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Qin Hui (Studs)
琴徽 1
Hui names (1585) 2          
Running along the side of the qin away from the player are 13 studs (hui). By tradition the most common material for these is mother of pearl or gold leaf (perhaps the earliest referenced material), but sometimes they are made of jade, while on cheap modern instruments they may be simply painted on.3

The section Qin Analysis, particularly Qin Tunings, has a lot of information about the positioning of these studs. The focus here is their origins and development.

There has been much debate about the origin of these markers.4 This debate has focused on two possibilities:

  1. During the Han dynasty did the word "hui" mean "stud"? There is evidence that at that time it meant "tassel", or the thread for making them.
  2. Were there earlier words for stud? An article by Prof. Rao Zongyi published in 1989 seems to suggest that the primary candidate here is 㢩 di (target).5

After his prefatory remarks about the debate on the earliest mention of harmonic markers, Rao's 1989 article focuses on the latter opinion by discussing an excerpt from a 2nd C. BCE article, Seven Methods, by Mei Cheng. The article, which can be found in QSDQ, Folio 18, #61, writes "㢩" as "約"; Prof. Rao discusses this discrepancy and also discusses other issues related to the debate, but the article underlines the fact that little is known about where the idea of using studs originated.

The earliest mention of the word hui may be in the 淮南子 Huainanzi, a book of 21 essays written at the court of Liu An in the second century BCE. Qinshu Daquan, Folio 16, #29, has nine selections from six chapters. One of the selections is from the following quote about hui:6

"A blind man, who now cannot tell day from night or white from black, when he puts his hands on a qin and plays the strings, considers his playing and repeats (goes back to?) the hui, plucks and strums as his hands flying around, without losing track of any of the strings."

This passage is sometimes used as evidence that Zhou dynasty qins had studs. Unfortunately the passage is rather vague, and dictionaries define hui as "cord" (for the tassels) as well as "stud". Thus 復徽 fu hui could also mean that he does not need eyesight to re-do the tassels.

The brief mention of hui in the Qin Fu by Xi Kang (223 - 262) is also rather vague. Three translations are given here.7

"As the strings are long, each can give the entire scale." (VG)
"The strings are long, and thus the studs can be used to sound the notes." (WX)
"The strings are long, so (you touch the strings directly opposite the) hui for a clear sound."

The third translation is my own, based on the assumption that hui means stud. However, if hui is interpreted as "tassel cord", then the passage would say, "The strings are long, so (you twist the) hui (until the instrument is tuned) for a clear sound."

The earliest physical evidence for hui are the images of qins in illustrations depicting the Seven Sages, beginning at least as early as the 4th century: these clearly show qin studs.8 So by this time the question is not whether qins had studs, or what they were called, but how many there were, how they were positioned, and how they were actually used. Regarding these questions, there is mention of thirteen studs at least as early as the 3rd C. CE,9 but information about their use only seems to begin later.

As for the origin of the use of these studs for indicating finger positions, this can lead to even more speculation: nothing is really known about this, and one can only speculate that most likely they came about not in order to write down the music but as a means of helping the player see the important harmonic nodes: when playing stopped sounds one can adjust if the finger is placed in a slightly incorrect position, but harmonics need to be played very precisely. Later it was realized that these markers could be used as reference for indicating finger positions when writing down the music (or telling someone how to play).

Continuing with speculation, one might assume that when first writing down stopped positions the method used was simple observation. This could have led to a considerable amount of confusion, as there would have been differences in positions on different instruments, especially if the height of the bridge was not standardized.

Whatever came before, by the time of the earliest surviving tablature, the 6th or 7th century You Lan, there was already some standardization in the methods for indicating the positions of stopped sounds. Coming to the next earliest surviving tablature, from the late Song and early Ming dynasties, there seem to have been several methods in use for indicating the specific finger positions.10 Then towards the end of the Ming dynasty and especially in the early Qing dynasty these various methods of indicating intermediary positions came to be replaced by a decimal system, which in theory should provide greater precision; this decimal system is the one still in common use today.11

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Studs (琴徽 qin hui)
琴徽 21570.xxx; 徽 10505.0/6 and /7 have the same information as 琴徽 4/588. There are two definitions:

  1. 琴上系絃之繩 The cord on a qin. Earliest reference:

    Han Shu biography of Yang Xiong; annotation by Yan Shigu (581 - 645).
    When dealing with strings, to heighten the sound you tighten the hui.

  2. 指琴絃音位標識 Qin position markers (the modern definition). Earliest reference:

    Mei Yaochen
    Seeing off Liangyu on his return to Kunshan: Mists over the water obsure the qin studs....
    This Liangyu is probably unrelated to Zhang Liangyu

2. Hui names and positions Hui position charts (expand)  
The image above (expanded view), from Qinshu Daquan Folio 6 (QQJC V/130), names 12 of the studs (which is says can be called either 徽 or 暉) in accordance with the 12 tones, starting at the top with 太簇 taicou (?!); the middle stud cis alled simply "閏 run" ("inserted" or "intercalary"); the names do not correspond with the pitches produced by playing at the respective positions. Under each hui name is its "音 yin", which are (in the same order) 角 角 宮 徴 徴清 宮 _ 商 商 宮 羽 羽濁 宮 . The following page (not shown here) gives the corresponding months for each hui and names its yin as above. There is no explanation of what any of that means other than a statement at the end suggesting the idea originated with Cui Zundu; reference seems to be to 象箋 Xiang Jian (a chapter of his 琴箋 Qin Jian?).

The image at right shows three of thirty six finger position charts in Qinshu Daquan Folio 2, QQJC V/46-64. which divides them into 3 sets of 12 each, each of the twelve named after one of the 12 tones.

None of these mentions how the tablature indicates the positions. Thus, the details in charts included on such pages as Qin Tunings are based on my personal observations from reconstructing over 200 melodies from tablature published in the Ming dynasty. To my knowledge, prior to a paper I presented in 1997 (relevant section) no historical or modern publications had pointed out the potential precision of the old system. Since then Dr. Tse Chun Yan has found interesting variants in this system, though particularly in the decimal system as it subsequently emerged (see below).

3. Material for making studs
41049.1228 金徽 Jin Hui says it is the name of a qin. It has three references.

  1. 梁,元帝,秋夜詩 Autumn Evening poem by Emperor Yuandi of Liang, mentions "golden hui" in conjunction with the 軫 zhen, suggesting that "golden" refers to the color of the tassels (q.v.), not the material of the studs.
  2. 元稹,小胡笳引 Yuan Zhen, Preface to Xiao Hujia.
    "雷氏金徽琴,王君寶重輕千金。" The Lei Family jinhui qin is highly valued.
  3. 孟浩然,贈道士參寥詩 Poem Presented to Cen Liao the Daoist, by Meng Haoran, says only that the golden color of the hui is bright (絲脆弦將斷,金徽色尚榮).

In addition, QSDQ, Folio 17 #44 is an article entitle Golden Studs Transformed, but I haven't traced its date yet.

4. Rao Zongyi in his article discussed below mentions the ongoing discussions.

5. di meaning 徽 hui?
饒宗頤,說㢩兼論琴徽,中國音樂學 Rao Zongyi, Speaking of di while discussing qin hui, Chinese Music Studies, May, 1989. The (only?) reference for this use of di is in the following from Mei Cheng's Seven Methods, which actually writes 約 yue (treaty/approximate) instead of 㢩 di (target). The relevant phrase, also mentioned here, is as follows:

Use ear ornaments of (the widow with) nine orphaned sons as the di.

9943.0 㢩 (di) says it means 射 "target"; "的" di can also mean target. The hui might be seen as targets for the fingers. As for "(the widow with) nine orphaned sons", jiu gua 九寡 173.591 and 1/752 lead to the commentary in the referenced edition of Wen Xuan. There it says 九寡 was a 女琴師 female qin teacher, saying to see Mother-Teacher of Lu, entry 12 in Folio 1 of Lienü Zhuan (online). There she is described as 魯九子之寡母也 a widow from Lu (in the Spring and Autumn period) who had nine sons. However, that entry makes no connection between her and either qin or earrings.

6. The Chinese is from Chapter 19 脩務, p.1058, of the 海嘯 Haixiao edition.

7. Translated by R.H. Van Gulik, Hsi K'ang and his Poetical Essay on the Lute
by David R. Knechtges, Rhapsody on the Zither, in Wen Xuan, III.

8. Illustrations from that time depicting the Sages and Rong Qiqi have the hui incorrectly positioned. This could lead to a debate about whether this is evidence that at this time markers were being used, but they were not yet positioned to indicate the harmonic nodes. The fact that in the illustrations the qins are also backwards suggests that a more likely reason for the incorrect positioning of the studs is due to the ignorance of the artist or craftsman.

9. Earliest references to thirteen studs
1/xxx; 2741.228 十三徽 shisan hui gives only a later reference (巾興書目) to Zhuge Liang's Qin Jing. The qins in the 4th c. tomb engravings may well have 13 studs. I have not yet found an earlier reference for 13 hui. 13 is a significant number elsewhere (e.g. 13 Classics; 13 months).

10. Old and new (decimal) systems to indicate finger positions
For people who wish to play music from Ming dynasty and earlier tablature it is essential to be aware that the modern decimal system of indicating finger position seems to date only from the 17th century (see above). Before that the system was not uniform. To summarize the differences: under today's decimal system if the correct note should in theory be played 4/10ths of the way between the 6th and 7th hui, the position is indicated as 6.4. However, prior to the early 17th century the tablature used instructions such as "above the 7th position" and "between the 6th and 7th positions." At least one handbook (see 1589) indicated all intermediary positions by adding the character "half".

At first glance the old system seems to have been less precise. However, as discussed under Qin Tunings and elsewhere, if the old system is used carefully, as apparently it was in Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425), there need be no more ambiguity in the old system than in the new.

Unfortunately some handbooks were not as precisely written as Shen Qi Mi Pu. If the music is purely pentatonic, potential ambiguities in the tablature can usually be clarified, but imprecise use of the old system may become a major problem in melodies that have numerous non-pentatonic notes, the additional choices making it often very difficult to clarify the ambiguities. For example, in the decimal system there are three standard positions between the sixth and seventh studs (hui): 6.2, 6.4 and 6.7; if the tuning is considered as 2 3 5 6 7 2 3, and 1 is considered as C, then on the fifth string these three positions would correspond with the notes B, C and C sharp respectively. In Shen Qi Mi Pu these three seem quite consistently to be written as 六下 "below six", 六七日 "between six and seven" and 七上 "above seven", so there is little confusion. However, in tablature such as that for Saishang Hong (1589), which has many non-pentatonic notes clearly indicated, the only mid-position indicator is "half". So when a passage indicates a note should be played on the fifth string at position "six and a half" (六半) the player has to decide whether this refers to B, C or C sharp (in fact B is usually written simply as 6, potentially causing a similar confusion with B flat, which in the decimal system is 5.9 but here can also be written simply as 6).

This apparent retrogression in the 1589 handbook in specifying finger positions (found also in other late Ming handbooks) is quite puzzling. It might, however, also explain some of the awkward fingering. Might someone who is aware that "six and a half" can be confusing then, when writing down the tablature, move the position to another string where the note can be more clearly indicated? Although this may seem unlikely it is something that needs to be considered. Also requiring study: which melodies/handbooks use this simplified method of indicating note positions?

When reconstructing early melodies such problems require me to balance my aim strictly to interpret the tablature with my reliance on my own musical understanding of the idiom. From many years working on such problems, specifically within the context of trying to use the tablature to recreate the way the melodies might originally have been played (or perhaps better: the parameters within which players of that time might have played them), I can often make educated guesses as to whether, for example, a passage seems musically to call for C sharp rather than c natural. In most modes usually there is no problem, but for reasons mentioned above in zhi mode I do not have a similar certainty. Anyone wishing to study this important modal issue should look at my transcription of a melody such as Saishang Hong, where I indicate when and how I make such changes and interpretations. Here I must emphasize that I do not consider my interpretations in any way definitive, and I would welcome arguments suggesting alternative interpretations.

11. Origin of the modern decimal system for indicating finger positions (see also the charts above and here)
The earliest examples I have found so far of qin melodies written using a form of the modern decimal system are in the 1611 handbook Yangchuntang Qinpu (update: see 1590 jiao yi). In general this handbook still primarily uses the old system. However, you can sometimes see "7 9" (i.e., 7.9) to indicate the position called "8" in the old system (for example, in Dongtian Chunxiao, Section 3 (QQJC VII/355). On the other hand, this handbook also uses "8" to indicate the same thing. It also uses, for example, 6 3 in cases where it is not clear whether 6.2 or 6.4 should be played. And one can find examples such as both "5 6" (5.6) and "5 half" (same meaning in old system), sometimes within the same melody.

The next handbook to use this modern decimal system seems to have been Guyin Zhengzong (1634). However, according to my preliminary examination it only uses this new system in higher registers (above the seventh position) and it is not consistent even in this.

Dahuan'ge Qinpu (1673) seems to be the first handbook to use the decimal system almost exclusively on some of its melodies. On a few old pieces (for example Feng Lei Yin ) it seems to mix the new system with the old. Thus it indicates positions such as "12" instead of "12 3" and "8" instead of "7 9"; in some places it also seems to follow an old custom of indicating the position "13" for fixed stopped positions and "wai" at the end of slides, as well as "半 ban" at the end of some other slides.

The decimal system as generally used today shows finger positions that accord with the theoretical Pythogorean (sanfen sunyi) system. Perhaps because of this some scholars have argued that the introduction of this system in the early Qing dynasty shows that, at least by that time, qin players were playing in accord with Pythagorean tuning.

However, as I have pointed out elsewhere (e.g., in Qin Tunings, Some Theoretical Concepts), the decimal system, at least at first, was generally not used with such precision - at best it generally allowed the notes to be named more clearly - and the evidence suggests that a variety of intonations continued to be used.

On the other hand, as Tse Chun Yan (in his doctoral dissertation and in several articles) has observed, the decimal system as actually used does suggest that qin players in some schools deliberately played altered pitches in certain modes. In 2011 he summarized his findings in the following outline for a lecture he gave on this topic:

Through a meticulous methodology, I demonstrate that some pieces in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties utilize an intonation system similar to a vernacular scale called “melancholy tone” kuyin 苦音 at present used in Guangdong and Shaanxi provinces of China. The scale emphasizes a slightly sharpened fourth degree and a slightly flattened seventh degree, used together with the first, second, fifth, and to a lesser extent the sixth degrees. The pitches of the emphasized 4th and 7th degrees vary within and among the scores, and there is prominent use of the neutral 4th and 7th degrees.

There are several implications arising from the findings.

Since then Dr. Tse has added further details to his findings. Some of this can be read on his website.

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