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Qin Body
And basic construction 1
 
古琴實體
 
From a Japanese illustration of a qin on a table 2  
The soft but rich sound of the qin results from a number of factors in addition to the silk strings discussed
elsewhere: these include the aged but thick wood, sound holes on the bottom, and nayin which seem to perform the function of the bass-bar on a violin but which somewhat block the sound holes, and silk strings.3

This website includes a translation of the first three folios of the Song and Ming dynasty compilation Taiyin Daquanji, containing considerable information on the qin as a physical object. See especially the chapters on construction methods and qin styles.4

The most complete classical source for qin construction is the Yuguzhai Qinpu (Qin Handbook from the Studio for Abiding with Antiquity), published in 1855 by Zhu Fengjie; it has four folios.5 The first folio concerns music theory; the second describes qin construction; the third has a variety of information, such as describing qin parts, stringing a qin, qin tables and so forth; the fourth has an explanation of finger techniques. Most of Folios Three and Four were later reproduced in the well-known handbook Qinxue Rumen (1864).

Yuguzhai Qinpu has not been re-published and is today hard to find. However, Jim Binkley, a friend from Taiwan who is now in Portland, Oregon, has made a translation of large sections of the book, including all of the material concerning qin construction, and put it online; an updated version of this translation is also available in book form.6

The illustration at right shows how a qin is normally set up for play, with the player sitting on the stool at left. Although traditional Chinese paintings often show the qin played on a player's lap, normally it is placed on a table when played, This table can have considerable influence on the sound.7 This illustration can be used as a reference in the following outline of my basic understanding of qin construction (note also the links to further information, in particular the various diagrams).

Basic Construction

A qin is generally made from two boards about 125 cm x 20 cm, cut and joined together so that there is a sound box inside running most of the length of the boards; the top is somewhat rounded, the bottom generally flat. It is often said that the top board should be of lighter wood, the bottom of heavier wood (more under wood). Other than some modern electric qin that, needing no sound box, consist of one solid piece of wood, the only known variant on this two-board construction is what might be called a "double-top qin"; it adds a thin board below the top one, for added resonance.8 The famous so-called "100-piece qins" (baina qin) still basically consist of two boards as described above, each of the two boards consisting of a number of smaller pieces glued together.9

As the player sits facing the instrument (above) the qin bridge (mountain), made of a solid piece of hard wood, will be to the right, about 10 cm from the right end of the instrument. Two legs about 30 cm from the left end raise the lower surface of the qin off the table. The seven strings, fastened to seven "precious pegs" to the right of the bridge, extend across the bridge then along the top and across the "harmony pond" (a nub at the left end), continuing under the instrument where they are tied to the legs. Running along the farthest (lowest) string are studs (hui), usually of mother of pearl, marking certain harmonic nodes.

The sound holes are on the qin bottom. The near the middle of the bottom is the chi kuo ("pool"), a rectangular sound hole measuring perhaps 2.5 x 20 cm; near the left bottom is the somewhat shorter zhao kuo ("pond"). On some instruments one or both of these holes may be round.

Nayin10

In the illustration referenced here, nayin seem to be referred to as "grooves" that look like "onion flakes". Although the description seems somewhat vague, old qin were almost always built with nayin, old handbooks saying they should be located inside each of the two sound holes, on the bottom of the top piece. These nayin may almost reach to the sound hole, seemingly to block the sound: my teacher told me the purpose of this was to keep the sound resonating inside as long as possible, so that although it was not as loud it was more enriched. In some old qins today one can see that the nayin have been cut away. There can be two reasons for this (other than them having worn or rotted away with age): the belief that this will lead to a louder sound; or so as to get at something inside, in particular the sound pegs.

On the other hand, Luc Breton says that the purpose of the nayin should be to reinforce the fundamental of a note. Any musical note consists of the fundamental plus the overtones (also called partials) which give it color. Removing the nayin can actually weaken the sound. Metal strings already have a louder fundamental, but do not have such rich overtones, so it is not so important that the fundamental be reinforced. This might explain some people "improved" old instruments by cutting away the nayin: they were testing them with metal strings.

Sound posts 11

Soundposts can also perform a function similar to that of the nayin: reinforcing the fundamental. Called "heavenly pillar" and "earthly pillar", as shown in this diagram, the posts were treated by the old handbooks as an essential element. There should be two: a round "tianzhu" (also translated "heavenly post") inside the right hand end; and a square "dizhu" ("earthly post") inside the left hand end. The exact position is never given. Modern qins often omit these posts, and on old qins they are often missing, perhaps removed. Since, as with the nayin, one function of the sound posts is to reinforce the fundamental, qins designed for use with metal strings (which do not have the rich overtones of silk strings) do not seem to need them, and people who put metal strings on old instruments sometimes remove them (again as with nayin). My earlier new qins by He Mingwei 12 have them, but the later ones do not.

Old sound posts are also sometimes hard to find: on one of my qins by He Mingwei the heavenly post was particularly hard to find because it is deep inside the qin, near the 4th stud. Presumably it was put in before the two halves were sealed closed. The best way to try to look inside a qin seems to be with a small dentist mirror and a flashlight.

One of my old instruments was originally missing its sound posts, while in the other they were eaten away by worms. In both cases, after Luc Breton had put in new sound posts (using old wood), trying various positions, the sound was dramatically improved. According to him the position of the heavenly post seems to be most important, and it will typically be placed either one third or one half the distance from the right end of the sound box (not of the instrument) to the left end of the sound box. (Perhaps also one quarter?) The other post need not be so precise.

Wood 13

The underlying principal regarding the two boards that form the main part of the qin body is that to produce more sound the top board should be made from lighter wood, but for more substance to the sound the bottom board should be made from heavier wood.14 The amount of roundness on top can vary considerably.15 Inside the qin the top board is cut so that the thickness is less towards the sides and greater in the middle. The bottom board, which may be serrated inside, appears to be quite flat on the outside, but there is almost always some rounding, especially towards the sides.

The grain of the wood should be straight, fine and widely spaced. According to tradition, the best wood for the top is wutong,16 for the bottom zi wood.17 However, there are many types of wutong and today good quality wutong is very difficult to find. Thus other woods are often substituted, particularly other types of tong as well as certain types of pine.

The tradition of making new qins from old wood remains popular. Such wood may be taken from temples, coffins and the like. These were rarely made of wutong or zi. One common material from old sources for use on the tops is a type of pine or spruce called shan mu.18 For the bottom board new qins from ancient materials are said often to use nan (machilus nanmu).19

The wood for making a qin must be dry, as the sap (lacquer) in the wood obscures the sound. In addition, uncured wood often cracks if there is a sudden change of temperature (the wood expands or contracts, but the lacquer doesn't). The most famous stories of wood drying tell either of Liezi hearing a tree burning after being struck by lightning and from the crackling sound deciding to make a qin, or of Cai Yong hearing the crackling noise of wood burning in a stove, and from this making his scorched tail qin. More commonly, sap can be removed by such techniques as soaking the wood first in lye then in water; or by heating it over a fire.20

Wood that has been dried by age rather than artificially is said to give a better sound, but the scientific principles for this are not clear. The sound of a silk-string qin does continue to improve with age, but this could also be related to the loosening of the lacquer.

Lacquer: sap from the lacquer tree 21

The top surface of the qin the surface must be very hard, as the fingers press down very firmly. Yet the wood must be soft enough that it can produce sound. The is the reason the qin is covered with thin coats of lacquer.

The word "lacquer" can be confusing. Etymologically it seems related to a substance from bugs which on the Indian lac tree produce a substance often called shellac, used to make furniture look like lacquer objects from Japan (hence this process was called "Japanning".) However, the true Japanese and Chinese lacquer objects are covered with hardened sap from the Chinese or Japanese lacquer tree (qi shu, also called varnish tree). Because of this confusion the term often used today for this "real" lacquer is urushiol, "a poisonous oily liquid phenoolic compound C15H27C6H3(OH)2 in the sap of the Oriental lacquer trees (Rhus verniciferi and R. succedanea) and present also as one of the principal blistering substances in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac that hardens and becomes colored by atmospheric oxidation" (Webster's). Urishiol is comparable to the Chinese "shengqi", raw lacquer.

The surface of the qin is protected by about five thin layers of raw lacquer mixed with a fine powder, topped by another four or so layers of clear lacquer. Lacquer will only dry in humid climate and when exposed to air (hence, if not applied in very thin coats the inside will never dry). When it does dry it polymerizes, forming in effect a hard natural plastic coating impervious to water and resistent to corrosive substances.

As mentioned, the raw lacquer should come from the lacquer tree (varnish tree). The best is said to come from Sichuan province. The basic lacquer is thick and viscous; otherwise it has been treated in some way (i.e., is not really shengqi). Originally the lacquer is said to be yellowish white, like rice; after it is boiled it is called "cooked lacquer; once dried it appears black. Heating or boiling the lacquer affects only its color and shine.

Deer horn powder22 is considered the best material for making the underlying "cement". Today gypsum is often used, but it is very bad (it may look good at first, but it soon starts chipping off). Ground tile (as used on a roof) was also used in the past.

One of the reasons the sound of a qin improves with age is thought to be the fact that with age the lacquer loosens its grip on the wood, allowing it to vibrate more freely. (Compare dryness.)

Over time (or by various artificial processes) the lacquer should develop "duanwen": cracks (also called crackle or crack patterns).23 Beautiful duanwen are highly prized by connoisseurs.

Strings 24

Until the Cultural Revolution, when metal strings were introduced, these were always made of silk. For further information see the separate section on Silk strings.

However, it might be mentioned here that metal strings may damage old instruments. For example, studies have shown that metal strings on violins quickly cause cellular damage to the bridges, so that they have to be replaced more quickly. Could the use of metal strings on antique qins be causing similar long-term damage? Where the metal strings touch the wood they certainly cause more wear.

See also Buying a qin, or return to the Guqin ToC.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Qin body and construction: personal details
My familiarity with qin construction comes largely from reading and conversation, with very little practical experience. What I originally learned came from my first qin teacher, Sun Yü-Ch'in (Sun Yuqin), with whom I studied in Taiwan from 1974-6. Then during my subsequent 24 years in Hong Kong I learned much from Tong Kin-Woon, who has always had a particular interest in buying (and selling) new qin, collecting old ones, building and restoring them, researching construction techniques, and so forth. I should also mention several trips to Switzerland, where qin player Georges Goormaghtigh, in order to get his qins repaired, worked with a local Japanese lacquer specialist, Richard Bart, and a lute and bow maker Luc Breton, with the result that these two masters can now do very good work on qins.

As for Sun Yuqin, when he arrived in Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 he had no qin, so he realized he would have to make one. He was able to borrow a copy of Yuguzhai Qinpu and copy out most of the second folio by hand. From this taught himself to make qins, then later taught these essentials to a local wood craftsman, Mr. 葉世強 Ye Shiqiang (Yeh Shih-Ch'iang), who subsequently became quite a good qin maker. For outer appearance Mr. Ye modeled his early qins on the famous Tang dynasty qin preserved in Japan and seen in a color plate in R.H. Van Gulik Lore of the Chinese Lute, facing page 192.

My own first qin, completed by Mr. Ye right around the time I began studying with Mr. Sun, has the name Survived the Fire (焚餘 Fenyu). A fire in an apartment I was sharing with then ethnomusicology student Jim Binkley damaged the instrument, but after repair Mr. Sun said the tone had improved (presumably as a result of the wood being drier), so he inscribed this name on the back. Jim and I visited Ye Shiqiang a number of times to learn about qin making. Jim, who has subsequently made a number of qins himself, was then beginning his translation from Yuguzhai Qinpu, as mentioned above.
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2. Qin body image
The full image can be found in Van Gulik, Lore, p. 219. It comes from the 琴學入門圖解 Kingaku nyumon zukai (Kyoto, 1828). Other items beside the qin are:
Qin table (琴案 qin'an, also called 琴棹 qinzhuo)
"Couch" (榻 ta), on which the player can sit
Qin mat (琴薦 qinjian; reference), on which the qin rests; it is also called also called a qin pad (琴墊 qin dian) or qin pillow (琴枕 qinzhen; reference and compare 琴軫 qinzhen), though this latter term has now been borrowed to refer to frets as on a guitar;
Note also from the line in the middle that the original illustration apparently extended over two pages: the part of the qin to the right has seven strings, but to the left it seems to have only five.
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3. Basic aims of qin construction
Although elsewhere there are accounts saying that if you wish to hear the qin clearly you must play it in a quiet place, on a solid table, over a vat, and so forth, as can be seen from the descriptions here, there was little effort in the past to give the qin itself a large sound.
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4. My translations from Taiyin Daquanji
My translations were originally done with the advice of Sun Yuqin (see above), as well as the assistance of my classical Chinese teacher in Taiwan, 方慕廉 Fang Mulian. The translations were then revised in consultation with Tong Kin-Woon, who during my 24 years in Hong Kong provided a lot of further information about qin construction and many other aspects of the qin.
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5. 祝鳳喈 Zhu Fengjie: Qin Handbook from the Studio for Abiding with Antiquity (與古齋琴譜 Yuguzhai Qinpu; 1855)
A microfilm copy is kept in the Library of Congress, Washington. This, plus the fact that it is not included in the complete Qinqu Jicheng, suggests that perhaps the original is in a library in Taiwan. Four folios:

  1. Study of the string tones (絃律考 Xianlü kao)
  2. Record of essentials (錄要 Lu Yao)
  3. Complete essentials for studying qin (學琴備要 Xue qin beiyao)
  4. What must be understood to play qin (彈琴會解 Tan Qin Huijie)

According to Jim Binkley (next footnote), the contents suggest Zhu Fengjie did not actually make instruments himself.
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6. Translation of Yuguzhai Qinpu by Jim Binkley
Jim began this translation in Taiwan in 1975 in consultation with such people as Sun Yuqin and Ye Shiqiang. What he had available then was a portion of Yuguzhai Qinpu that Mr. Sun had hand-copied (most of Folio 2 and some parts of Folio 3). A number of years later he obtained a microfilm copy of the entire work, and so has been able to expand his translation. Jim's work is thus now largely available in three places:

  1. The expanded translation, with revisions and added commentary, freely available online.
  2. Abiding with Antiquity, a hard copy updated version of this with further details.
  3. Jim's blog with further commentary on the above.

Jim also has extensive experience making instruments himself. You can contact him at jrb@cs.pdx.edu.
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7. Qin table (琴棹 qinzhuo or 琴案 qin'an)
This is a table especially designed for qin play. It could be so named because of the way it assists the sound, a narrow elegant table for performance, or a wide table so that the teacher and student can play at the same table, facing each other. Some dedicated qin tables even have a hole to the player's right, so that the qin can rest on what appear to be its right legs while the qin pegs (琴軫 qinzhen) and tassels extend down through the hole. Note that these apparent legs are actually called "paws" (鴨掌 yazhang, lit. "duck paws") or "peg protectors" (護軫 huzhen), and they are often somewhat fragile, so they are not commonly used as legs. The qin also seems to be more stable when the right end of the body just before the pegs is actually resting directly on a "qin mat" (see illustration above and commentary). One old term for this mat, qinzhen (琴枕 qin pillow; reference) might be confused with the aforementioned qinzhen (琴軫 qin pegs). When the qin body rests directly on the table top then the "paws" hang down just off the end of the table. Near the left end of the qin its actual qin legs also rest on a qin mat.
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8. Double top qin
Tong Kin-woon has discovered that a number of early qin had tops made of two pieces: a relatively thick outer top board (it must be thick and lacquered to withstand pressure from the players' fingers) and a thin underboard inside. When new these thin underboards (or inner-tops) could add resonance to the sound of the qin, but apparently their thinness also led to them often partially disintegrating over the centuries, to the extent that people eventually did not realize they existed. Dr. Tong has himself discovered a number of such instruments, and has made some new qin utilizing this technique.
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9. Baina qin 百衲
This style is so famous that sometimes qin have lines cut into them to simulate separate pieces.
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10. Nayin 納音 (Sound receivers)
Literally, yin means "sound" while meanings of "na" include "stitch, receive, accept, enjoy, offer, restrain". However, 27902.40 na yin says that numerologists use this term to describe the relationship between the 甲子 jiazi (60 year cycle of five heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches) and the musical system of 五音 five tones and 十二律 12 pitches. With the qin this perhaps suggests the importance of the nayin in balancing the sound rather than restraining it.

Regarding these nayin being "grooves" that look like "onion flakes", the original text says "當池沼槽腹,微隆若薤葉然,聲欲出而隘有餘韻。" As can be seen from the translation (lower right of the diagram), this again suggests balancing the sound, as well as enriching it.

Regarding the use of nayin in reinforcing the fundamental tone, in this way they might be considered comparable to what is generally called the "bass bar" on the inside of a violin. Although the Wiki bass bar page only mentions its use in strengthening the body, elsewhere there are descriptions of its role in balancing the sound. As the fundamental pitch on a qin with silk strings is rather weak, the nayin would thus reinforce the fundamental.

Regarding their removal: some people have done this on old instruments because it may make the sound louder; this seems particularly to be done by people who use nylon-metal strings, emphasizing the aim of playing for performance rather than self-cultivation. This cutting away, of course, has tragic consequences for the qin itself as well as the tradition.

It should be noted that later qins made by Wang Peng may have neither a nayin nor soundposts. Instead the top board is thicker underneath the lower strings. On the surface this seems like a technique for improving the sound of a qin having metal or nylon-metal strings, which have the strength to vibrate the thicker wood above them. Although Wang Peng has said this gives a better result than either a nayin or sound posts, even for silk string instruments, I don't know how thoroughly this claim has been tested.
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11. Sound posts
The names heavenly pillar (天柱 tianzhu) and earthly pillar (dizhu 地柱) suggest metaphysical as much as acoustical significance. According to the Wikipedia article (which only concerns Western instruments with a single sound post) the post "serves as a structural support for an archtop instrument, transfers sound from the top plate to the back plate and alters the tone of the instrument by changing the vibrational modes of the plates". I have not seen studies testing the specific claim that they should reinforce the fundamental tone (as with the nayin; note also the comment there about Wang Peng qins).

From my personal experience I once added sound posts to an old instrument whose original sound posts had been eaten away by bugs. There was a dramatic improvement in the sound. However, the sound posts (though apparently made from old wood) then shrank and became ineffective. Making them too large, though, could lead to the top and bottom piece of the qin coming apart. Thus great skill and knowledge is require both for their size and placement.
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12. 何明威 He Mingwei
Qin maker living in Chengdu.
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13. Wood
The information above comes largely from discussions with Sun Yuqin and Tong Kin-Woon. The Taiyin Daquanji chapter "Qin construction" does not discuss the types of wood used, or distinguish between top and bottom boards. And the related chapter from Yuguzhai Qinpu does not seem to distinguish between top and bottom (see in Binkley).
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14. Top and bottom boards
Today qin seem invariably categoried by the one type only. In some cases I have been told that particular instruments were made from only one type of wood, but I don't know whether this is a generalization one can make about many instruments (or even cheap instruments) made today.
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15. Roundness
Some experts say that the amount of roundness on the top can help determine in what dynasty the qin was made.
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16. Top board: "Wutong 梧桐"
"Wutong" is generally translated either as "paulownia" ("paulonia"; "pawlonia") or "parasol tree". Scientific (Latin) names include firmiana (sometimes spelled fermiana), specifically fermiana simplex (Wiki), fermiana platanifolia and sterculia platanifolia, but varieties even within China make it difficult to give definitive modern translations of classical references. The word wutong is closely associated with the qin, as is 桐 tong by itself (tongmu 桐木). Mathews' says "it is sometimes called the national tree of China; the trunk is straight and beautifully green; it is said to be the only tree on which the phoenix will rest." Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, says it represents the female element, while bamboo represents the male.

Paulownia is a rapid growing softwood with large leaves; it can be very light. There are apparently a number of regional varieties, many of them today given distinguishing names. But it is often said that the tong or wutong growing today, of whatever type, generally do not have the right grain for making qins. Even old tong wood (for example if taken from an old house, where it had a different function), though perhaps good symbolically, is often not good for sound.
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17. Bottom board: "Zimu 梓木"
Zimu (catalpa ovata; catalpa; catawba) is also a softwood, but it is both heavier and harder than paulownia. Its use as the bottom board is thus intended to add body (gravitas) to the sound.
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18. Another top board: 杉木 Shan mu (also called sha mu)
According to my dictionary the Latin name for this wood is cunninghamia sinensis or cryptomeria. "Fir" is a common translation, but as with the other Chinese woods mentioned here, there seems to be no standard translation into English. It is apparently a type of pine, thus related other types such as spruce and cedar as well as fir; hence any of these names might be found for translating shanmu. Today new instruments made of shan wood tend to be more expensive than those made from tong wood.

Spruce, long used for making Western musical instriuments, is translated into Chinese as "cloud fir wood" (雲杉木 yun shan mu). Fir is translated as "cold fir wood (冷杉木 leng shan mu). Cedar is translated as "snow pine" (雪松木 xue song mu).
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19. Another bottom board: 楠木 Nan mu (Wiki)
This is a fragrant wood apparently related to camphor (樟木 zhang mu).
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20. Artificially drying wood
Such dried wood is made commercially by putting wood into especially designed ovens. Tong Kin-Woon told me that when he himself first started making qin his method of drying wood was as follows. Starting with old wood cut into the approximate dimenstions he would make a bed of coals and put a swing over it. He would then swing the wood back and forth over the coals until it had lost about 90% of its weight.
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21. Lacquer tree (漆樹 Qi shu
It is not clear why qi shu seems to have the botanical name "varnish tree" rather than "lacquer tree". In Japanese 漆 is pronounced "urushi", and from this comes the word "urushiol", referring to raw lacquer.
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22. Lu jiao shuang 鹿角霜
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23. Duanwen 斷紋
Over time (or by various artificial processes) the lacquer should develop "duanwen": cracks (also called crackle or crack patterns). Regarding these, 13929.83 斷紋 duanwen says "謂裂紋也 so-called liewen". However, whereas liewen is generally applied to porcelain and referred to as "crackle", duanwen generally is used for qins and seems usually to be translated as "cracks" or "crack patterns", though "crackle" is also used. Most can be written either __斷紋, __紋 or __斷. There are various types of crack patterns on qin, including,

  1. 蛇腹斷紋 shefu duanwen (snake-belly cracks); these seem to be the most famous.
  2. 龜背斷紋 guibei duanwen (tortoise back cracks)
  3. 梅花斷紋 meihua duanwen (plum blossom cracks)
  4. 牛毛斷紋 niumao duanwen (cowhair cracks)
  5. 流水斷紋 liushui duanwen (flowing water cracks)
  6. 冰紋斷紋 bingwen (duanwen: ice cracks)

Illustrations of various crack patterns can be found online (e.g., here; also available in my extract). Such crack patterns are often used to help determine the age of qins, with some writers claiming one style develops into another. However, this has not been scientifically documented. In addition, many qin makers throughout history have tried to make false cracks, with varying degrees of success. The most obvious efforts are made simply by scratching a knife across the surface; other methods include alternating between cold and heat. Cracks make the surface uneven; if the unevenness is on top this can lead to 雜音 buzzing sounds during play; special skills are required to repair such surfaces without obliterating the prized crack patterns.
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24. Xian (string) is written both 絃 and 弦 .
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