The Lingering Sound of the Strings

Guqin Maker Lin Li-cheng

2018 / March

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

The gu­qin is a seven-stringed fretless tradi­tional Chinese musical instrument in the zither family. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization announced that the gu­qin and its music would be added to the organ­iza­tion’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But more than two ­decades earlier, in 1977, a performance by gu­qin master Guan ­Pinghu of the piece “Flowing Water” was included on the two gold-plated phonograph records carried into outer space by NASA’s Voyager space probes, to convey mankind’s greetings to any intelligent extraterrestrial life forms that may find them.

We don’t know if any extra­terres­trials have listened to “Flowing Water” as yet, but Lin Li-­cheng was so moved by hearing the piece played on this ancient instrument that he embarked on a new career devoted to making, repairing and restoring gu­qin.


Lin Li-­cheng was formerly captain of a high-seas fishing vessel. In his long years at sea, Lin had heard the song “Flowing Water” many times. But one day he heard the melody played on a gu­qin, and from it he felt the majesty of flowing water. The sound of the instrument evoked memories of his life at sea, and his feelings of helplessness, terror and awe when buffeted by wind and waves, at the mercy of fate.

He was attracted to the sound of the gu­qin back then, but he only turned his hand to making the instruments because of a request from a friend. There has not been much change in the shape of the gu­qin since the Tang Dynasty (618‡907): it consists of two pieces of wood, one forming the top soundboard and the other the base, with the space between them acting as a resonance chamber; and it has seven strings. Lin, who had a foundation in woodworking and lacquerware, felt that he should be able to make a gu­qin, so he began studying ancient texts on the subject.

Lin, now in his 80s, has devoted most of his life to “hewing” gu­qin, as his craft is termed in Chinese. In 2009, he was named a “Tai­pei City cultural heritage skills preservationist,” becoming the first hewer of gu­qin to be officially recognized.

Good wood makes for good tone

The tone of a gu­qin is determined by the wood, and old wood is the best. To find good material, when he was young and had time off from fishing, Lin would often go deep into the mountains, following rivers in search of fallen trees. He explains that when wood lies in water the resins, proteins and saccharides are washed away, leaving large gaps in the wood cells, which makes for better resonance.

Once, while following Hua­lien’s Liwu River upstream, he came upon a withered tree trunk lying in the river, that he thought would be ideal material for making guqin. Saw in hand, he plunged under the water. After many days’ effort, struggling against the rapid current and the resistance of the water, he finally succeeded in sawing off a length of the wood. He eventually made two guqin out of this wood, one of which became the instrument he is most satisfied with to this day. He named it “Gu­jian­quan,” which means “spring of an ancient mountain stream.” Since Gu­jian­quan changed hands, Lin has never had the chance to see it again, but he has a wish: “My shaping and lacquering skills at that time weren’t good enough. I’ve always hoped that Gu­jian­quan might come back to me, so that I could make it a little better.”

As Lin grew older, his body was no longer able to take the strain of going into the mountains. After the opening up of relations between Taiwan and mainland China, Lin switched to getting old wood from the mainland. He says that materials that do not appeal to others can be treasures in his eyes, and that taking wood that others have rejected, and using one’s skills to transform it into a gu­qin of exquisite quality, is the most fascinating part of his craft.

Slow and painstaking work

Lin learned most of the steps in the process of making gu­qin from ancient texts. He says that the techniques passed down from ancient times have undergone little change, but by researching them he understands where every step in the process comes from, and from there he can improve them. For example, the soundboard of the gu­qin is usually made from the wood of the Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex) or the Chinese fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata), because these are relatively soft and flexible; for the base, on the other hand, almost any softwood or hardwood will do.

The ancient texts record that you must apply a finish to a gu­qin, and Lin does this in practice. He buys deer antler from a Chinese medicine shop; after grinding it into a powder, he mixes it with raw lacquer to make deer-antler varnish. Lin explains that if you look at particles of deer antler under a microscope, you will see that they have a structure like snowflakes, with many gaps inside them. When they are mixed into lacquer and applied to the body of a gu­qin, each particle assists the acoustics and resonance of the instrument.

The varnish also seals the wood surface against contact with the air, thereby slowing down any warping or weathering of the wood and so maintaining the smoothness of the soundboard.

After the deer-antler varnish is applied evenly to its body, the gu­qin must be hung up to dry in a dark place for 20‡30 days, until the varnish is completely dry. Then the surface is polished smooth using a wetted whetstone. This process of varnishing and wet polishing is carried out three times. It takes a year and a half to make a high-quality gu­qin, and cutting any corners is not an option.

Step by step, Lin Li-­cheng has passed on these insights, techniques and attitudes to his son Lin Fa and his students. From the time Lin completed his first gu­qin in 1974, 22 years passed before he felt his technique was mature enough to offer classes, which he started doing in 1996. To date he has had more than 60 apprentices, including some from as far away as Hong Kong, who have come to learn to “hew gu­qin.”

Restoring ancient sounds

As Lin’s reputation as an instrument maker spread in the gu­qin community, people began seeking him out to repair and restore gu­qin. He has restored many world-­famous instruments, including the Yuan-­Dynasty gu­qin “Xue­ye­bing,” in the collection of the National Palace Museum; the Tang-Dynasty instrument “­Tongya,” belonging to famous gu­qin player ­Zhang Qing­zhi; the Song-­Dynasty “Song­feng ­Zhihe,” owned by painter Cai Ben­lie; the Yuan-­Dynasty “Qing­shan,” belonging to Hong Kong gu­qin master Tong Kin Woon; the Ming-­Dynasty “Keng­shao,” owned by gu­qin master Sun Yu-chin; and his own Song-Dynasty instrument “Yu­hu­bing.” All have been restored to playable condition thanks to the “emergency care” given by Lin.

For Xue­ye­bing, which he was commissioned to restore by the National Palace Museum, Lin first alternately blew high-pressure steam and cold air into the guts of the gu­qin to remove dust, rotted wood fragments, and the moldy smell, and then carried out repairs on the exterior. Originally the NPM had only requested that he conserve the integrity of this antique, but Lin, feeling that “gu­qin have life—they are living organisms with a voice,” went to great pains to restore the instrument to playing condition and to release its untapped sounds.

Lin recalls that of all the gu­qin that have passed through his hands to be repaired or restored, the most difficult was the Tang-Dynasty instrument ­Tongya. The framework was still there, but on the inside the wood had been bored away by insects. Moreover, the surface was cracked and peeling, like a frozen pond when the ice begins to break up in early spring. Also, there were inscriptions from many famous people on the surface, making restoration that much more difficult.

Lin says that, unable to see the conditions inside, all he could do was use some steel wire to explore the insect damage. Then he took thinly cut strips of ­bamboo, dipped them into raw lacquer or deer-antler varnish, and used them to apply the lacquer or varnish to the damaged places drop by drop, to reinforce and stabilize the wood. As for the peeled lacquer on the surface, in places where the original lacquer could still be used he applied raw lacquer to reattach it to its original location, and where parts of the lacquer were missing he repaired the surface of the gu­qin by making a “skin” of lacquer on another surface, then cutting out pieces one by one to fit the damaged areas and applying them to the surface of the instrument.

The recently restored Song-­Dynasty gu­qin Yu­hu­bing was acquired by Lin from an itinerant vendor in mainland China. This time he went for the big cut, separating the soundboard from the base. After planing off the damaged wood he carefully selected the replacement material, using wood from the Han Dynasty for the repair, for only in this way would the tone be consistent. He spent more than two years restoring this gu­qin. Its tone is excellent, and it has become the instrument used by his son Lin Fa.

An heir who sat on gu­qin

In the middle of last year, Lin Li-­cheng started to teach a “gu­qin hewing experience class.” He demonstrates every step in the process of making a gu­qin, from selecting the materials, cutting out the rough components, and planing them into shape, to applying the varnish and lacquer, inlaying the harmonic position markers, and stringing the instrument. The class is one on 13, and Lin admits, “It’s exhausting for this old codger.” Fortunately he has Lin Fa and a group of apprentices as his teaching assistants, helping to guide the students and attend to their needs.

Lin Fa, Lin Li-­cheng’s second son, is the only one of four brothers to go into the family business. Lin Li-­cheng says that from the time when Lin Fa was small he followed his father around while he was working and did odd jobs for him, and he has acquired a solid grasp of gu­qin making. In the past, Lin Li-­cheng had no clamps for making gu­qin, so he would tell his son to sit on the instru­ments to press the parts together. Lin Fa grew up this way—sitting on gu­qin.

Lin figured that his son would end up making gu­qin for a living, and, afraid that Lin Fa would be disparaged if he was not able to play the instrument himself, ­coaxed and tricked him into going for lessons. Little did he expect that Lin Fa would develop a genuine interest as he learned, and he eventually graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Bei­jing with a major in gu­qin performance, followed by further study in the Department of Traditional Music at Tai­pei National University of the Arts. He is now a professional gu­qin performer.

During our visit to Lin’s workshop, one of his apprentices takes out wood for two gu­qin to test the sound. This step, coming before the parts are assembled, uses a tool to simulate the situation after the instrument is strung, to listen to the tone of the wood. If there is anything wrong, it can still be corrected.

We watch as Lin Fa deftly attaches the sound testing tool and his fingers rapidly press and pluck the strings as he listens to the tone. Afterwards he flips the piece of wood over and, with a felt-tip pen, marks several locations that need to be shaved a little thinner to get better tone. Standing off to one side, Lin Li-­cheng explains: “Now we are testing the sound, which I leave completely in his hands. No one is better than him at judging tone. He has been listening since he was small, and has formally studied performance. Academic professors have no contact with the making of gu­qin, so no-one has as deep an appreciation as he does.” These remarks reveal Lin’s pride in his son and his joy that the craft to which he has dedicated his life is being passed on.

Lin’s Zi­zuo­fang workshop, where they have just completed an exhibition on gu­qin making, is a mess. Lin pulls out a gu­qin from who knows where; this is a Qing-­Dynasty instrument that he received in mainland China back in the day. Lin says, “When this gu­qin is repaired, the sound will be amazing.” Hearing this, his apprentices are thrilled, and succinctly discuss the matter, after which they surround Lin and say, “Master, let’s repair it! Let’s repair it together!”

Facing a group of excited apprentices, Lin Li-­cheng, his face wreathed in smiles, says, “OK, let’s repair it together.”

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