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Through High Mountains and Flowing Water

A tale of an enduring friendship between a famed musician and a woodcutter


Published: 8 Feb 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

The illustrations in this story were produced in partnership with student artists from Crest Secondary School

Based on the historical figure Yu Boya, a famed qin musician, this story is about the friendship between the qin master and a woodcutter, Zhang Ziqi. It is believed that Boya had played a tune for Ziqi when they first met and that this tune would later become one of the most famous guqin melodies of all time, High Mountains and Flowing Water. 

More than 2,000 years ago in ancient China, there lived a qin player by the name of Yu Boya. Even as a child, Boya showed great interest in learning to play the qin, an ancient Chinese zither. 

After learning the qin for several years from his teacher Lian Cheng, Boya made great progress in mastering the instrument. However, he still felt that he had a long way to go. Knowing his student well, Lian Cheng promised him that he would take his student to see his own teacher who would help him master the instrument further. 

And so, they travelled to Penglai Island, the fabled land of the immortals. When they reached their destination, Boya’s teacher said, “Wait for me here while I bring my master to see you. Do not go anywhere.” Lian Cheng then left his young student alone. 

Days passed and there was no sign of Lian Cheng. Boya waited patiently. Several more days passed and still his teacher was nowhere to be seen. The young man thought his teacher had abandoned him, and his heart was flooded with sadness. 

He closed his eyes, and listened to the sounds around him. In the stillness, he heard the gentle waters bubbling in the river, birds swooping and gliding, and the silence from the forest piercing the air, all deepening the sadness he felt in his heart. It seemed like Mother Nature was also expressing its grief with him. Inspired by his surrounding, his fingers began plucking the strings of the qin. He found himself expressing his feelings through his music.

He then realised that his teacher had put him there to learn how to listen to nature and his feelings, and to express them through his music.

Years passed and Boya had become a master of the qin. Even though his mastery at the qin was unrivalled, not everyone appreciated or understood his music. Boya felt misunderstood and alone.

One day, while Boya was sailing down a river on a diplomatic mission by the king of Jin, a sudden storm struck! He could not continue his journey.

Boya quickly guided his boat to the riverbank, grabbed his treasured qin with him and sought shelter in the woods. It continued raining heavily the entire day.

Finally, nightfall descended and the rain stopped. The sky cleared and the moon beams filtered through the clouds and onto the ground. The musky fresh scent of the ground after the rain pierced the air. Boya felt calm and at peace. Moved by the sounds and sights around him, he laid out his instrument and his fingers started rolling across the strings of the qin. A beautiful melody filled the quiet woods. He was so deeply entranced in his playing that he did not notice that someone was observing him from a distance. 

Suddenly, a shadow flickered and moved through the brightly lit woods. Overcome with surprise by the sudden movement, Boya's finger pulled against one of the strings in his qin, causing it to snap. Irritated by the disturbance, he shouted at the figure in the distance, “Who is that? Come out now! Why are you hiding?"

A woodcutter stepped out from the shadows and apologised, “I am sorry, but I did not mean to startle you. I got caught in the rain and was taking shelter out here when I heard the melodious sounds coming from this direction. No words can express how wondrous the music sounds.”

The woodcutter continued, “I don’t know much about music, but I believe the music you were playing comes from your soul. A true listener will be able to understand the nature of the musician’s heart."

Feeling encouraged by the woodcutter's words, Boya carefully replaced the broken string on his qin and began to play. A beautiful melody filled the air. As the last note lingered, the woodcutter spoke up, "Towering peaks... like high mountains, as tall and magnificent as Mount Tai!"

Boya was taken aback. How did this stranger understand the emotions he poured into his music? He played another melody. This time, the woodcutter exclaimed, "Gentle, flowing water... like a stream."

Surprised yet intrigued by the woodcutter's insight, Boya couldn't help but ask, "Who are you? What do you do?"

With a warm smile, the woodcutter replied, "I am Zhong Ziqi." He shared his story of leaving behind a life of riches as an official in the royal court, in search of a simpler life.

The two spoke all night, and in each other's company, they found a rare friendship.

As dawn broke and before they parted ways, the two friends made a promise to meet again at the same spot one year later.

Boya and Ziqi stayed the best of friends for many years, and would meet up every year without fail. Boya played his beautiful music while his friend listened with joy. Boya was really thankful for Ziqi's friendship. They loved spending time together, playing music and chatting. But whenever they had to say goodbye, it made their hearts heavy.

Several years passed. Just as he had done the years before, Boya returned to the same meeting place, looking forward to seeing his best friend.

As usual, he went to the same spot. Hours passed but his friend did not turn up. This was unusual as Ziqi would always be there, eagerly waiting for him. Did something happen to Ziqi? Where can he be? His mind was racing and his heart pounded in his chest. 

He started walking around aimlessly hoping to find his friend. As he was roaming around in the woods, he saw an old man in the distance. Desperate to find his friend, Boya approached the man. “Good evening, sir. I am looking for a man that goes by the name of Zhong Ziqi. Do you know him?"

“Are you Yu Boya?” The old man asked. Boya nodded. “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your friend Zhong Ziqi passed away several months ago. He was unwell. But before he passed, he wanted to make sure that I would come looking for you today. He did not want you to think that he forgot about you.”

Distraught, Boya sobbed uncontrollably. The old man comforted him and led him to his friend’s grave.

At Ziqi's grave, Boya realised that he had lost the only person who understood him and his music. He started playing a sad, mournful tune for his friend on his qin. However, overwhelmed by grief, he could not finish playing the song. In anger, he pulled out all the strings from his qin, picked up his treasured instrument and smashed it into the ground. 

“My friend, my brother, I can never accept this loss. I will never be able to play another note ever again now that you are gone.”

And that was the last time Boya ever played on the qin. He died never composing another tune. His friendship meant everything to him and losing his friend meant losing his will to play. 

Over time, the phrase “high mountains, flowing water” also evolved into a Chinese metaphor for a long-lasting friendship, just like the friendship between Boya and Ziqi.

Did you know?

The version of High Mountains and Flowing Water that musicians perform today isn't exactly the same as the one Yu Boya played. However, it still captures the beauty of the towering mountains and flowing water. Listen to the composition performed at Esplanade by students from the Pipa Society Singapore.

More than the qin!

While the qin is an ancient zither, there are more Chinese string instruments that you may not know about! Let these young talents introduce you to three instruments and show you the nifty sound effects they can do with them!

For more videos with kid talents who are experts in different art forms, check out I Kid You Not. Watch them perform, teach, play, and call the shots! 


Student artists from Crest Secondary School

Visual arts club, 2023

Caleb Phanuel Kwee Diang Xiang
Shermaine Wong Hui Yi
Lam Mi Ki Anne
Wang Hsien Rong John
Jamielea Quek Binte Mustafa Kamal
Larsen Johanna Biluan
Wong Kin Ya
Gooi Wen Chyi
Brandon Lew Kin Jie
Dawn Chua
Lemuel Lim Yong En

With support from the teachers of Crest Secondary School.