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Suxin Silk Strings
New silk strings from China 1
Suxin sixian    
  Closeup of Suxin Silk Strings compared to other silk strings 2  
Suxin Silk Strings are a wonderful addition to the improving market for silk strings, but they are also very expensive, so I feel very fortunate that I have been given a set to play on, and evaluate. Before making further comment, though, I must quote a couplet from a poem by the 12th century qin master Yelü Chucai (detail):

I firmly believe that rarefied tones constitute the real great music,
Frequent use of vibrato ritardando confuses the melody, frequent use of other vibrato leads to a lax style.
People of the present day do not understand the meaning of Master Qiyan's music,
They only love the fashionable style, and play the qin so as to produce a rude noise.

Frequent application of vibrato grates upon the ears of the listener,
This style is aimed only at captivating the common fancy.
The pure tones are simple - but who can appreciate them?
People only say that Qiyan does not use the wooden sounds.

There have been other traditional criticisms of more ornamental styles of play,3 but this quote is mentioned here mainly to put my comments on the Suxin Silk Strings into a personal context. The strings they sent me, their smoothest and the smoothest silk qin strings currently available, are in particular ideal for people used to the smoothness of metal or composite strings: they make it easier to play all the ornaments so popular today.4 I do not criticize that style the way Yelü Chucai did, but my own style not being so ornamental means that I can also be very happy with strings not as smooth as this. In this I am also influenced by other factors.

Since then Suxin has also begun producing strings that are less smooth.5

Details of Suxin Silk Strings

Suxin Silk Strings for qin (they are also available for pipa and maybe later for some other instruments) came onto the market in May 2014, after several years of research by a team led by Fang Suxin;6 they are on sale through http://en.suxinsixian.com/, http://www.suxinsixian.com/ or through Taobao.

In June 2014 Wang Geng, one of the three members of the team, gave me the following details about the strings:

The strings are made using very high quality silk, and the craftsmanship of the workers is now very high. (I can attest the strings are very strong, capable of being tuned higher than other silk strings.)

The strings are currently being made in eight different versions, but soon there will be more varieties available.7 The intention it to be able to to bring out the best in all varieties of qin. The current varieties are as follows:

          Light Gauge - Medium Tension
          Light Gauge - Low Tension
          Heavy Gauge - High Tension
          Heavy Gauge - Medium Tension

          Light Gauge - Medium Tension
          Light Gauge - Low Tension
          Heavy Gauge - High Tension
          Heavy Gauge - Medium Tension

For the heavy gauge strings the 4th string is wrapped; for light gauge it is unwrapped. The tension is controlled largely by changing the string glue recipe.

With regard to this last characteristic, whereas in the recent past (perhaps since the Song dynasty) the lower four strings have always had the mesh wrapping, with Suxin strings sometimes only the lower three are wrapped. This is said to be in line with more ancient practices.

There seem to be three factors in particular that help give Suxin silk strings their extraordinary smoothness:

Perhaps because of these two characteristics, these strings have so far had a disconcerting side effect or two:

According to Wang Geng these are not significant problems if one follows the printed guidelines that are included with each set.14

Because of all the work required as well as the high quality of the material the strings are very expensive: as of June 2014 about US$1,000 for the premium set, US$500 for the standard; there are also custom made styles for even higher prices. They do come with a very good guarantee, and hopefully the strings will eventually become more popular and the price will come down.15

Preliminary Evaluation

In June 2014 I was sent a set of their Premium - Light Gauge - Medium Tension strings and asked to provide some comment. The gauges of the strings (1 to 7) are as follows (compare the gauges of these Chinese strings as well as of Japanese strings such as those by Tobaya and Marusan Hashimoto):

  1. 01.78 (Strings 1-3 are wrapped and extremely smooth)
  2. 01.65
  3. 01.30
  4. 01.22 (Strings 4-7 are unwrapped, not quite as smooth, and with some "furs")
  5. 01.00
  6. 00.89
  7. 00.77

When I say that the unwrapped strings are not quite as smooth I am referring mostly but not completely to the fact that they came with some crinkling. Instructions say that these crinkles (white spots) can be smoothed using steam but I do not trust myself to try out this technique. According to Wang Geng crinkling is not a major issue with regard to string performance.16

It was not difficult to put the strings on one of my qins and tune the lowest strings to Western "C". Within two days they had sunk several whole tones and the instrument had to be re-strung. This seems to be true of all silk strings, though some expand a lot more than these seem to. Since then the Suxin strings have been quite stable, though from my experience so far they tend to be even more stable with the lowest string tuned to B rather than C.

Although the strings came knotted, I found the knots on the upper strings to be too small (one slipped through the tassel), so I had to re-tie them.

In the process of doing the stringing I did encounter some of the problems mentioned above, mainly the issue of whiteness on the strings. This did not appear as I was doing the stringing but was already in the strings as they arrived. The strings were neatly coiled and I do not know whether this happened as they were packed or during shipping, perhaps if the envelope itself was twisted.

Although the strings have a lovely tone, I am also happy with the tone of other good quality strings. Perhaps I can best phrase my reaction by saying that I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to use both the Suxin strings and some of the other high quality strings. Also, as I write this (July 2014) I have only been playing the Suxin strings for a short time, and I cannot really judge strings properly until they have what might be called "matured": become more mellow with use, something that usually takes some months with regular play.

Fortunately I have several good quality qins, and have always enjoyed their differing characteristics. These new Suxin silk strings add another wonderful variable to the mix, but I cannot say that for me they are better in every way. Perhaps as I use them more this may change, but meanwhile I also still enjoy playing with the ordinary $50 silk strings (once they are broken in), not to mention with the also-superlative Marusan Hashimoto strings.17

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Suxin Silk Strings 素心琴弦
There is information about Fang Suxin's strings, "素心絲絃 Suxin Sixian", on this website and on this Facebook page.

2. Image
The above image was copied from an advertisment for Suxin Silk Strings on Taobao. I believe it is intended to show the strings when new. The Suxin string on the left must be unwrapped; it was based on this picture that I concluded that the string was not made using the rope technqiue; Wang Geng says that now all the strings are made using rope technqiue. The image upper right is a wrapped string. Regarding "Japanese and other silk strings expanded", the image here shows my Marusan Hashimoto strings after they have been broken in.

3. Other criticisms of florid play
See for example this comment from the Ming dynasty on the Jiang style being too "多煩瑣 loaded with detail".

4. Smooth like metal
On the other hand, when performing with metal strings if your fingers get clammy you can simply put oil on them and keep playing. With Suxin strings, as with all other silk strings, if your hands become at all clammy then they will start sticking to the strings.

5. Less smooth Suxin strings
While in Beijing in July 2014 I was able to feel a set of the strings Suxin is now making, but did not have a chance to play on them.

6. 方素心 Fang Suxin and her team
Around the year 2011 Fang Suxin left a career in finance to devote herself to making silk strings for guqin. With technical help from qin maker 宋增霖 Song Zenglin and multi-instrumentalist 王耕 Weng Geng she began producing strings of increasingly high quality. In November 2013 Wang Geng brought a "gamma" set (third version) to New York, where we were able to test them out. They were very good, but Wang said that her fourth version, out in December, promised to be even better. (We also visited Alexander Raykov in Cortland, New York, to hear more about his silk strings for early Western instruments).

Although the strings are now being made available to the public the silk string research will continue.

7. Varieties of Suxin strings
Wang Geng added in early July:

Suxin is in fact making a much greater variety of strings now, using differing degrees of smoothness.

Suxin has also started a new service to custom make qin strings. For this an initial fee RMB2,000 is needed, then we will try different gauges/tensions/specifications on the customer's qin; the result is a unique gauge for that one qin. A batch is three sets; for the standard version it is then 11,000RMB and for the premium version 20,000RMB. Suxin says that it is very wrong to make only three gauges for qins (中清, 太古, 加重) because qins vary a lot. An old painting called Illustration of Qin Making (斲琴圖 Zhuo Qin Tu) shows four major steps in making a qin, with the fourth step being called - "設絃審音 custom making the strings".

The painting to which Wang Geng refers was the 斲琴圖 Zhuo Qin Tu (see upper right corner) attributed to 顧愷之 Gu Kaizhi (4th c. CE). It was preserved in 宣和畫譜 Xuanhe Huapu, a volume included in Treasure Boxes of the Stone Moat (石渠寶笈 Shi Qu Bao Ji), a Qing dynasty imperial catalogue of painting and calligraphy in their collection.

8. Sandpaper to smoothen strings
Further comment here. I assume the glue is thick enough on the Suxin strings that it is only glue that is scraped, not the silk itself. Such thicker glue might also explain why the sound of the Suxin strings seems either more muted or more subtle compared to the Marusan Hashimoto strings.

9. Use of the rope technique
My understanding from Wang Geng is that now the Suxin strings all use a rope technique.

10. Varnish / shellac
Wang Geng says varnish is used "only in the 10cm on the playing position".

11. Twisting filaments
Alexander Raykov sent me the following analysis (edited):

Silk is very strong lengthwise but very fragile sideways - the outer filaments will always break. The (rope style of the) traditional oriental method twists the filaments so that as much of them as possible goes under the surface, and thus only very short hairiness develops. I have regularly observed that musicians using the same third string that I made in this oriental way on bass viol for 5 or 6 years, while I have gone through five or six smooth strings used the same way. We can see the smooth strings going hairy on some Western silk strings made in the 19th century - packages may even include brief instructions on how to burn off the offending little hairs, using a gas lamp. In addition, dirt and finger oil get in between the hairiness, or a longer filament just separates from the string, and the string fails in the end. Of course, it could be re-glued or cleaned and steamed, and such, but a modern western musician is trained as a string consumer, not a string technician.

Alexander added that when filaments are twisted together under high tension into small bundles they fuse together and this is much stronger than connecting them with glue. Since I do not know how the Suxin strings are bonded together I cannot really comment on this other than say that perhaps only time will tell.

12. Cracking of the glue on the strings
The image here shows an extreme example of this (further comment). I have seen this happen on other strings as well, and am not sure of what is happening here, except that it seems to be more than on other good strings that I have used. In addition, I do not know details of the glues and varnishes used on Suxin strings. When Wang Geng was in the USA last year he was experimenting with varnish, and the cracking on the strings reminded me of experiences I have had with such varnish. I have been told that at present the varnish is only used on the area of the string where it is being plucked, but I may have misunderstood. I also am not sure whether it has been added when the strings were being boiled in their glue or at what time afterwards.

13. Steaming the strings
While I was in Beijing Fang Suxin showed me how to steam the crinkles out of a string and make it smooth (see image). To do this she used a steamer with a hose. It did not seem very difficult, but it does require some care and, I suspect, practice.

14. Guidelines for dealing with idiosyncracies in the strings
Wang Geng wrote (June, 2014; somewhat edited here) that the following instructions are included with the sets of strings that are sold.

    Please pay attention to the following instructions while installing the strings:

  1. The black dots at the end of each string represent the string number. For example, three dots means the third string.
  2. Do not bend the strings seriously.
  3. Do not handle the strings as you would when drawing thread by hand because this will cause a lot of white marks on the strings. In particular, do not vigorously rub and twist the strings, as you must do when installing nylon metal strings. The best way to hold the strings during this process is to arrange each string into the shape of a solenoid, then pull from one end all at once.
  4. If the strings have been twisted or rubbed seriously during installation, there will be some white marks on the strings. The marks are caused by string glue cracking. The white marks won't affect the tone and playing. However, they can be removed by being treated by high temperature steam once securely installed on the qin. The white marks will disappear because the string glue inside is now reconnected.
  5. Once the strings are installed, any furs can be flattened out by applying "bletilla water" (白芨 baiji that has been boiled in water) or Suxin String-care Liquid. Bletilla water can be made by three distillations of 5 grams of bletilla mixed with water.
  6. During the process of making knots in the qin strings some parts of the string may bend, resulting in some visible unraveling of the string. This is caused by the string glue cracking inside. Fortunately, the "unravel" can be so solved:

    First, notice the direction of the twist - a single string actually has thousands of twists and "unravel" just means there was one loose twist (caused by making the qin knot), so it can just be twisted back. When installing the strings on the qin, the installer can hold the unraveled part in two fingers, hold the entire string in a hand and twist them according to the other twists of the whole string. You will then see the unraveled part closing up, leaving only a white mark. At this point immediately pull the string on the qin and install it. The white marks may also happen when you pull the strings during installation, but this doesn't affect the smoothness and tone. If you want to eliminate the white marks, cover the whole qin and put steam on the white marks (to let the inside glue reconnect); the string will then recover its original appearance.

Wang Geng sent these two photos to show more clearly what he meant about twisting the string to fix the unraveling. However, he also added the following comment, "Once the strings are on the qin, no extra care is needed. If there are any furs, use 白芨水 baiji shui to smooth out the fur (calligraphers frequently use baiji shui.) Avoid vaseline or wax. Nevertheless, I'm starting to get somewhat nervous abot how mail buyers treat the strings during installation (I have not had a problem with buyers here in Beijing). I'm working on how to figure this in a further warranty."

As for me, the strings I was sent have both these problems; as yet I have not felt the confidence to use steam on the strings. This is in part because I was always told that water is very bad for the strings. (I realize that this does not mean that applying just the amount of steam would necessarily be a problem.)

15. Production and the cost of the strings
In June 2014 Wang Geng wrote:

The premium version is superior in tone, and it includes a warranty of three strings - customers can ask to change up to three strings in total (for example, if they are not satisfied with a certain gauge); we pay the shipping. Five sets of pipa strings are also available. Any questions about this should go to 102665066@qq.com.

The production is going nicely, and we are very happy with the current workers. Now we have a stock of around 20 sets.

See comment above about new varieties being made.

16. Crinkling of the strings
The reason for the crinkling is not clear to me: it does not seem to be a characteristic of the Marusan Hashimoto strings.

17. Summation
Here I am influenced by the fact that for 40 years I have enjoyed playing on silk strings that are less smooth than metal strings or than the new Suxin strings, and have recorded over 200 pieces using these strings. Because of this I have become somewhat impatient with people saying they cannot play with silk strings because they are not as smooth as the metal ones. Now it is good that, assuming they can afford the Suxin Strings, they no longer have that excuse. And as I suggested above, these strings may be better for the modern style (whether that means Qing dynasty, 20th century or post Cultural Revoluation is another issue). For historically informed guqin performance they may also be equally suitable. However, I would like to know more about whether silk strings were really this smooth in the past, and if so, how was this done? If we cannot find evidence that it was by using varnish and this particular method of twisting the strings this does not mean these methods should not be used, but it does emphasize that further research is needed before definitive claims are made.

We can read about the so-called ice strings but I still have not seen them or heard a credible account from someone claiming to have done so.

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