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The Guqin in Vietnam
An introduction1
no image yet2  

Vietnam, like Korea and Japan, has throughout history been heavily influenced by its neighbor, China.3 The music of Vietnam (Wiki) certainly received influence from China, particularly in the nature of the actual musical instruments, but traditional Vietnamese music itself is both distinctive and unique.4

As for the guqin, although as with Japan and Korea there is evidence that it was played at various times in Vietnam, information available about this at present suggests that it had a very minor presence there.5 The only qin melody title with a potential reference to Vietnam is Yueshang Cao, and there is no evidence it was never played in Vietnam itself. Thus, the most natural guqin program with relevance to Vietnam might be a joint concert in which the Vietnamese musicians played from a repertoire of traditional elegant music.6

Reasons for the guqin never catching on in Vietnam are given in what seem to be the most detailed articles in English on this subject, by Mitchell Clark. Most of the information here comes from those articles.7

The word for qin in Vietnamese is cầm; guqin is cổ cầm.8 In classical Chinese the character for "qin" almost invariably refers to what is today called the guqin ("old qin"). In modern Chinese both the word and character qin by itself may also refer to other string instruments; in Vietnam this apparently has long been true,9 and this complicates specific research on this topic.

Guqin in Ensembles

The Tran dynasty10 (1225 - 1400) established a court orchestra along the lines of a Chinese court orchestra. This was continued during the Le (1428 - 1788) and Nguyen (1802 - 1945) dynasties. The surviving (or reconstructed) Vietnamese court orchestra is apparently patterned on the Ming dynasty court orchestra. The guqin has been a part of this orchestra, though perhaps mostly for ritual or historical reasons (its association with Confucius). Even though multiple qins may have been used, they played only a simple part and perhaps were not even audible. As in China, guqin melodies apparently had no influence in the court music repertoire. I do not know of any studies of what influence, if any, the existence of this court ensemble might have had on local Vietnamese music.

During the Tran dynasty there was also a small ensemble consisting of a cam along with a tranh (the Vietnamese zheng), tyba (pipa), qi xian (that huyen: "7-strings"), song huyen (shuang xian: double string) and tieu loai (vertical flute). Clark cites Vietnamese scholar Tran Van Khe as having identified the cam as a qin and the "7-strings" as a local variant. However, neither of these identifications is certain, there seems to be no surviving music of this ensemble, and I have no information on what influence it might have had on the development of Vietnamese music in general.

Mention of the Guqin in Vietnamese poetry

Ancient Vietnamese poetry that has survived did so because it was written down, thus written with Chinese characters, generally in Chinese poetic forms.11 Here are two examples attributed to Tran dynasty emperors, first Trần Thánh Tông (陳聖宗 Chen Shengzong; 1240-1290), then Trần Minh Tông (陳明宗 Chen Mingzong, 1300 - 1357). At right is the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation.

  1. Trần Thánh Tông: 自述 Tự Thuật (compare modern Vietnamese)

    終日閑彈不調琴,   Chung nhật nhàn đàn bất điệu cầm,
    閑門無事可關心。   Nhàn môn võ sự khả quan tâm.
    箇中曲破無人會,   Cá trung khúc phá vô nhân hội,
    惟有松風和此音。   Duy hữu tùng phong hoạ thử âm.

  2. Trần Minh Tông: 幸遇 Hạnh Ngộ (compare modern Vietnamese)

    平生曾蓄一張琴,   Bình sinh tằng súc nhất trương cần,
    埋沒塵埃歲月深。   Mai một trần ai tuế nguyệt thâm.
    幸遇伯牙高妙手,   Hạnh ngộ Bá Nha cao diệu thủ,
    更教山水嗣徽音。   Cánh giao Sơn Thủy tự huy âm.

No translations yet available.

Guqin as a solo instrument

Clark could find record of only two guqin players in Vietnamese history, Trần Cụ and Nguyễn Sĩ Cố, both from the Tran dynasty.12

Trần Cụ taught guqin to the son of a Trần emperor. He is said to have been a well-rounded gentleman, with some comment devoted to his custom of "cutting the ends of the strings before attaching them (to the instrument)". Nothing is said about the music he played or his playing style.

Nguyễn Sĩ Cố is also said to have been a good player on guqin. Clark cites an 18th century description of his playing as follows:13

"When playing, he first wandered back and forth among the strings, and then went into the piece. In general, (the listener) can grasp the image of the music in this way."

Nguyen T. Phong14 interprets this to mean that Nguyễn Sĩ Cố followed the custom found in Vietnamese music of extemporizing within the mode of a melody before playing the actual composition. Again, there is apparently no further information with details of both these preludes and the melodies themselves.

Clark goes on to cite the titles of three melodies apparently played at one time in Hue:

  1. Phụng Cầu Hoàng (A Phoenix Seeks his Mate: 鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Huang)
    A well-known guqin melody title (see 1525 and 1539)
  2. Phụng Qui Lâm (Phoenix Returning to the Forest: 鳳歸林 Feng Gui Lin)
    This title is included in at least three old guqin melody lists (one Tang dynasty and two Song dynasty [in QYYY and Seng]; Clark says also 1590, but there I have so far only found Gui Feng Cao.)
  3. Hạc Lệ Thiên (Cranes Weeping in the Sky: 鶴淚天 He Lei Tian
    Not in any lists, and the dictionaries (鶴淚天; 48160.107 鶴唳 he li [cranes crying out] seems irrelevant) also have nothing connected to music, though there are several references to cranes crying out in guqin melody commentaries.

Because the list includes one known melody, one only included in a list, and one not mentioned elsewhere, Clark speculates that perhaps this means these were titles of melodies actually played in Vietnam, rather than simply melody titles from lists.


Clark concludes with a chapter on why the guqin never caught on in Japan, Korea or China. He says Vietnamese music certainly was known to take on foreign influence, pointing to the fact that they adopted the zheng (which also became popular and localized in both Japan and Korea). However, guqin melodies were very specific to the guqin and so not easily adapted to other instruments. And many of the ornaments played on other instruments cannot be produced on the guqin.

For a contemplative instrument the Japanese generally played the shakuhachi end blown flute. In Korea the komungo zither, plucked with a stick, seems to have taken on this function. Both of these instruments, though quiet, are considerably louder than the guqin. In Vietnam, although much of the traditional music sounds very contemplative, no specific instrument seems to stand out as an instrument of contemplation. Some claims have been made in this regard for the originally very quiet dan bau monochord, but that is an instrument that was historically associated with blind musicians.15

In China the aesthetic attitudes towards the guqin are highly influenced by Daoism and Confucianism.16 In Vietnam, a more strongly Buddhist country, some of the aesthetic attitudes applied in China to the guqin came to be applied to the more elegant forms of songs and chamber music.17 That this influence came from the Chinese scholars' attitudes towards the guqin and its music is underlined by the fact that a number of these melodies use guqin melody titles.18

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. The Guqin in Vietnam (see also Wikipedia, Traditional Vietnamese musical instruments)
At present the only references to Vietnam elsewhere on this site are with an image of a small screen purchased in Hanoi in the 1990s, and in the commentary to a guqin melody that has a theme that perhaps suggests Vietnam, Yueshang Cao.

The main references used for the present webpage are:

Mitchell Clark, A History of the Chinese Seven-string Zither in Vietnam
Mitchell Clark, Two Histories, The Qin in Korea and Vietnam

Clark also cites Nguyen T. Phong, "Pre-20th Century Chinese Music Scholarship in Vietnam: Two Approaches", Nhạc Việt 1/2: 61-74 (1992).

2. Image
I have not yet been able to find a guqin image from Vietnam.

3. Relationship of Chinese and Vietnamese languages
At one time the languages of all three countries were written using Chinese characters. This was particularly difficult for Korean and Japanese. It apparently worked better with Vietnamese. Perhaps for this reason Vietnamesee, unlike Korean and Japanese, is often thought of as belonging to the same language family as Chinese. However, it is today generally accepted that, while Vietnamese has a large number of words that come from Chinese, it belongs to a different language family, Austro-Asiatic. Since the 16th century it has been written using Roman letters with extensive diacritical markings (not used here).

4. Chinese influences in Vietnamese music
These are also discussed in Lê Tuấn Hùng (website), Ðàn Tranh Music of Vietnam: Traditions and Innovations, Melbourne: Australia Asia Foundation, 1998. Excerpts can be found online (2011).

5. Small guqin presence in Vietnam
The guqin presence in Korea was also small, as it was in Japan, though Japan for a long time had small but serious groups playing and studying qin. The difference in Vietnam is that there has long been a significant Chinese population there. The first emperor of the 李 Ly Dynasty (6th c CE) was ethnic Chinese, and after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 there were many more Chinese migrants. After this Chinese came to dominate the merchant life in Vietnam. As yet I have not seen any studies of guqin play in these overseas Chinese communities.

6. Program: the Guqin in Vietnam
There are in Vietnam today some guqin players but to my knowledge they are not playing any melodies specific to Vietnam. On the other hand, the gentle nature of much traditional Vietnamese music would pair nicely with guqin music, particularly if the Vietnamese instrumental music were to be played using silk strings, as most of them apparently were in the past.

The popularity of Buddhism in Vietnam might make it interesting to include the Heart Sutra sung in Sino-Vietnamese.

7. Mitchell Clarke
For his relevant publications see above. He has also written about the qin in Korea.

8. Qin and 古琴 guqin in Vietnamese
In Vietnamese these are written cầm and cổ cầm (or, without the diacritical marks, cam and cocam). The Vietnamese pronunciation for qin seems thus rather similar to the Cantonese pronunciation "kum" (rhymes with "come"). Southern dialects such as Cantonese have been shown to have pronunciation closer to ancient Chinese than does the standard dialect, Mandarin.

9. Attitude towards 琴 qin in Vietnam
Clark does not discuss whether the guqin was a motif in classical Vietnamese painting. Although it seems to have appeared with some regularity in both Japanese and Korean landscape painting, in those countries a local instrument such as the koto or komungo was sometimes substituted. In such cases it may not be clear how knowledgeable the artist was of this motif in Chinese painting.

It is also not clear how often the philosophical attitudes connected to the guqin might have appeared in Vietnamese writing. Some of the stories and melody titles associated in China with the guqin were in Vietnam applied to local instruments. Clark is presumably correct in concluding that the attitudes of Chinese literati towards the guqin had little effect on the music in Vietnam.

Clark mentions the migration of a number of Chinese to Vietnam upon the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Personally I wonder whether one reason this apparently did not lead to any notable guqin players in Vietnam is the heat and humidity there. In the following centuries increasing numbers of Chinese came, forming particularly large communities in the south. Although they were mostly merchants, evidence suggests that during the Qing dynasty in China merchants not infrequently had their children study the guqin; they also formed local guqin associations. Did this ever happen in Vietnam?

10. Tran dynasty
陳朝 Nhà Trần (Le Dynasty: 黎朝 Nhà Lê; Nguyen dynasty: 阮朝 Nhà Nguyễn)

11. Vietnamese writing
Vietnamese, as a Sinitic language, can be written in characters and the earliest known writing used Chinese characters. At least 1,000 years ago new characters were introduced for words that did not appear in Chinese (or did not have written Chinese forms). This archaic system (called 字喃/𡨸喃/𡦂喃 "chữ nôm", in earlier times also called 國音 "quốc âm" or 𡨸南 "chữ nam"; Wiki) was more widely used from the 15th to the 19th centuries, but in the 20th century it was replaced by the modern Vietnamese alphabet.

Ancient Vietnamese writing using Chinese characters is usually very difficult to understand, even when transliterated into their Sino- Vietnamese pronunciation, as with the two poems above. Actual translations of them into modern Vietnamese are quite different, as follows:

Trần Thánh Tông: 自述 Tự Thuật (compare Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation)
終日閑彈不調琴,   Ngày nhàn, gảy dối tiếng đàn cầm,
閑門無事可關心。   Cửa lặng không còn việc bận tâm.
箇中曲破無人會,   Vỡ vụn khúc này, ai thấu hiểu,
惟有松風和此音。   Gió tùng, duy nhất khá hòa âm.

Trần Minh Tông: 幸遇 Hạnh Ngộ (compare Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation)
平生曾蓄一張琴,   Đời ta từng giữ một cây cầm,
埋沒塵埃歲月深。   Bụi bặm phủ vùi bao tháng năm.
幸遇伯牙高妙手,   May gặp Bá Nha sành khúc điệu,
更教山水嗣徽音。   Khiến làn Sơn Thủy nối huy âm.

I have not yet found any poems in chữ nôm that mention qin.

12. Vietnamese qin players
Those discussed here are 陳器 Trần Cụ and 阮士固 Nguyễn Sĩ Cố. Of course the fact that the names of two players have survived in and of itself suggests that there were more, probably just not a large number.

13. Extemporizing on cam
Clark, Nhạc Việt 4/1, pp.35, gives the following quote from 范廷琥 Phạm Đình Hổ (1768-1839), 雨中隨筆 "Vũ trung tùy bút (Casually writing during the rain):

In earlier times, Nguyễn Sĩ Cố of the Trần dynasty played the cổ cầm very well. When playing, he first wandered back and forth (dạo) among the strings, and then went into the piece. In general, (a listener) can grasp the image of the music in this way. Clark then cites the comments on this by Nguyen T. Phong (see below).

14. Nguyen T. Phong
Also Phong Nguyen and Nguyễn Thuyết Phong. See website and the Facebook page of the Dân Tộc Nhạc Học Việt Nam (Vietnamese only). Phong wrote "Pre-20th Century Chinese Music Scholarship in Vietnam: Two Approaches", Nhạc Việt 1/2: 61-74 (1992).

15. Dan bau or danbau (Đàn bầu: Wiki) An older form of the đàn bầu
Writings mentioning the meditative qualities of the dan bau have made me particularly interested in this instrument: can one in this way compare it to the Japanese shakuhachi (more meditative than their ichigenkin) and/or the Korean komungo, not to mention the guqin itself? Particularly intriguing are mention of its silk strings, its quiet sound and its use as an accompaniment to poetry recitation. Even the statements that it was best known as an instrument of blind professional musicians, thus quite different from the guqin tradition, suggest that perhaps the emphasis was on expression rather than on virtuosity. However, I have never seen any suggestion that the Vietnamese literati (文人 văn nhân) themselves ever played the dan bau. And from what I can tell, all this has little to do with the aesthetic generally applied to the modern dan bau.

The earlier danbau is described as a horizontal bamboo tube with a stem/stick made of horn, wood or bamboo fastened vertically at one end; a gourd (or half coconut shell or perhaps some other resonator) was attached to the stem. A single silk string attached directly to the tube at the other end was then attached to or through the gourd, hence to the stem. The stem is flexible: bending it changes the pitch. However, bridges on the bamboo tube, as shown at right, suggest that perhaps the stick was originally not as flexible as it is today. How this sounded is not clear. (A video and CD called Xẩm Hà Nội includes an acoustic danbau, but it has a metal string.)

Early twentieth century photographs of dan bau, such as this one dated 1906, suggest that by then a larger wooden box construction was already replacing the bamboo tube. The biggest change, though, came with the switch to metal strings and the addition of an electric pickup. After this the former resonator became purely ornamental. There is also some variation on the flexibility of the stem. In this new form the music may be haunting, quiet and/or refined, but there aren't the rich overtones, and this aesthetic is no longer a defining (or limiting) characteristic.

The danbau is played by plucking the string with a stick, pick or plectrum held in the right hand. To determine the basic pitches the player also uses the side of the right hand to touch the resonating string lightly at a harmonic node; bending the stem with the left hand alters or ornaments the pitch by tightening and loosening the string. I don't know how much this has changed from the past, but it does seem that at present the bridges are no longer needed (though some players apparently also use frets). I have not seen any information as yet on when this technique may have been developed.

In Vietnam today it seems to be official policy that the dan bau is indigenous to Vietnam. Reference is often made to the Primary Compilation of the Veritable Records of Imperial Vietnam (大南實錄前編 or 大南寔錄前編, Đại Nam Thực Lục Tiền Biên, 1812; a book in 584 folios, with the first 12 folios apparently online [R.765, 5917, 773, 777] here through here). The specific claim seems to be that it says the first dan bau was made in 1770. However, in September 2012, Prof. Choi Byung Wook at Inha University, Incheon, wrote to me as follows regarding its music content (adding that he had read it some years ago and just recently re-read it after receiving my questions):

In the whole period of over two hundred years of the Tien Bien, I found only two records of music instruments. One is about a kind of bamboo flute, the other is a stringed instrument called "nam cam" ("southern string"). You can find the record of the former one in a description from November, 1660; that of the latter is in the description of March, 1770. In the Chinese edition of Tien Bien the former is in 4:32a, the latter is in 11:11a.

It may well be that whatever versions of the dan bau existed in Vietnam at that time, and most certainly the modern electronic versions existing today, were developed in Vietnam and so might be considered indigenous. However, more recent claims that the dan bau may actually go back as much as one thousand years earlier must take into consideration Chinese references such as those given below, which suggest that the same or similar instruments also occured amongst other nationalities in what is today southern China. In fact, although the references suggest that in China (and Southeast Asia) there have been various one stringed musical instruments, they do not describe them well or clarify what if any relationships there may have been between them. It is thus not possible at present to say how any of these may have affected the development of the Vietnamese dan bau.

The Chinese characters for đàn bầu are "彈匏 tan pao" ("plucking gourd"). Other names for the instrument include độc huyền cầm (獨絃琴 duxianqin), đàn độc huyền (彈獨絃 tanduxian) and perhaps nhất huyền cầm (?).

Significant references (or lack thereof) in ZWDCD (see pdf of the latter four entries) include:

There are and/or have been other monochords in Southeast Asia (and South Asia) as well as China, but how they may or may not be related is beyond the scope of this page. (For example, the Khmer kse [khse, khse diev, etc.] is a monochord stick zither but with a chest resonator; and the Thai pin pia is also a stick zither with a chest-resonator, also played in harmonics, but it has two to five strings.)

Another very quiet Southeast Asian plucked instrument is the Bornean sape (Wiki); although today it has as many as five strings, generally only one carries the melody, with the others acting as drones.

The Vietnamese nationality is said to have been formed in ancient times through a combination of indigenous ethnic groups with others from both Southeast Asia, including the nearby islands, and southern China. Today Vietnam recognizes 54 local ethnic groups, some of which can also be found in China. The majority are the 京 Kinh, also known as 越 Việt, at about 86%; the Han Chinese, called 華 Hoa, are now listed at about 1%, a big decrease from the past. Meanwhile in China the ethnic Vietnamese living in southern China, said to be Vietnamese who moved into China from Vietnam, are called the 京族 Jing ethnic group, distinguishing them from the 越 Yue or 百越 Baiyue, an ancient term broadly referring to non-Han peoples native to south China (Wiki).

16. Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist connections to the guqin
In Japan, Korea and Vietnam, Confucianism was very influential in formulation of government policy. In China many guqin melodies have Confucian themes. Even more have Daoist themes, but very few have overtly Buddhist themes. Daoist attitudes, when accepted in the other three countries, always seem to be combined with Buddhism, thus perhaps loosening their connection to the guqin.

17. Music of educated Vietnamese
In China the people considered as elite were the ones who had studied for the imperial examinations and were thus conversant in literati culture; early guqin music has survived because these literati liked to write things down, and that included the music of their most treasured music insrument. Vietnam once had a similar educational system but if their literati wrote down any music it seems not to have survived and so their early music thus probably cannot be reconstructed. Styles of music that in more modern times have been associated with scholars include:

  1. nhạc tài tử (樂才子: music of skilled amateurs; Wiki)
    Instrumental chamber music generally played in the south (includes the famous melody Vọng cổ (望古: Longing for the past)
  2. ca trù (歌籌: tally card songs: Wiki
    Songs traditionally sung by female entertainers in the north.

There is debate about the antiquity of this music as heard today; without a written tradition it is difficult to verify claims.

18. Chinese melody titles
These have no musical connections to Chinese melodies with these titles.

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