In addition to practising Chinese calligraphy every day, he also learnt to play the guqin. His book The Lore of the Lute, first published in Tokyo in 1940, was the first academic study of the instrument and played an important role in introducing it to a Western audience.
The favourite instrument he owned was a late Ming dynasty seven-string guqin acquired in China in 1936. Made in black lacquered wood and zitan with inlays of mother-of-pearl and a jade plaque of a duck, it bears various seals and calligraphic inscriptions that document its history.
The calligraphic inscription to the Japanese wood box and cover, written by van Gulik himself, explains the origin of the name he gave the instrument.
“In the late autumn of the Bingzi year (1936) I happened to acquire an antique qin in Yanjing (Beijing). The quiet notes jingle-jangle as if you had stirred a string of bells, whispering as furtive words between a man and a woman. The loud notes rustle as the sudden arrival of rain and the wind, rumbling as thunder echoing throughout the mountains.
“How could I describe such excellence and how could I presume to limit it with a name? I therefore spurned this quagmire of many names and gave it the name Wuming (nameless).”
Van Gulik’s interest in Chinese music and musical instruments in general extended to the pipa, the leading instrument in Nanyin or ‘southern pipe’ music. The term describes the motions used to play the four strings with the finger or a plectrum: pi is ‘to play forwards’ (towards the left) and pa ‘to play backwards’ (towards the right).
The backs of pipa are usually plain but van Gulik’s 17th century example in black and gilt lacquer is decorated in mother-of-pearl both with a scene of figures gazing at three tall rocks across the sea and an inscription alluding to eremitic ideals of the literati including a life away from the perils of the court and the merits of fishing, drinking tea and meeting with friends.
Both instruments were included in Bonhams’ Fine Chinese Art sale in London on November 2. The Ming dynasty guqin sold for over twice the top estimate at £550,000 while the pipa tipped over hopes to bring £130,000.