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Xi Kang: Qin Fu
"Rhapsody on the Qin": further comments1
嵇康﹕琴賦
See original text

This poetic text is perhaps most noted for its rhapsodical praise not just for the music produced on a qin but for the wood and silk that make it possible. However, it mentions very few specific physical attributes of the qin. It is thus the totality of the rhapsody that suggests, first, that the qin of Xi Kang's day was quite different from the instruments that have been unearthed from the graves in pre-Han Chu tombs: their shapes (see images of early forms and the associated commentary under Origins of the Qin) suggest it would have been very difficult to play any melody on them, much less a complex one; and second, that it is quite similar to the qin of today.

Passages that do suggest attributes that remain today include the following (translation is from Knechtges; links mention the section of the translation but go to that section in the translation; e.g. k2 goes to the Chinese text translated in Knechtges section 2; v2 goes the text translated in Van Gulik's section 2):

  1. "The place where the paulownia (yiwu) grows
    Rests on the high ridge of a lofty mountain...."

    (K1; V3; for "椅梧" [yiwu] K has "paulownia" while V has "catalpa". 15326.8 says only a wood for making qin and se, referencing this poem. 15326.6 椅桐 yitong says the same, referencing Shi Jing #50. Kroll translates the latter as "royal paulownia". For a long time it has been said the qin should be made of two types of wood, heavier for the bottom, lighter for the top. It seems unlikely that here it should be "yi wu", intending to indicate this. The whole passage suggests that the awe-inspiring nature of qin music is influenced by the awe-inspiring natural surroundings of the trees from which the instrument is made.)

  2. "They chisel out the center, join the seams, fitting them tightly together,
    Achieving a perfect balance between the gaps and joints.
    They paint and carve it,
    Adorn it with designs and patterns.

    They inlay it with rhinoceros horn and ivory,
    Apply a layer of blue and green.
    The strings are made of Yuan Ke's silk,
    For the studs they use Mount Zhong jade.

    It has figures of dragons and phoenixes,
    The forms of ancient worthies...."

    (K4; V9; for "鎪會裛廁" VG specifies that it is a top and bottom piece that are joined together; the Chu instruments did not have a separate bottom and top. As for the ornamentation, it is rare today but can most notably be seen on one of the oldest known qins, preserved in Japan's Shoso-In.)

  3. K8: "Sometimes the strumming and thrumming...."
    V16: "The various touches of the finger technique...."

    Van Gulik's commentary here says that a number of commentators have tried to connect "靡靡猗猗....縹繚潎冽" with specific fingering techniques; he agrees they probably do this, but says that the specific modern equivalents are probably unknowable.

  4. "The strings are long, and thus the studs can be used to sound the notes...."

    (K12; V21: "絃長故徽鳴" seems to be a direct reference to the studs (hui) that mark the harmonic nodes on a qin, but V does not mention this word. See this footnote regarding the possibility that "hui" at one time meant "tassel".)

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Further comments on Xi Kang's Rhapsody on the Qin (琴賦 Qin Fu; 中文)
These are largely based on the two most important translations:

R. H. Van Gulik, Hs'i Kang and his Poetic Essay on the Lute
David R. Knechtges, Wen Xuan III, Rhapsody on the Zither
The original text is also included in Qinshu Daquan, Chapter 18.
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