Courtesy of Hannah Qiu
Before she starts playing the guzheng, junior Hannah Qiu closes her eyes to encompass herself in the mindset of the composer.
For Qiu, playing the guzheng—a 21-stringed traditional Chinese instrument—isn’t solely about mastering the technique, but about connecting with her Chinese culture and understanding the story behind the mu-
sic. Qiu believes that the tradition and stories make the guzheng unique. “The instrument carries the story of Chinese history and how Chinese culture has evolved,” she said.
Qiu is fortunate to have the opportunity to play the guzheng, but as a second-generation Chinese American, she thinks she experiences some disadvantages compared to other native Chinese players who are more exposed to Chinese culture. Since the guzheng is more popular in China, Qiu has found it difficult to find a community for Chinese music and a sense of belonging here in America. “[When] living here, it’s a little bit difficult to get other opportunities to learn more about Chinese culture,” she said.
The hardest part about mastering this instrument, according to Qiu, is being able to comprehend the story or emotions that the composer is trying to convey. Many of the songs that Qiu plays are traditional pieces based on Chinese idioms, landscapes and stories. “Every time I learn a piece, I really have to understand the story behind it,” she said. “Oftentimes, I’ll spend hours with a teacher trying to go over the meaning and the emotions behind a piece.” Qiu notes that it can often be easy to accidentally convey a different meaning by adding an American twist.
Qiu’s dedication to learning about Chinese culture and practicing her instrument for several hours a week finally paid off when she earned third place in an international competition against some of the best guzheng players in the world. “It took a lot of work to win because as a Chinese American, I’ve undergone very different training compared to some people who go to professional music schools in China,” she said.
Although connecting to the story is a challenge, the guzheng has bridged the gap between Qiu and her Chinese heritage. She has come to a better understanding of what each Chinese tradition means, and her instrument has helped her feel closer to older generations. Qiu will often send videos of her playing the guzheng to her relatives in China to connect with them during the holidays.
In the future, Qiu plans to continue to improve, compete and perform as much as she can to share her culture with the world. “Music is a conduit for my emotions and a way to express myself,” she said. “No matter what happens in the future, I can always rely on the guzheng.”