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A Brief Introduction to the Guqin Silk-String Zither 1

Illustration from 1525 CE          
What is today usually called the guqin (old qin) was generally in the past called simply the qin. It is the most revered of all Chinese music instruments, one of the few played today known to have originated amongst the Han Chinese. It is of very
ancient origin, said to have been invented by one of the earliest legendary emperors, and its appearance is hardly different from the complete (except for lacquer) description given in the 3rd century Rhapsody on the Qin by Xi Kang.

Since then, as other string instruments were introduced into China, many of them have come also to be referred to as types of qin: the huqin fiddle from the Hu people of Central Asia; the yueqin or moon qin, named for its shape; the small-arm qin for the Western violin.2 It was perhaps to distinguish it from these that the qin came to be called the old qin. It is also sometimes called the seven-string qin (at one time it was said to have had five strings). The term used here, silk-string qin, is not found in any traditional dictionary. My reasons for using it are given in the section on silk strings.

Throughout recorded history the Chinese silk-string zither was the chosen instrument of the Chinese literati, played for personal enjoyment and self-cultivation.4 At the same time stories such as that of the scholar Boya meeting the woodcutter Ziqi have spoken to the concept of zhiyin: identifying with someone through the way they either play or listen to the qin.5

Codification of the significance of the guqin, both its music and the surrounding philosophy, can be found in such Ming dynasty ain handbooks as Taiyin Daquanji and Qinshu Daquan. By that time it had become one of the scholars' Four Arts, the others being qi (a board game usually referred to in English by its Japanese name, go), shu, (calligraphy/books), and hua (painting). Likewise, the vast majority of references to musical instruments in classical Chinese painting and poetry were and continued to be to the qin.

Other than its translation of qin as "lute", Lore of the Chinese Lute by R. H. van Gulik remains the best introduction to the qin and its importance to Chinese culture. Although van Gulik admits the qin is organologically a zither (a soundbox with strings across), he calls it a lute (a generic term for instruments in which the strings extend along a fingerboard as well as across the soundbox) because in medieval Western society the function of the aristocratic lute most closely matched that of the qin in Chinese society. In fact, the similarities between the qin and the Western lute are rather superficial, and the main result of Van Gulik's decision to translate qin as lute has been much confusion for readers of Chinese poetry in translation.

Qin melody titles are thematic, the images evoked in the titles on my recordings being typical: an idyllic past; the enjoyment of friendship; sadness at separation (literati often had to serve the government far from home); happiness of a society with upright rulers, but misery when correct principles are not followed (literati were part of the ruling elite); the beauties of nature; escape from the ordinary routines of society.

The demise of the literati as a class led to a considerable decrease in the number of players and in the size of the active repertoire. Then after 1949 its inescapable association with the scholar/mandarin class put it in a precarious position. As a result, there was no emphasis on the qin as an instrument of self-cultivation. Instead, writings of that period generally described it as a folk instrument. This was particularly true during the Cultural Revolution.

Before the Cultural Revolution, however, the approach of emphasizing folk origins allowed quite a lot of important qin work to be carried out between 1949 and 1965. Led by the famous qin player and researcher Zha Fuxi, a number of recordings were made of older qin players (all with silk-string qins), and many handbooks were collected. An index of the results of this field work was published in a very important book called Cunjian Guqin Qupu Jilan (Guide to Existing Guqin Pieces in Tablature).6

During this work, Zha Fuxi was able to locate 104 different qin handbooks with over 650 music pieces, many having multiple versions, printed between 1425 and 1946. These handbooks, plus a few others found since, are being reprinted in Beijing in the multi-volume series Qinqu Jicheng (Collection of Qin Pieces).7 And many of the recordings of that time were issued on phonograph discs, later re-issued as CDs.

Today almost all players use metal strings, developed since 1949 and symbolizing the qin's transition into a performance instrument, in which form it is currently making a comeback. According to my knowledge, there were about 80 CDs devoted to qin available as of December 2000, almost all produced in the 1990s. However, with a very few exceptions, the only CDs featuring silk-string qins were re-releases of recordings made prior to the Cultural Revolution.8 The most interest in silk strings seems to be outside of China. Even here, though, besides my own recordings, there are very few other recordings using silk strings.9

The qin is the only non-Western instrument tradition of written music substantial enough10 to allow historically informed performance of its ancient repertoire. The music was written in tablature collected into handbooks. However, this tablature does not have compositions in the Western sense, where a composer is writing his creation so that others can perform it. Instead the tablature is more like transcriptions (recordings) of live performances by particular players. If the player is a teacher, these may also be teaching versions, from which an actual playing might vary.

The tablature (as contrasted with notation, which has notes) describes in considerable detail the finger positions, plucking techniques and ornaments used. Players are expected to know the melodies already, or to learn them from a teacher, and so the note values (which were in any case to a certain extent flexible) are not specifically indicated.

Dapu, the process of recovering, or reinterpreting, the music in these handbooks, has been the focus of several conferences in China; many qin players have worked at dapu. Because music is a language with structure there are many clues to what the original rhythms might have been. There is also considerable scope for interpretation.

As for the tablature itself, over 600 distinct titles survive in printed form. A few survive from publications of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1280), and there is one tablature (You Lan) preserved in Japan from the 6th century. But most tablature of that period was hand copied, not printed, and so if it has survived it is through later copies. The earliest large collection of qin tablature to actually to survive is that in the Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425 AD)

Styles of qin play have evolved over time, and they varied from region to region. One old tradition says that qin music should be accompanied by song. Different attitudes have been expressed concerning ornamentation, but generally it is said that there has been a gradual increase in left hand complexity.

Published research has generally shown that, as traced through time, any particular qin piece tends to become more complex in its left hand movements. This indicates not that pieces with complex left hand movements are newer, but that they have been longer in the active repertoire. The qin pieces in SQMP apparently come from different periods of time, some perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty. Can one compare the complexity of left hand movements in different pieces to try to help date them?

Comparing my reconstructions and the original tablature with my recordings, I note that I tend to use less ornamentation than indicated. Perhaps in this I am inspired by the famous early 13th century qin master Yelü Chucai, who wrote in two poems that players of his day often used left hand ornamentation to excess. Perhaps I am also influenced by the quality of strings currently available.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 琴、古琴 Qin/Guqin
古琴 Gu Qin is pronounced "goo cheen" with a rising tone on "chin", as though you are not sure you are saying it correctly.
3308.307 古琴 says only that it means 古時之琴也 qin from the olden days, giving as its earliest reference 庾信,幽居值春詩 a poem by Yu Xin (513 - 581).

A search of the Chinese Text Project shows 443 occurrences of the word 琴 qin but only one of 古琴 gu qin (in Shuo Yuan; see under Sun Xi), where it probably means simply an old qin (by the fourth century the qin had certainly achieved its modern form - something that perhaps occurred during the Han dynasty, but none of these early sources gives enough detail to be sure; see origins).

2. Other instruments called "qin" (For mistranslation of "qin" see "lute")
Chinese instruments called qin include:

  1. huqin two-string fiddle from the Hu people of Central Asia (image)
    30073.372 胡琴 gives as its earliest reference a story in 文獻通考 Wenxian Tongkao (1317 CE) that says it originated during the reign of 唐文宗 the Tang Wenzong emperor (r. 827-841), but only describes its modern form in a separate story. Thus, for example, in this Tang poem the words hu qin may well refer to a different instrument.
  2. yueqin or moon qin, named for its shape.
    14658.211 月琴 gives as its earliest reference 三才圖會
    Sancai Tuhui. It may have developed from the much more ancient 阮 ruan.

Western instruments called qin include:

  1. piano: 鋼琴 gangqin, literally, "steel qin". This instrument is so common in China today that if you say just "qin" many people will assume you mean the piano.
  2. violin: 小提琴 xiao tiqin, small arm qin.

There are also a number of non-Chinese non-stringed instruments called qin such as the 電子琴 dianzi qin (various types of electonic keyboards), 風琴 fengqin (organ) and 口風琴 koufeng qin (mouth organ; harmonica). There are many more types of "qin", but it is beyond the scope of this website to trace either their history or the history of their modern names.

4. Self-Cultivation
Also: mind-cultivation ("Confucian mind-cultivation" may refer to the Buddhist and/or Daoist influenced idea of sitting quietly in order to achieve awarenessv [also see kongmen xinfa]). There are various ways to write this in Chinese, including:

None of these indicates when the term first came to be connected to playing or learning guqin. An internet search will show a lot of information, and opinions, about Chinese concepts of self-cultivation. My own suggestion, perhaps inspired by this article by James Watt, is that in theory one should be able to distinguish between "playing the qin in order to cultivate oneself" and "cultivating oneself by playing qin".

According to my understanding, Watt's article suggests that Chinese paintings over time show that qin playing went from being natural musical expression to becoming a way for the unmusical to show how cultured they were. However, even if this is true, I would be at a loss trying to determine which category any particular person falls into. Perhaps, as with yin and yang, there is some of both in every qin player.

5. "知音 Zhi yin" and the 伯牙子期故事 story of Boya and Ziqi
Literal meanings of 知音 zhiyin include "know sound" and "understand music". Expanations and translations might include, "people who are completely on the same wave length", "people in the know, "bosom friends", "soulmates", and so forth. It is a term in use by many people who have no idea of the guqin and/or its philosopy, but within the community of qin players it has a special significance.

Sources of the term are discussed in 中文大辭典 24483.114 知音 as follows:

    "謂精於音律者,後亦謂知己曰知音 : skilled in the rules of music; later, people who understood each other were called zhi yin". It then gives four references,
  1. 禮記,樂記 the Record of Music in the Book of Rites
  2. 史記,樂書 the Book of Music in the Annals of History
    Both of these say "是故審聲以知音 for this reason examine sound in order to understand music"
  3. 列子湯問 Questions of Tang from the Book of Liezi
    Connects this expression with the story of Ziqi seeing into Boya's heart when hearing the latter play qin.
  4. 呂氏春秋,長見 Far Sightedness (p.254) in The Annals of Lü Buwei)
    "是師曠欲善調鐘,以為後世之知音者也"; the court musicians think the bells are in tune, but 師曠 Shi Kuang disagrees, and the writer concludes, "Thus, Music Master Kuang's desire to tune the bell perfectly was because he considered what those of later ages who knew music would think."

Broadly, this all seems to suggest that although "zhi yin" could simply refer to a technical knowledge of music, at the same time it implies that a high level of such knowledge (or awareness) might be needed to appreciate a subtle type of music, such as that of guqin; zhi yin" as "bosom friends" naturally follows on from this.

Given the popularity of the Boya-Ziqi story it is somewhat surprising that, although a search of the China Text Project turns up 32 occurrences of 知音 zhiyin, none directly connects it to this story.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the qin one might argue that by the Qing dynasty the attitude towards the concept of "zhiyin" had undergone a change in some ways comparable to what Watt has argued (see previous footnote) had changed with regard to "self-cultivation". In this case the distinction would be between,

Becoming Sages: Qin Song and Self-Cultivation in Late Imperial China, the doctoral dissertation by Wu Zeyuan at Ohio State University (2020), has a number of comments and examples concerning zhiyin that invite further research on this issue.

6. 查阜西 Zha Fuxi, 存見古琴曲譜輯覽 Cunjian Guqin Qupu Jilan: Record on the coverage of guqin work done in 1956
This book gives details of the work leading up to this publication. An example of the necessary political attitude of the times is seen in the index, where it claims folk origins for most pieces for which there are no attributable creators.

7. 琴曲集成 Qinqu Jicheng (Collection of Qin Melodies)
Publication of the full series stopped in 1991 and soon many or most of the 16 volumes published were out of print. However, in 2010 the complete 30 volume set was published. See details.

8. Non-silk string recordings
Although almost all new recordings are use nylon metal or the even newer composite strings (fuhe xian), rarely do the CDs make this clear. Qin teachers, brought up on metal strings (or their seniors, who have not used silk in many years), generally prefer not to comment on this, or come up with certain often-repeated excuses that have little to do with reality: see further. Even recordings focused on reconstruction of early repertoire, such as Yaomen Qin Music (1991, Yao Bingyan and sons) and Celestial Airs of Antiquity (1997, Bell Yung's home recordings of Yao Bingyan), have qins with metal strings but make no mention of this fact (though Prof. Yung himself does play on silk strings) .

9. Silk string recordings (see further)
As of 2005 these included the following two from Hong Kong,

  1. CD Water Immortal (ROI RA 961008C, 1996) featuring Hong Kong qin player Lau Chor-wah (Liu Chuhua) playing a silk-string qin,
  2. Qin Music on Antique Instruments (HKU-001, 1998), with several Hong Kong players using silk strings. In China
  3. Tsar Teh-Yun, The Art of Qin Music (ROI RB-001006-2C, 20000)

Others include 道家琴譜 Daojia Qinpu (Daoist Qin Melodies) played by 汪鐸 Wang Duo and published at Wuhan University in 2002.

10 Qin as the only non-Western music instrument with written tradition
This refers to music going back more than a century, indigenous and containing more than skeletal melodies. There are many examples, particularly in Asia, of skeletal melodies written to help job the performer's memory, but so far these have not yielded enough detail to allow the recovery a broken tradition.

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