The Guqin in Korea  
 T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Korean paintings depicting qin   /   Other areas     Performance Themes     My Performances     My Repertoire 首頁
The Guqin in Korea
An account based mostly on information available in English2
古琴在韓國 1 
Would a Chinese painting depict a qin here? 3 

Sources for early music in Korea can be found elsewhere.4 As for references to the "geum" (qin) in Korea, these are quite common as literary or artistic motifs.5 Apparently it was also, at least at times, included in some court or ritual orchestras. Nevertheless, the instrument itself was rather rare, qin players themselves even rarer,6 and qin handbooks virtually non-existent.7 In addition, in Korea the character for "qin" has also been applied to a number of other stringed instruments, as was the case in China as well as elsewhere in Asia. As a result, when one sees mention of a qin in Korean writing, it is not always clear what instrument the writer had in mind.

Geum as a solo instrument

The Korean musical instrument said to have most closely approximated the qin in its role in traditional Korean society is their own "black qin", the komungo, a zither with both bridges and frets, plucked with a stick.8 According to Korean tradition, when a qin was first brought to Korea, around the year 550, the king offered a prize to anyone who could play it, but no one succeeded. The problem was solved by the musician Wang San-ak, who modified the qin's structure and playing technique.9 When he played his new instrument black cranes appeared, hence its name.10 Wang San-ak is said to have developed a repertoire for this instrument, and it became the instrument played by Korean scholar-officials (yangban11). However no one developed a method for writing the music and so the early repertoire was lost. Eventually the yangban are said mostly to have played solo komungo music extracted from the Korean court music repertoire. However, as the painting here suggests, the instrument must have had a much wider repertoire, and today it plays mostly the same melodies, or improvises within the same styles (sanjo being one of the more recent ones), as those of other Korean zithers.12

Looking further for connections, Korean landscape paintings sometimes include a qin in the manner of Chinese paintings (see Korean paintings depicting qins).13 However, because of the rarity of the qin itself, the Koreans often substituted their own qin, in particular the komungo.14 In other cases the instrument is a hybrid, combining aspects of both the qin and zithers commonly seen in Korea.15

On the other hand, many Korean paintings have themes that in China are common to both painting and to qin melodies.16 These include:

  1. Peach Blossom Spring (the Korean image is with Huaxu Yin17)
  2. Autumn Moon over Dongting (anonymous Korean, from the series 8 Views of the Xiao Xiang)
  3. Wild Geese Settling on a Sandbank (anonymous Korean, also from the series 8 Views of the Xiao Xiang)
  4. Dialogue between a Fisherman and Woodcutter (see painting by 李明郁 Yi Myeong-uk [info, 17th c.], in the Gansong Art Museum [in Seoul])
  5. Moon atop a Plum Tree (see painting by 魚夢龍 Eo Mong-nyong (1566–1617) in the National Museum of Korea)
  6. Wine Mad (see painting by 李慶胤 Yi Kyeong-yun [1543-1611; info] in the Hoam Art Museum)

It would be lovely to find record that some qin handbooks were brought to Korea from Ming dynasty China, but as yet no such references seem to have been published. Neither does there seem to be any record of qin tablature written in Korea prior to the late 19th century, or indeed of any qin teachers in Korea before that time.18

Geum in ritual orchestras Qin diagram from the Akhak Gwebeom    

Although the qin may have been included in Korean court or ritual orchestras, and these were largely patterned after such ensembles in China, to my knowledge there are no reliable written records that could tell us what specifically the qin played; there also seems to be no record that the music thus played was ever played solo, as was described above with the komungo. Playing such music in a recognizably Chinese style would presumably be quite problematic, as traditional Korean music largely uses triple rhythms, even inserting this into music said to be from China in spite of the scant historical evidence for such rhythms in China (concerning which there is further comment with the modern version of Jiu Kuang).

Officially Korean traditional music is divided into two categories that might be translated as "classical" and "folk".19 Court music, which falls within "classical", is then divided into three types: A-ak (雅樂; Chinese ritual music); Hyang-ak (鄕樂 Korean music); and Dangak (唐樂; said have originated in Tang dynasty China but to have been adapted in Korea). There are many recordings of this music available today, together with much commentary. However, most is in Korean, making it difficult to assess how accurate are the claims for antiquity of the modern interpretations of this music.

A major source for music in Korea before the modern period is a 15th century compendium called the Akhak Gwebeom. From its contents we know that the qin was officially part of court ensembles at least as far back as the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Some of the music played by such ensembles, of various types, is said to date back to the Tang dynasty, though it is more common to think that this music might shed light on court music as played in China during the Song or Ming dynasties. In particular, the Song dynasty court in 1118 sent to the Goryeo court (918–1392) in Korea a major gift of musical instruments; all the instruments were apparently destroyed by the fall of Goryo, with any accompanying music also apparently lost, but it is then said to have been "revived" after 1430 - by looking at written sources, not observing performances. As for the actual commentary in Akhak Gwebeom on the qin, there seems to be little or nothing that is specific to Korea.

Suggestions for a program on guqin in Korea 20

My own focus being qin music as published in the Ming dynasty, if I were to do such a program I would probably most enjoy doing it based on imagining qin music that could have been connected to a visit to Korea by someone such as Tang Gao, who wrote the preface to Xilutang Qintong (1525). Appropriate melodies could be found simply from that handbook, though others might also be considered.21

If someone could make an interesting qin melody from (the geum part of) a Korean court melody, that would be perfect for such a program, but this seems quite unlikely.22

It could also be interesting to do a program of komungo and guqin (played separately). This could include some music adapted from the court repertoire, perhaps accompanied by discussion of what we know (or don't know) about how this used to be done. There are said to be at least two late imperial qin handbooks from Korea which may contain such music as might be played on qin.23

Other than this, the most appropriate qin melodies would seem to be those associated with relevant Korean paintings, as outlined above.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. The Guqin in Korea

As played in a Korean ritual orchestra?    
The Korean pronunciation/Romanization of qin is geum.

In Korean 琴 (금 in hangeul) has been Romanized several ways. This site mostly uses the revised standard system, in which qin is written geum; McCune-Reischauer is kŭm; Yale is kum. It may also be called other names, including gogeum (古琴), chilhyeon-geum (七絃琴) and hwigeum (徽琴). An early source for information about the geum in Korea is the Akhak Gwebeom.

Geum images
The qins shown
above and at right seem to raise more questions than they answer.

As yet the only Korean text mentioning geum that I have seen is:

Akhak Gwebeom (樂學軌範 Yuexue Guifan; Wiki)

The Musical Canon (or Standards of Musical Science: Akhak Gwebeom or Akhak Kwebŏm, 1493) is an early 朝鮮 Joseon Dynasty Korean text on music; the edition considered here was published in Seoul, 1976, in two-volumes with modern commentary. It is the major source for early Korean music. However, it is unclear what sort of help it can give in discerning a distinctive Korean concept of (or approach to) guqin music.

More general information in (Rachel) Ehichung Chung, Song Hyon's Model for Study of Music (Akhak kwebom 樂學軌範) and the Historical Development of the Neo-Confucian Concept of Music in Fifteenth-Century Choson Korea. PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2003.

2. English language sources for the qin in Korea
The main sources seem to be:

This page was initially set up based on information in the above articles by Mitchell Clark, as follows:

Mitchell Clark on the qin in Korea
In addition to the article referenced
above, Mitchell Clark presented a paper on the qin in Japan and Korea, entitled "Iconography of the Chinese seven-string zither in Japan and Korea", at Music in Art: Iconography as a Source for Music History, The Ninth Conference of the Research Center for Music Iconography, CUNY, "commemorating the 20th anniversary of death of the Austrian/American musicologist Emanuel Winternitz (1898-1983), co-sponsored by the Department of Musical Instruments of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 5–8 November 2003". His summary of this paper (see link above) was as follows,

The qin (also called guqin) is the classical Chinese seven-string zither, and has a long and profound history in its native country. Created, according to one traditional origin story, early in the third millennium B.C.E., it is perhaps the central musical instrument of China, found first in the hands of sage kings and philosophers, and later in those of literati artists. As a common subject in literati painting, the qin has a rich tradition of iconography within China.

The qin’s primary history is, of course, that of its use in China, yet the instrument was historically introduced to surrounding countries in East Asia, principally Japan and Korea. Due to the difficulty of the qin’s playing technique as well as its involved relationship to Chinese culture, the use of the instrument remained largely marginal in these countries. However, in Korea and, especially, Japan, the qin played an important role among those who emulated the literati arts of China. We therefore find images of qin and qin-players figuring into Japanese and Korean two-dimensional art in a variety of genres. As actual qin were rare in these countries, representations of the instrument often had a hybrid appearance, combining features of the qin with those of native zithers such as the koto (in Japan) and the komun’go (in Korea). In the present paper such visual representations (or, indeed, misrepresentations), and their sources, are examined for what they reveal about how the qin was perceived in these countries. Also explored will be the related topic of how Japanese and Korean literati artists musically viewed and interpreted the Chinese music for the qin, as well as how they created their own genres of qin music: new genres which were themselves blendings of Chinese and native materials.

Walter Kaufmann on the qin in Korea
Musical Notations of the Orient has several sections on music notation in Korea. Very little seems to concern qin, but his use of "zither" in some cases seems to reflect the fact that Korean references are not always clear on what is meant by the character 琴, be it geum from China, or the geomungo, gayageum and so forth as developed locally. This might also help explain a number of errors in Kaufmann's account.

Relevant mentions of the qin in Korea include the following:

A further comment on p. 305 says that a handbook called Songbook for the Huiqin (徽琴歌譜 Hwigeum Gapo) was preserved in Korea until World War II, when it was lost; I have not been able to follow the relevant references.

3. Painting by Sin Yunbok
This image (taken from Wikipedia) is from an original painting by Sin Yunbok (ca. 1758 - after 1813) now in the Seoul Gansong Museum (aka Gansong Art Gallery). The instrument being played is a komungo, said to have been the Korean equivalent of the Chinese qin. However, although Chinese literary sources such as novels show that the qin was indeed played in such mixed company, Chinese literati painting rarely depicts such events; more typical were elegant gatherings.

4. General Sources for early Korean music
For example, see Chapter 1, History of Korean Notations and Chapter 6 The Correlation between the Musical Notations of Korea and China (downloaded from this page on the National Gugak Center website)

5. Qin as a literary or artistic motif
Clark has some discussion of this; further examples pending.

6. Clark's article mentions that the earliest reference of a Korean qin player dates from 1542, and that there were Koreans going to China to study qin in the 19th century. Today there are good Korean qin players, but to my knowledge no indigenous characteristics are developing.

7. Written music for qin in Korea
Although the qin was in theory included in the Korean court ritual orchestra, there is no information to suggest that there was anything distinctive about what the qin played, so any notation of the court music would be an unlikely source for such music. Clark's article mentions that copies of the Shilin Guangji, which had a few modal preludes, were brought to Korea. There is no evidence that the modal preludes were ever played in Korea, but the philosophical attitudes that the Chinese book applied to the qin did in Korea get applied to music for other instruments.

8. Komungo / Geomungo 玄琴 (Korean/Chinese: "hyeongeum", short for 玄鶴琴 "hyeonhakgeum", black crane qin)
The referenced Wikipedia article4 uses the official Korean romanization "geomungo" rather than the much more common "komungo". The association with black cranes, mentioned above, is reminiscent of Chinese stories such as those of Shi Kuang and Chu Shang Liang.

9. Invention of the komungo
The qin is said to have been brought around 550 CE from 晉 Jin, a Chinese dynasty centered in Nanjing that had ended around 430 CE. Kaufmann, p.302, says that the story of 王山岳 Wang San-ak inventing the komungo around 550 CE comes from "the oldest Korean historical document", the 12th century 三國史記 Samguk Sagi by 富軾 by Kim Bu-sik.

Archeological findings have suggested that zithers of this type existed in Korea for several centuries prior to the sixth century. In 1978 the commentary by Tong Kin-Woon for the catalogue to an exhibition of Korean musical instruments that year in Hong Kong stated that zithers of this type could also be found in China from that time; when the Korean ministry read this they said they would cancel the exhibition unless the catalogue was changed.

10. Black cranes (see reference above)
Several Chinese stories have black cranes appear when a qin is played (details)

11. Yangban (兩班)
This term described Korean scholar-officials (and their families) as including "both classes", the literary class (munban 文班), and the martial class (muban 武班). See the Wikipedia article for details.

12. Korean Zithers
Korea has three main zithers.

  1. 玄琴     Komungo, a seven-string zither plucked with a stick
  2. 伽倻琴 Kayagum plucked with fingers (compare the Chinese 古箏 guzheng)
  3. 牙箏     Ajaeng played with a bow (compare the Chinese 軋箏 yazheng).

Within the above there are a variety of styles, both ancient and modern. And all are useed to play the traditional music style known as sanjo (Wiki).

13. Korean paintings depicting qins
The examples linked do not show the instrument very clearly (further examples pending). The painting above is not representative of this style, as mentioned above. It is interesting to compare the thought processes involved in this "translation" of qin into local imagery with the decision of R. H. van Gulik to translate qin into English as lute.

14. Korean paintings depicting komungos instead of qins
Examples pending; the painting above is not in this category because in literati painting one would not normally find a qin played in such an environment.

15. Korean paintings depicting hybrid qins
Clark's article discusses two such examples, a painting of immortals by 金弘道 Kim Hong-Do (1745 - ca. 1806) in the Seoul National University Museum; and one from an album of landscapes by 李慶胤 Yi Kyong-Yun (1545 - 1611) in the Korea University Museum. In both cases the instrument depicted seems to be a hybrid.

16. Korean paintings with themes found in qin melodies
Some of the relevant paintings were found through net searches that found such websites as Cultural Assets of Korea. These were then mostly linked rather than downloaded - unfortunate, as most subsequently were either removed or moved to another address. Since then it has proven difficult to find some of them again.

17. Dreamland depiction
Although the original painting title concerns the Peach Blossom Spring, it is identified on a Korean website as Huaxu Dream (see Huaxu Yin).

18. Qin teachers or tablature in Korea prior to the late 19th century
The fact that I have not found records of this is, of course, not proof that they did not exist.

19. Categorizing Korean music
Today Koreans officially categorize their traditional music as either 正樂 jeongak (chŏngak; variously translated as "correct music", "court music" or "classical music"), or as 俗樂 sog-ak ("folk music", but it includes such high art genres as pansori and sanjo). Presumably guqin music in Korea would all have to be categorized as jeongak.

20. Suggestions for a program on guqin in Korea
The above concerns a program such as I would do.

There does seem to be a recent interest in Korea in exploring the history of and the potential for qin in Korea. For example, 琴聲還鳴 (금성환명 Geum Seong Han Myeong), a recent 3-CD set by Korean qin player 金商順 (김상순 Kim Sang Soon), includes modern qin compositions by Korean composers as well as music from ensembles that in the past might have included qin (I have not yet heard the CDs). Like all the other Korean qin players with whom I am familiar (although Ru Shan has returned to silk strings), she is trained in China following the modern styles (in her case, Li Xiangting and Wu Wenguang in particular).

21. Further suggestions for a program on guqin in Korea
See also the commentary on the source of Sai Shang Hong.

22. Qin music from Korean court music texts
In theory, such texts could have led to people on occasion demonstrate the music on the qin, but to my knowledge there is no record of this having been done.

23. Possible sources for Korean guqin music
For qin music such as might actually have been played at some time in Korea, Rob Provine suggests as possible sources the following music books by 尹用求 Yun Yonggu (1853-1939):

Regarding Yun, the following accompanies an image on the website of the Kang Collection.

"Renowned for his excellent calligraphy, the government official Yun Yong Gu (ho: Seok-Chon) is even today a household name. Yun was also a celebrated painter of bamboo, orchids and landscapes. Disheartened by Japan's occupation of Korea, Yun Yong Gu left the public arena in which he was so well known and spent his last years as a recluse."

It would be interesting to have more details about his personal experience with the guqin himself.

Return to the Guqin ToC