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Qins in Captivity?  

In Lore of the Chinese Lute Van Gulik discusses in some detail the qin's value as an antique, describing how it is more than just an art object; indeed, it was often referred to as a sacred object, even as a living object.

Today the qin has again become a collector's item, often prized more for its appearance or prestige than for the music it can produce. A side effect of this is the number of instruments held by private collectors who do not play the instrument, making it more difficult for a player who is not wealthy to acquire an instrument. The problem is exacerbated by the number of ancient instruments destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Qins in such collections might well be said to be in captivity.

Museums, on the other hand, can perform a worthy service in preserving qins and increasing knowledge of and interest in them, but this depends on museum policy. Do they keep the instrument in a good condition? Do they have an intelligent policy about allowing the instrument to be played? Or are they also simply keeping it in captivity?

Here are some of my own biases in considering whether a museum qin is in captivity.

  1. Has the museum made an attempt to document the sound the qin can create?

    A qin player of course understands this easily: how can even an art museum ignore the purpose for which the instrument was made? But many museums seem unconcerned about this.

  2. Is it properly stored and/or displayed?

    According to tradition, a qin is best kept in a moderate climate, not wrapped up, hanging vertically. Direct sun or sudden climate changes can cause damage. Wrapping keeps the instrument from "breathing". Horizontal storage, with the long board resting on the two legs and/or the tuning pegs, will eventually lead to curvature of the playing surface, making the instrument unplayable; museums are particularly lax about this.

  3. Does it have silk strings?

    Metal strings, which are used today by everyone in China, were introduced only during the Cultural Revolution. They are thus inappropriate for museum display of antique instruments. In addition, metal strings can cause damage to old instruments. For example, they are often strung tighter than silk strings can be, creating stress on the wood. And players who use metal strings report that they have to re-lacquer the instrument more often than on qins with silk strings -- particularly if the qin lacquering is antique.

    Lacking silk strings it would be better for the museum to follow the Daoist concept of a qin with no strings. For an antique instrument, metal strings are the musical equivalent of iron bars.

  4. Is it kept in, or returned to, good condition?

    If the qin is not in playing condition, to what extent can the museum do repairs? Some instruments might be in such bad condition that they cannot be repaired, and insensitive repair can result in further damage. I have seen instruments in private collections which have had the ancient lacquer replaced by shiny new lacquer which looks totally inappropriate.

    On the other hand, old qins were generally played for centuries, undergoing repair at various times. Some of the antique "repair" was also inappropriate.

Museums should play a leading role in helping set proper guidelines for restoration of antique qins.

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