Pamplin Media Group – Play, teach, build the Chinese ‘guqin’ at Woodstock


A Woodstock man is widely recognized for his skill in building – and playing – a particular Chinese instrument

During the pandemic, much of our lives have taken place online – meetings, working from home, mental health counseling, doctor visits, etc. Music lessons have also gone virtual for some teachers. A Woodstock man has gone online to continue giving music lessons – using an antique instrument he makes. His name is Jim Binkley, and he plays, builds and teaches the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments – the “guqin” (pronounced, in Mandarin, “goo chin”).

Binkley is a quiet, modest guy, but when asked how many people in the world make guqins, he replies, “There are a handful of people who have made more than one guqin, but there are actually only two people outside of greater China. [Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan] who have more than five” – ​​and those would be himself, and a guy on the east coast named Stephan Dydo.

Binkley has actually made about 15 guqins over time, each taking him a year or two to make. A guqin is made up of a top board – which is the soundboard, about 48 inches long and 8 inches at the widest point – and a bottom board for stability. The instrument is fretless and the nylon and metal strings are plucked with one hand, while the other slides to press the strings to play different notes, like on a cello or violin. (In ancient times, the strings were made of silk.) To make a guqin, “they say, ‘the older the wood, the better.'” Paulownia [the Princess Tree] is common,” says Binkley; “But I used woods from the Pacific Northwest, like western red cedar and redwood. I sold one in January in California redwood, which was salvaged from a garage floor in Ashland.”

The subsequent lacquering process is extremely complex, involving many layers.

Playing the guqin is an ancient Chinese musical art. This seven-stringed instrument, dating back around 2,500 years, was used in ritual ceremonies at the Imperial court in the 1700s. Binkley says: “It is more or less a solo instrument, using the earliest music written in the world, because it was the instrument of the old [Chinese] class of letters.”

Binkley, a retired Portland State University professor who taught computer science from the mid-1990s to 2010, became interested in guqin in 1975 when his roommate in Taiwan, John Thompson, introduced him to it. introduced to the game of guqin.

“I was playing classical guitar when I went to Taiwan, and John decided I should play guqin, ‘like it was similar,'” Binkley told THE BEE.

When Binkley went to Taiwan, he had a bachelor’s degree in Chinese, then underwent intensive Chinese training for a year and a half, including classical Chinese. This ability later enabled him to translate excerpts from “Abiding With Antiquity”, a rare Chinese guqin zither manual, published in Fujian Province in China around 1860.

Back in the United States, he studied for a time at the University of Washington, where he met a guqin professor who gave him lessons. And he continued to make guqins, like he did in Taiwan.

In the past, Binkley has given performances. “Mostly solo, and mostly at the Chinese Grden Teahouse. And a few times at the PSU at official gigs, and elsewhere.”

He started giving guqin lessons in the late 1990s when a friend convinced him to teach him how to play. These days, he still teaches a few students online, but he no longer performs, though he still builds guqins. “But, increasingly slow,” he admits.

For anyone interested in learning to play the guqin, Binkley advises: “Go to Facebook and join the international guqin group. Trying to do it on your own in the United States or outside of China is difficult. Talking with others is a good idea because, for example, you can find out where to find materials or where to find teachers.The Internet and the pandemic have more or less pushed the “guqin world” online, outside of China “.

To learn more about Binkley’s guqin adventures in Taiwan and his translation of the important guqin manual, read his translation introduction: tinyurl.com/4x949zp7

For his own guqin performances, go online — youtube.com/laoqinyou


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