Zhou Chao: China's Guitar Sage Posted on 25 Jan 04:13

When introducing Chinese musicians to a Western audience, I do my best to avoid “XXX is the Chinese Bob Dylan/Kurt Cobain/Stevie Ray Vaughn” statements. It’s not that I am adverse to cross-cultural comparisons. In fact comparisons are very useful when talking about art – why struggle to describe music from scratch when we already have so many musical touchstones we can evoke with a simple comparison? But I do worry that these “XXX is the Chinese YYY” statements situate the West as the center while peripheralizing non-western artists who have rich traditions of their own that they draw upon.

So, without assuming any implied precedence, hierarchy, or proximity to the center, let me share with you the pleasure I felt last Spring when I heard Zhou Chao 周朝, a Chinese musician who struck me as “the Chinese John Fahey,” play a brief set at a bar. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time that immediately brought Fahey to mind, other than the fact that the tall, tanned musician before me delivered a stunning improvised solo performance on acoustic guitar. It certainly wasn’t a stylistic resemblance. The music he played that night borrowed more from Indian ragas than American folk. In the coming weeks, I had the good fortune to run across Zhou Chao a few times at a friend’s house, where he improvised more beautiful pieces, some bluesy, and some uniquely Chinese. Watching him up close, the comparison to Fahey once again seemed apt.

The first time I heard Zhou Chao, in Caicun village, outside of Dali.


First of all I was struck by Zhou Chao’s relationship to his instrument. He seemed to be listening to the guitar, allowing it to speak in its native tongue. It was as if he was unlocking something already hidden deep within the structure of the acoustic guitar. He wasn’t fighting his instrument, and he wasn’t taming it. His guitar roamed wild in its natural habitat, like Fahey’s did.

This kind of playing always makes me reflect on the aesthetics of folk music, which often incorporates the quirks and limitations of its instrumentation. Think of the rasp of old-time fiddling as opposed to the more sonorous tones of the concert violinist. If you doubt that the “rasp” is the native voice of the fiddle, think of the dreaded screech of a student violinist. The classical musician trains the screech out of the instrument. The fiddler allows it to remain, and harnesses it to power the melody.

There is much more that is distinctly “folk” about Zhou Chao. Blues influence is clear in many pieces, and when Zhou Chao sings, there is no doubt that he has roots in Chinese folk music. Yet there is also high-art and the avant-garde, as witnessed by his experimentation with and attention to the aesthetics of pure sound as distinct from the aesthetics of the traditions which he draws upon, and this high/low blend once again recalls Fahey.



Months later, I attended a jam led by Zhou Chao at September Bar, Dali’s standby venue for acoustic music, where I saw a completely different side to this versatile guitarist. After kicking off the night with a solo acoustic guitar improvisation, he invited a bass player and drummer onstage and launched into an extended psychedelic jam using an echoey overdriven Fender Strat. I expressed my shock at this transformation to a few friends at the bar, but this was par for the course as far as they were concerned. “He’s the Chinese Jimmy Hendrix. What else did you expect?” Clearly it’s time to put these Western reference points aside, and look to Chinese antecedents to make sense of Zhou’s music.

Whether playing acoustic or electric, what Zhou Chao echoes more than anything is the sublime tradition of the guqin, the favored instrument of China’s pre-modern literati class. Zhou’s appreciation of abstract sound – sound on it’s own terms, not confined to its melodic content – stems more from guqin than from Fahey or Hendrix. The canon of the guqin requires mastery of dozens of techniques, including scraping fingernails along strings, harmonics, and eliciting nearly inaudible tones by sliding along a stopped string without actually striking it. Zhou’s impishly playful refusal to settle into any fixed technique borrows from this tradition. Where and how Zhou plucks his guitar is part of his improvisation, exploring new aesthetic possibilities within the sonic characteristics of the instrument. Also reminiscent of the guqin is Zhou’s penchant for spiraling compositions that eschew repetition of melodic motifs. 

Zhou Chao performing at Yuyintang in Shanghai.

Zhou’s debt to the guqin, and to Chinese aesthetics in general, is evidenced most of all by his attitude and approach to music. In ancient China as today, the practice of the guqin is viewed as a means of personal cultivation, not a vehicle for performance. Playing is both an expression of, and a means to contact, the deeper principles that unite the natural world and the human spirit. Zhou Chao couldn’t agree more: “Music isn’t created through performance. It already exists, suspended in space.” The musician doesn’t create music, but discovers it. This attitude helps explain Zhou Chao’s unique relationship to his instrument. “We shouldn’t say that we play a string. The string plays us. We must respect the vibrational potential within it. Instruments have a spirit that breathes through these vibrations. We have to experience these vibrations and align our bodies with them.” Zhou Chao sees musicians as people who train themselves to hear and participate in the vibrations of creation itself through the medium of their chosen instrument. To what end? “Good music helps us participate more deeply in the interior universe.” Can’t get much more Zen than that.

What makes Zhou Chao such a unique musician is the way in which he completely embodies these ideals within the physical act of playing. To his Chinese fans he is not the Chinese Jimmy Hendrix, or the Chinese John Fahey, but the “Guitar Sage.” Watching Zhou Chao perform can be likened to an experiential crash course in ancient Chinese philosophy. He appears to be tuning in to something permeating the space around him, aligning movements of his body with vibrations hanging in the air. Just watching him in action seems to open the listener to the possibility that such energies might exist. His playing embodies the Daoist ideal of attuning oneself to the movement of the Dao, as well as the Buddhist concept of no-self.

While all of the above would seem to situate Zhou Chao as a distinctively Chinese artist, I think we can nonetheless be forgiven for hearing some Hendrix and Fahey in him (and some Gilmore, and some Garcia). All of these Western artists emerged within the cultural foment of the 60’s, a time when musicians were breaking down musical, and psychological barriers. The Dao De Jing was all the rage, as was the exploration of inner space whether through chemical alteration or Eastern methods of meditation. Musicians were tuning in and dropping out, taking bold strides into other modes of being that might bring a greater sense of harmony to our distressed capitalist society. Even Fahey, the least hippy of these artists, had a degree in philosophy and religion, was briefly a student of Swami Satchidananda, and described his music as an attempt to create an interior world of beauty. All of them were in some way exploring the same relationships between musical sound and the depths of inner space that Zhou is exploring today.

Nor can we say that Zhou Chao was not influenced by these Western artists. He has listened to them all, particularly Hendrix and Pink Floyd. After all, Zhou Chao is a guitarist, not a guqin player. While mastering his instrument he needed models to copy, and perhaps what excited him about Hendrix and Gilmore was precisely that each had succeeded in their own way in giving themselves over to the music, drawing those tones hanging in space down into the strings of their instruments. The universal vibrations of ancient Chinese philosophy had rippled out to the far shores of America and the UK, found voice there, then reverberated back to the Far East, where Zhou Chao was listening to Hendrix and Pink Floyd cassettes and copying their riffs. What this did was give him a means to reconnect to a native Chinese musical tradition, the guqin, albeit using Western instrumentation, and not without leaving an unmistakable whiff of Purple Haze hanging over him.


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