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My Shen Qi Mi Pu Project

In 1976, when I moved from Taiwan to Hong Kong, I began transcribing old melodies from Shen Qi Mi Pu. As I became more involved in this work I decided to organize it in the form of a project, with three phases.

Phase One: Initial analysis, transcription and recording of the music in Shen Qi Mi Pu (SQMP)

In 1991 I completed this phase. Results include my annoted translations of Zhu Quan's general preface and of his introductions to each melody (updated versions are most easily accessible via the SQMP Table of Contents); translations from other old books on qin lore and finger technique, in particular the various versions of Taigu Yiyin (it has so many diagrams and is so heavily annotated I have been able to put only a small sample online); a set of hand-copied transcriptions into staff notation of all the tablature in SQMP; and, after practice and analysis, my personal versions of all the music, recorded on six one-hour cassettes.

Phase Two: Comprehensive Analysis

The main aims of Phase Two are to differentiate various playing styles, to develop some theories on dating the music, to study further the historical and cultural contexts, and at the same time to continue trying to improve my ability to play the music.

The music in SQMP clearly pre-dates 1425 AD, almost certainly including Tang and Song compositions altered by performers of the various guqin schools which developed during the Song dynasty. Present interpretations at best reflect an amalgamated early style, and it may be impossible to delineate specific ones. Clues to follow include melodic and modal distinctions, differences in finger techniques and in the ways of writing them down, favored subject material, and perhaps the relationship of the music to lyrics in versions to which poetic text has been added ("qin songs").

Basic to the analysis should be comparing music in SQMP to Japanese court music (gagaku) as reconstructed by experts in the Tang Dynasty Music Research Project, originally at Cambridge University. Gagaku is said to preserve Tang dynasty court music, but as played today gagaku sounds nothing like any known Chinese music. As re-constructed by these experts, however, there are some potentially noteworthy similarities between it and early guqin music, which on a completely different basis claims to preserve Tang dynasty music. These similarities must be examined.

Another task is more comprehensive study of early qin finger techniques, which are not always the same as at present. The two major sources for this information are Qinshu Daquan (1590 CE) and the compendium mentioned above of qin materials published at different times under such names as Taigu Yiyin and Taiyin Daquanqi. Zhu Quan is said to have edited and published one of the editions of this book and so, although his own edition does not survive, the other editions are good companion volumes to SQMP, which does not include such information.

It is also essential to learn other guqin melodies which might have pre-Ming sources, as well as a number of the over 1,000 surviving Ming compositions (most of them modifications of earlier pieces), and to analyze these and other written sources for the clues they give to pre-Ming music. This in turn could shed some light on the interpretation of early Chinese music for other instruments.

When learning the pieces in SQMP I compared them with many other early Ming versions. I have written out transcriptions of and learned to play all the few melodies printed before the Ming dynasty, with the exception of You Lan (briefly discussed together with the melody Yi Lan); have published a CD of my interpretations of the 13 pieces not in or different from those in SQMP in the second major surviving collection of qin pieces, Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (before 1491), as well as a book of their transcriptions; these all have lyrics added as though they should be sung, and so I have tried to study the relationship between the words and music in this handbook and also have learned about ten 16th century qin pieces with lyrics, more obviously intended for singing; and I have also reconstructed a number of additional qin pieces from 15th and 16th century qin handbooks.

Phase Three: Publication

This includes commercial quality recordings, a book with music transcriptions, and another book of commentary, translations, charts and so forth.

In 2000 I published my Shen Qi Mi Pu recordings as a set of 6 CDs, and the transcriptions as a set of three books of staff notation.


Phase Two is in fact open ended, so publication of results could take place at either an earlier or later stage. There is an immense amount of material available: much medieval Western music has been re-created from less detailed sources than are available for this earlier Chinese music.

With my festival job I had only been able to work at this project part time, but with the cancellation of the 2000 festival I have been able to put more time into this, particularly working on transcriptions from later handbooks, for comparative purposes.

I have also been doing performances and working on other qin projects as well (see, for example, my Outline Research Proposal).

Return to the Shen Qi Mi Pu index or to the Guqin ToC.