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Handbooks / Learning to play / Specific sources explaining tablature and finger techniques / Sample page 古琴目錄  
Qin tablature and playing technique 琴譜和指法 1  
See also Historically Informed Qin performance, Teaching HIP and early explanations
Top: a flowing spring illustrates juan: three fingers pluck inward as one   
Bottom: a crane dancing in a breeze illustrates pi: inward thumb pluck2  
Qin music is transcribed using a written music form called tablature.3 Qin tablature shows the finger positions and stroke techniques rather than the notes themselves. There are two types of tablature for guqin:

  1. Longhand tablature (文字譜 wenzipu)
    Uses special terms to write out instructions on how to play a melody.
  2. Shorthand tablature (減字譜 jianzipu); now often called simplified tablature (簡字譜 jianzipu)
    Writes out the instructions in clusters that combine elements of different characters5

Today the word "tablature" by itself, when applied to written guqin music, almost exclusively refers to the shorthand form. Developed from ancient longhand descriptions, it is commonly used in conjunction with a teacher (oral method). However, it can also be used by itself to bring old music to life. The tradition of the oral method is that one copies the teacher exactly. This is more difficult when learning directly from tablature, and here it is important to consider such issues as whether it was intended to be prescriptive or descriptive (did the tablature describe a creation or a composition?), and what role such tablature has played in the creative process of forming qin melodies.

Qin tablature, whether longhand or shorthand, is much more complex than the best known Western music tablature, which shows little more than finger positions for guitar chords. This complexity has given qin a reputation for being difficult, as depicted in a scene from the opera Hong Lou Meng. However, the symbols are in fact mnemonic enough that, if one learns through the traditional oral method (my own teacher told me to copy him, not look at the tablature), the tablature is quite easy to figure out.

The sample page of Shen Qi Mi Pu (175 KB) gives a brief outline of how qin fingering techniques are put into clusters to form qin tablature. As for the finger techniques themselves, the images at right show traditional explanations, which accompany the explanations with images that evoke them poeticially. Translations of a number of these explanations from the old handbook called Taiyin Daquanji can be found here.

In addition, at least two other people currently have detailed explanations of such techniques on their websites:

  1. Judy Chang Pei-You; see "Finger Technique and Notation"; and
  2. Right-Hand Symbols, Left-Hand Symbols and illustrations from Jim Binkley's annotated translation of the Yuguzhai Qinpu.

Although modern qin tablature is remarkably similar to the earliest surviving versions of the shorthand form that developed from the original longhand tablature over 1,000 years ago, there are some important differences. Some forms of ornamentation and ways of indicating strokes have changed. And in the 17th century the method of indicating finger position changed to a decimal system, which is considered more precise, though this can also be misleading.

Tablature or notation for guqin with other instruments

Although virtually all guqin music published before the 20th century is for its solo tradition, there are at least two exceptions,

  1. Guqin in ritual orchestras
    The Wikipedia guqin article has some
    comment on this, but it does not mention the notation. According to my understanding the only surviving pre-twentieth century written scores for this ensemble consist solely of single line notation, with no tablature or other separate indication of what the qin is to play. However, details of this are beyond the scope of this website.6
  2. Duets for guqin and the se zither
    Although there is much mention in earliest guqin literature of the qin and se together (see Written Records, especially from the Shi Jing), by the Tang dynasty the se was rarely played outside the ritual orchestras, it having been replaced by the zheng. However, during the Qing dynasty there was apparently a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to revive the se, and written duets for qin and se have existed since at least 1677 (see sample).7

Guqin played with instruments for which there are no written instructions

To my knowledge, other than the two examples just mentioned, prior to the 20th century there was no separate tablature or notation showing how voice or other instruments should accompany qin, nor are there written records indicating how such duets should to be or might have been played. Nevertheless, one can indeed find historical evidence of qin being played with various types of accompaniment. Examples include,

  1. Qin with ruan plucked lute (as in these paintings by Qiu Ying)
    There is no information as to how these two instruments might have been combined
  2. Qin with erhu bowed lute (listen to a recording)
    This recording shows how a successful collaboration can be made between two skilled musicians who seem to be following their instincts since only part of the music was written down and there are no historical records suggesting just how this should have been done
  3. Qin with xiao flute
    qin handbook from 1820 has some pieces which have added notation for xiao to accompany qin but the information is sketchy and, in the absence of detailed instructions on how to have these two instruments play together, contemporary practice has rarely lived up to the success of the example just mentioned (further comment)
  4. Qin with voice.
    For guqin songs the lyrics are simply written next to the qin tablature (
    sample) following a fairly strict system.8

Under Guqin Improvisation there is further detail about how these instruments might be combined.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 琴譜和指法 Qin tablature and playing technique
Originally called "古琴減字譜和指法".

2. Hand gesture illustrations from Taiyin Daquanji
One of the earliest examples of such illustrations is used to accompany the finger technique explanations attributed to Zequan Heshang ("Zequan the Monk", one of the Northern Song dynasty monks who became a noted qin monk teacher (ca. 11th century CE).

Note the long fingernails in such illustrations. In my experience the best fingernails lengths for qin play are for the left hand fingernails to be cut short, the right hand fingernails to have a length of about 3mm (1/8"), tapered from the center. Longer right hand fingernails may have some playing advantages, but they are more likely to break. Shorter is also possible.

As for the length of the fingernails in the above illustrations (other handbook illustrations are similar), it has been said that in the old days scholars grew their fingernails long to show they were not laborers. However, right hand fingernails as long as those above are a clear impediment to play. I have not yet found any qin writings that discuss this issue.

Note also that Taiyin Daquanji also includes some discussion of artificial fingernails. In my experience these are not very effective. A better solution seems to be to have an acrylic nail built onto the end of the existing nail; this should feel like a real nail and can last for several months. However, it is said that keeping acrylic on the nail year round will eventually weakent he nail itself.
  Guan: real nails?    
An interesting issue here is a claim that the famous player Guan Pinghu (1897-1967) actually had no fingernails at all and yet played marvelously. This claim has been disputed, and there are images such as the one at right (expand) showing him apparently with fingernails (if they are false nails then they seem to be very good; the source, [see Facebook], does not discuss this). From this it is not clear whether the claim is that he never had nails, or that this was later in life.

In any case, it has also been said that if one grows callouses at the fingertips it is quite possible to play without nails. The sound may be somewhat different, though this is not evident from existing recordings of Guan.

3. Tablature (glossary)
Until the common practice period of Western music, music was almost always created first, then written down (transcribed). Regarding tablature, most forms use symbols or charts to indicate how a note is to be produced. The most common form today is probably guitar tablature (examples); the earliest known such tablature is in cuneiform writing from Babylonia; it dates perhaps as early as 2000 BCE (image with speculature transcriptions, from Tumbir; original in the Schoyen Collection).

The earliest surviving qin tablature is longhand writing dating from the 7th century CE (next footnote); the complexity of the music suggests a mature musical tradition, but the origins of the written music are only known through legend.

4. Longhand tablature (文字譜 wenzipu
This earliest known form of written qin music is discussed in further detail under the melody You Lan, with examples in particular here. Longhand tablature was replaced by the shorthand form during the Tang dynasty, though also see the melody Caoman Yin for a later example.

"Special terms" (or simply "terms") refers to the fact that the characters used in longhand tablature were in some cases non-standard, perhaps particularly devised for use with music; in other cases they had specialized meanings. An example of the latter is that 打 da by itself simply means to "hit", but in tablature it means "hit inwards with the right hand ring finger" (in ancient tablature terminology it could also mean hit inwards with the right ring, middle or index finger).

5. Shorthand tablature (減字譜 jianzipu
Sometimes called "simplified tablature (簡字譜 jianzipu"), it must be distinguished from 簡譜 jianpu, a common term for the Chinese number notation system (Wiki) that developed out of such earlier notations forms as gongche notation (工尺譜 gongche pu; also Wiki).

"Simplified tablature" (簡字譜 jianzi pu) also evokes "simplified characters" (簡體字 jiantizi), which one might call shorthand forms of the traditional or standard characters (繁體字 fantizi: complex characters). Compare shorthand writing (速記 suji: "fast writing").

6. Notated sources for traditional orchestral music with qin
The attached sample is from Joseph Lam, State Sacrifices, 1998. The music is written top to bottom and right to left on alternate lines beginning "合四一四....", which are the names of notes in a version of gongche notation; to the right of each note is the paired lyric. If qin was included in such an orchestra, presumably it would simply have followed this notation.

7. Tablature for duets between qin and se zithers
The earliest surviving music notation for qin and se together seem to be in the following handbooks:

  1. Songfengge Qinse Pu (1677)
    Here the two scores (parts) for the melody 大雅 Da Ya are written separately; in the attached sample the top (from QQJC XII/434) is the qin version; the bottom (from ibid., XII/438) seems to be an adaption for se of traditional qin tablature, but it also seems to be a se with only 20 strings (that is the highest number I find in the tablature).
  2. Qin Se Hebi (1691)
    Here the two parts are written side by side, the qin written in its normal tablature, the se part using tablature as in 1677 example; in addition, the melody line is also written in gongche notation. This can be seen clearly in the attached sample, again from right to left and top to bottom: after information about the melody (once again 大雅 Da Ya), section 1 begins with the qin tablature first, then to its left the gongche notation, then in the next column the se tablature.

The above examples suggest the se was intended simply to follow the qin melody. To my knowledge, such scores for qin and se reflected antiquarian interests that never really caught on.

8. Qin songs and other duets
In the attached example, (from QQJC I/289 bottom and 290 top), the red line marks the beginning of the song Feng Ru Song Ge as written in Taigu Yiyin (1511). After the title there is a preface (translated here), then the lyrics paired to the right of the tablature. For interpretation you can view my transcription while listening to my recording 聽錄音; notice the heterophony.

Today, in other interpretations of qin songs or duets, the voice or other instrument generally simply follows the melodic line of the guqin, perhaps adjusting for register, such as octave leaps. Elsewhere I have some comment on how they might have been performed in the past, but there is no existing traditional tablature or notation that can be used for performance guidelines.

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