Bhikkhu Zhizang (also translated as Dharma Master Zhizang; Master Zhizang; Zhizang, a Buddhist monk; or simply Zhizang), born Li Qiushi, is a Chinese Buddhist monk and a qin (also called guqin or seven-stringed Chinese zither) musician as well as a master qin maker.
He was ordained in 1991 at Zhaojue Temple in Chengdu, Sichuan, PRC, by the Venerable Master Qingding and went to study at the Buddhist Nurture Academe of Minnan Buddhist Institute in Xiamen the following year.
He began to learn to play the qin in 1994 under the tutelage of Master Gong Yi, a leading figure in the qin circle in China. He was also taught by Mr Li Yuxian, a qin artist widely acclaimed as the grand master of the Min School. Inspired by a Taiwan qin maker, Lin Lizheng, as early as 1996, he started to craft qins in 2001, establishing the Xiamen Baina Qin Hall the following year.
In 2006, he went into a self-imposed retreat, known as bi guan (a monastic practice) for three years and eight month at Tianxin Yongle Temple in Wuyi Mountains. When he came out of his retreat in 2010, he began to reside in the countryside, focusing on constructing qins.
Zhizang will spare no effort to make the best possible musical instruments that can produce a celestial and unhurried sound that sets one’s mind free from worldly concerns and anxieties. The craftsmanship is superb and beautiful and the instrument elegant and sublime, exuding a subtle liveliness and vitality. He is particularly good in constructing baina qins (literally “a hundred patches” of wood in square or diamond shapes fitted and glued together and then carved into a qin) in the jiaoye or banana leaf style, for example, his Banana Leaf Series, which consists of 13 qins. He also excels in crafting qins of the zhujie or bamboo node style, for example, his Bamboo Shadow and Zen Series, which consists of seven qins. The qins he has crafted are known for their round and even sound that is at once mellow and rich, clear and harmonious, reminiscent of the chants and chimes in temples. The surface of the instrument is silkily smooth, fine and soft to the touch like jade, with elegantly and gracefully variegated colors - hence the name chan qin or Zen qins and he qin or harmonious qins.
Bhikkhu Zhizang’s qin construction methods
All phenomena in the universe are either born that way or man-made. Their causation (arising and ending) is the result of our mind. The logic of their causes and effects does not tolerate the slightest difference. As an instrument, the genesis of qin is dependent to human beings and ends with the immutability of all things. As an instrument, it is man made; therefore, there are norms and standards for its existence. These norms and standards are a summary of experience, which is passed on from one generation to another, going through stages of evolution and improvement, righting the wrong and keeping the right, maintaining the beauty and eliminating the defects, so as to get the right norms and standards. What has been done right is beauty. Of all the instruments, only the beautiful ones will be chosen. Beauty comes in various forms. It can be a natural and crude beauty, or a beauty of sophistication and fine craftsmanship. By right norms and standards, it means keeping the right ways and eliminating the wrong ways, i.e. to keep the authentic and eliminate the deviant. As a musical instrument, the simple qins have incorporated the beauty created by nature, while the sophisticated qins have absorbed the exquisite craftsmanship of the makers. As for the craftsmanship, it depends on how much effort one wants to put in. If one does things according to norms and standards, then one is bound to come up with a quality qin. As the old saying goes, unmistakably, “You reap what you sow.”
Talking about norms and standards for qin making, there have been many schools of thought since the early days. However, they all regard having good qins as the ultimate goal. In other words, we don’t have to be confined to one way in qin making, even less confined solely to traditional ways. New ways or old ways, the way that makes a good qin is the best way. In spite of that, there is an order in the procedures and appropriate intervals should be factored in between different steps. Qin makers still have to follow the law of nature and man-made rules. The law of nature refers to the seasoning of wood to remove the internal stresses and the oxidation of lacquer. Man-made rules include the sequence of different steps and the calculation of specifications. Only when all the steps are clearly set out, can every step be carried out according to norms and standards to produce good quality qins.
What can be called a good quality qin? There are four standards: Firstly, the beauty of its tonal quality; secondly, the beauty of its feel; thirdly, the beauty of its sturdiness; fourthly, the beauty of its appearance. They are equally important. Other than that, there are also talks about the “nine virtues” to distinguish the qin quality, which refer to all the aspects of the instrument from sound, feel to appearance: exquisite, matured, resonating, quiet, smooth, round, clear, even, and fragrant. Only a qin that fulfills all these requirements can be considered a masterpiece.
However, an experienced qin maker knows that it is not easy to make a good qin, in a similar way that only the thirsty person drinking the water can tell whether it is cold or warm. There are essential factors as well as accidental factors, not entirely dependent on human factors. Good quality wood and rich experience may be classified as essential factors; the uncertainty of raw materials and lacquer may fall under the accidental factors. In addition, there are the changes of seasons that cause some of the qins to sound resonating and clear on sunny days and then muffled on cloudy days; and others to sound round, smooth and clear on rainy days and then scratchy and rough on sunny days. It is very difficult to achieve the desired sound. If a qin should occasionally possess the amazing tone quality that never changes with seasons and weather, it is a rare blessing.
There are always norms and standards over the years, some old and some new. Qin makers should be widely read and erudite, starting by following the norms. With time, necessary experience is accumulated before one starts to have one’s own particular norms. Yet, in spite of one’s experience and particular norms, one should abide by the basic principles of qin making. The shape design and tone characteristics can be different according to personal aesthetic point of view and craftsmanship. But the basic principles of the qin styles (or forms) never change. If we deviate too far from the basics of qin styles, it is no longer a qin. I still remember how my Shakuhachi, or Japanese flute, teacher Heihachiro Tsukamoto once asked me: “Mr Zhizang, have you ever thought of using modern high-technology or innovative concepts to reform qins in qin-construction, so that they look more up to date and scientific?” I replied with a no, saying, “As a musical instrument, qin achieved perfection as early as the prime Tang Dynasty when the basic styles were already established and there was no need for refinement. There are others who hold the view that electronics need to be upgraded constantly to be applicable. But with qins, the older the better. If there should be any improvements to be made, it is more in the refinement of the shapes or curves, perhaps, or the width and length of the qin body. The color of the lacquer can vary according to personal preferences. As far as the tone quality is concerned, the inherent characteristics of the qin must be kept. The tones may vary, either resonant, clear, soft or smooth, they should be essentially authentic qin sounds. Mr Tsukamoto expressed after hearing my reply that old instruments should stick to old norms. People today shouldn’t recklessly make unnecessary changes and innovations. Otherwise, there will be confusion between the old and the new qins. They are not the “correct cognition and views”, nor the “correct paths and practices”.
While there are old norms and new norms, the craftsmanship is personal. No matter what norms are adopted, the critical question is how to make masterpieces. To make qins, the first thing required of the qin maker is that he/she must be a qin lover, skilled in qin playing and able to differentiate the tone quality. Carpentry and knowledge of the lacquer are also necessary before one can start crafting qins. Beginners can start by learning from a good master, or learn by self-exploration. In selecting masters, one should look for people who are skilled and ethical. As far as qin-constructing skills are concerned, one should try to stay away from people who only know the theory but have no hands-on experience or are very clumsy while doing it or people who do things for name and fame, pretending to know what they know little of. If you cannot find a skillful master, you would do better learning on your own than following the wrong person. How can we tell the difference between the real and the false qin makers? It can be told in the use of a variety of tools, from adzes, planes, axes and saws to palette knives and putty knives. Other criteria include whether a good qin has actually been made by the person, whether the person in question can play the qins, adjust the strings and the music played is pleasant to the ear due to solid skills rather than just showing off some techniques. In a word, the person should be a real qin maker rather than a fake.
While I have shown how to differentiate a real qin maker from a fake, whether or not you want to learn to make qins depends on your own sincerity and commitment. If you sincerely want to construct qins and yet cannot find a good teacher, it is not impossible to learn it by doing it. Taking my personal experience as an example. When I first started making qins, I didn’t know where to find a teacher. Therefore, I had to learn it by trial and error for a dozen years before I developed a systematic way of my own. A connoisseur will be able tell how good the qins I have made are when the actual instruments, with all their merits and demerits, are presented. I have taught a dozen students how to make qins, over a period of three years, all of whom make it their business to craft qins. While coaching them, I often told my students that qin construction skills are no different from our attitude towards anything else. The top priority is sincerity. They must remember not to mix with people of doubful character and ruin their reputation. A bad tree will not bear good fruit. If one doesn’t have a down-to-earth attitude, one will get nowhere, as a person or as a craftsman.
Although I have developed my own ways to craft qins, I am never complacent or content in transmitting my skills or creating new instruments. The next qin has the promise of being a good one. With the qin I am still working on, I am often dissatisfied and, in doing so, my skills improve incessantly. If we become complacent, our skills will not grow. As for the ways to craft qins, what we learn from the books tends to be shallow. We need to be fully engaged in qin making to improve our skills. If we want to get good results, we must get our feet wet and our hands dirty. We can only develop our “know how” through practice.