Qins in Captivity?  
 T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Collections   Silk Strings   Tassels   Tuning Pegs   Studs   Qin body diagrams 首頁
Qins in Captivity?  

In Lore of the Chinese Lute Robert Van Gulik discusses in some detail the qin's value as an antique, describing how it is more than just an art object; indeed, it was often referred to as a sacred object, even as a living object.

Today the qin has again become a collector's item, often prized more for its appearance or prestige than for the music it can produce. A side effect of this is the number of instruments held by private collectors who do not play the instrument, making it more difficult for a player who is not wealthy to acquire an instrument. The problem is exacerbated by the number of ancient instruments destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Qins in such collections might well be said to be in captivity.

Museums, on the other hand, can perform a worthy service in preserving qins and increasing knowledge of and interest in them, but this depends on museum policy. Do they keep the instrument in a good condition? Do they have an intelligent policy about allowing the instrument to be played? Or are they also simply keeping it in captivity?

Here are some of my own biases in considering whether a museum qin is in captivity.

  1. Has the museum made an attempt to document the sound the qin can create?1

    A qin player of course understands this easily: how can even an art museum ignore the purpose for which the instrument was made? But many museums seem unconcerned about this. At a minimum, if they have open access online images, they should include a silk string recording of, if not that qin itself, what they deem to be a qin from the same period (preferably with music from the same period). Other recordings should only be used for contrast.

  2. Is it properly stored and/or displayed?2

    According to tradition, a qin is best kept in a moderate climate, not wrapped up, hanging vertically. Direct sun or sudden climate changes can cause damage to either the wood, the lacquer, or both. Wrapping keeps the instrument from "breathing". Horizontal storage, with the long board resting on the two legs and/or the tuning pegs, will eventually lead to curvature of the playing surface, making the instrument unplayable. Even hanging it in the traditional manner, from its upper sound hole ("pond"), can eventually cause damage to the wood from which it is hanging.

  3. Does it have silk strings?

    Metal strings, which are used today by almost all players in China, were introduced only during the Cultural Revolution. They are thus inappropriate for museum display of antique instruments. In addition, metal strings can cause damage to old instruments. For example, they are often strung tighter than silk strings can be, creating stress on the wood. And players who use metal strings report that they have to re-lacquer the instrument more often than on qins with silk strings -- particularly if the qin lacquering is antique.

    Lacking silk strings it would be better for the museum to follow (with explanation!) the Daoist concept most famously put forward by Tao Yuanming, also illustrated here, of a qin with no strings. For an antique instrument, metal strings are the musical equivalent of iron bars.

  4. Is it kept in, or returned to, good condition?

    If the qin is not in playing condition, to what extent can the museum do repairs? Some instruments might be in such bad condition that they cannot be repaired, and insensitive repair can result in further damage. I have seen instruments in private collections which have had the ancient lacquer replaced by shiny new lacquer which looks totally inappropriate.

    On the other hand, old qins were generally played for centuries, undergoing repair at various times. Although sometimes this "repair" has also been what by modern museum standards would be considered inappropriate, museums can play a valuable role by explaining this and perhaps documenting how such changes can affect the sound.

Museums should play a leading role in helping set proper guidelines for restoration of antique qins.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a
separate page)

1. Qin music: from the same period as the qin?
For the Tang dynasty the most obvious choice would be Jieshi Diao You Lan though perhaps also might use certain melodies from Folio 1 of Shen Qi Mi Pu, with appropriate comment. For the Song and Yuan dynasties one can look to melodies listed here, while for the Ming and Qing dynasties the examples are very numerous, though my own prejudice is that attention should be paid to the fact that just because a title is old it doesn't mean that the version actually being played is old.

2. Qin storage
A common mistake is for the qin to be stored resting on its legs and/or pegs, as with this example from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. When played on a table the qin always has its pegs either hanging over the side of the table or through a hole made in the table top. It is unstable resting on its pegs. Even long term storage resting on its legs in playing position can lead to warpage of the body.