Friday, May 25, 2007

Of Apartments and Guqins

(The view from Lily and Azalea's apartment)

After I turned down the job offer from the nursing school I realized that I actually did not need a regular job. Money wasn’t a problem since I had saved a lot from working in the US, and I could easily make more tutoring English. The only problem was getting a new visa, and now that I knew a visa agent I had a way around that. I didn’t have to get a work visa; instead I could get a cheaper business visa. I couldn’t legally receive a salary with a business visa but that wouldn’t matter since I wouldn’t have a regular job. I could spend as much time as I wanted studying Chinese, and could even try doing some freelance writing or translating.

In the meantime I started spending more time hanging out with Lily. Azalea usually stayed at Terence’s place, and let me sleep in her apartment since she was almost never there. I preferred her place to Terence’s anyway. For one thing, at Azalea’s I could borrow her bed when she wasn’t there, while at Terence’s I had to sleep on the floor. Also, the neighborhood around Azalea’s building was better. Terence’s neighborhood was unusually pleasant for Beijing, with clean, tree-lined streets and kind of pretty walled embassy compounds. It was also at what might be Beijing’s most convenient location (which is not saying much). But the neighborhood was dead. There was no street life and the only supermarkets and restaurants were expensive and expat-oriented. Lily and Azalea’s apartment wasn’t in as convenient a location, but the neighborhood had more stores and restaurants, and even felt like a neighborhood despite the cookie-cutter residential complex the apartment was in.
Lily was as idle as me, except for guqin classes she was taking. The guqin is an ancient instrument that Confucian scholars used to play, and is perhaps more closely tied to Chinese culture than any other instrument. But because its music doesn’t carry well and isn’t suited to concerts it isn’t very well known anymore, even among Chinese people.
Lily wanted to get a new guqin before she moved to Israel, and brought me along when she went to a guqin factory in the south of Beijing to choose one. The factory was in the boondocks of Beijing- a wasteland of dilapidated courtyard houses, dirty industrial compounds and the occasional stunningly ugly concrete office complex. It took us about two hours to get there, after switching buses once and being driven part of the way by the factory’s owner. The factory itself was in a courtyard. All the guqins were made by hand, usually from wood that had been scavenged from old buildings that had been torn down. I was told that older wood was better since it was drier.
After Lily chose a guqin we went to the factory boss’s apartment. His apartment was like a museum to himself- it was dominated by a glass case filled with instruments he had made. More instruments lined some walls. Other walls were filled with plaques and trophies that he had won for his instruments.
At the factory Lily suggested that I learn how to play the guqin myself. Later, at the owner’s apartment, she got the idea that I could learn to make them. “Just think, you could be the only foreign guqin maker in the world!” she said, giggling. “Could you teach him to make guqins?” she asked the factory owner.
“Yes, but it’s hard,” the owner said with a small smile that suggested that he didn’t think it was likely. “Most people start when they’re teenagers.” Lily seemed to only hear the “yes,” and kept talking about how I should devote my time to guqins. One problem did eventually occur to her: “Boss,” she said to the factory owner, “it’s true that guqin making can only be passed down through families, right?”
“Yes,” the owner said. “Though a lot of people have abandoned that tradition now.” Before we left Lily told the owner she’s give me his phone number.


Anonymous said...

I have got to ask... was the guqin maker Wang Peng (王鵬)?

Anonymous said...

You could keep the guqin tradition alive! And people would journey from miles away, from worlds away, to visit you in your mountain hut where you make guqins with your bare teeth, harvested by monkeys from trees that reach maturity only once every seventy years. Eh?

Write more!