Van Gulik was fascinated with the tastes and preferences of Chinese scholar-officials, whose favorite pastimes included playing the guqin.
Van Gulik became interested in the guqin during his post in Japan from 1935 to 1942. On his first visit to Beijing in 1936, he purchased a guqin made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became a pupil of master Ye Shimeng, nephew of the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi.
Van Gulik named his guqin “pine wind,” a reference to the Taoist master Tao Hongjing (456-536), who enjoyed listening to the sound of wind rustling in the pine forest. Back in Japan, he bought a tuning whistle, had a special table made for practicing his guqin and took lessons from a Chinese master in Tokyo.
Master Ye Shimeng taught van Gulik the piece Three Variations on Plum Blossom. The plum blossom is known to withstand the rigors of winter weather, its delicate fragrant blossoms persist despite the bitter chill. The flower is often used to describe people who are noble and forthright.
Van Gulik learned 10 guqin pieces from Ye, whom he deeply respected. In his grief after Ye passed away, van Gulik dedicated his 1940 monograph The Lore of the Chinese Lute to his memory.
In this work, van Gulik combines a player’s appreciation and enthusiasm with a Sinologist’s informed insight. He traced the evolution of guqin melodies and theory within the context of larger historical changes and cultural trends through different dynastic periods.
He translated the word guqin as “lute” instead of the usual term “zither” because the lute “since olden times in the West has been associated with all that is artistic and refined, and sung by poets.” Thus van Gulik set the tone for his interpretation of the ideological meaning of the guqin as the highest symbol and expression of Chinese literati culture.
The next year he followed up with another book, Hsi Kang and His Poetical Essay on the Lute. His works are arguably the first academic studies on the ideology of the guqin and major non-Chinese sources for the study of the guqin.
After Japan declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, van Gulik was evacuated along with other diplomatic staff of the Dutch mission. He spent most of World War II as the first secretary of the Dutch delegation to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in the wartime capital of Chongqing.
It was in Chongqing that he met Shui Shifang, granddaughter of Zhang Zhidong, one of the four senior officials of the late Qing Dynasty known for advocating controlled reforms and modernization. Shui, who also worked at the Dutch Embassy, first tutored van Gulik in Mandarin. They went on to marry and have four children. Shui said in an interview that the four years van Gulik spent in Chongqing were the happiest of his life.
With much of the heartland of China occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, which enabled van Gulik to befriend many well-known guqin players, including local master Yang Shaowu and Zhejiang master Xu Yuanbai.
In 1945, van Gulik supported the foundation of the Chongqing Tianfeng Qin Society, which boasted several prominent figures among its founding members. Van Gulik took this opportunity to build a rapport with them, including Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang and senior Kuomintang leader and calligrapher Yu Youren.
In his biographical sketch of van Gulik, fellow Chinese diplomat Chen Zhimai remembered watching him play a few guqin tunes for friends after dinner on several occasions.
After World War II, van Gulik embarked on a succession of foreign service posts in the US, India, the Middle East, Malaysia and Japan. Despite constantly moving, he continued his research, writing and translations. He died of cancer in The Hague in 1967 while serving as Dutch ambassador to Japan. He was 57.
In 2014, van Gulik’s family donated 116 pieces of his personal collection to the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, including his “pine wind” guqin, his rosewood desk, collected antiques and his own calligraphy, paintings and writings.
Van Gulik realized his dream of living like an ancient Chinese scholar-official who wrote poetry, practiced calligraphy and painting, and played music in their spare time. As Chen Zhimai wrote about van Gulik playing Flowing Water for Chinese friends beside the Jialing River:
“For how could we help being enthralled by this young man from Europe, whose physical features were anything but Chinese, playing for us this tune which had remained in the Chinese mind for 2,000 years.”