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Handbooks / Sample page with explanation / in Van Gulik (.pdf) / old illustrations / old explanations 古琴目錄
Qin tablature and playing technique 古琴簡字譜和指法
See also Historically Informed Qin performance and Teaching HIP
Top: juan (three fingers pluck inwards as one) is compared to a flowing spring;
Bottom: pi (thumb plucks inward) is compared to a crane dancing in the wind1
Qin music is written in a type of notation called tablature.
2 Developed from ancient longhand descriptions,3 it can be used to bring old music to life. However, when examining this it is important to consider such issues as whether this tablature was intended to be prescriptive or descriptive, and the role it may have played in the creative process of forming qin melodies.

Qin tablature shows finger positions and stroke techniques, rather than notes. Of
ancient origin, it is much more complex than the best known Western music tablature, which shows finger positions for guitar chords.

The sample page of Shen Qi Mi Pu (175 KB) gives a brief outline of how qin fingering techniques are put into clusters to form qin tablature. As for the finger techniques themselves, the images at right show traditional explanations, which accompany the explanations with images that evoke them poeticially. Translations of a number of these explanations from the old handbook called Taiyin Daquanji can be found here.

In addition, at least two other people currently have detailed explanations of such techniques on their websites:

  1. Judy Chang Pei-You; see "Finger Technique and Notation"; and
  2. Right-Hand Symbols, Left-Hand Symbols and illustrations from Jim Binkley's annotated translation of the Yuguzhai Qinpu.

Although modern qin tablature is remarkably similar to the earliest surviving versions of the shorthand form that developed from the original longhand tablature over 1,000 years ago, there are some important differences. Some forms of ornamentation and ways of indicating strokes have changed. And in the 17th century the method of indicating finger position changed to what is considered a more precise decimal system.

Tablature or notation for guqin with other instruments

Although virtually all guqin music published before the 20th century is for its solo tradition, there are at least two exceptions,

  1. Guqin in ritual orchestras
    The Wikipedia guqin article has some
    comment on this, but it does not mention the notation. According to my understanding the only surviving pre-twentieth century written scores for this ensemble consist solely of single line notation, with no tablature or other separate indication of what the qin is to play. However, details of this are beyond the scope of this website.4
  2. Duets for guqin and the se zither
    Although there is much mention in earliest guqin literature of the qin and se together (see Written Records, especially from the Shi Jing), by the Tang dynasty the se was rarely played outside the ritual orchestras, it having been replaced by the zheng. However, during the Qing dynasty there was apparently a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to revive the se, and written duets for qin and se have existed since at least 1677 (see sample).5

Guqin played with instruments for which there are no written instructions

To my knowledge, other than the two examples just mentioned, prior to the 20th century there was no separate tablature or notation showing how voice or other instruments should accompany qin, nor are there written records indicating how such duets should to be or might have been played. Nevertheless, one can indeed find historical evidence of qin being played with various types of accompaniment. Examples include,

  1. Qin with ruan plucked lute (as in these paintings by Qiu Ying)
    There is no information as to how these two instruments might have been combined
  2. Qin with erhu bowed lute (listen to a recording)
    This recording shows how a successful collaboration can be made between two skilled musicians who seem to be following their instincts since only part of the music was written down and there are no historical records suggesting just how this should have been done
  3. Qin with xiao flute
    qin handbook from 1820 has some pieces which have added notation for xiao to accompany qin but the information is sketchy and, in the absence of detailed instructions on how to have these two instruments play together, contemporary practice has rarely lived up to the success of the example just mentioned (further comment)
  4. Qin with voice.
    For guqin songs the lyrics are simply written next to the qin tablature (
    sample) following a fairly strict system.6

Under Guqin Improvisation there is further detail about how these instruments might be combined.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Fingernails in the hand gesture illustrations from Taiyin Daquanji
In my experience the best fingernails lengths for qin play are for the left hand fingernails to be cut short, the right hand fingernails to have a length of about 3mm (1/8"), tapered from the center. Longer right hand fingernails may have some playing advantages, but they are more likely to break. Shorter is also possible. In fact, it has been said that the famous player Guan Pinghu played marvelously even when he had a disease that prevented him from having any fingernails at all; this claim, however, has been disputed.

Note, however, the length of the fingernails in the above illustrations (other handbook illustrations are similar). It is said that in the old days scholars grew their fingernails long to show they were not laborers. However, right hand fingernails as long as these are a clear impediment to play. I have not yet found any qin writings that discuss this issue.

Note that Taiyin Daquanji also has some discussion of artificial fingernails. However, in my experience these are not very effective.

2. Tablature (glossary)
Most forms of tablature use symbols or charts to indicate how a note is to be produced. The most common form today is probably guitar tablature (examples); the earliest known such tablature is in cuneiform writing from Babylonia; it dates perhaps as early as 2000 BCE (image with speculature transcriptions, from Tumbir; original in the Schoyen Collection).

The earliest surviving qin tablature is longhand writing dating from the 7th century CE (next footnote); the complexity of the music suggests a mature musical tradition, but the origins of the written music are only known through legend.

3. The earliest known form of written qin music
See longhand tablature (文字譜 wenzi pu)

4. Notated sources for traditional orchestral music with qin
The attached sample is from Joseph Lam, State Sacrifices, 1998. The music is written top to bottom and right to left on alternate lines beginning "合四一四....", which are the names of notes in a version of gongche notation; to the right of each note is the paired lyric. If qin was included in such an orchestra, presumably it would simply have followed this notation.

5. Tablature for duets between qin and se zithers
The earliest surviving music notation for qin and se together seem to be in the following handbooks:

  1. Songfengge Qinse Pu (1677)
    Here the two scores (parts) for the melody 大雅 Da Ya are written separately; in the attached sample the top (from QQJC XII/434) is the qin version; the bottom (from ibid., XII/438) seems to be an adaption for se of traditional qin tablature, but it also seems to be a se with only 20 strings (that is the highest number I find in the tablature).
  2. Qin Se Hebi (1691)
    Here the two parts are written side by side, the qin written in its normal tablature, the se part using tablature as in 1677 example; in addition, the melody line is also written in gongche notation. This can be seen clearly in the attached sample, again from right to left and top to bottom: after information about the melody (once again 大雅 Da Ya), section 1 begins with the qin tablature first, then to its left the gongche notation, then in the next column the se tablature.

The above examples suggest the se was intended simply to follow the qin melody. To my knowledge, such scores for qin and se reflected antiquarian interests that never really caught on.

6. Qin songs and other duets
In the attached example, (from QQJC I/289 bottom and 290 top), the red line marks the beginning of the song Feng Ru Song Ge as written in Taigu Yiyin (1511). After the title there is a preface (translated here), then the lyrics paired to the right of the tablature. For interpretation you can view my transcription while listening to my recording 聽錄音; notice the heterophony.

Today, in other interpretations of qin songs or duets, the voice or other instrument generally simply follows the melodic line of the guqin, perhaps adjusting for register, such as octave leaps. Elsewhere I have some comment on how they might have been performed in the past, but there is no existing traditional tablature or notation that can be used for performance guidelines.

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