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Women and the Guqin 1
Women playing qin 2                  
Today there are many more female than male qin players. There do not seem to be statistics showing how long this has been true. During Zha Fuxi's recording project of the 1950s and its extension, only a fraction of those recorded were women,3 but this may not show the full picture.

Regarding the earliest times - Han dynasty and earlier - it is rare that surviving figurines or similar images are distinct enough to show just exactly what the instruments that look somewhat like qin are, and often the gender of the musician is unclear as well.4 However, from the Tang dynasty a number of the surviving paintings with qin do show them being played by women. From the Tang there are many images said specifically to be court ladies with qin; later they generally can be identified simply as ladies of refinement.5 Before the Song dynasty it seems rare that these images are identified as "courtesans" ("skilled female entertainers"), though literature shows that they were not uncommonly players.6

Overall, such evidence suggests that, although imperial-era literature on the qin strongly evokes a male tradition overwhelmingly dominated by men,7 it seems quite likely that the reality was very much in contrast with this stereotype. Literati paintings do usually depict male players, but often the men are not actually playing the instrument: one might argue that they seem more interested in the qin philosophy than in the music itself. In contrast, paintings that depict women with qin generally seem to show them actually playing it.8

As for qin handbooks attributed to women, Qinqu Jicheng includes two,9

  1. Sizhaitang Qinpu (1620)11
    Compiled by Madame Zhong; 12 instumental melodies (five apparently new) plus Heartfelt Words on Going Through Bitterness, a long song attributed to the Madame Zhong herself.12

  2. 梅花仙館琴譜 Meihuaxianguan Qinpu (undated)13
    Compiled by 師妙孁 Shi Miaoling; see Qinshu Cunmu; 1+12 traditional pieces

More such handbooks by women quite likely existed at one time, but are either not indexed14 or not known to have survived.15

Further regarding songs, there is some evidence, particularly from novels and operas, that qin songs were particularly popular with women.16 Perhaps also the continuing popularity of ci lyrics led to melodies being circulated but not published: these and other short songs may have been less fixed and thus less likely than instrumental melodies to be written down (thus codified and preserved).17 Even if written down they may not have been preserved. Thus the fact that Sizhaitang Qinpu is the only handbook in Qinqu Jicheng attributed to a woman does not preclude the possibility that there were others with melodies created by women.

A number of publications, mostly recent, discuss the artistic accomplishments of women during the Ming and Qing dynasties, showing them to have been very active in the fields of poetry18 and fine art,19 but there has been little work done on women as qin players.21 Was the motivation of the women players different from that of the men? Was their number sufficient to form a market significant for the publication of qin handbooks? How important was their patronage (or that of their families) to the financial support of qin masters? A study of these questions could reflect much on how the philosophical ideals played out in society.22

The page called Qin Biographies has links to various collections of qin biographies, having altogether about 700 biographical entries; about 10% of these were women players. Of the three main collections, two have sections on women players while one mixes them together with men. However, on this site, most of the biographies of women players can be found through the listings in the first two of the following three places,23

It should be emphasized that, while these entries may be interesting as they are, the listings are in no way comprehensive, and the people included were not necessarily the best players.24

Mention of qin in poetry does not necessarily mean the poet played qin, much less whether he or she played with technical skill. On the other hand, if the poet was known to play and also wrote poems apparently as lyrics, and yet no melodies from this have survived, this may be further evidence for a significant unwritten tradition for such songs.25

As for the poetry itself, many of the biographies of women include poetry they wrote. The poetry collection in Qinshu Daquan includes several poems by women about the qin.26

Qinshu Daquan also has a number of fables about women and qin.27 In addition, several stories in the Lienü Zhuan (Biographies of Exemplary Women) concern the qin.

Qin melodies with themes related to women include the following (for those without links my reconstruction is not yet completed).

  1. Da Hujia (Nomad Reed Pipe, Long Version; 1425);
    Cai Wenji is abducted by nomads; a melodically unrelated version called
    Hujia Shibapai, published in 1597, is set to lyrics attributed to Wenji herself.
  2. Xiao Hujia (Nomad Reed Pipe, Short Version; 1425)
    Same theme as Da Hujia (see previous item)
  3. Longshuo Cao (Melody of the North; 1425)
    Wang Zhaojun is married off to nomads; also called Lament of Zhaojun
  4. Huangyun Qiusai (Yellow Clouds of Autumn on the Frontier; 1425)
    Later versions also connect this melody to Wang Zhaojun
  5. Chu Ge (Song of Chu; 1425)
    Xiang Yu loses both the war and his concubine Yu Ji
  6. Guan Ju (Call of the Osprey; 1491) and Guan Ju Qu (1511)
    Courtship poem(s) from the Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing)
  7. Xiangfei Yuan (Lament of the Xiang River Concubines; 1511)
    A lament sung by two concubines of legendary emperor Shun
  8. Cangwu Yuan (Cangwu Lament; 1525)
    Same theme as previous; with Jiao Yi and Mengji Yin
  9. Wenjun Cao (Wenjun Melody; 1539)
    The poet Sima Xiangru uses the qin to seduce Zhuo Wenjun
  10. Feng Qiu Huang (A Phoenix Seeks his Mate; 1525)
    Same theme as previous (Wenjun Cao)
  11. Dao Yi (Pounding Cloth; 1539)
    A woman sings of her husband on the frontier
  12. Yanyi Ge (Doorbar Song; 1525)
    The wife of minister Baili Xi confronts him with song
  13. Xue Chuang Ye Hua (Evening Talk by a Snowy Window; 1525)
    Xie Daoyun's description of snow pleases her uncle, Xie An
  14. Hangong Qiu (Autumn in the Han Palace; 1525)
    Ban Jieyu compares herself to a fan discarded in autumn
  15. Lienü Yin (Exemplary Woman Prelude; 1525)
    Fan Ji is happy when her husband, King Zhuang of Chu, listens to her advice
  16. Xianpei Ying Fen (Fairy Jade in the Wind; 1525)
    Jiao Fu of Zheng meets two Han River nymphs
  17. Xiang Si Qu (Melody of Mutual Love, also called Gu Qin Yin; 1585)
    A female ghost complains to (or about) Su Dongpo
  18. Baitou Yin (Intonation on Gray Hair; 1618)
    Wenjun complains that as they get old Sima Xiangru looks for another woman
  19. Fenghuangtaishang Yi Chui Xiao (On Phoenix Terrace Thinking of Flute Playing; ca. 1676)
    Lyrics by 李清照 Li Qingzhao (1084 - ca. 1151) recall her missing lover
  20. Ziye Wu Ge (Wu Song of Zi-ye; preserved in Japan)
    Lyrics by 李白 Li Bai, but perhaps intended to be in the voice of Lady Zi-ye
Several of these have lyrics by or attributed to women. The only qin melody clearly attributed to a woman seems to be
Li Ku Zhong Yan.

In addition, the following might also connect to stories about women:

  1. Guanghan You (Wandering in the Lunar Palace; 1425)
    Later operas of this title tell a story of Tang emperor Minghuang and his beautiful concubine Yang Guifei
  2. Guanghan Qiu (Autumn in the Lunar Palace; 1425)
    An opera of this title tells the story of the goddess Chang E
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Women and the Guqin
This has not yet been presented as a specific program. There are no known studies of this subject.

More general references on women's roles include:

  1. Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth Century China. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995.

See also women poets and artists.

2. Images: Women playing the qin (Popular art; compare early literati art and see a Wu Wei painting)
Further images on this theme can be found through an internet search for "仕女攜琴圖" (elegant ladies holding a qin). As for the above image, the lower one is discussed elsewhere; the upper one is from a Jingdezhen ceramic painting. Notice that in the upper image the qin itself is anatomically incorrect (the strings in particular). Many of the examples I have seen from popular art have such mistakes, showing that the artists may have been familiar with ideas about the qin but were not familiar with the instrument itself. Thus, although such illustrations of women playing the qin backwards may be associated with ignorance on the part of the artist, it is ignorance of artistic convention as well as of the physical qin, and perhaps it is also evidence that many women actually did play. To understand this better it would be useful to do a closer study of women in Ming and Qing dynasty qin societies.

The inscription on the upper left of the top figure says the piece was painted in the summer of 1980 while living at Zhushan (in Jingdezhen). Of the three seals, two seem just to be symbols, the bottom one is 寧 Ning, perhaps the name of the artist. Here is the full inscription:


Thanks to Sun Xiaoqing for deciphering the seals and inscription.

3. Early qin recordings by women
Such known early recordings are mostly connected to
Zha Fuxi's recording project of the 1950s and its extensions. Here are links to the listing of recordings by women on the two CD sets that have such early recordings. The book accompanying Jue Xiang has pictures of all its performers; its biographical notes are not translated into English. Sitong Shenpin includes biographies of all its players in Chinese plus English translation, but no images. On the Sitong Shenpin list there are three women players (marked *) who are not included in Jue Xiang (which includes images of all the players), so for them images have been added here from elsewhere. On the Jue Xiang list there are four performers (marked #) who are not included in Sitong Shenpin, so for them some brief comments are added below. In all, then the total number of women players introduced and recorded here is 12.

Because Jue Xiang has biographical notes not so easily put online, and no English translations, for the first four female players from Jue Xiang listed here - the ones not in Sitong Shenpin. For them there is no such collection of biographies and no English translations. Here then is the opening comment about each of them in Jue Xiang, plus a few notes in English, put here to make it easier to search more quickly for more online information.

This list being limited to these two sets of recordings means that it does not include anyone who did not make a recording before about 1981.

Women qin players who were prominent before 1981 but are noticeably missing from lists of actual recordings include (both were students of Guan Pinghu):

Since 1981 a large percentage of emerging qin players has been women.

4. Prehistoric evidence
This statement is tentative: as yet I do not know of any systematic studies of this topic.

5. Early depictions of ladies and the qin (compare popular art) Detail from "Court Ladies" (expand")            
From the literati tradition there are a number of early paintings of women and the qin. The first and second ones mentioned here are Song dynasty copies of earlier paintings; depictions of such "court ladies" apparently first became popular during the Tang dynasty. The third is a modern copy of a Song original. The fourth is from a qin handbook first published in 1660. Details are as follows:

  1. 使名,仿周文矩宮中圖 Anon. (before 1140), Ladies of the Court, after a design by Zhou Wenju
    Long scroll (detail here and at right); Cleveland Museum of Art; qin with ruan was a common motif
  2. 使名,仿周昉,Anon., in the style of Zhou Fang: Palace Ladies Tuning the Lute (zither; also drinking tea)
    Also a 12th c. copy: Compare the Nelson Atkins copy with this 調琴啜茗圖 on various websites, said to be from the the 東北博物館 Liaoning Museum?)
  3. 蔡文姬 Cai Wenji with her qin
    From a modern copy of a scroll originating in the Song dynasty
  4. 徐澹 Xu Dan, A lady contemplates Cangwu, an illustration in Kuian Qinpu (1660)
    Xiang Fei Yuan has the same story from a different perspective

The originals of 1 and 2 were by 周文矩 Zhou Wenju (10th c.) and 周昉 Zhou Fang (ca. 800; 3598.282); for the third see further. Such paintings also depicted women playing other instruments at social gatherings, as well as engaging in other activities. Many of the depictions survive only in later copies.

6. Skilled female entertainers (courtesans? See also the next footnote)
A good example of a qin player identified as such occurs in Xiangsi Qu (Guqin Yin). In Chinese the term seems most commonly to be 妓 ji or 妓女 jinü (6231; 6231.1 妓女 mentions other terms: "娼妓 changji" [娼: female performer] and "歌妓、舞妓 geji [skilled female singer], wuji [skilled female dancer]"). The best short translation is perhaps "courtesan", but that may be misleading. It is also sometimes translated as "prostitute", but that may be even more misleading, hence incorrect. Wiki has an entry discussing their role, but calls them "Yiji" (藝妓 yiji), which is certainly a term originating in Japan. 33103.11 gives 藝妓 only as a Japanese term, without Chinese references, while 5/601 gives as its earliest reference 王西彥,古屋 Wang Xiyan (1914-1999). In Japan the most common term for "skilled female entertainer" is 藝者 geisha, then perhaps 藝妓 geigi.

7. Guqin: for men only?
Although there was a trend in literature to speak of the qin as an instrument played by men, there never seems to have been a prohibition against women players. The closest to this is perhaps in the sets of rules in certain handbooks stating when and for whom not to play qin. Regarding the rule not to play 對娼妓 "for courtesans", Van Gulik (Lore, p. 63) had the following to say.

It is true that courtesan is a very elastic term, but considered in the light of the general principles there can be no doubt that it was meant to be interpreted very strictly. In practice, however, we find that this rule is made to apply only to the lowest kind of courtesan. Singing girls who brighten literary gathers on old paintings are seen playing the qin, and novels cite qin playing as one of the accomplishements of the perfect courtesan.

The following footnote has examples of literati depictions of women qin players.

8. Further depictions of women playing the qin Playing and examining qin (expand)                
Further images from the Ming and Qing literati tradition include the following:

  1. Fei Danxu (費丹旭 1801-1850): excerpt from "100 Beauties"
    From a scroll depicting ladies carrying out a variety of activities, copied from Scent of Ink, the Roy and Marilyn Papp Collection of Chinese Painting. Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum, 1994; p. 141. Commentary from Claudia Brown,
    Great Qing, p.143, says of this period,

    Printed books picturing talented women and famous women in history, often featuring poems describing each heroine, offer a larger context for these paintings. One such work is Fei Danxu's One Hundred Beauties, a rendition of women pursuing elegant pastimes done in the baimiao technique, a form of fine-line ink painting. Among the scenes are picking flowers, playing the qin (zither), embroidering, feeding deer, playing weiqi..., reading (or cataloging?) books, painting..., tossing arrowws, and being entertained by music and dance.
  2. Chen Hongshou (陳洪綬; 1598-1652): A Scholar Instructing Girl Pupils in the Arts (Berkeley Art Museum)
    The scholar is removing his qin from its case
  3. Chen Hongshou, Lady Playing the Qin (撫琴圖, source not clear)
    As is common with depictions of men, the lady is not actually playing
  4. Gai Qi, Playing in the Shade of a Pine Tree (松蔭調絃圖; Japanese site: sold at Sotheby's in 2002)
    In this 1819 painting Gai Qi (改琦; 1774-1829) depicts the woman actually playing

These constrast with the common folk art images of women playing qin, described above; note in particular the comment there about mistakes.

9. Handbooks included in Qinqu Jicheng
Further details.

11. 思齊堂琴譜 Sizhaitang Qinpu (1620; IX/1-95)
It was compiled by 崇昭王妃鍾氏 Ms. Zhong, concubine of Prince Zhao of Chong; further information here.

12. Heartfelt Words on Going Through Bitterness (歷苦衷言 Li Ku Zhong Yan; 22 verses)
See further.

13. 梅花仙館琴譜 Meihuaxianguan Qinpu (undated)
Compiled by 師妙孁 Shi Miaoling; see Qinshu Cunmu. It was listed in Zha Guide Section 4 but then later included in Qinqu Jicheng. According to the contents page (XXII/10) it originally had 12 melodies in addition to its Tiao Xian Ru Nong; presumably these were subsequently lost. The total list is as follows:

    (調絃入弄 Tiao Xian Ru Nong; XXII/9)
  1. 良宵引     Liang Xiao Yin; XXII/10
  2. 靜觀吟     Jing Guan Yin; XXII/11
  3. 春曉吟     Chun Xiao Yin; XXII/12
  4. 秋江夜泊 Qiu Jiang Ye Bo; XXII/14
  5. 平沙落雁 Ping Sha Luo Yan; XXII/15
  6. 圯橋進履 Yi Qiao Jin Lü; XXII/17 (end missing)
  7. 碧天秋思 Bi Tian Qiu Si (missing)
  8. 梧葉舞秋風 Wu Ye Wu Qiu Feng (missing)
  9. 神化引     Shen Hua Yin (missing)
  10. 昭君怨     Zhaojun Yuan (missing)
  11. 水仙操     Shui Xian Cao (missing)
  12. 墨子悲絲 Mozi Bei Si (missing)

The handbook does not included commentary on the melodies.

14. Handbooks that were not indexed
Zha Fuxi's Guide listed 35 handbooks not indexed for various reasons (e.g., they existed only outside of China; they had no melodies that were not copied exactly from surviving handboks). One on the list, Meihuaxianguan Qinpu, was later included in Qinqu Jicheng. Others don't have an author's name so it cannot be sure whether any were women.

15. Handbooks that have not survived
For example, the scientist (optics) and poet 黃履 Huang Lü (flourished 1769 - 1829) from 浙江仁和 Renhe in Zhejiang is said to have written a 琴譜 Qin Pu but no information about it is available (e.g., it is not mentioned by Zha Fuxi in his listing of handbooks not indexed).

16. Popularity of opera
See The qin in popular culture.

17. Popularity of ci lyrics and short songs
The 17th century commentator 李漁 Li Yu, in 閒情偶寄,聲容部習技第四 a chapter of his Sketches of Idle Pleasures (Xianqing Ouji; ctext.org), wrote the following about four crafts/artful skills (技藝 jiyi) that should be part of a woman's education:

Of the artful skills writing literature is most imporant, next is playing music ("silk and bamboo"), then comes singing and dancing....This does not diminish (the importance of) woman's weaving....

Regarding poetry and song he wrote,

Poems should be short and easy to finish, such as (the cipai) Chang Xiang Si ([3+3+7+5]x2), Huan Xi Sha ([7+7+7]x2), Ru Meng Ling (6+6+5+6+2+2+6) and Die Bian Hua ([7+4+5+7+7]x2), each one having no more than 10 to 20-odd characters (sic),
Li Yu's comments on singing and dancing may provide some insight into women in relation to qin songs, as

18. Studies of women and poetry
Relevant books and articles include the following:

  1. Chang, Kang-i Sun and Saussy, Haun: Women Writers of Traditional China, An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford, Stanford U. Press, 1999.
  2. Gerritsen, Anne: "The Many Guises of Xiaoluan: The Legacy of a Girl Poet in Late Imperial China", in Journal of Women's History, Volume 17, Number 2, 2005, pp. 38-61.
  3. Idema, Wilt and Grant, Beata: The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China. Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.
  4. Rouzer, Paul, Articulated Ladies: Gender and the Male Community in Early Chinese Texts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.
  5. Soulliere, Ellen, "Imperial Women in the History of the Ming Dynasty", in Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon and Pauline Allen (ed.), Stereotypes of Women in Power. New York, Greenwood Press, 1992. (Soulliere's Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton, 1990, was on the same subject.)

19. Studies of women and fine arts
Relevant books and articles include the following:

  1. Claudia Brown, "Accomplished Women: Female Painters and Their Influence," in Great Qing: Painting in China, 1644-1911. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2014, pp.129-149.

See also general works.

21. Studies of women and qin
No publications to report at present.

22. Here is a relevant quote from Dr. Lily Xiao Hong Lee (personal communication):

The skill of playing the qin, together with such arts as calligraphy and painting, was part of a young lady's education and though I don't know anything specific about the publication of qin handbooks, Ming dynasty publishers of popular fiction certainly tailored their products to readership, so I wouldn't be surprised if publishers of qin handbooks sometimes targeted their products at women because of their likely need for them.

See also her commentary with Xue Chuang Ye Hua.

23. Main sources for biographies of women players
The historical collections are:

24. Best players
The same can be said for the biographies of men. On the other hand, though little is said of technical skills this does not mean that skilled players were not prized.

25. Song lyrics: evidence for creating new melodies?
An example of this may be that of the famous courtesan and poet-painter 柳是 Liu Shi (柳如是 Liu Rushi, 1618-1664; Wiki). For better or worse, however, this is only speculation.

Liu Rushi's poem "游龍井新庵 Visiting the New Cloister at Dragon Well" (translated in Red Brush, pp.378-9) suggests that she herself played qin, as follows (see line 4):

彈琴盤石間,豈必岩桂枝。   "Playing qin amongst the flat boulders, why must there be delicate branches amongst the rocks?"

Before she was 20 Liu lived for some time with 陳子龍 Chen Zilong (1608-47). According to the account in Red Brush (p.375), "throughout these seemingly idyllic two years, the couple exchanged numerous poems and song lyrics." Did she ever use her qin to provide music for the lyrics? Other poems suggest that Liu also played the 箏 zheng. And on another occasion her friend 黃媛介 Huang Yuanjie sent Liu a poem that mentions "qin", but then adds a comment about the two of them playing zheng together (Ko, p. 290). Once again, this sort of flexibility could be seen as defying a written tradition.

In 1641 Liu Shi sought after and married an even better known literatus, Qian Qianyi (1582-1664).

26. Other poems by women mentioning the qin can be found in:

27. Fables mentioning women and the qin are included in:

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