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Women and the Guqin 1
Women playing qin 2                  
Today there are many more female than male qin players. As for earliest times, it is rare that surviving figurines or similar images are distinct enough to show who might have been playing qin then,3 but from the Tang dynasty a number of the surviving paintings with qin show them being played by women. During the Tang dynasty it was court ladies in particular;4 later they generally can be identified simply as ladies of refinement, rarely as "courtesans" ("skilled female entertainers"), though literature shows that this was certainly sometimes the case.5 Such evidence suggests that, although imperial-era literature on the qin strongly evokes a male tradition overwhelmingly dominated by men,6 it seems quite likely that the reality was very much in contrast with this stereotype. Literati paintings do usually depict male players, but usually the men are not actually playing the instrument: one might argue that they seem more interested in the qin philosophy than in the music itself. In contrast, paintings that depict women with qin generally seem to show them actually playing it.7

There is some evidence, particularly from novels and operas, that qin songs were particularly popular with women. Quite possibly such songs were less fixed and thus less likely than instrumental melodies to be written down (and thus codified). This is perhaps one of the reasons why Qinqu Jicheng was able to include only one handbook attributed to a woman, Sizhaitang Qinpu.8 The woman who compiled it is said to have created the only qin song in the handbook, Heartfelt Words on Going Through Bitterness.9

A number of publications, mostly recent, discuss the accomplishments of women during the Ming dynasty, showing them to have been very active in the fields of poetry and fine art,10 but there has been little work done on women as qin players.11 Was the motivation of the women players different from that of the men? Was their number sufficient to form a market significant for the publication of qin handbooks? How important was their patronage (or that of their families) to the financial support of qin masters? A study of these questions could reflect much on how the philosophical ideals played out in society.12

The page called Qin Biographies has links to various collections of qin biographies, having altogether about 700 biographical entries; about 10% of these were women players. Of the three main collections, two have sections on women players while one mixes them together with men. However, on this site, most of the biographies of women players can be found through the listings in the first two of the following three places,13

Many of the biographies of women include poetry they wrote. The poetry collection in Qinshu Daquan includes several poems by women about the qin,14 and it has a number of fables about women and qin.15 In addition, several stories in the Lienü Zhuan (Biographies of Exemplary Women) concern the qin.

Qin melodies with themes related to women include the following (for those without links my reconstruction is not yet completed).

  1. Da Hujia (Nomad Reed Pipe, Long Version; 1425);
    Cai Wenji is abducted by nomads; a melodically unrelated version called
    Hujia Shibapai, published in 1597, is set to lyrics attributed to Wenji herself.
  2. Xiao Hujia (Nomad Reed Pipe, Short Version; 1425)
    Same theme as Da Hujia (see previous item)
  3. Longshuo Cao (Melody of the North; 1425)
    Wang Zhaojun is married off to nomads; also called Lament of Zhaojun
  4. Huangyun Qiusai (Yellow Clouds of Autumn on the Frontier; 1425)
    Later versions also connect this melody to Wang Zhaojun
  5. Chu Ge (Song of Chu; 1425)
    Xiang Yu loses both the war and his concubine Yu Ji
  6. Guan Ju (Call of the Osprey; 1491) and Guan Ju Qu (1511)
    Courtship poem(s) from the Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing)
  7. Xiangfei Yuan (Lament of the Xiang River Concubines; 1511)
    A lament sung by two concubines of legendary emperor Shun
  8. Cangwu Yuan (Cangwu Lament; 1525)
    Same theme as previous; with Jiao Yi and Mengji Yin
  9. Wenjun Cao (Wenjun Melody; 1539)
    The poet Sima Xiangru uses the qin to seduce Zhuo Wenjun
  10. Feng Qiu Huang (A Male Phoenix Searches for his Mate; 1525)
    Same theme as previous (Wenjun Cao)
  11. Dao Yi (Pounding Cloth; 1539)
    A woman sings of her husband on the frontier
  12. Yanyi Ge (Doorbar Song; 1525)
    The wife of minister Baili Xi confronts him with song
  13. Xue Chuang Ye Hua (Evening Talk by a Snowy Window; 1525)
    Xie Daoyun's description of snow pleases her uncle, Xie An
  14. Hangong Qiu (Autumn in the Han Palace; 1525)
    Ban Jieyu compares herself to a fan discarded in autumn
  15. Lienü Yin (Exemplary Woman Prelude; 1525)
    Fan Ji is happy when her husband, King Zhuang of Chu, listens to her advice
  16. Xianpei Ying Fen (Fairy Jade in the Wind; 1525)
    Jiao Fu of Zheng meets two Han River nymphs
  17. Xiang Si Qu (Melody of Mutual Love, also called Gu Qin Yin; 1585)
    A female ghost complains to (or about) Su Dongpo
  18. Baitou Yin (Intonation on Gray Hair; 1618)
    Wenjun complains that as they get old Sima Xiangru looks for another woman
  19. Fenghuangtaishang Yi Chui Xiao (On Phoenix Terrace Thinking of Flute Playing; ca. 1676)
    Lyrics by 李清照 Li Qingzhao (1084 - ca. 1151) recall her missing lover
  20. Ziye Wu Ge (Wu Song of Zi-ye; preserved in Japan)
    Lyrics by 李白 Li Bai, but perhaps intended to be in the voice of Lady Zi-ye
Several of these have lyrics by or attributed to women. The only qin melody clearly attributed to a woman seems to be
Li Ku Zhong Yan.

In addition, the following might also connect to stories about women:

  1. Guanghan You (Wandering in the Lunar Palace; 1425)
    Later operas of this title tell a story of Tang emperor Minghuang and his beautiful concubine Yang Guifei
  2. Guanghan Qiu (Autumn in the Lunar Palace; 1425)
    An opera of this title tells the story of the goddess Chang E
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Women and the Guqin
This has not yet been presented as a specific program.

2. Image: Women playing the qin (Popular art; compare early literati art and see a Wu Wei painting)
Further images on this theme can be found through an internet search for "仕女攜琴圖" (elegant ladies holding a qin). As for the above image, the lower one is discussed elsewhere; the upper one is from a Jingdezhen ceramic painting. Notice that in the upper image the qin itself is anatomically incorrect (the strings in particular). Many of the examples I have seen from popular art have such mistakes, showing that the artists may have been familiar with ideas about the qin but were not familiar with the instrument itself. Thus, although such illustrations of women playing the qin backwards may be associated with ignorance on the part of the artist, it is ignorance of artistic convention as well as of the physical qin, and perhaps it is also evidence that many women actually did play. To understand this better it would be useful to do a closer study of women in Ming and Qing dynasty qin societies.

The inscription on the upper left of the top figure says the piece was painted in the summer of 1980 while living at Zhushan (in Jingdezhen). Of the three seals, two seem just to be symbols, the bottom one is 寧 Ning, perhaps the name of the artist. Here is the full inscription:


Thanks to Sun Xiaoqing for deciphering the seals and inscription.

3. Prehistoric evidence
This statement is tentative: as yet I do not know of any systematic studies of this topic.

4. Early depictions of ladies and the qin (compare popular art) Detail from "Court Ladies"                          
From the literati tradition there are a number of early paintings of women and the qin. The first one mentioned here is from a qin handbook first published in 1660. The second and third are Song dynasty copies of earlier paintings; depictions of such "court ladies" apparently became popular during the Tang dynasty. The fourth is a modern copy of a Song original. Details are as follows:

  1. 徐澹 Xu Dan, A lady contemplates Cangwu, an illustration in Kuian Qinpu (1660)
  2. 使名,仿周文矩宮中圖 Anon., Ladies of the Court, after a design by Zhou Wenju
    Detail at right;
    before 1140; Cleveland Museum of Art; qin with ruan was a common motif
  3. 使名,仿周昉,調琴啜茗圖 Anon., Tuning a qin and sipping tea in the style of Zhou Fang
    12th c. copy: "Palace Ladies Tuning the Lute" (zither); Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City
    (some sites claim a 調琴啜茗圖 in the 東北博物館: Liaoning Museum?)
  4. 蔡文姬 Cai Wenji with her qin
    From a modern copy of a scroll originating in the Song dynasty

The originals of 1 and 2 were by 周文矩 Zhou Wenju (10th c.; Bio/1537) and 周昉 Zhou Fang (ca. 800; 3598.282); for the third see further. Such paintings also depicted women playing other instruments at social gatherings, as well as engaging in other activities. Many of the depictions survive only in later copies.

5. Skilled female entertainers (courtesans? See also the next footnote)
A good example of a qin player identified as such occurs in Xiangsi Qu (Guqin Yin). In Chinese the term seems most commonly to be 妓 ji or 妓女 jinü (6231; 6231.1 妓女 mentions other terms: "娼妓 changji" [娼: female performer] and "歌妓、舞妓 geji [skilled female singer], wuji [skilled female dancer]"). The best short translation is perhaps "courtesan", but that may be misleading. It is also sometimes translated as "prostitute", but that may be even more misleading, hence incorrect. Wiki has an entry discussing their role, but calls them "Yiji" (藝妓 yiji), which is certainly a term originating in Japan. 33103.11 gives 藝妓 only as a Japanese term, without Chinese references, while 5/601 gives as its earliest reference 王西彥,古屋 Wang Xiyan (1914-1999). In Japan the most common term for "skilled female entertainer" is 藝者 geisha, then perhaps 藝妓 geigi.

6. Guqin: for men only?
Although there was a trend in literature to speak of the qin as an instrument played by men, there never seems to have been a prohibition against women players. The closest to this is perhaps in the sets of rules in certain handbooks stating when and for whom not to play qin. Regarding the rule not to play 對娼妓 "for courtesans", Van Gulik (Lore, p. 63) had the following to say.

It is true that courtesan is a very elastic term, but considered in the light of the general principles there can be no doubt that it was meant to be interpreted very strictly. In practice, however, we find that this rule is made to apply only to the lowest kind of courtesan. Singing girls who brighten literary gathers on old paintings are seen playing the qin, and novels cite qin playing as one of the accomplishements of the perfect courtesan.

The following footnote has examples of literati depictions of women qin players.

7. Further depictions of women playing the qin
Folk art images of qin players, such as the image at top, seem most commonly to show women; note the comment above about mistakes. Further images from the Ming and Qing literati tradition include the following:

  1. Chen Hongshou: A Scholar Instructing Girl Pupils in the Arts (Berkeley Art Museum)
    The scholar is removing his qin from its case
  2. Chen Hongshou, Lady Playing the Qin (撫琴圖, source not clear)
    As is common with depictions of men, the lady is not actually playing
  3. Gai Qi, Playing in the Shade of a Pine Tree (松蔭調絃圖; Japanese site: sold at Sotheby's in 2002)
    In this 1819 painting Gai Qi (改琦; 1774-1829) depicts the woman actually playing

Chen Hongshou (陳洪綬; 1598-1652; Wiki) was perhaps the most notable literati painter to depict women playing the qin.

8. 思齊堂琴譜 Sizhaitang Qinpu (1620; IX/1-95)
It was compiled by 崇昭王妃鍾氏 Ms. Zhong, concubine of Prince Zhao of Chong; further information here.

9. Heartfelt Words on Going Through Bitterness (歷苦衷言 Li Ku Zhong Yan; 22 verses)
See further.

10. Relevant books and articles include the following:

  1. Chang, Kang-i Sun and Saussy, Haun: Women Writers of Traditional China, An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford, Stanford U. Press, 1999.
  2. Gerritsen, Anne: "The Many Guises of Xiaoluan: The Legacy of a Girl Poet in Late Imperial China", in Journal of Women's History, Volume 17, Number 2, 2005, pp. 38-61.
  3. Idema, Wilt and Grant, Beata: The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China. Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.
  4. Rouzer, Paul, Articulated Ladies: Gender and the Male Community in Early Chinese Texts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.
  5. Soulliere, Ellen, "Imperial Women in the History of the Ming Dynasty", in Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon and Pauline Allen (ed.), Stereotypes of Women in Power. New York, Greenwood Press, 1992. (Soulliere's Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton, 1990, was on the same subject.)

11. No publications to report at present.

12. Here is a relevant quote from Dr. Lily Xiao Hong Lee (personal communication):

The skill of playing the qin, together with such arts as calligraphy and painting, was part of a young lady's education and though I don't know anything specific about the publication of qin handbooks, Ming dynasty publishers of popular fiction certainly tailored their products to readership, so I won't be surprised if publishers of qin handbooks targeted their products on women because of their likely need for them

See also her commentary with Xue Chuang Ye Hua.

13. Main sources for biographies of women players
The historical collections are:

14. Other poems by women mentioning the qin can be found in:

15. Fables mentioning women and the qin are included in:

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