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Origins of this website
Five qin belonging to Lo Ka-Ping 2    
The focus of this website is my work with the guqin silk-string zither. On a personal note, my interest began from reading Lore of the Chinese Lute by R. H. Van Gulik. I was intrigued by what he wrote about the history and philosophy of the qin, but even more fascinated to learn about the ancient qin tablature. At university I had studied medieval and renaissance Western music, which is largely a reconstructed tradition. Now I discoved that there was a similar possibility of reconstructing ancient music from a culture very different from my own. So in 1974 I went to Taiwan and spent two years studying the contemporary tradition with Sun Yü-ch'in. I enjoyed this very much, but then I discovered recordings of reconstructions of old music that had been made in China during the 1950s. And soon after I arrived in Hong Kong in 1976 Tong Kin-Woon (who had become my advisor there) took me to meet Lo Ka-Ping and hear his antique instruments. With their silk strings they all had beautiful sound, transporting me to another level of appreciation.3 When I played one in particular, a Song dynasty instrument, the sound of each note seemed so sublime that I was hesitant to play the next note. I wanted to learn all I could not just about the instrument and its music, but the stories and ideas behind the melodies and the people who created them.4 And once I began myself playing old melodies directly from tablature (dapu), I found that each time I re-created a piece I would be enchanted - each one seemed even more beautiful than the last one, and I wanted to do as much as I could to experience the music in a way similar to that of the people who had created such an exquisite instrument and such engaging music. I wrote down what I had learned about the background of the music to help listeners also contextualize the music, but this was somewhat complicated by the fact that so much of the information I had was on filecards.5

This website thus began as an effort to bring order to and make accessible all the material I was accumulating as part of this quest; putting it on the internet made all the details searchable. Information is added as I go along, and I try to make clear that as a result this is a work in progress.6

To sum up, the core of this work is my reconstruction and recording of music from Ming dynasty guqin tablature, plus my examination of all the related information I can find. With regard to the tablature itself the main sources are:

  1. Qinqu Jicheng, 1963 (original series)
  2. Qin Fu, 1971
  3. Qinqu Jicheng, 2010 (complete series; replaced the 1982-1991 incomplete series)

In addition to this my main reference materials are the publications listed here (compare the bibliography).


In 1974 I began studying the guqin in Taiwan from Sun Yuqin, learning from him the 17 pieces that comprised most of the traditional guqin repertoire as played at that time. Of those 17 pieces, 11 can trace their earliest published forms to Ming dynasty handbooks. Since leaving Taiwan my work has mostly been with music as published during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The qin players and melodies introduced on this website mostly date from that period and earlier. My reconstructions are almost exclusively of the earliest published versions of any melody. In the process I compare them with later versions, but until about 1990 very few handbooks published after the Ming dynasty were available. In any case, later melodies and players are usually mentioned only where they have relevance to my personal focus.

The present website, www.silkqin.com, came online in March 2003, succeeding the earlier site www.iohk.com/UserPages/thompson/. The initial impetus for that original site was a grant awarded to me in January 1996 by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, specifically to assist in publishing a digital recording, with accompanying commentary and transcriptions, of one of my guqin music reconstruction projects. That project eventually led to the publication of Music Beyond Sound. The original website was hosted by IOHK, Hong Kong; though long inactive and virtually empty, sometimes Google searches mistakenly reference that site rather than the present one.

Before this website came into being I kept much of my work on file cards and in handwritten notebooks, the latter replaced after 1990 by computer document files in Word. The initial appeal of putting this information online was that it immediately became much more easily searchable. It is for this reason that this website has resembled somewhat a blog, with me immediately putting most of my research online so as to take advantage of the indexing and search potential, as well as to inform others and solicit reactions that will help improve this site.

Web statistics say that since I began adding sound files in 2007 this site has averaged over 9000 hits per day; the great majority are people/sites in China accessing the sound files via intermediate sites (no information on whether they know who is playing or for how long they listen).

The main parts of my research that are not yet online are as follows:

  1. A number of recordings that I have not put online because they are available on the CDs listed here (there are also a number of melodies that I play but have not yet recorded)
  2. Hundreds of transcriptions into staff notation; this includes for all my recordings (over 200 pieces; 77 of these are published), but in addition there are also many pieces for which I have transcriptions but not yet recordings. Perhaps most important among these is all the music in Wusheng Qinpu (1457) and Taigu Yiyin (1511). Almost all of these were done in the computer transcription program Encore, but there are also a few still only handwritten.
  3. Charts tracing melodies from their initial publication. Many of these are already online (sample). Others, however, are still only in the form in which they originated: charts within Word documents that I have not yet converted into .html files. (The conversion of these accelerated after 2010, when the 30-volume issue of Qinqu Jicheng was finally published and so I could make the tracing of melodies more complete.)
  4. Annotations in the photocopies of the Ming dynasty handbooks from which I work.

Regarding the tracing charts it may be noted that these generally include links showing the page numbers of the original tablatures as published within the Qinqu Jicheng handbook collection. I have also put online the Table of Contents for all Ming dynasty handbooks but only a few later ones. This means that data on the Qing dynasty versions is more sketchy and/or tentative.

For space reasons as well as my own ease of use, in the charts the handbook titles are generally only given in Chinese, together with the date of publication; people who don't read Chinese but have an interest in this should be able to overcome this problem by printing a copy of a list such as "Surviving Qin Handbooks" and making reference to the dates of publication.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

2. Qins of Lo Ka-Ping
Image from an article by Dale Craig copied from Qin Fu, p.1983. After Lo Ka-Ping died his instruments passed on to several descendant and there seems to be no public information about their actual location.

3. Qins of Lo Ka-Ping (廬家炳 Lu Jiabing, 1884-1980)
Lo, who lived in a quiet home near Yuenlong in the New Territories of Hong Kong, had (according to my recollection) two Tang, two Song, one Yuan, two Ming and several Qing instruments. He had come to Hong Kong from Guangdong in the 1930s and apparently acquired most of his instruments from people fleeing China. The Cultural Revolution was then ending, but metal strings had not yet made much of an impact outside of China. The silk strings he had were the ordinary ones then available for about $30 a set. The beauty that I could here from these strings has always made me rather impatient with people who have claimed they would play with silk strings if only the quality was better.

4. Appreciating qin music as in the past
This has been largely a mental pursuit, and I would like to think it informs my playing. Of course, when playing I try to empty my mind of such intellectual pursuits - as well as of my own natural skepticism regarding my ability to achieve those goals.

For related inspiration see also this story.

5. Organizing the information
The difficulty of organizing the rapidly expanding details connected to melodies I was reconstructing was brouht home when I began trying to write program notes for my first CD, Music Beyond Sound, mentioned further above.

6. Work in Progress
Actually this will be quite obvious to people examining the site in detail. For example, if there is an important passage I haven't been able to translate yet, if this were a book I would probably have to wait for the translation (or, as seems common, just omit the quote as though I had decided it wasn't important); here I put in the original text and add that it awaits translation. Also, there is quite a bit of information added here because someone asked a question.

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