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Historical view of guqin ornamentation
Arguments about changes in the relative importance of the left and right hands1

Although my reconstructions of over 250 guqin melodies from tablature published during the Ming dynasty (with recordings for over 200 of them), provide quite a lot of material for research into the nature of guqin music during the Ming dynasty, a similar volume of reconstructions is not yet available for the Qing or post-Qing dynasty periods.2 Comments here are thus preliminary.

Several articles in this section such as Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature make some comments on how another aspect of guqin music has changed over time: modality. One important aspect of creating historically informed qin performances from Ming dynasty tablature is distinguishing the modality of qin music during that time from the modality in the modern repertoire. As yet there has not yet been much tracing of how this came about. In fact, to my knowledge, other than my own there has been very little analysis done so far of mode in guqin music.

Regarding changes in playing techniques, or playing style, due to the relatively small amount of music reconstructed from Qing dynasty publications, anything written about this is bound to be rather speculative. There has been some commentary on different playing styles within different guqin schools.3 In addition, quite a bit has been said about changes over time in the relative importance of the right hand and left hand in guqin music. This seems often to be summarized by the following phrase:

A change in emphasis from individual notes played by the right hand to ornaments played by the left hand 4

Regarding this statemnt,

"Notes" ("sheng", which literally means "sound") refers here to the sound of the right hand plucking the strings;
"Ornaments" ("yun", which literally has meanings such as "rhyme", "harmony" and "charm") refers here to "charming" the notes through such ornamentation as vibrato and slides.

An internet search for this Chinese phrase will find quite a few references to this opinion, to the extent that it seems almost axiomatic. As stated it suggests not only that today's qin music is more ornamented than in the past, it also seems to state that this is an improvement, making today's way of playing more beautiful than that of the past. However, I am not convinced that either aspect of this argument is historically correct, at least not as now stated: there has always been flux in the amount or ornamentation used; and such ornamentation has not always been viewed favorably.

One basis for the argument positing this change is related to the physical structure of the qin itself prior to the Han dynasty. The design of the stringed instruments found in tombs in the Chu region (modern Hubei/Hunan) show that they could not have been used for the left hand ornaments (slides and vibratos) that are such an integral part of most historically surviving melodies. If these Chu instruments are considered to be qins, or ancestors of the modern qin, this does mean that the earliest music must have been played totally on the right hand.

However, as argued elsewhere, I do not think that the historical evidence justifies calling these instruments qin or even relatives of the qin. Organologically they seem to be flattened harps, their changing shape perhaps influenced by the true original qin zithers, which were probably northern instruments that for natural reasons have not survived from archeological sites. One can speculate that these were originally rather primitive (one can read that they originated as court instruments but this is almost certainly a mistake), but there is no information to tell us when their tops became smooth enough to allow slides. As a result we have no information on what the earliest qin music sounded like. The earliest surviving melody is Jieshidiao You Lan, preserved in a 6th or 7th century Japanese manuscript. It shows a well developed use of left hand ornamentaion. This is also confirmed by the amount of space devoted to explaining left hand ornamentation in surviving Tang dynasty sources (though most of these are available only through later sources such as Taiyin Daquanji and Qinshu Daquan).

There is a ong history of arguments in favor of a "plain" playing style.5 And by the Song dynasty it seems that there was already specific controversy over the relative importance of left hand ornamentation. Thus, the famous early 13th century guqin expert Yelü Chucai wrote criticisms of what he considered excessive left-handed ornamentation. Based in part on this, it is quite possible to argue that in the early days much of the specifics of left hand ornamentation were left up to the players themselves. Then, just as over time Western notation became more and more detailed and specific, the same may have occurred in qin tablature, with the writers trying to establish more and more control over what the performers actually played.6

Rita Yi's study is an excellent account demonstrating how the melody Three Repetitions of "Plum Blossom" developed through its surviving tablature from 1425 to the present .7 As she shows, in this melody the left hand techniques gradually became more and more important. This type of observation has also had a major influence on the argument that over time there has been an increasing use of left hand ornamentation.

However, this does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that during this period qin music itself was gradually becoming more elaborate, particularly in this left hand ornamentation. Although this may well be true of individual pieces, or indeed of certain schools of play, it is not necessarily true of the repertoire in general.8 Many melodies in Shen Qi Mi Pu, for example, already have more complicated left hand techniques than some new pieces which were published later. And at times some melodies themselves may have been simplified (see for example these comments about Flowing Streams). Thus it may be that melodies with elaborate left hand technique tend to be the ones based on more ancient ones - thereby providing further evidence for the antiquity of some Shen Qi Mi Pu melodies, though perhaps not for their surviving published versions.9 Many of these are pieces which have not actively continued into the modern repertoire.

The fact of qin music having been written down in tablature may be another factor in the expansion of melodies. The term "dapu" (figuring out melodies from tablature) may be modern, but one can assume that throughout history qin players have tried to learn old pieces from the tablature rather than from (or in addition to from) a living teacher. In the absence of scientific principles for doing as well as recording this (e.g., without methods of writing down the rhythms), as well as due to the tastes of the individual players, interpretations can vary considerably. In the process, connecting ornaments are often added; these then become part of a new version of the melody.10

Another factor perhaps contributing to an increase in left hand ornamentation is the dramatic decrease in the number of new melodies. The statistical outline added at the bottom Zha Fuxi's Guide to Existing Guqin Pieces in Tablature puts this into some perspective. If one combines this decrease in the number of new melodies with the tendency for individual melodies to become more ornamented over time, naturally the nature of the repertoire itself will change. A pertinent question that arises from this is: How important were left hand slides in new pieces emerging since the Ming dynasty, particularly those published after 1802?

Yet another factor which may have also contributed to the increasing use of left hand slides in the modern repertoire may be the replacement of silk strings with the new nylon metal strings introduced during the Cultural Revolution. The smoothness of these strings, combined with the resonance of new qin with their nylon metal strings (which sometimes creates the effect of playing a piano with the sustain pedal constantly held down), enocourages players to put more emphasis on these slides.

In sum, the "change in emphasis from individual notes played by the right hand to ornaments played by the left hand" seems to be embraced by many players today. It is true that some new pieces published beginning in the late Ming dynasty seem to have more elaborate left hand techniques than surviving earlier published melodies.11 And clearly in the past players have often elaborated on individual melodies: one can clearly see this by following the changes in individual melodies since their earliest publication. One can argue whether players were in this way "improving" the melody and thus improving the repertoire, or whether they would have been better off creating new melodies instead of "adding legs to a snake". In either case it has not been established that since the earliest surviving melody, the 7th century or earlier You Lan, there has been an overall increase in left hand ornamentation within new melodies.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Historical view of guqin ornamentation
This page was created in March 2012 by combining or moving information from elsewhere on this site.

2. Ming dynasty reconstructions
Other major sources for reconstructions from Ming tablature are

  1. Guqin Quji, Vol. 1 (9 titles)
  2. Guqin Quji, Vol. 2 (5 titles)
  3. Bell Yung, Celestial Airs of Antiquity (6 titles)
  4. The Qin Music Repertoire of the Wu Family (15, plus some not clearly identified)

Some of these seem to be as much modern interpretations as historically accurate reconstructions. (There is more on this under Some Issues in Historically Informed Qin Performance.)

3. Differences in playing styles of different qin schools
Comments on this generally are not based on historical reconstructions of Ming dynasty melodies.

4. 從聲多韻少向聲少韻多轉變 Cong sheng duo yun shao xiang sheng shao yun duo zhuan bian
The translation here is loose rather than literal. I do not know the origin of the Chinese phrase. It combines several phrases that can also be found individually: "more notes but less color/ornamentation" ("聲多韻少" or "韻少聲多"); nad "more color/ornamentation but fewer notes" ("韻多轉變").

5. Plain playing style
This is epitomized by the phrase 素琴 su qin (27924.231), which might be translated as "plain qin" or "unadorned qin". It generally refers to the instrument itself, but the music also by extension. (Note that not everyone seems to like the actual plain qin, hence the fancy tassels and sometimes other flashy bits.

6. Flexibility in ornamentation
With regard to this, the old finger technique explanations one finds in many handbooks often include some that are not used in that handbook. It may be that some of these were actually written down in handbooks that have not survived. However, it is also possible that people would learn these finger techniques independently and then apply them to melodies in accordance either with instruction from others or with their own tastes.

7. Essay by Rita Yi
Rita Shou-fan I, A Diachronic Study of the Ch'in Composition "Mei Hua San Nung"
M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1977.

8. Comments on general changes in the repertoire
For an amateur tradition such as the qin it is difficult to make general comments on playing technique. For example, who is to be considered most representative, the skilled master (teacher?) or the average player?

9. Melodies from Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425)
In his
preface the compiler Zhu Quan states that for many melodies in the handbook he simply copied out old tablature; he never states the sources.

10. Changes during the process of reconstruction
I do not know of any studies that have been published in this on guqin music, but it is interesting to note that in order to "preserve" their court music (gagaku) the Japanese court musicians seem to have added more and more ornamentation, until the oramentation became the melody
further comment).

11. Melodies that are already elaborate when new
Such melodies were usually published after my period of focus (before ca. 1600). I began doing reconstructions in 1976, after which I gradually stopped playing the melodies as I had learned them from my teacher,
Sun Yuqin. Until 2010 I rarely studied tablature published after 1614, other than some songs from Japanese handbooks. However, since then two melodies I have reconstructed may be of particular note, as they are the earliest known versions of melodies still popular today:

  1. Pingsha Luo Yan (first published in 1634)
    This earliest version is, as published, quite plain.
  2. Oulu Wangji (first published in 1620
    This earliest version is already written with considerable ornamentation, and this increases even more in the second surviving version, the same 1634 handbook as above.

It seems that certain by the end of the Ming dynasty certain handbooks seem to have many melodies with more elaborate left hand ornamentation than is found in earlier handbooks. However, for the subject to be examined properly considerable works still needs to be done, most importantly by reconsructing more melodies from late Ming and early Qing handbooks.

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