To put it simply, we are a “pentalogy”: one place, one book, and three figures.
One place: the Plum Studio.
Mei’an is pronounced as May-Ann. “Mei” 梅 means plum, and “An” 庵 could mean studio, hut, or nunnery. Best translated as the Plum Studio in our case,
Mei’an refers to a historical building located in present Southeast University in Nanjing, China. This is the place where Xu, Lisun 徐立孫 (1897 -1969) and Shao, Dasu 邵大蘇 (1898-1938), the two “founding figures” of the Mei’an Guqin Society, learned Guqin from master Wang Binlu 王賓魯, better known as Wang Yanqing 王燕卿. (For their exciting stories entwined with the highs and lows of the first half of the twentieth century China, see their biographies written by one of the best scholars and story-tellers of Guqin history, Yan Xiaoxing’ 嚴曉星 blog http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4da1fb100100z87w.html. He also published a series of biographies of Mei’an musicians titled 梅庵琴人傳 )
We put quotations marks around “foundning figures” here because Xu and Shao did not actually found the society, but their students founded the Guqin Society in memory of them and named it “Plum Studio”.
If you google “Mei’an Guqin Society”, or 梅庵琴社 in Chinese, you will find many different Guqin groups or societies, because Xu’s and Shao’s disciples later diverged into different directions and started separate branches or new societies of Guqin. We are directly associated with Mei’an Guqin Society based in Nantong, and we are the first and the only branch in North America.
One Book: Mei’an Qinpu, or The Scores of the Plum Studio Society
(For a complete translation and detailed study of this book, see Lieberman )
There is always one book, either a scripture, a manual or other secret canons that define a school of arts, martial arts or scholarship. This sacred book often bears mysterious origin: it is put together or touched by master’s hands; it is hunted, pursued, lost, and finally attained by the founding figure of the school after extraordinary adventure and exploration. Mei’an Qinpu is the sacred book for Mei’an Guqin Society, and it is one with scores and tablature for fifteen Guqin music pieces that lights up the way/Way towards the excellence of Guqin.
Not really, and I wish Mei’an Qinpu has such magical power, but it is just one of the many Guqin scores transmitted from the previous millennium. It became special, however, because of the people who have participated in the edition, compilation and translation of it, which makes it the most wide-spread Guqin scores around the world.
In early twentieth century, Xu Lisun and Shao Dasu started collecting the music pieces their teacher Wang Binlu taught them. Based on an early Ming Score book from the 17th century, they added some new pieces, and these became the earliest edition of Mei’an Qinpu published in 1931. Later Xu Lisun expanded it into two volumes. The first part is an introduction of the instrument and its history, composed by Chen Xinyuan 陳心園. The second one includes scores of fifteen Guqin pieces, some of which were only played by Mei’an musicians in those days. For those other pieces that were played by other Guqin schools, this book provides Mei’an musicians unique interpretations. That is, they have different renderings of well-known Guqin pieces in terms of speed, tablature and other sound qualities due to different techniques. A repertoire of exclusive musical pieces, early Mei’an masters’ individual interpretation of well-known pieces, as well as careful editions of generations of Mei’an musicians give birth to Mei’an Qinpu, the canon of Mei’an Guqin Society.
The content alone, however, would not project the “legendary” nature of this book, since Mei’an Qinpu becomes important really because of the way in which it entangled with the destiny of Guqin community and the rises and falls of Chinese traditional music in the twentieth century. After the first print of Mei’an Qinpu in 1930s, it was largely “muted” from 1950s to the 1970s. First, during the nationalization of all kinds of music and musical instruments in the socialist movement in early years of PRC’s regime, Guqin is only one of the many voices that praise the party and embrace its leadership. During the “Great Leap Forward” in late 1950s and early 1960s, large-scale projects of “discovering” and recording traditional musical pieces from peoples were carried around the country. Many Guqin pieces were dug out, musicians were found and their performance recorded or transcribed, and a repertoire of “Chinese” Guqin was built. This process in many ways resembles the “confiscating” of landlords’ properties during the socialist movement , in that once these materials were gathered, they became the property of the central government and therefore only accessible to authorized figures and institutions. Also, every individual, no matter Mei’an or any other Guqin schools, has to relinquish their unique identity and merge into the national narrative.
In late 1960s and 1970s, even more tragic political and cultural campaigns swept China- the Cultural Revolution. Music or arts were almost dilapidated in front of charges like “bourgeois tastes” or “markers of decadent elites/intellectuals”. While musicians in mainland China suffered from endless political campaigns or heartbreaks when their Guqin were destroyed, Wu Zonghan 吴宗汉 (1904-1991) and other Mei’an musicians who went abroad continued to take students. They became the remaining firewood of Mei’an music in this period. Wu together with his wife Wang Yici 王忆慈 （1915-1944) trained a significant number of students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and later in the US. Mei’an Qinpu, in the meantime, was brought to the English world.
Fredric Lieberman, Chinese name 李伯曼, finished a dissertation on Guqin and Chinese music in 1967, which is centered upon a thorough study of Mei’an Qinpu. Later Lieberman published a detailed bibliography of Chinese music in English and in 1972, and he finished a complete translation of Mei’an Qinpu, making it the first Guqin score rendered into English. Therefore, it is fair to say that Mei’an musicians, mainly Wu Zonghan and Wang Yici’s students, and Mei’an Qinpu become one of the most important, if not the only, representations of Guqin music outside of China in mid-twelfth century. During the chaotic years that cracked many Guqin that were hundreds of years old, and muted Chinese musicians in mainland China, the pieces in Mei’an Qinpucontinued to comfort, pacify and perhaps lull people outside of China, many of them waiting eagerly for a turning of the page on their motherland.
(To be continued: Three central figures of North America Mei’an Guqin Society.)