences in timing and fingering as the music unfolds. At this point, the purpose of Qin music is achieved.
It is for this specific purpose of connecting to the player’s soul that the Qin demands a physical construction and a voicing, which differs from other pluck-string instruments. A Qin’s quality and character is deciphered under the most subtle differences that only a Qin player can feel and tell – its ability to connect with the player in its sound, action and touch. Even Antonio Stradivari would have no clue. Thus, Master Choi only accepts traditionally trained Qin musicians to learn the art of Zhuóqín.
PL: How many different styles of Qin playing currently exist in the world?
KK: The art of Qin music has three artistic aspects, and all three artistic aspects celebrate differences rather than uniformity. Besides the artistic aspects of music playing (Qín琴藝) and instrument creation (Zhuó 斲藝) we have already discussed, there is also the unique art of score re-interpretation (Pǔ譜藝), formally called Dǎpǔ 打譜. Unlike Western traditions of music notation, Qin music scores deliberately omit indication of the fourth dimension – timing, note durations and rhythm. Instead, musical timings are up to the music master to re-interpret. As a result, a same score is played differently by players coming from different lineages and generations. Another words, there are as many different styles of Qin playing as the total number of Qin music masters over the course of three thousand years.
In 2003, UNESCO enlisted Qin music as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage, and we saw a most dramatic comeback of the Qin in China since. As young people flock to embrace the forgotten Qin all over China, many rely on the audio recordings of old masters as their teachers. When the handful of old masters’ music recordings are studied and mimicked by students across the country, cross-influence occurred, differences in interpretation blurred. Schools and lineages are no longer as distinctive as just a couple of generations ago. However, I am not worried that such trend will drive Qin music toward ABRSM-exam style standardization, as more and more Qin players of the new millennium come to understand the musical purpose of the Qin as discussed above. As long as Qin players are not cloned, Qin music will never be clones.
PL: Can you describe the typical repertoire for Qin? How is this repertoire tied to China’s historical and cultural past?
KK: The world’s oldest music score is a piece of Qin music, Jiéshídiào Yōulán 碣石調幽蘭, dating back to the Liang period (502–557 A.D.) of the North and South Dynasty. Some say that this piece was written by Confucius himself under the original name of Yī Lán Cāo 《猗蘭操》, and it is still played today.
While every Qin lineage has its own different repertoires, a few classic pieces such as Píngshā Luòyàn 《平沙落雁 》 are played by all school lines. However, as previously discussed, there are as many variants as there are music masters, and this piece Píngshā Luòyàn for example has over fifty surviving versions of music scores – each one distinctive and different.
Again, we see that Qin music celebrates differences rather than standardization. From a musicianship point of view, the most artistically demanding repertoire pieces of the Qin are rather simple songs, quite easy to clinically play, leaving much room for the player to fill in with his own character.
As a player of both the Qin and the piano, I find Qin music profoundly more intimate and human despite lacking the sonic complexity, expressive grandeur and technical challenges of a Chopin Ballade. At the piano, we act – be it epic, beautiful, violent or tragic. At the Qin, we are.
PL: Could you give us a brief introduction of Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society, including its history, missions and list of activity highlights?
KK: We founded Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society in 2011 to protect and transmit Master Choi’s teachings to future generations. Since 2011, we have conducted public exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, public talks at the Central Library, Universities and the media, and held numerous demonstration sessions at our workshop and at public events to raise public awareness of our culture. Over the last three years, we filmed the making of four Qins from start to finish to systematically record Master Choi’s teaching method. As a by-product of the project, we compiled two hours of the footages into a documentary movie Choi Chang Sau’s Present to the Qin Makers of the 22nd Century. Narrated in three language tracks of Cantonese, Mandarin and English by Master Choi’s apprentices, the film is being introduced all over the world. We are also in the process of translating the film to Japanese for introduction of our art to Japan, a country where several of the Qin’s most important historic relics are perfectly preserved.
PL: As the Vice President and Founder of the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society, what are your major roles and responsibilities?
KK: Having a clear goal of preserving not just our technique but also our culture, my role is to institutionalize Master Choi’s teachings into a system that future Zhuóqín teachers can follow. My responsibility is to see the nurturing of new Zhuóqín teachers – those who have the passion to spend decades of leisure time at the bench, and are eager to share his finding with fellow Qin players along the way. Being a non-profit academic body, our society members shall conduct conservation work for no reward except the joy of the art itself.
PL: Could you describe the demographics and profile of the members of the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society?
KK: The thirty or so members of our Society come from diverse backgrounds. We have Qin musicians and educators, university professors, teachers, students, accountants, government officials, lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, a pilot, a journalist and architects, etc. None of us makes Qins for a living. Rather, every one of us is a hardcore Qin player who endures hard labour to craft the next perfect Qin to play.
This is precisely where the beauty of our Society lies: Our members are demanding musicians who are highly critical of their own work. We know exactly where we fail, and we discuss how to avoid mistakes. This makes us humble learners and persevering explorers. As a result, each of us becomes an expert of at least one style of Qins that pleases at least one demanding player. We transmit our heritage by doing it as a group, learning from one another, making mistakes together, reversing errors together, while nurturing young colleagues alongside. Together, we carry the whole spectrum of Master Choi’s teachings. I call our style of conservation “Collective Transmission.”
PL: How would you describe your management and leadership style?
KK: I am a pragmatic fanatic. It takes a fanatic to devote one’s lifetime to do something that no one – not even your family nor your best friends – can understand. “What’s the point?” they all ask us. We are all fanatics at Choi Chang Sau Qin Making Society. My leadership style involves fanatically firing up fanaticism among fellow fanatics. It is not a difficult task at all.
But firing up interest in Qin culture among non-players, especially among young children, is a much more daunting task. For most people, the first impression of Qin music is unbearably boring tunes played by stoic old faces that hardly ever move. It is not very appealing to young people. In Hong Kong, very few Qin students discover Qin music at a young age, when music learning is easiest. The reason is the lack of exposure and the lack of fun and energetic teachers for small children. I have devised a plan to tackle these two problems, which is being unfolded over the course of ten years. We have just completed the first phase of the project upon releasing a DVD of our documentary movie to every secondary school and university library in Hong Kong. We have moved on to the second phase, trimming the movie short and adding children elements for a primary school launch. Concurrently, our members are researching on Qin music teaching methods for young children currently used in Hangzhou and in Chengdu. Hopefully, you will see a small Qin music institute for young children to appear in Hong Kong soon. So, yes, I am quietly sowing the seed of Qin music fanaticism among the young generations. Hopefully, a few will turn into Qin fanatics when they grow up.
PL: What are the major challenges and difficulties currently faced by you and the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society?
KK: We live in Hong Kong, and we face the same problem that every Hong Kong resident faces: the lack of space! We are grateful that Master Choi has been able to maintain a lease here at the JCCAC (賽馬會創意藝術中心). But due to the lack of space, a lot of our activities are restricted as there is only enough space for six Qin makers any one time, and there is no room for facilities such as humidity-controlled drying room and a dust-proof room. But such is the reality of doing anything in Hong Kong.
From a cultural perspective, this lack of space of Hong Kong is in stark contrast with the diverse cultural activities that our people conduct. In most of Hong Kong’s mass neighbourhoods of tiny flats over a big shopping malls, the only space to conduct everyday cultural activities are the few overbooked squash courts operated by LCSD, which somehow are always located in the smelly meat market. Inside these squash courts, people do all kinds of things – besides squash, I have seen every form of dancing including a Japanese Matsui festival dancing practice once (how amazing), every kind of martial arts, micro-farming lessons, orchid exhibition, domestic worker religious party, residential owners’ building improvement meetings, entrepreneur brainstorming sessions, drama practice, first-aid training, Cantonese folk music jamming, diving lessons ... What an extremely rich spectrum of sociocultural activities at every squash court all over Hong Kong! Meanwhile, we have these huge shopping malls that have no convincing reason to be mandated by the government land lease to occupy all that precious community building volume in its entirety.
Hong Kong is a great nurturing ground for great many world-class performers and cultural educators. But our land usage laws require much reform to offer a better environment for the masses to enjoy the fruits of our cultural diversity. Until then, we cannot call Hong Kong a Cultural City.
PL: Since Hong Kong was a British Colony, Western classical music dominated the best part of the last century in the local arts scene, as well as our formal music education. Has this ever been one of the factors that is hindering your efforts in promoting Qin to the general public?
KK: When compared to a count of Western music players, Hong Kong’s population of Chinese music players remains miniscule. But like Qin music, all main disciplines of Chinese music continue to flourish in Hong Kong among tight groups of music educators and enthusiasts. In most cases, the bias of Hong Kong arts scene toward Western music has no hindering effect on the development of Chinese music. I play the piano as well the Qin, and I also studied Western arts alongside with Zhuóqín. I see no conflict at all.
But that is the case with the elites. What I do find hindering our art’s development today is the absence of a Chinese cultural identity in more than one generation of the Hong Kong masses. This situation remains an obstacle to our firing up of interests among children. The current generation of young parents and teachers grew up singing Western-style Cantopop, knowing no traditional Chinese tunes to sing to their children. Many consider Chinese musical instrument an odd choice for children, and the Qin is the oddest among the odds. For the remaining few who had exposure to Chinese music, many were taught at school to play Westernized orchestration of Chinese tunes in the style of the grand concertos of the West. While some masterpieces of this hybrid music deserve merits in its own right, they are in reality Western music composed for Chinese instruments using the pentatonic scale. I call this music the “Fu Manchu” of Chinese arts – a “Chinese” disguise performed by a brilliant Western actor. I respectfully oppose to the calling of this music “Chinese music 中樂” when they should really be called “Westernised Chinese Music 西式中樂” – a genre of music in itself. The misnomer misinforms the general public about what Chinese music is like, causing some young musicians to outright dismiss Chinese music as a lesser Rachmaninoff with a Chinese accent, before any attempt to dig in deeper to understanding our own heritage. At the end, we have a couple generations of young people with no exposure to true Chinese music at the prime years of their youth, when music learning is easiest.
How do we reverse the situation? How do we make Chinese Music cool again amongst young people? It is a subject of much of my thoughts today. Recently, we begin to see a comeback of Han-style costumes and Chinese musical arts to the masses in the mainland, triggered at least partly by beautifully filmed historic television series. Hopefully, this trend will gradually spread to Hong Kong.
PL: As the Vice President and Founder of the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society, what part of your work do you find most rewarding, and which do you find most frustrating?
KK: I am extremely lucky to be able to take part in Hong Kong’s conservation of the Zhuóqín. When I began my apprenticeship under Master Choi Chang Sau in the 1990s, we were often interviewed by the media while being labelled as one of Hong Kong’s “sunset industry.” Interviewers were surprised to see a young kid in his twenties (me) among Master Choi’s students, and they asked me many questions regarding the survival of the industry, which I did not know how to answer. But after two decades, the fanatic passion of a few enthusiasts grew to a full-scale revival of a Chinese Literati culture. Zhuóqín continues to reward us with endless discoveries and fun. The only frustration, as mentioned before, is the lack of interest amongst young people. Our society will tackle this problem in the coming few years.
PL: As the Vice President and Founder of the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society, what would you like to be remembered for?
KK: I am merely a fanatic Zhuóqín hobbyist. And I hope someday people somehow remember me as a fanatic Zhuóqín hobbyist.
PL: Any touching and heart-warming stories associated with the Choi Chang Sau Qin making society that you would like to share with our readers?
KK: Master Xu Wenjing, our grandmaster who taught Zhuóqín to Master Choi Chang-Sau, moved to Hong Kong from Hangzhou in 1949 to seek medical treatment of his failing eyesight. He gradually turned completely blind, never to return to Hangzhou ever again. His poetry lamenting his homesickness was engraved onto twelve Qins crafted by Master Choi, with calligraphy by the late Professor Jao Tsung-I.
On September 28, 2019, we brought the very first Qin co-crafted by Master Xu Wenjing and Master Choi Chang Sau to the Xu family house in Hangzhou, to conduct the mainland debut of our movie Choi Chang Sau’s Present to the Qin Makers of the 22nd Century. Accompanying us were the grandchildren of the Xu family and their students – the current generation of the Xu family Zhejiang Qin School.
With Master Xu’s poetry on my mind, it was particularly touching to see Master Xu’s handcrafted Qins to finally be played by his grandchildren at their family house, while celebrating a movie about all that Master Xu has taught us.
“Mission accomplished!” As the Xu family plays out the Zhejiang School repertoire, I texted Master Choi and other fellow Society members. “We have finally brought Master Xu home!”
It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life.