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Qin Tuning Pegs
One of the 10 friends of the qin dais #3
琴軫 1
Diagram of pegs with tassels2 

With most stringed instruments, using pegs for tuning generally involves wrapping the melody strings around the peg itself; turning this "lateral peg" one way or the other loosens or tightens the string.3 Instead of this direct method the qin uses "axial pegs", which do not touch the melody strings themselves: there is an intermediary cord ("rongkou", usually translated as "tassel" based on the fringe hanging down in the modern design4) that connects the two. Twisting the rongkou shortens or lengthens it, thereby tightening or loosening the melody string. This tuning system is very elegant and easy to use;5 nevertheless, in the world it seems to be unique to the qin (Lawergren), as well as to some earlier Chinese stringed instruments that might be described as qin-styles or se-styles.6

Regarding these early tuning pegs, specifically those unearthed from Han and earlier tombs, those with holes running lengthwise through the middle (suggesting use of an axial system with intermediary cords) certainly pre-date known examples of the qin in its modern form: stringed instruments (both qin-style and se-style) unearthed from pre-Han and early Han dynasty tombs in the Chu region (modern Hunan and Hubei provinces) clearly had zhen with this characteristic.7 However, the fact that these pegs are found with se-style instruments as well as with qin-style instruments means that connecting such pegs with the qin-style instruments from Chu does not mean the modern qin descended fom these qin-styles.8

Tracing the origins of the modern qin is complicated by the lack of names associated with finds in early archaeological sites. Just as the names used at that time for the unearthed musical instruments are not known, it is also uncertain what these tuning pegs might originally have been called. And just as it is uncertain when the qin reached its modern form, likewise there is no certain dating for the tuning pegs in modern form, whether this means zhen with holes down the middle, suggesting axial tuning using a cord, or zhen in which this cord has pendant tassels, as shown at right.9

Keys (tuning keys10), also found in archaeological sites, clearly were sometimes used to turn the pegs on musical instruments. There has been some debate about which pegs could be turned simply by twisting them with the fingers and which could be turned only with the use of the tuning keys.11 This debate is particularly significant as it impacts on the extent to which archaeological findings of tuning keys suggest the appearance in those regions of stringed instruments related to those found in Chu. Tuning keys have been found all over China. If they were required for tuning the qin-style instruments from Chu, does this suggest these qin-style instruments were once found all over China?

In fact, evidence provided by Wu Yuehua suggests that these keys were probably used only on some of the se-style instruments (their tuning function also having been performed by the movable bridges). According to Wu,

In contrast to this, evidence suggesting the keys were also used with the qin-styles is very weak.

It should be emphasized here that although it is not even certain that the music instruments from Chu can be considered direct ancestors of the modern qin, it is clear from surviving pegs that, as is still done today, they twisted the cords, not the strings themselves.13

The earliest mention of "zhen" (tuning pegs), suggesting that without them one cannot tune a qin, is said in some sources to be in the biography of the Maiden of Agu in the Lienü Zhuan; this work is officially dated to the first century C.E., but some sections are known to have been added later. The story concerns a qin with one or more of its pegs missing (see Zigong).14

The value placed on tuning pegs is emphasized by the fact that they are often made of a valuable material such as jade.

Nevertheless, it is not yet certain to when the earliest pegs in the form of the modern ones, as shown in the image above, can be dated.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. References for Qin pegs (琴軫 qinzhen) (not the the 琴枕 qinzhen meaning qin pillows) Old zhen    
This page is strongly indebted to information from 吳躍華 Wu Yuehua, both through conversation and an unpublished Powerpoint presentation. Wu Yuehua says the work in this area by Prof. Lawergren (whose publications include those mentioned
here) helped him get started, but Wu disagrees with Lawergren on some fundamental points, several of which are mentioned here. The terms "lateral pegs" and "axial pegs" can be found in Prof. Lawergren's work, but his writings focus more on keys while Wu's work focuses more on pegs.

Dictionary references for 軫 zhen are as follows:

39132.0/4 pegs for tuning a qin; no mention of other instruments. References:

  1. 《正字通》﹕軫,琴下轉絃者,因謂之軫。 Zheng Zi Tong is Ming dynasty
  2. 《魏書,樂志》﹕以軫調琴。 (6th c. CE)
  3. 李白,《詩》﹕拂軫弄瑤琴。 Compare the Li Bai quote below.

9/1289: pegs for tuning a string instrument. First two references are to qin:

  1. 劉向,《列女傳,阿谷處女》﹕嚮者聞子之音,穆如清風,不拂不寤,弘復我心,有琴無軫,願借子調其音。
    Earliest reference, and only one from the Han dynasty:
    Liu Xiang's Lienü Zhuan biography of The Maiden of Agu (Scroll 6, #6; the linked illustration shows her with Zigong, who is holding a qin.
  2. 李白,《北山獨酌寄韋六》詩﹕“坐月觀寶書,拂霜弄瑤軫。”王琦主﹕“琴下緊絃之柱,謂之軫。”
    Compare the Li Bai quote above.

The references for 琴軫 qin zhen are:

21570.59: pegs below the qin for turning the strings.

    Bai Juyi, Spring relaxation in a Riverside Pavilion.

4/587: small pegs on a qin for tuning the strings.

    The only reference for this meaning is Qing dynasty. A second meaning given is 比喻石榴子: an allusion to pomegranate seeds.

The latter reference then gives the former one, the quote from Bai Juyi, as its example!

Here also are two further references, both attributed to 陳氏《樂書》 the Music Book by Chen Yang (11th-12th c.), as related in 文獻通考 Wenxian Tongkao folio 135, 樂考六 Music Study 6 (CTP):

25. 陳氏《樂書》曰: 「古者造琴之法,削以嶧陽之桐,成以口桑之絲,徽以麗水之金,軫以昆山之玉。

81. 古軫用竹,言鳳非梧桐不棲,非竹實不食。

Several of the above references seem to suggest that the peg turns the strings. I do not know of the earliest reference specifying that the peg actually twists the cords, which in turn tighten or loosen the strings themselves.

There is also a passage from Shi Ji mentioning zhen for tuning, but it is in a footnote of uncertain date. The reference is Book of History, #27 Astronomy (史記,天宮 Shi Ji, Tian Gong). A footnote there says, "琴下轉絃者謂之軫。 The things under the qin that twist the strings (sic.: zhen actually twist the tassels, not the strings themselves) are called "zhen."

The characters 紾 zhen and 抮 zhen (both meaning "twist") may also at one time have had some connection to tuning pegs; further comment on this below.

Early qin handbooks describing the parts of the qin seem to say little about zhen. For example, Taiyin Daquanji sems to mention it only as the third of the 10 friends of the qin dais.

A modern term for the tuning pegs is 軸 zhou (39112.xxx; xianzhou 絃軸 27938.xxx; 弦軸 9962.xxx).

2. Image: modern pegs (compare modern system, at right Tuning a guzheng: the "lateral peg" method                
The right side of the image above shows a tuning peg with its rongkou (next) fastened in what seems a casual manner, not utilizing the hole that probably runs all the way down the peg. In contrast, the one at footnote 1 shows a zhen such as one from an archeological site, in which the hole did not extend top to bottom, and at right is an example of the "lateral peg" method used today on all stringed instruments other than the qin. To the old peg there has been added a rongkou and the end of the qin string, showing how they likely would have been connected. The design suggests that a rongkou would interfere with attempts to turn it with a tuning peg. It should be noted that no archaeological sites have actually turned up rongkou, so their design is not precisely known. However, although this in theory leaves open the possibility that tuning pegs were used on the "qin-style" instruments from Chu, according to Wu Yuehua such tuning pegs have only been found together with se-style instruments, not qin-style.

3. Lateral peg method
In addition to Western instruments such as the guitar, violin and piano (the tuning of which requires using a tuning key), all Chinese instruments other than the qin and early qin-style and se-style instruments also used this method. The modern 古箏 guzheng, for example fastens the strings to pegs called 絃軸 xian zhou (string pegs) that are turned by a device called a 調音棒 diao yin bang (tuning stick) or a 箏匙 zheng chi (zheng spoon).

4. 絨扣 Rongkou: "cords" or "tassels"
28014.xxx; 絨扣 literally means "yarn fastening; I don't know how long this term has been used for qin tassels, but there is evidence suggesting that the earliest cords connecting the strings to the pegs did not have tassels (see also the previous footnote.)

5. Advantages
This system might be compared to the difference between lifting a heavy weight directly and using a pulley to lift it.

6. Early Chinese stringed instruments
The predominant string instruments from pre-Han dynasty China can be divided into two basic types, those with movable bridges ("proto-se" or "se-style"), and those with a single fixed bridge (here called "qin-style": there is still debate as to whether these instruments were actually predecessors of the modern qin [making them "proto-qin"], or dead-end southern instruments that may have been influenced by a northern instrument that was the true ancestor of the modern qin, in which case "qin-style" may be more accurate).

Other stringed instruments from pre- or early-Han include the 筑 zhu and the 箏 zheng. Like the se, none of these seems to have used tuning pegs. The qin and zheng were apparently tuned by tightening the individual strings to a similar tension, then fixing the pitch by positioning a movable bridge under each string.

The zhu never seems to have been a significant instrument. The zheng largely replaced the se some time around the Han dynasty or soon after.

7. Early stringed instruments from Chu
Further information under Origins of the Qin.

8. Using tuning pegs in searching for the source of the modern qin
Such arguments have also been used with the tuning keys, mentioned further below>

9. Stringed instruments using a cord
As yet it is not clear to me to what extent the se used lateral or axial pegs, as on the modern zheng (see above).

10. Tuning keys (軫鑰 zhenyao) Tuning keys  
Many tuning keys have been found in archaelogical sites. They have been quite conclusively connected to the se-style instruments (which have movable bridges), but are not found together with the instruments said to be connected to qin (which have no movable bridges).
Lawergren has written that the peg holes were so close together that they could not easily be turned without a key; Wu Yuehua's opinion is that at that time it would not have been so difficult to turn them with the bare fingers.

11. Bo Lawergren has argued that the tuning pegs were so close together that they must have or almost certainly required tuning keys to turn them, while Wu Yuehua has demonstrated that the bare fingers could have turned pegs on qin-style instruments with little difficulty.

12. Closeness of holes
For closeness of pegholes see previous footnote. The pegholes on se may suggest that at least some required the use of tuning keys. As for tuning keys in tombs with qin-style instruments, there are very few examples, and in every case they are never close to the qin-style instruments but may be close to a se-style instrument.

13. Twisting the cords: 紾 and 抮 (both also "zhen")
Wu Yuehua has found that the characters 紾 zhen and 抮 zhen, both meaning "twist" were early associated with tuning qin strings.

Neither 27993 紾 nor its three compounds has any mention of qin (or other music instruments). Likewise with 12263 抮 and its one compound. However, as the character 軫 originally referred to the frame of a cart, and 紾 suggests silk thread (that can be used for twisting), it has been suggested that 紾 might have also been an early character referring to tuning pegs, or that 軫 means 紾 that one can 抮 zhen (twist; 戾 li also means twist.)

14. "Maiden of Agu (阿谷處女 A Gu Chu Nü)
Translated as "The Maiden of the Mountain Valley" in Anne Behnke Kinney, Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang (NY, Columbia University Press, 2014). The entry, Chapter 6.6, is on page 117. The relevant section from the full original text, a passage about a qin with pegs missing, is as follows, together with the translation by Kinney (who here translated "qin" as "lute"),

"Zigong returned and reported her words to Confucius, who said, "Just as I thought!" He then took out his (qin), removed one of the pegs, and gave it to Zigong, saying, "Say something to her [about this]." Zigong then approached her and said, "Earlier, when I heard your words, they were 'majestic like a fresh breeze,' neither harsh nor discourteous, with a restorative effect on my mind. I have a (qin), but a peg is missing. Can you tune it for me? The maiden said, "I am a humble person from the countryside, unrefined and ignorant. I know nothing about the five notes; how should I be capable of tuning your (qin)?

The Chinese text is actually unclear about how many pegs were removed. Nevertheless, from this it is clear that pegs were considered essential for tuning the qin. It is also clear that Confucius was pleased with her answer.

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