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Qinshi Chubian     Qin biographies     Five-string Qin Melodies     Qins from Qin and Han to the Wei and Jin Periods 中文   首頁
Origins of the Qin 1 古琴之來源
Early forms of the modern qin? 2 (enlarge)  
Legends say the qin was invented over 4,000 years ago.3 There have also been a number of stories of people playing the qin over the next two millenia, and arguments about the type of people who first played it, but all of this involves much speculation.4 There is conclusive evidence of there having been an instrument (or a class of instruments) called qin during the latter part of these two millenia but this evidence is not so much physical as pictographic, primarily in the earliest Chinese written characters, found in archaeology sites: oracle bone graphs from the Shang dynasty (16th-11th C. BCE) and gu wen script from the Shang and early Zhou (11th C - 256 BCE) dynasties (discussed further below). There are figurines showing people playing what might well represent zithers, but none of these has enough detail to show their actual structure.5

Today it is commonly stated as though it were fact that the qin has 3,000 (or more) years of history.6 However, the earliest known mentions of the word "qin" in any literary documents do not come until around the 6th century BCE: in the Book of Songs (Shi Jing) and perhaps the Book of Documents (Shang Shu).7 The first surviving instruments often claimed as qin (depicted at right and, as discussed further below, quite possibly unrelated to the qin) were excavated from tombs in south China dated from the 5th to 3rd century BCE. Thus, in trying to trace the early "history" of the qin, there are a number of important issues. What were the earliest Chinese stringed instruments? What are the origins of the character "qin"? When mentioned in so many of China's oldest surviving written records, why is the character for qin generally paired with the character for that of another instrument, the se? What are the origins of the physical instrument we know as a qin? What are the origins of the qin philosophy? Or of its use for self-cultivation?

 
Legendary origins of the qin

Kenneth DeWoskin has written the following concerning traditional stories about the origins of the qin,8

There was disagreement over the originator of the qin. The Er-ya, Cai Yong and Yang Xiong attribute it to Fu Xi, perhaps because of his skillful correlation of natural systems. Most texts, however, including the Huainanzi, the etymological dictionary Explaining the Graphs and Explicating Their Combinations,9 Penetrating Popular Ways, and some extant variants of the Book of Documents, attribute it to Shen Nong, perhaps because of his association with silk-making. The availability of silk fiber made it possible to fabricate long, tension-bearing strings for the zither. The "Book of Music" in the established canon has, "In ancient times Shun invented the five-string qin, in order to sing 'Southern Airs'".10

There is also disagreement amongst modern historians and archaeologists. Much of this has to do with terminology: to what sorts of musical instruments did characters such as qin and se originally refer?

 
The earliest Chinese music instruments

Musicologists have arranged all traditional music instruments into four categories,11 and from sites dated to the Shang dynasty archaeologists have found examples for three of these categories:12 membranophones (in particular, skin-head drums), idiophones (chimes and bells) and aerophones (ocarinas and flutes). As for the fourth category, chordophones, although no instruments have been found, evidence from the oracle bones and gu wen suggest that they did exist.

Chordophones13 have been sub-divided into five types, zithers, lutes, harps, lyres and musical bows. Of these there is no evidence in pre-modern China for lyres or musical bows. As for indigenous harps14 or lutes,15 there is no evidence for them in China prior to their introduction there beginning in the Han dynasty. But as for zithers,16 although no physical examples have yet been found that can be dated to before the 5th c. BCE, evidence from oracle bone and gu wen graphs is sufficient to show they did exist in China at least as early as the Shang dynasty.

 
The earliest Chinese zithers

Two specific zither names are known from the earliest Zhou classics: qin and se.17 Unfortunately, the specific details of the instrument or instruments to which each term referred are not clear. This is an especially important point, since it seems likely that by the middle Zhou period there were, or had been, many more than two styles of zithers in existence.18 Most writings suggest that the se refers to instruments with movable bridges and qin refers to those without them. However, it is not clear that these two characters always had this meaning, nor is it possible to determine which style came first.19

Concerning the earliest evidence for ancient Chinese zithers, Dr. Tong Kin-Woon has written the following,20

The qin (琴), a fretless zither21 usually with seven strings (and no movable bridges), and the se (瑟),22 a zither with one movable bridge under each of its 25 strings, are the only two stringed instruments mentioned in the earlier Zhou classics; they are believed to have existed before Shang times.

Two other zithers, the zheng (箏),23 similar to the se but with fewer strings, and the zhu (筑),24 the strings of which were struck with a bamboo stick, were popular in the second half of the Zhou period; these instruments are generally believed to be later developments than the qin or the se. However, archaeology shows that there were more styles of zithers in Zhou times than are mentioned in the classics. It is possible that some unrecorded prototypes of Zhou zithers might have existed in Shang times.

Dr. Tong goes on to say that, since no one has yet found oracle bones with characters specifically for stringed instruments, the earliest known written evidence for them is examples in gu wen script, from inscriptions on ancient bronzes; these date from the early Zhou dynasty.25 Thus, the strongest evidence for zithers during the Shang dynasty is the fact that the earliest oracle bone graphs for music (樂 yue) seem to show two pieces of twisted string (幺, probably silk) over wood (木).26

 
Qinse and Qin Se 27 (compare Qin-style and Se-style

Although, as mentioned above, there were many different styles of zithers during the Zhou dynasty, the only known characters from that period describing them are qin and se, plus zheng and zhu for the late Zhou. Since the actual shapes of the qin and se of that time may have been quite different from what they later became, when discussing that period it is probably best to use the terms "qin-style" and "se-style" rather than "qin" and "se". In addition, the earliest sources generally refer to qin and se as a pair. This might suggest that the term qin se refers to these without distinction, and further that "qinse" might have been a generic term best translated simply as "zithers".

However, the way early literature very often pairs the qin and the se suggests that "qinse" was quite often used simply as a figurative expression. This might be true for any of the qin references in the Book of Songs, said to contain some of China's oldest writing. Its lyrics, which almost always refer to qin and se together, are the source of the phrase, "The qin and se resonate together". This then became a popular expression for "marital harmony".28

 
The earliest physical evidence for the origins of the qin One of the earliest surviving instruments in modern form    

The earliest stringed instruments so far found in China are several qin-styles and se-styles found in late Zhou dynasty tombs in southern China, as in the illustration above. However, these are quite different from the modern qin, examples of which date only from about the 7th century CE. The qin from the Shoso-In in Nara, shown below is one such instrument, as is the one at right. Originally kept at the 法隆寺 Horyuji Temple, also in Nara, it was apparently donated to the Imperial Household in Tokyo in 1878; it is now at the National Museum in Tokyo. The image itself is from Van Gulik, Lore, facing p. 192.29 Numerous other qins still in existence have also been dated from the Tang dynasty. The sophistication of their construction suggests instruments in this style had a long history even then. This is also supported by the existence of seventh century tablature for the melody Jieshidiao You Lan, showing it to be a long and complex melody specifically designed for this instrument. However, it is still not yet possible to say just how long there has been an instrument in this form.

The earliest detailed desciption strongly suggestive of a qin in its modern form seems to be the one in Rhapsody on the Qin (Qin Fu) by Xi Kang (223 - 262). Its descriptions of the physical details of a qin suggest not only that its form in the 3rd century CE was already rather similar to that of qins surviving from the Tang dynasty and later, but also that it had had this shape for some time already.

However, the descriptions of qin in still earlier writings are much less detailed, making it impossible to say for certain just when the qin achieved its modern shape. Surviving instruments from the Han dynasty and earlier have somewhat different shapes (see at top). The earliest written records often depict the qin played in distinctly non-scholarly or non-contemplative settings (see, for example, the story of Zhang Ge and Fu Li). Such evidence, combined with the fact that these records generally do not mention the qin by itself, only qin se together, as though this was a generic term, leaves many questions. It thus remains uncertain what exactly the shape was of the instrument said to have been played by, for example, Confucius and his contemporaries.

Should the excavated qin-styles, with their gradually reduced numbers of strings, be considered not just predecessors of the modern qin, but its ancestors?30 Today it is common to write that the Chu instruments show that part of the evolution from the ancient qin-styles to the modern qin can be seen in the increasing length31 and decreasing number of strings of the Chu instruments.32

However, this theory contradicts the most common legends,33 which generally (but not always34) say that the qin began with five strings then increased in number to seven. In addition, the instruments surviving from Warring States tombs are all from places in the south. The earth in the north, where the five-string qin is said to have had its origins, was apparently harsher on wooden objects left in the ground.35

So another possible theory goes as follows. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties China had a variety of zithers, most without specific names, or with names that have not survived. (There could also have been similar variety later.36) These can be divided into two styles: those without movable bridges were called "qin", but this meant "qin-style"; those with movable bridges were called "se", but this meant "se-style". Amongst the qin-styles was a five-string zither played in the north. The seven-string descendant of this instrument gained status through accounts in the early classics, thereby becoming the true ancestor of our qin. Meanwhile, the qin-styles that have been found in the south were perhaps evolving in the direction of this northern instrument, perhaps because of its status, but they could also have been relatively new instruments, with influences from elsewhere (see further comment). In any case, eventually these southern instruments went out of use.

 
Development of attitudes towards the qin

The main difference between the two leading Chinese zithers, the qin and the zheng, is that the movable bridges on the latter make it much more accessible - hence its popularity in China as well as its spread all over East Asia. Once I read in an essay (unfortunately I cannot recall the title or author) that asked, Why is it that the literati took (or created) as their chosen music instrument one whose physical shape has a design that produces so delicate a sound that it is almost impossible to perform for a general audience? And why does it have an ideology that so strongly claims that it is an instrument that can only be appreciated by refined sensibilities? The author suggests that the development of the modern physical qin and its ideology both took place in the period from the Han to the early Tang dynasties. This was a period when foreign things were becoming quite popular in China, Buddhism in particular. So perhaps traditional Confucians and Daoists thought that by emphasizing the qin but at the same time making it less accessible they could protect it from such "impure" influences.37

Such speculation is very interesting, even if not really very believable. On the other hand, I have not yet found a study that does establish just how and why the Way of the Qin came about.

 
The Way of the Qin

The Rhapsody on the Qin by Xi Kang (223 - 262) marks a defining point in the development of both the physical qin and the attitudes towards it. Although the earliest surviving qins in modern form date only from the 7th century, the description by Xi Kang shows that in the third century it had already arrived at its modern form. And although there are passages in earlier writings that reveal aspects of the philosophical ideas that came to be connected to the qin, this is the first full statement of it. Clearly Xi Kang is not describing a new object or proclaiming a new philosophy. But just how old the physical qin and the Way of the Qin were at that time is a question that has no firm answers.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Varied meanings of the character "qin"
The variety of uses of the character "qin" can cause confusion (and see more on the role of language). Here are some of the issues involved.

  1. In pre-Han writing is not at all clear what sort of music instrument the character qin describes. It could have been a generic name for unspecified zithers with no frets or movable bridges (here simply called "fretless"); likewise, "瑟 se" could have been a generic name for zithers with movable bridges and/or frets (here simply called "fretted"). Or "qin" could have been a specific name used in different parts of China to refer to specific local qin-style instruments. Distinguishing between these two possible meanings is important in discussing whether the qin-styles discovered in archaeological sites dating from the 5th to the 3rd C. BCE were actually called qin at that time, or whether today we should refer to them as qin, qin-type, or something else. Were they ancestors of the qin? Or were they simply qin-styles, the names of which we do not know today, and which lost out to an instrument from another region? Common writing today seems to assume they were ancestors of our qin. My article here discusses why I think perhaps they were competitors, not ancestors (i.e., we today might identify them as of the qin genre, but should not then assume we can connect to them any of the philosophy associated with the qin as mentioned in the Confucian classics).
  2. After the Han dynasty the word "qin" in classical Chinese literature by itself almost always refers to our fretless zither with seven silk strings. However, over time many other stringed instruments came to be called qin: 胡琴 huqin for the two-string fiddle brought to China by the Hu of Central Asia, 月琴 yueqin for the plucked lute with a face like a full moon, and so forth. Eventually, perhaps in the 20th century, the term 古琴 guqin ("old qin") was coined to refer to our seven-string zither.
  3. In modern times, with many foreign instruments defined as styles of qin, many people understand the word to refer to the piano (鋼琴 gangqin), an instrument much more commonly played in China today than is the guqin.

To make a comparison with Western music history, the common saying that "the qin has a 3,000 year old history" is rather comparable to saying "guitars (or indeed pipas) have a history of over 4000 years" because they can be traced back through lutes to the 'ud, which in turn must have descended from stringed instruments found in Western Asia dating back to more than 4000 years ago.
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2. Zhou dynasty qin-style instruments from Chu (see also the discussion below)
Four allegedly qin-style instruments have been discovered in archaeological sites dating from the 5th to the 3rd C. BCE. Excavation dates for these four sites are reported as, respectively, 1977-81, 1980, 1993 and 1972-4. The sites are listed here in the apparent chronological order of the original burial dates. Three of the instruments are depicted above (enlarged here):

Addendum: A related "qin-type" instrument from Chu?  

Note that the above five instruments range in length from 26" to 32" (67 - 82cm) compared to 46" to 48" (ca. 120cm) for most qins since the Tang dynasty. In addition, although today the five instruments mentioned above are usually called "qin", it is not certain by what name they were called in Chu. (See, however, the comment above under Guodian. In addition, one tomb, at Mawangdui, apparently had inside a list of the tomb objects, and this is said to mention "qin", but the shape of the instrument referred to is not clear, nor is it clear who wrote the list, or when.) Finally, the area where the left hand would play appears to be solid, meaning that technically within the chordophone family these seem to be more like harps or lutes than like zithers.

It should here be emphasized that the apparent reason such qin-styles survived only in the south had to do with the climate; they might also have existed elsewhere. In addition, no one has explained their uneven top surfaces, which make it very difficult to play stopped sounds.

An opening scene in the film "Hero" shows a blind man apparently playing a replica of one of these Zhou dynasty instruments. However, the music is a composition by Tan Dun played by Liu Li on a modern guqin with nylon-metal strings. In addition to such music being unplayable on an instrument of that shape, early instruments would all have had silk strings, since metal qin strings were introduced only during China's Cultural Revolution.
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3. Legendary origins of the qin
Legends have the qin invented variously by Fu Xi, Shennong and Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor). It was thus several centuries earlier than Shun (traditional dates 2317-2208) and his five-string qin.

In addition, the 3rd century CE Shan Hai Jing seems to credit a deity named 晏龍 Yan Long (Mild Dragon), a son of 帝俊 Di Jun (great god "Foremost" (see Birrell, p.195.)
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4. Speculation about who originally played the qin
In mainland China 1949 writers insisted that it was originally played by common people. Other speculation includes it having been developed by 巫師 wushi (encompassing wizards, geomancers, etc.; search the internet for 巫師琴).
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5. Early figurines qin: "qin"?
These figurines never have labels.
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6. Historical origins of the qin: 3,000 year history?
Many sources actually claim "5,000 years of history", but one can instantly discount such claims as unfounded. The Oxford online dictionary defines history (
q.v.) as "the study of past events, particularly in human affairs". This is usually interpreted to mean that the "history" of something (in this case the qin) begins when someone starts writing about it. One can debate whether the simple mention of the word "qin" means writing about what we would identify as a qin. According to my own understanding if we have no description of what the word means then it is difficult to know of what it is historical evidence. Even when it is mentioned in Sima Qian's Annals of History it is not clear the nature of the instruments he mentions. Strictly speaking the earliest mentions of qin that clearly refer to something that might produce sounds we recognize as qin sounds seem to be in Xi Kang's Qin Fu. From this 3rd c. CE descriptions of qin music at that time it is clear that the music was then already highly developed. Thus, to my mind, the history of the qin begins either then, or some time during the Han dynasty, if you can argue that a specific Han dynasty description suggests the music might be of the nature described by Xi Kang.
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7. Earliest mention of "qin" in literature
For the specific references to qin (and se) in the Book of Songs (詩經 Shi Jing) and the Book of Documents (尚書 Shang Shu) see Qinshu Daquan Folio 16, Written Records.
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8. Traditional stories for origins of qin
See Kenneth DeWoskin, A Song for One or Two, Music and the Concept of Art in Early China, Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies, #4; Ann Arbor, Center for Chinese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1982. p.57. Romanization has been converted here from Wade-Giles. His account does not mention the Shan Hai Jing account mentioned above.
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9. Shuo Wen: Shuowen Jiezi
36404.9 說文 Shuo Wen = .16 說文解字 Shuowen Jiezi, by 許慎 Xu Shen (30 - 124; ICTCL). See in Wikipedia. The original text can be found in the China Text Project,
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10. Shun played a 5-stringed qin
The earliest known occurrence of this statement, "故舜彈五絃之琴,歌南風之詩,而天下治 In ancient times Shun invented the five-string qin, in order to sing 'Southern Airs'" (later also called Nan Xun Ge) is in 《禮記,樂記》 Li Ji the Book of Music (or Records of Music) in the Book of Rites. Other quotes from Li Ji are included in Qinshu Daquan, Folio 16 (Written Records). This one was often quoted later. See, for example, Qinshu Daquan, Folio 1 (quoting Fengsu Tong).
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11. Categorization of Musical Instruments
To the original four categories of musical instruments (membranophones, idiophones, aerophones and chordophones) a fifth category has been added today: electronic instruments. For more information on the original four categories, as well as the further subdivision of chordophones into five types (zithers, lutes, harps, lyres and musical bows) see Music Instrument Categories and their Chinese translation on the glossary page.
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12. Shang dynasty musical instruments
Music instruments in Shang dynasty China are the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation by Tong Kin-Woon at Wesleyan University, 1983 (Shang Musical Instruments; see publication details). Dr. Tong's work primarily concerns oracle bones (see Wikipedia) and gu wen (again Wikipedia). As mentioned above, in oracle bones there is specific mention of instruments we categorize today as membranophones, idiophone and aerophones, but in surviving oracle bones there is no occurrence of the character 琴 qin, indeed, no mention of any specific chordophone. Nevertheless, evidence from the oracle bones and gu wen suggest that at that time chordophones did exist.

In Chapter Seven (op. cit., XV-2, p.73) Dr. Tong points out that the three main characters now associated with sound all have their origin in oracle bones, and that each seems to have depicted a different type of music: string, chime and wind. The three graphs are,

  1. The original graph of the character now meaning music, 樂 yue. This early graph was once thought to show two drums mounted on a stand; Dr. Tong shows that it more likely depicted two twisted strings, with wood at the bottom.
  2. The original graph of the character now meaning sound, 聲 sheng. The early graph suggests a chime (磬 qing) over an ear (耳 er).
  3. The original graph of the character now meaning musical note, 音 yin. The early graph suggests a flute (made from an early form of 言 yan, now meaning "speech" but then referring to a vertical flute) over a mouth (曰 yue, here meaning the same as 口 kou).

Instruments known to have existed during the Shang dynasty include idiophones such as the 磬 qing and aerophones such as 塤 xun and "言 yan" (as just mentioned above; the Classics specifically mention the 簫 xiao,笛/篴 di and 箎 chi). For others there is also early historical mention after the oracle bones (e.g., 5465 塤 says xun is mentioned as early as the 後漢書 History of the Latter Han Dynasty). Some, such as the xun disappeared from mention, only to be revived in modern times.

As for the "history" of these Shang instruments in general, although there may be mention of them in historical records at least as early as those for the qin and se, there are no descriptions. And as for the qin in particular, in greater antiquity there do not seem to have been any records or legends either describing its appearance or suggesting it had greater antiquity than other instruments.
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13. Chordophones
For more information on the categories of stringed instruments, see the footnote under Qin: Lute or Zither?
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14. Harp-types (豎琴類 shuqin-lei Sancai Tuhui: konghou      
Shuqin (37121.xxx; 9/1348), literally "vertical qin", is the modern word for harp. It was apparently derived from shukonghou, "vertical konghou".

37121.24 豎箜篌 shukonghou and 30741.74 臥箜篌 wokonghou (reclining konghou) both have their earliest quotes from 唐書,禮樂志 Tang History, Ritual Music Annal; 9/1348 豎箜篌 has its earliest quote from 隋書,音樂志 Sui History, Music Annal. The illustration at right was taken from 26691.1 箜篌 konghou, which says 樂器名,一作空侯、坎侯 it is the name of a music instrument, also called 空侯 (25994.155) and 坎侯 kanhou (5047.19). 風俗通 Feng Su Tong explains kanhou as follows, "孝武皇...始用樂人侯調依琴作坎坎之樂,言其坎坎應節奏也 Emperor Wu (r. 140 - 86)...was the first to have a musician, Hou Diao, use a qin-style instrument to make a chopping/drumming sort of sound, saying the drumming should have rhythm" (see next paragraph for the source of this Emperor Wu story). 5047.9 坎坎 kankan says it is 擊鼓聲也 a drum sound, giving references to Shi Jing #165 伐木 ("坎坎鼓我 we drum bang bang") and #112 伐檀 ("坎坎伐檀 chop chop the hardwood"). Meanwhile 5047 坎 kan gives one definition as 鼓鼙之聲讙 the sound of hitting a "pi" drum, and 49354 鼙 pi is defined as "騎鼓也 a small drum (perhaps played on a horse)", adding "與琵同 the same as 琵 pi", as in 琵琶 pipa lute (21568.1 琵琶 has as its earliest references such late Han sources as 釋名,釋器, but 49354.1 鼙婆 pipo has 搜神記 a fourth century source saying it is 琵琶之別名 another name for pipa). When combined with the fact that 49321 鼓 gu "drumming" was commonly used with qin, it seems likely that all these words meaning "strike" simply meant "play", without revealing much about the playing method.

The Feng Su Tong passage just quoted was intended to explain what seems to have been the earliest reference to a konghou, in Shi Ji, Chapter 12 (孝武 Emperor Wu; repeated in 28, 封禪書 Feng and Shan Sacrifices). Here it says, according to Watson's translation (RGH II, p. 40),

"A number of boys were summoned (by Emperor Wu) to sing at the services and 25-stringed zithers and harps of the kind called konghou were made. It was at this time that zithers and harps first came into use for religious ceremonies."

The two original versions of this are slightly different and both rather confusing due to at least one apparently missing character and no punctuation in the original:

益召歌兒,作二十五弦(瑟?)及箜篌瑟自此起。 (Chapter 12, p. 472)
益召歌兒,作二十五弦(瑟?)及空侯琴瑟自此起。 (Chapter 28, p. 1396)

From this it is not clear what is said to have begun from here. The first seems literally to say someone made "a 25-string (se?) and a konghou (and?) se". The second has him making "a 25-string (se?) and konghou (and?) qinse." Both then add, "(These) began from here." I don't know where Watson's "for religious ceremonies" comes from.

Unfortunately, there are no depictions of the physical shape of any type of konghou until several centuries after Emperor Wu. The Sancai Tuhui illustration, presumably if an undated reclining konghou, doesn't seem much to resemble a harp. Images called konghou that resemble vertical harps entered China during the Latter Han Dynasty; they tend to be Buddhist images, often showing harps played by 天女 heavenly maidens. Both styles of harps were apparently popular during the Tang dynasty, but disappeared shortly afterwards.

In sum, neither these literary examples nor the earliest illustrations can be used to establish when true harp-type instruments were first developed or introduced into China. As for archaeological evidence, Prof. Bo Lawergren has written about tuning keys dating from as early as the 5th C. BCE being unearthed in various places where Chinese would have been the local language. Prof. Lawergren writes that these tuning keys are similar to those used on West Asian harps (compare steppe-harps such as the one depicted below; I have not yet found references to any actual harps from that time being found in Han China regions.) Lawergren also writes that, because the tuning pegs on many instruments were too close together to be easily turned by hand, keys (often quite large and elaborate) were used to turn the tuning pegs. He specifically associates these tuning keys with local qin-style instruments (as at top). However, Wu Yuehua argues that, while the tuning keys were often placed together with the se-type instruments, they are never placed directly with the qin-type instruments.
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15. Lute-types
It is generally agreed that lutes arrived in China later than harps. The basic definition of a lute is that it has a fingerboard separate from the sound box. To this it might be added that zithers, Chinese ones in particular, tend to be made from rather thick wood. Lutes, on the other hand, usually have very thin wood: fingerboards are necessary because pressing directly onto the wood of the sound box would damage the wood as well as dampen the sound.

Many types of lutes arrived in China from around the end of the Han dynasty. This corresponds with the general introduction of Buddhism in China. Perhaps the assocation of lutes with Buddhism was one factor leading Daoists and Confucians to put such emphasis on the qin.
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16. Zither-types 箏類樂器
"Zither" here is a technical term intended to describe one category of chordophones (compare "lute"). Each of the two Chinese names for these zithers, qin and se, may have actually described a variety of instruments rather than being names of specific ones. This is discussed further below. It should be noted that the classic definition of a zither says it is an instrument that has a soundbox running the length of the whole instrument, with no separate fingerboard. However, the Hornbostel system does sometimes seem to break down, and here the problem is with instruments in which the sound box does not extend the length of the instrument, but neither is there a separate fingerboard. Such instruments include "stick zithers". From my understanding of the Chu instruments, their solid upper bodies (opposite end from the plucking area) means they are not true zithers; on the other hand, these upper bodies do not seem to be fingerboards: does this make them a type of hybrid stick zither? (See further.)
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17. Qin and Se (琴與瑟) or Qin-styles and Se-styles (琴式與瑟式)
In Shang Musical Instruments, Chapter Seven (op. cit., p.68ff.), Dr. Tong describes how the oracle bone graph for music, yue, actually depicts a stringed instrument. He then goes on to give further examples suggesting the existence of stringed instruments at that time. However, the first known use of specific names for stringed instruments does not come until the Book of Songs, which mentions the qin and se numerous times, almost always as a pair (see qinse). Other zithers are not mentioned until Sima Qian's Annals of History (2nd C. BCE), which mentions a zheng and a zhu.

Common usage of the characters "琴 qin" and "瑟 se" is to apply them to a variety of instruments from archeological sites that did not actually name them; likewise, where these characters appear in written texts there is no description of their appearance. This common usage makes it difficult, for people trying to be more precise in writing about Han times and earlier, to use the words "qin" and "se" either as technical terms (as may also be implied by "qin-type" or "se-type") or as the names of specific instruments. As a result of this uncertainty they are in these cases here (somewhat arbitrarily) called "qin-styles" and "se-styles" rather than "qin-types" and "se-types". In general I use these terms as follows:

Furthermore, as will be discussed further below, it is not at all clear that the so-called qin-style instruments found in early tombs were in fact zithers. The left end was solid, giving the appearance of a fingerboard; this would make them generically lutes. However, it is also not clear that the left end was actually used, with the result that Prof. Lawergren (see below) suggests they are modified harps.
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18. How many styles of zithers were there in ancient China?
Several factors suggest that ancient China had many more zithers than can accurately be described by two characters. The reasons include:

  1. The varying descriptions of zithers, whether called qin or se
  2. Stories such as that of Zhang Ge and Fu Li suggesting at one time it was quite different in sound and use.
  3. The shape of the qin-style and se-style instruments unearthed in late Zhou tombs (from Chu, where they may not even be zithers)
  4. Surviving figurines from the Han dynasty showing people seated playing what could be zither-type instruments.

The possibility of there having been a variety of zithers in different parts of China, as well as over time, is an important factor to consider in determining the origin of the modern qin. For further on this see below.
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19. Which came first, the qin or the se?
See Van Gulik, Lore, Chapter 1, for a further discussion of this. On p. 14 Van Gulik suggests that the characters qin and se both evolved from a single prototype related to the top part, which is the same for both characters (see image below). Further, one can speculate that the original instrument was simply a box with a string or strings across it. Making from this a playable instrument without bridges (or frets) would require good skills in designing and making the top very smooth. Making such an instrument by adding bridges might have been easier. Based on this small amount of information, however, it is not possible to say which style of instrument came first.
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20. Tong Kin-Woon, op. cit., XV-2, p.68.
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21. Dr. Tong uses "zither" here as a generic term; by "fretless" he probably means it has no movable bridges.
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22. Se 瑟     (19th c. image) Image: a Warring States period se from Mawangdui
The two most ancient Chinese stringed instruments are the qin and se zithers, but by the Tang dynasty the se was largely extinct except as a ritual instrument, having largely been replaced by the zheng. As for the earliest surviving mention of the se, Dr. Tong, op. cit., p. 80, says that this is its mention together with the qin in the Shi Jing. Some sources say the se originally had 50 strings, but that the Yellow Emperor (other sources say Fu Xi) reduced this to 25. Dr. Tong adds that more than 30 se from the late Zhou dynasty have been unearthed; none had more than 25 strings. For more on its origins see a footnote below.
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23. Zheng 箏 (also called 古箏 guzheng) Image: a Warring States period zheng from near Suzhou: is this the bottom side?
The zheng is considered to be a small form of the se. Its earliest mention can be found in the Annals of the Historian (Shi Ji), Annal, Biography of Li Si (?280 - 208; 史記,李斯列傳, 2543). The translation from GSR, VII, p.339, followed by the original, is as follow:

Beating on jugs, tapping on jars, plucking the (zheng) zither, and striking thigh bones while singing and crying "Woo! Woo!" to delight the ear, this is the true music of Qin.
夫擊甕叩缶彈箏傅髀,而歌呼嗚嗚快耳(目)者,真秦之聲也。

However, the paragraph goes on to say that now people of Qin have abandoned their own instruments, such as the zheng, in favor of instruments from other states. Since Qin was centered in the area around modern Xi'an, and zheng-style instruments have been unearthed far to the east, in 吳縣長橋 Changqiao, Wu county (area around Suzhou, but as yet I have been unable to find out exactly where), and dated to at least the 5th c. BCE, it is difficult to know what to make of this. Note also that the popular story saying that the zheng was made by splitting a se in half must date from much later than this.

The movable bridges on the zheng have always made it more accessible than the qin, leading the zheng to be adopted and adapted by all countries in East Asia. There is some comment above regarding speculation as to why the Chinese literati focused on the qin rather than the zheng. It should be emphasized, though, that many zheng players have often aspired to what might be called a qin aesthetic, and so it is not accurate to say that qin music is necessarily going to be more elegant (雅 ya) than zheng music. This is especially true of the modern qin, whose nylon-metal strings might be seen as resulting from an effort beginning during the Cultural Revolution to release it from the restrictions literati may have imposed on the qin almost two millenia earlier.
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24. Zhu 筑 (Wikipedia and poetic references) Images: zhus from Mawangdui and Leigudun
The lower zhu at right seems to have been restored (see strings). The zhu is sometimes said to have been fretted but not so in these images. It was apparently played with a bamboo stick. It is mentioned in the Shi Ji biography of Han Gaozu. Dr. Tong, op. cit., p. 81, writes that the earliest known mention of the zhu is in "the Zhou text Zhan Guo Ce (section 'Qi Ce' 戰國策,齊策). Thus the zhu was first popular not later than the 4th century B.C. Its exact number of strings is not clear. Although some zhu were made in later generations, the Zhou style zhu became extinct soon after the Zhou period."
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25. Dr. Tong, op. cit., p. 76, points out that only a small percentage of the total number of the estimated number of oracle bones have been uncovered; he thinks quite likely an example showing specifically a stringed instrument will one day be found.
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26. Tracing the source of the characters for qin and se Top: Dr. Tong; Bottom: gu wen 
Dr. Tong,
op. cit., p. 81, speculates that the characters 琴 qin and 瑟 se have a common origin, as indicated by the similar figures at the top (which in modern terms look like two pieces of jade). He theorizes that "the upper part of (both) words perhaps shows the cross-section of a zither looking from the end" (see at right). Regarding Zhou dynasty characters, Van Gulik in his discussion the origin of the character 琴 for qin, Lore, pp. 10 - 16 (see also above), gives some examples such as the two gu wen figures below Dr. Tong's example at right. The bottom element is a phonetic; the top parts show that the two at top "have nothing to do with jade".

Dr. Tong, op. cit., p. 80, relates that, although some stories say the se originally had 50 strings, "The Lüshi Chunqiu gives a different and more reasonable story concerning the evolution of the se, though it may not be historically accurate either. It says that originally the se had five strings, and the father of the legendary pre-Xia emperor Shun (舜) changed it to 15 strings. Emperor Shun in turn ordered his subjects to make it a zither with 23 strings (Lüshi Chunqiu, Juan 5, ch. "Ancient Music")." The story is translated in Knoblock and Riegel, p. 149.
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27. 琴瑟 Qin se
This expression perhaps originally referred to zither-type instruments (see glossary and Shi Jing references). In general literature it often referred to marital harmony (again alluding to the Shi Jing), though it seems later also to suggest flirtation (e.g., in Jingshi Tongyan #9.)

21570.72 琴瑟 quotes from the following sources (the links go to more complete quotations):

In constrast to the Shi Jing, with its many references to qinse, the Chu Ci only mentions them separately (it mentions se seven times but qin only once.
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28. Qin and se resonate together (琴瑟和鳴 qin se heming)
For qin se see previous. An example of qin se he ming is the calligraphy (done for a wedding invitation) at the top of the Guqin Table of Contents. 21570.73 is 琴瑟調和 qin se tiaohe (qin and se play in harmony), and 4/587 has 琴瑟不調 qin se butiao (qin and out of harmony); both allude to the marital state, but neither has qin se heming. Shi Jing has a number of references to qin se, the closest to this being in poem 153, 常棣 Cherry Tree, where it says, "妻子好合,如鼓瑟琴 husband and wife are in harmony, as if playing se and qin". However, the exact expression qin se heming seems to have come into use much later. (Compare the he of He Ming Jiugao.)
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29. Earliest surviving guqins   The craftsmanship that goes into making high quality guqins makes them art objects as well as musical instruments and, indeed, spiritual objects. This is true whether the instrument is playable, as with the one originally in the 法隆寺 Horyuji Temple in Nara depicted above, or whether it is not, as with the example at right (expand), also dated to the Tang dynasty but still at the 正倉院 Shosoin in Nara, Japan. With this latter instrument, the elaborate artwork on what would normally have been the playing surface on top made the instrument unsuitable for normal qin play. Other Tang dynasty instruments, such as the one called 九霄環佩 Jiuxiao Huanpei now in the National Palace Museum, Beijing, are admired for the elegant simplicity of their style.

It is extremely rare to find prized instruments with ornaments that make them unplayable. The stratospheric prices ancient qins have commanded in recent times can be credited much more to a combination of the beauty of the lacquer cracks as well as the inscriptions on the back. (In December 2010 a Song dynasty qin called "松石間意 Song Shi Jian Yi", with inscriptions connecting it to the Song emperor Huizong, sold for US$22 million, a world record for musical instruments.) Unfortunately, there are no recordings available for many of these antique treasures (see further under Qins in Captivity?).
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30. Are the Zhou dynasty qin-styles actually "qin"?
Prof. Bo Lawergren has written several articles discussing connections between both the modern qin and the excavated "qin-style" ("zither-type") instruments, and between these qin-styles and what in earlier publications he identified as "steppe harps". Although for convenience I use the terms "qin-styles" and "zither-types", as will be seen from my discussion, I am not sure either expression is accurate. Prof. Lawergren, on the other hand, refers to the excavated qin-styles as "ancient qin zithers". This is in line with his apparent belief that these unearthed qin-styles are predecessors of the modern qin. He also argues that they can be shown to have foreign influence, or even a foreign origin. His writings on this include,

  1. Bo Lawergren, Strings, in Music in the Age of Confucius, pp. 65 - 85. Washington, D.C., Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2000.
  2. Bo Lawergren, Western Influences on the Early Chinese Qin-Zither, in Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 75, pp. 79 - 109. Stockholm, 2003.
  3. Bo Lawergren, Metamorphosis of the Qin, 500 BCE-CE 500 in Orientations, May 2003, pp.31-8.
  4. Bo Lawergren, The Iconography and Decoration of the Ancient Chinese Qin-Zither (500 BCE to 500 CE), in Music in Art XXXI/1-2, pp. 47 - 62. New York, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Spring-Fall 2007.

One intriguing aspect of his argument points to the structure of the Zhou dynasty qin-styles, as seen in the illustration at top (especially the upper instrument, shown again in the illustration with the paragraph below). He says the narrow left-hand end of the pre-Han qin-styles evokes not so much a zither-type instrument as some known harps from Central Asia. Archaeological sites in regions west of China have yielded stringed instruments (most or all apparently had strings made of sinew) belonging to three of the four main types: a variety of lutes, lyres and harps, but no zithers. China, on the other hand, apparently had a variety of zithers (all apparently had silk strings) but none of the other types of chordophones. Prof. Lawergren then argues that these pre-Han qin-styles might form an intermediary instrument between Central Asian harps and our modern qin.
 
The solid area at the left end of the ancient qin-style instruments described above seems at first glance to make them organologically lutes, not harps or zithers. This should mean that this solid area was used as a fingerboard, but its uneven surface suggests that this was not the case. This is another reason Prof. Lawergren believes these early qin-styles may have developed from harps, several examples of which have been found in the steppe regions of Central Asia. The illustration at right, showing a qin-style from Leigudun (shown and described above with other qin-styles) over a steppe harp dating to 400-200 BCE from 扎滾魯克 Zaghunluq in Xinjiang, shows the relationship. Close comparisons show the possible connection between this harp and the surviving ancient qin-styles. In addition, some West Asian harps were tuned using tuning-keys (軫鑰 zhenyao), and Prof. Lawergren has argued that some of the excavated qin-styles were also tuned in this way. (The tuning keys turned tuning pegs, which in turn had intermediary cords [now called rongkou] running through them; twisting the cords tightened or loosed the strings.) However, Wu Yuehua argues that such keys have never been found together with the qin-type instruments, only the se-type (modern qin are never known to have used tuning keys). Building on his own argument Prof. Lawergren has cited instances of tuning keys found in various parts of China, especially the north, as well as in Central Asia. He considers this evidence that the excavated qin-styles were also used in the north, the region from which our modern qin is said to have originated.

However, all this information together can lead one to an understanding of the excavated qin-styles that is quite different from that of Prof. Lawergren. Since at that time China is not known to have had indigenous harps or lutes, but did have zithers, it may be that these early qin-style instruments from Chu more likely resulted either from someone taking a local zither and imitating the structure of a steppe harp (in this regard see the earliest story of the konghou, above), or taking a steppe harp and making it look more like a local zither. Either of these could have resulted in an instrument having what looks like a lute-type fingerboard, but which actually allowed only harp-type plucking, the top surface being so uneven.

Prof. Lawergren has suggested that "mention of Boya's expressive playing probably implies the use of glissandi by the mid-3rd century (BCE)", but speaking as a qin player, such mention of Boya suggests to me that he must have been able to play ornaments that can only be done when stopping strings with his left hand; that these could not be done on the Chu instruments is one of the major factors suggesting they could at best be considered "qin-style" rather than "qin".

Perhaps, then, the Chu instruments were a dead end, and the fact that they did not continue in use is due to the failed attempt to adapt an original Chinese instrument to a foreign one, or to adapt a foreign instrument to an existing indigenous Chinese one.

In this regard, though, it is interesting to consider the possibility that Chinese qin- and se-style instruments (i.e., not two specific instruments but two instrument types: zithers without frets or movable bridges, and zithers with one or the other; further) were descended from board zithers (which have no soundbox). In this case the sound box of the Chu instruments could be considered as possibly an intermediate step, or at least as instruments that did have an influence on the development of the qin. Once again, though, the lack of archaeological information from northern China makes this entirely speculative.

In addition, although tuning keys have been found in various parts of Han-speaking China, it is not at all clear for what instruments they were intended. Were some brought from Central Asia because someone liked their appearance? If they were intended for music instruments, what is to say it was a zither rather than a harp? If on a zither, could it have been a local one modified to have properties of a steppe harp (see again the konghou story)? If on a harp, could it have been a steppe harp modified to have properties of a local music instrument? To establish a further connection between the qin-styles and the modern qin Prof. Lawergren compares a perceived circle and square in the shape of the qin-styles with the round and square sound pegs of our qin; this seems very unlikely.

With only five or six examples of these excavated qin-styles, all from the same region and none having known names, it is difficult to speak definitively about their connections with the Central Asian harp or with the modern qin. Presumably, though, one can conclude that similarities between the harp and the qin-styles, if not coincidental, resulted either from taking a harp and making it flatter, or from taking an existing local Chinese instrument and modifying it to be more like a harp.

In his argument that the excavated qin-styles are ancestors of the modern qin, Prof. Lawergren does not discuss the possibility of an indigenous Chinese qin-style or se-style being modified under influence from a steppe harp. His argument thus apparently is based on the scenario in which a flattened version of the steppe harp continued to evolve until it became our qin. Since no earlier qin-styles have yet been found, nor has anyone argued that the excavated se-styles are ancestors of the excavated qin-styles, this circumstance cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, while we know that the people of Chu had the character "se", the character "qin" has not been found in pre-Han Chu writings or archaeological objects. The later variety within the zither family suggests there could well have been more types of local zithers than the limited types that have been found in the small region of southern Hubei and northern Hunan. Within this context, several factors favor the scenario in which the excavated qin-styles resulted from the modification of an already existing local qin-style, one which archaeologists have not yet been able to find. One such factor is the antiquity of the character "qin" and the long tradition that it is different from the se; this difference is generally considered to be its lack of frets or movable bridges. Another factor is the tradition that says the qin originally had five strings, eventually expanding to seven: in contrast, the number of strings on the unearthed qin-styles was decreasing.

If the Chinese tradition is correct, there was an ancient local zither that evolved into our qin. Given this, it is not difficult to imagine people in Chu or elsewhere, having heard and enjoyed the sound of a harp, deciding to modify their a local instrument (whether zither or not) to be more like that harp. Qins are not mentioned in early southern literature, such as the Songs of Chu. If the people there respected the qin because of its philosophical connotations, but did not like its sound, perhaps they might have modified it, hoping it would sound like a harp. Again, though, it must be emphasized that, given the amount of hard evidence currently available, all of this is very speculative.
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31. Traditional qin length
As can be seen from the footnote to the picture at top, the length of the longest pre-Han "qin" is still about 25% shorter than the shortest surviving qins in modern form (the form they have had at least since the 7th c. CE).

Chinese tradition (see, e.g., Taiyin Daquanji, Folio 1) says the length of the qin should be 三尺六寸六分 3 chi, 6 cun, 6 fen, i.e., 3.66 chi, representing the 366 (or so) days of the year. Most qin are between 120 - 125 cm (47 - 49"). For 120.8 cm to equal 3.66 chi requires a chi 33 cm in length to have a length of about 33 cm (about 13"). Modern chi approach that length but historical records generally generally suggest the earlier the date the shorter the chi, starting with 16.95 cm during the Shang dynasty (see online chart). This, of course, might be considered as evidence that the qin was originally much shorter than it is at present.

However, there is also a tradition saying there once were small, medium and large qins (see image and its commentary).
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32. Traditional number of qin strings
The tradition that the number of strings was decreasing is discussed in the following footnote.
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33. Legendary origin of the qin: standard version
The most common early references have Shun playing a five string qin. The story that Wen Wang and Wu Wang each added one string, making our seven string qin, seems to appear later. Thus 禮記,樂記 the Records of Music in the Book of Rites mentions only the five string qin of Shun, with a 疏 commentary (undated (?)) adding that it did not have the two strings named after Wen Wang and Wu Wang.
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34. Legendary origin of the qin: variations from the standard version
A Song dynasty account called Six Classes of Qin mentions a 27-string qin as well as ones with 5, 7, 9 and 13 strings.

The legend of a 27-string "big qin" called a "離 li" is discussed further under Fu Xi. According to Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology, pp. 44-45, mention of Fu Xi is both rather late (Han dynasty), and Tai Hao was a deity associated with Sichuan. Perhaps this might support archaeological claims of there being long zithers in southern China with more than seven strings.
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35. Northern earth not conducive to preserving wooden objects?
The earth around the Chu tombs is said to have been very wet, allowing the preservation of the wood; in earth in the north is mostly very dry. I do not know the scientific basis for this claim, or what statistical details back it up.
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36. Varying types of qin and se without specific names?
This possibility of there having been many varieties of qin and se type zithers that did not survive - either in archeological or written records - is increased by the fact of Chinese lacking an alphabet, as this hinders the development of new written words, specifically, individual names for differing types of long zithers. This in turn complicates an effort to trace the history of the qin - or even to say what is meant by "history of the qin" (see related comment above).

This profusion of instruments in some way related to the qin seems to have continued later during certain periods of Chinese history. For example, the Song dynasty Music Book (樂書 Yue Shu) of Chen Yang includes a description of various types of "qin". Whether or not this list was descriptive of instruments Chen Yang (whose emphasis was on ritual instruments) had seen, or ones about which he had only read, the lack of substantial corroborating evidence for these combined with their disappearance suggests not only that some may have had limited and temporary use, and that others may not actually have existed at all other than in theory, but also that there may have been many others that disappeared without a trace. There may have been regional folk instruments, for example, for which a written name was never developed and of which no examples survive. Does this mean they never existed?
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37. Qin as not easily accessible
I am still trying to find the quote, but according to my recollection it suggested that the modern (or "classic") design of the qin came about as part of this effort by literati, starting during the latter Han dynasty, to make the qin less accessible; the development of the qin went with this side-by-side. Related to this, see the comment above about the arrival in China of lutes, as well as the footnote regarding the zheng.
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