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Dapu : Bringing old music to life 1
My dapu proceeds from here to the music 2  
Introduction to Dapu

The Chinese word "dapu" has, since at least the Ming dynasty, referred either to the process of going from qin tablature to qin music or to the music that resulted from going through this process. Writing qin tablature (qinpu) is very different from writing music in other ways, such as writing Western staff notation: notation gives the names and values of notes; tablature tells the finger positions and stroke techniques. In some ways qin tablature is very precise, including in particular information about ornamentation; in other ways it is not so precise, omitting direct indications of note values. As a result, although one can "sight read" staff notation, reading qin tablature takes more time and effort. Nevertheless, there is a long tradition of learning to play melodies directly from qin tablature. On the other hand, how this was done is not at all clear. This is perhaps underlined by the fact that although the term now used to describe this process, "dapu", is rather old, its use in connection with the qin seems to be quite modern.3

Until the development of the modern conservatory style of performance, the most common method of learning qin melodies was always to copy one's teacher.4 The primary use of qin tablature would have been mainly to clarify a particular fingering or stroke technique, perhaps when the teacher is no longer available. The tablature used for this could be the same as the teacher used, but sometimes players would consult other tablature as well. Sometimes players might consult old tablature to learn a melody they had heard but not studied from a teacher, or just to try out a different version of a piece already played. All of this could be called dapu. However, here dapu will be used to mean trying to play old melodies which at that time seemed to exist only in tablature form.5

Often when playing melodies directly from tablature there seems to be no conscious aim other than to enjoy the resulting music. If such players are then asked to state more precisely what they wish to accomplish, two points of view seem to emerge, but both called simply "dapu" (the issue of whether dapu should be independent work is discussed further below). Here I will try to distinguish between these two attitudes by using three terms. I refer to dapu itself as "realize", meaning to take written music and turn it into real music. The two attitudes towards making real music from the tablature can then be called "recreating" and "reconstructing".6

From my experience, both types of dapu can produce beautiful music. As will be seen here, my own tendency is to treat the tablature as I would a living teacher (see below) and follow it strictly. Only after I feel I have mastered a melody through strict reconstruction do I feel comfortable interpreting it freely or using it to create a new melody.

Some people have argued that "dapu" means only one or the other of these processes. My own analysis here is of course influenced by my belief that it can be both. It is also influenced by my understanding of the term "classical music", often applied to qin music (see The use and influence of the term "Classical Music"8), as well as by my understanding of how writing down music affects its development (see Qin Tablature: Its role in the creative process9).

Here, however, I must emphasize that,

  1. Working on my own although, I may be able to claim accuracy in notes, I cannot claim overall accuracy. This could only be approached by several or many people working independently on the same pieces, making comparative analyses of their results, then perhaps reaching a consensus.
  2. Once again, no claim is made that this "reconstructing" gives a better or even more "authentic" result than "recreating".
  3. If the results of "reconstructing" and "recreating" are different, this is good: it brings more variety into the repertoire.

Early on in this project I decided that I would always try to find the earliest published version of any particular melody and then try to reconstruct it as exactly as possible. This is related to why I began this project in the first place (other than as a way simply to find "new"" music, i.e., music I had never heard before). My decision to try to reconstruct this early music, and specifically which melodies I selected for reconstruction, was certainly influenced by the fact that early qin tablature provides the most complete example in any non-Western society of indigenous, detailed written instrumental music. When I enjoy a piece of unfamiliar music I have always had a curiousity about where it came from. So here I start with earliest versions. Learning later versions would have to be done in addition to the earliest version, and doing multiple versions of a melody can be confusing. So I have always hoped that these earliest versions would inspire others to work on later ones for comparison.

Differences between qin tablature and Western staff notation have already been mentioned above. These differences alone would make it very interesting to compare how the two systems affected the way each type of music developed over the centuries. For example, over time Western notation became more and more detailed: did this lead to musicians in the Western classical tradition becoming less creative than musicians in oral traditions? As another example, it has been observed that over time qin tablature gave a lot more detail on left hand techniques: did this mean left hand technique was becoming more complex, or simply that the tablature was becoming more precise in its descriptions? How did the attitude of the 19th century qin player towards old qin tablature compare with the attitude of 19th century Western musicians towards the notated works of 18th century composers such as J. S. Bach?

As for attitudes to written compositions, today Western conservatories generally train musicians to view notation as prescriptive. Yet even in the West, in spite of the heavy traditional emphasis on the role of the composer and on the supremacy of "classical music", there has always been tension between composer and artist.11 Prior to the 20th century the tendency of performers was to re-interpret old music in the idiom of their own day. In the 19th century, Bach's compositions for harpsichord were played on the piano; his compositions for small orchestra were adapted to the large 19th century symphony orchestra. Gregorian chant, originally monophonic, was sung in four part harmony. Such re-interpretation was the accepted method used when performing old music.12

Qin tablature was at its core descriptive. It did not result from someone writing out a melody for someone else to play; rather it was a description of how someone played the melody. But once written down, to what extent were these tablatures then considered prescriptive?13

Qin players have always expressed great respect for their sources. Conservative tendencies and the precise recopying of old tablature indicate a desire to preserve the old. And yet the constant appearance of new versions of old melodies with the same titles points to continuous development. Was this development conscious? What does this sort of development say about the obvious conservative and antiquarian tendencies? These are questions that have not yet been fully examined.14

My work

Although the question of traditional attitudes towards qin tablature is very interesting intellectually, rather than debate this I have generally been more focused on the practical use of qin tablature to realize ancient music. My question has always been: through accurately reconstructing a large amount of early tablature can we reconstruct identifiable ancient music styles? Such work on early Western music has brought to life a lot of beautiful music that is arguably very old. Thus, when I discovered the antiquity of qin tablature I was naturally interested both in playing the instrument and analyzing its music.

At an early stage I decided I would do my initial reconstructions very strictly, then record these before I consulted other persons' realizations: it seemed important to me that different people come up with their own independent rhythmic interpretations, then only after this compare them. With my Shen Qi Mi Pu project, I only looked at other interpretations after completing my own cassette recordings. Since then I have generally continued in this tendency. My impression is that other peoples' interpretations vary considerably, from quite strict to rather free. In addition, many people call their work "dapu" when they are simply revising other people's work. That said, I have not studied other peoples' realizations systematically, and present comments should be seen in that light.15

As mentioned, in my reconstruction work I have tried to play from the tablature as though it were my own teacher. Once I have made recordings that are as accurate as I can make them I feel at liberty to play them more freely.16

The Process

For me the process of realizing early qin music begins not with the "meaning" of the piece (for reasons mentioned below) but rather with a search for structures in the music, mainly modal structures and rhythmic structures. The most challenging, and thus most crucial, aspect of this is trying to understand what the original rhythms might have been. In Rhythm in Early Ming Qin Tablature I present details of my own guidelines for attempting accuracy in the reconstruction of ancient rhythms. Here are some general guidelines.

The first step in the physical process of reconstructing the music is figuring out the exact notes.17 For me it is important that in this process I write down the notes in staff notation.18 The visual aspect of staff notation helps reveal contours in the music, and this in turn helps reveal structures. Perhaps the most basic of these structures - as in Chinese poetry - are couplets.19 In music these couplets are generally defined by their musical contours. These contours are physically visible in staff notation; they are not so in number notation.

Next, I use this staff notation the way Chinese musicians traditionally used their number notation: to indicate relative pitch (as in Western solfeggio) rather than absolute pich.20 This allows what I think are really crucial observations on the modality. The music seems to revolve around tonal centers that have specific relations to each other. Having a feeling for this modal structure then makes the music seem quite logical. Most surprising has been to discover how much of the music is structured around do as the primary tonal center, with sol the secondary center; or la as the primary tonal center, with mi the secondary center. These are the same characteristics one finds in Western major and minor modes.21

My original transcriptions almost invariably are written in 2/2 or 4/4. These are the rhythms found in much of the Chinese music repertoire handed down through oral tradition. By treating the early qin tablature in this way, the resulting rhythms reveal numerous structures within the qin melodies.22 Rhythmic structures, like modal structures, make the music more logical.23 It is important to note, though, that in actual performance this rhythmic structure is not always as obvious as it is from looking at the transcription. This is because of my guiding principle that qin music, rather than being free and unstructured, is fundamentally structured but freely interpreted.

Following on from this, having seen these musical structures, it is important in the end to try to forget them. The result should be that the structures become more instinctive than analytical. Perhaps paradoxically, this instinctive feeling for structure may allow the interpretation eventually to become much freer.


Throughout the reconstruction process it is important to distinguish between "accuracy" and "authenticity". "Accuracy" can be discussed in concrete terms and argued based on physical evidence. "Authenticity" is much more subjective, dealing with the intentions of the performers.24

For example, today one can hear Bach on harpsichord, Bach on piano, and Bach on synthesizer. One can hear qin music played on instruments with silk strings, metal strings, or on new inventions such as an electric qin. Some people will say that, of course, Bach was contemporary in his day, and so what is most authentic today is to try to recapture that essence by playing his music on a synthesizer. Perhaps one could also say the same about Shen Qi Mi Pu qin melodies played on electric guitar. In other words, if the performers' say their intentions are to capture the feelings expressed in the original music, then the argument concerns not whether their efforts are accurate, but whether they are authentic.

In sum, it is not open to serious question that a baroque style harpsichord provides more potential for accurate performance of what Bach wrote than do piano or synthesizer. The same can be said of old melodies played on a qin with silk strings. However, the instruments chosen or the method of play do not determine whether or not a particular performance is "authentic". It only helps determine whether it is "accurate" according to certain definable criteria.


As I wrote in a comment on "accuracy" under My Work, I can never know how accurate my reconstructions are. So why should I even care?

The arguments against putting an emphasis on accuracy in qin music realizations are basically, as I understand it, twofold.

  1. Qin tablature is not as detailed or precise as, for example, notation for piano music.

    My own understanding is that qin tablature gives quite as much information as does medieval Western notation. When well-written, the tablature for a specific melody defines quite well the parameters within which that melody was once played; furthermore, there is no reason not to think that the systematic study of many such examples might eventually allow us to define styles within which one can play freely. Since, regardless of the accuracy of interpretation, much beautiful music has been made in attempting to reconstruct medieval Western music, it is worthwhile trying to do the same with qin tablature. To say otherwise is to demean qin music.

  2. It is impossible to get into the mind set of the old Chinese literati who created the genre.

    It is impossible to get into anyone else's mind set. Even if I directly study for many years with a teacher who is a close relative, I can never view the world exactly as that person does. One should be hesitant and skeptical in making assumptions about what music sounded like, what it "meant" or how it affected people in ancient times. However,, but this argument against making the effort is to me like arguing against the method of learning a tradition by copying ones' teacher.

Although I cannot know how accurate my transcriptions are, I can try to avoid what, according to the original tablature or my understanding of qin style in those days, are apparent changes or obvious inaccuracies. This does not mean that I think changes are bad, only that when learning a piece I try to do so by carefully following a single master.

Examples of changes that for this reason I generally avoid include the following,25

  1. Examining different tablatures of the same piece then combining these versions by selecting parts from each;26
  2. Playing part of a piece instead of the whole piece;27
  3. Consistently changing certain notes, in particular where there is both a flatted third and a whole-tones third;28
  4. Playing old pieces on qins using metal strings.29.

The most obvious inaccuracies are directions that are clearly unplayable. Thus if the tablature says, "Slide up from the seventh position to the ninth position" there is clearly a mistake: this is a downward slide. Thus either "up" is incorrect, or one of the stated positions must be incorrect.30

Suspension of disbelief

As an analyst, I must retain my skepticism about what I am hearing. As a performer I must at some stage forget my self-doubts and skepticism and just play. As a listener it can go either way. Generally speaking, though, I appreciate it when a performance allows me, at least temporarily, to engage in what has been called a "willing suspension of disbelief".31

This is not an argument that suspension of disbelief is always necessary for enjoyment or appreciation. But when playing I would like to think that I can help those listeners who are willing to suspend disbelief and imagine that they are hearing music as it may have been played centuries ago.

For some people, suspension of disbelief about the antiquity of a music performance can be created simply by program notes saying it is "ancient" (though played by Chinese orchestra or on a qin with metal strings). For others, though, if you give them a chance, they will question any claims of accuracy. I am like this. There are thus for me some guidelines that the performers (and program note writers) must follow in order to allow me to suspend skepticism and simply enjoy.

In general I can suspend disbelief about the accuracy of a musical performance if, first, it is clear to me what sort of accuracy is being claimed and, second, if the argument makes facts fit my own understanding of the historical circumstances.

Thus I can suspend disbelief about accuracy more easily when hearing Bach on harpsichord and when hearing ancient qin music reconstructions played on silk strings. Suspending disbelief about the authenticity of such performances is a completely different question, though this can also be affected by the sorts of claims that are being made for the performance.

New vs. Old

Accuracy aside, a further argument in favor of strict reconstruction is that it can lead to very interesting new sounds.

"New" here means something not heard before, at least not by the person who calls it "new". Thus, before I started playing qin, any music on silk strings would have been for me a newer sound than music played on metal strings. Likewise, Shen Qi Mi Pu music played according to notes in the tablature provided for me newer sounds than did the same music played with notes modified to fit the modality of qin music in today's repertoire.

Kanpu dapu vs. tanqin dapu

Program notes to the CD Min (Fujian) River Qin Music, featuring Chen Changlin32 and consisting mostly of his Shen Qi Mi Pu realizations, say that the method he has used in reviving over 30 qin pieces since 1958, inspired by the writings of Zhu Fengjie,33 can be called a combination of two different activities:

  1. "kanpu dapu" (realizing the music while looking at staff notation transcriptions of the original tablature), in which "Chen first copies out the tablature horizontally with the numbered notation below, then figures out the rhythm by researching the fingering, pitch, rest, expression etc in the tablature;" and
  2. "tanqin dapu" (realizing the music while playing the qin)

The description of Yao Bingyan's dapu method in Bell Yung's Celestial Airs of Antiquity indicates that Yao put emphasis on tanqin dapu.34 As described there35 the process consisted of three stages, which he called

  1. dongji (motivation): studying literary and other sources to experience the mood of the piece;
  2. fangfa (method): studying the specific playing techniques used; and
  3. xiaoguo (result): playing the music while in a state of realization gained from stages 1 and 2.

Like Chen Changlin, I would describe my own efforts as a combination of these two processes. However, in the kanpu dapu stage I would add that my search for structures in the music is influenced by my use of staff notation. As I see it, the visual aspect of staff notation can be very helpful when looking for structures implied by the contours of the original notes. In the tanqin dapu phase I first emphasize these structures, in particular using fairly strict rhythms in an effort to bring out those I found through kanpu dapu. Once I have found the structures that for me turn the notes into real music, there is then a second phase of tanqin dapu where the structures become instinctive, the rhythms are loosened, and the music comes alive.

Qin tablature as teacher

Qin melodies were originally transcribed in longhand (now called "longhand tablature"). Since the Tang dynasty they have been transcribed in a shorthand version of this, called "shorthand tablature". The reasons that this shorthand tablature came to be published in handbooks are not necessarily the same as the reasons that the qin music was written down in the first place.

Clearly Zhu Quan published his Shen Qi Mi Pu in order to preserve ancient melodies. But was the music originally written down for this reason? Most of the handbooks published during the Ming and Qing dynasty seem to have described the playing methods of specific teachers. These books were used as teaching aids. This suggests that the music was often written down by a teacher or his students specifically to describe for the students how a teacher played a melody. At the same time it leaves open the question of whether the tablature described how the teacher always played the melody. Perhaps some teachers often played a more complicated version of the melody, or played it differently on different occasions. It also leaves open the question of whether the teacher allowed the students to change the way the melodies were played. At a certain stage did they expect the students to change the music?

As stated above and outlined in my rhythm article, my own attitude is to treat the tablature as my "teacher", and first to make a recording which as accurately as possible recaptures what was in the original tablature. Although it may not be possible to reconstruct exactly the way the piece was originally played, I believe that through this method one can reconstruct the style of play of that period more closely than by treating the tablature freely from the beginning. In this way it might also lead to better insights in how the early qin idiom was used to express meaning.

This opinion is influenced by my understanding that most highly developed music styles require first strict adherence to teaching and copying before one can achieve something significantly creative. I did not study with my original teacher long enough that I feel I can be creative in his style of qin play. However, I would like to think that, having completed the Shen Qi Mi Pu recordings, I have some competence in that style, a style which so appealed to people such as the Emaciated Immortal.36

Go to Rhythm in Early Ming Tablature Return to GuqinToC or to analysis.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Origin of the expression "dapu" (「打譜」之語源 ; see also in gloss)
This term basically means to learn/play a qin melody directly from a written source rather than from another person. In literature this term came into common use in connection to the guqin only in the 20th century; here it might be translated as "reconstruct", which requires some analysis of the tablature, in particular to determine appropriate note values, hence "learn". However, it perhaps originally meant simply to play (or play at) a melody through "sight-reading". This seems to have been its meaning in the eariest known source, a 16th century essay (for more on this meaning see also "按譜鼓曲 play qin according to the tablature" below),

This term was also quite likely sometimes used the way it was also used in books on cooking and chess. Specifically:

Da generally means "hit", but it also has such meanings as "construct" or simply "do". A pu is usually some sort of manual, as in qinpu. 12054.xxx, but 6/336 打譜 gives two definitions that may be related:

  1. Same as 打棋譜 (6/326), "According to a chess book in sequence follow the chess moves". The earliest reference given is Chapter 54 of 儒林外史 Rulin Waishi, a famous novel by 吳敬梓 Wu Jingzi (1701 - 1754). It is translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, The Scholars, as "studying chess moves" (see the end of Chapter 54.)
  2. Draw up a general plan or program. The earliest reference is to 謝覺哉 Xie Juezai (modern period).

These dictionaries make no reference to the qin.

According to the research of Yan Xiaoxing, the earliest reference so far found to dapu in connection to the qin is in a book published by Zhang Dai in 1623, but crediting Xu Wei, a well-known 16th century literatus. Yan says this source used the term in basically its modern way, but he does not specify to which modern usage he is referring. (See also the comment by Bell Yung in a later footnote.)

2. Dapu illustration Tablature explanation   (.pdf)    
See the larger version of the image above and compare it with the explanation sheet at right, which should be self-explanatory. As for the illustration above, the right side of the image shows the original tablature, in this case Shang Yi, the shang mode prelude from Taiyin Daquanji; the left side has the finished product in staff notation. As for the process (and as shown in the explanation sheet attached at right), with the relative tuning known it is easy to know the relative pitches indicated by each tablature figure. The staff notation treats the notes as if they were relative pitches (e.g., "C" is actually"do"), so as the tablature is copied under each line of notation their pitches are entered as whole notes within the staff notation. Next, appropriate note values are worked out through processes such as those described on this page. Once the melody can be played fluently it is recorded. After the recording often further changes are made; in this case if you listen while viewing the notation you will see differences that resulted from, after doing the recording, more carefully comparing this version with later shang mode preludes.

3. Early use of the term "dapu"
See the earlier footnote on origins of the term "dapu". Prof. Bell Yung, who has written several articles on guqin dapu, could not find mention of the term earlier than one by 楊時百 Yang Shibai in 1923, though he suggests that a more concentrated search might find one (see 1985, p.382). Prof. Yung also has a different understanding of dapu from that expressed here, and does not take kindly to uses of the term other than his own (see Bell Yung on Dapu).

4. Traditional vs. conservatory learning
The most obvious difference in modern conservatory learning is the use (usually required use) of metal strings instead of the traditional silk. The rest of my comment above is somewhat speculative: little is written about how people learned guqin in the past. It seems quite likely that, with all the qin handbooks around, scholars would often have consulted them whether or not they had ever had a teacher. What seems to be new, though, is the modern method that teachers have of having their students study the tablature (perhaps together with transcription) before or at the same time as learning a melody: in effect learning guqin the way one learns most Western instruments.

5. Playing music from tablature
Most known qin players were from literati families; they often had to spend lengthy periods of time far from home; they also had respect for ancient sources. For these reasons many of them certainly played from tablature, or at least consulted and perhaps made revisions based on tablature, whether or not they had had strict training from a teacher. Other music, if it was written down at all, was done so in a very sketchy manner, so putting such emphasis on written scores was not only unique to the qin but probably also had a stronger influence on how qin music developed. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen any traditional literature discussing this unique aspect of qin music.

Some of the effects of this are discussed further below under Qin tablature: its role in the creative process".

6. Terminology of "dapu": "realizing" as either "reconstructing", "recreating", or both
The word dapu is often translated as "recreating", and elsewhere on this website I may use it in this way. However, here and in the rhythm article I have tried to be consistent in referring to the general concept of "dapu" as "realizing". When I use "reconstructing" it should be understood that it refers to strictly interpreting the tablature, while "recreating" suggests interpreting the tablature more freely. These concepts can also be conveyed by writing of "strict dapu" and "free dapu".

As mentioned in the text, I believe both approaches are valid. However, for me it has always been important to follow the tradition of copying one's teacher as closely as possible, being creative with the materials only after I have thoroughly learned them. The page Bell Yung and Dapu has my analysis of a view that seems to say that dapu should be seen only as a method for creating new music.

7. The importance of "meaning" in reconstructing old music
The "meaning" (written in quotes because how that word is interpreted with regards to music is very subjective) of musiic has very much to do with clichés (cliches). To a certain extent we know what Western music means through our knowledge of cliches: more exciting themes are often expressed through faster and/or louder music, sadder themes tend to be expressed in a minor key, a specific musical motif might be used to refer to a particular person, and so forth. But what, if any, are the cliches for Chinese music, for guqin in particular, but even more so for ancient guqin music that must be reconstructed from tablature?

This is an important topic about which very little is known. As a result, from my experience, when trying to play music from old tablature one should not first ask, What does this melody mean? First one should study the technical details of the music and see how that sounds, perhaps without even considering the meaning as expressed in the title or the connected commentary. Only after the melody is formed in a way that seems to make musical sense should one consider the meaning.

Music may be an international language but different musics are still their own languages. Properly translating these languages begins with knowing what the language is actually saying, rather than deciding what it is saying and then interpreting the words (i.e., notes) accordingly.

8. The use and influence of the term "Classical Music"
Leaving aside the fact that the term "classical music" originally referred to the specific style of music composed in Europe from about 1770 to 1830 (see, e.g., the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music), "classical music" is today often considered as synonymous with "art music", "fine music", "great music", or "serious music"; in this it is contrasted with "popular music" and/or "folk music". In trying to define the rules of this "classical music" some scholars argue that these rules should refer specifically to music of the years 1600/1650 to 1900 CE, calling this the "common practice period" of Western classical music. Personally I think that what is today generally called "classical music" might more accurately be described as "establishment music".

A broader definition of "classical music", one that takes into account music systems (especially non-Western ones) with no written tradition, is a "traditional genre of music conforming to an established form and appealing to critical interest and developed musical taste" (see, e.g., The Free Dictionary).

For many years the Western education system generally has created the impression that only composed music can be considered as "great art". The spread of Western culture has led to the development of conservatories around the world that teach the same prejudice, thereby denigrating indigenous traditions. In China this can be seen by the fact that the music departments of its conservatories generally refer to Western music simply as "music", while Chinese music is categorized as 民族音樂 minzu yinyue: "folk music" or "ethnic music".

One result of this attitude is that oral traditions have been written down not simply to document them but in order to put them in the same category as Western composed music. Thus in Xinjiang, where the Uighur art music traditionally followed the mukam system of improvisation within certain modal rules (similar to Indian raga), the "best" versions of mukam were written down and treated as fixed compositions (the same process occurred earlier with Uzbek muqam under the Russian Soviet influence).

Likewise qin tablature has sometimes been treated as though it reflects the intentions of specific composers, as in Western compositions. This is further discussed in the footnote Qin Tablature: Its role in the creative process, below.

9. Qin tablature: its role in the creative process (琴譜:其在創作過程中的角色)
At least as early as the 13th century it became possible to write down Western music in notation. The increasing use and precision of this notation has had a great influence on the development of Western music. Thus Western notation probably originated as an effort to put into writing how an existing song or melody should be performed. Initially this was quite likely descriptive, but over the centuries it became increasingly prescriptive, with a "composer" creating the music as he or she wrote it down. This composed music forms the bulk of what is today generally called "classical music" (previous footnote).

There is no evidence to support the idea that, prior to the 20th century, qin music was ever created in this Western manner: by someone sitting with pen in hand writing down a composition for others to play. Or that the creator of a qin melody deliberately wrote it down without indicating the rhythm, out of the belief that this should be left up to the performers.

Nevertheless, not infrequently I have heard people, including Chinese people and even qin players, discuss qin tablature as though in the past it was actually used as a composition tool similar to what notation came to be in Europe. This opinion has led people erroneously to assume that, because the tablature does not directly indicate rhythm, the music must have been created by a composer who, like some modern Western composers, deliberately required the performer to become part of the creative process. Qin tablature can certainly be used in this way, and historically its nature and use have certainly had an influence on how melodies developed. However, all the historical evidence suggests that in the past the tablature was written down in an attempt by someone to describe how a melody was played. If players used tablature at all, it was usually used together with instructions from someone who already played the melody; this other person would transmit the rhythmic elements. If this other person was a teacher, the learners would be required to follow the rhythms played by the teacher. Later they could change these rhythms, but this was due to the fact that qin music was created primarily through an oral tradition, and it occurred in spite of the fact that the music was written down, not because it was written in a particular manner.

There is evidence to suggest that in the past people did sometimes learn a melody directly from the tablature: the tablature thus became the teacher. Here quite likely the melody would be changed, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally. And in some cases, having learned a melody from someone who played it, the learner might consult old tablature to see how earlier masters might have played it. Eventually someone might use tablature to try to write down the music resulting from either of these methods of learning, thereby creating yet another written version, perhaps old, perhaps new. The processes involved in using the tablature in this way are what is discussed in the present article, Dapu, Bringing Old Music to Life. And the crucial element of rhythm is discussed on the page Rhythm in Early Ming Qin Tablature .

This is in no way intended to suggest that no value was put on creating new melodies, or reinterpreting old melodies in a creative way. Thus, although there is no evidence that the people who wrote down tablature in the first place intended for it to be used creatively, the tablature and the dapu processes have both had important roles to play in the creation and re-creation of qin music.

Creativity in qin music is discussed further on other pages, such as Historically informed qin performance and Guqin improvisation.

11. There are those who will say there is just as much creativity required of the pianist who must come up with a fresh interpretation of a Liszt sonata as is required of the instrumentalists interpreting 14th century estampie from much sketchier sources. (Although in China the scholar doing the realization (dapu) is quite likely also to be the performer playing the music, recordings available of such recreations show a strong tendency in China of one player to follow and modify another's dapu, rather than do the whole recreation anew.)

12. Western resistance to "turning back the clock" on musical practice
Early landmarks in the development of the modern HIP movement include the work of the monks Benedictine monks in Solesmes, France, who around 1900 CE were almost excommunicated by the Pope for claiming current practice in the singing of Gregorian chant was inaccurate. More recent are arguments that we do not really know how the early music sounded and so so-called "HIP" in fact say more about 20th century practice. Since I often enjoy HIP, I think one of its positive attributes is that people can make a living by arguing about it.

13. See also "Qinpu compiler's intention: description or prescription?" under Rhythm in Early Ming Qin Tablature.

14. It is difficult to try to draw parallels with visual arts, since their relative permanence makes "reconstruction" a different sort of issue. However, it might be worthwhile to mention two terms used in fine art:

These are terms used in particular to describe the work of artists working in styles known from antiquity, not in a current style. Fang seems to have been prized more highly than mo but old Chinese writings don't reveal any specific value placed on breaking the rules of an old style while "fang-ing" it. It is unclear to me how this relates to the fact that changes obviously took place, though it does to me imply there was more of a desire to express oneself within the limits of an old style rather than to break out of the style.

As for parallels with reconstruction in music, mo can not really be an issue in doing dapu: how can we "mo" something exactly when we do not know for sure what its original form was (e.g., we can copy the notes but only guess at the rhythms). However, I do think it eventually will be possible to analyze reconstructed qin music for its accuracy as well as creativity, much as is done in the fine arts with the analysis of the work of people who "fang".

15. Dapu: Independent work or following others?
As mentioned above, many people today also use the word "dapu" to mean revising other people's dapu, or even simply revising another person's version of a melody, perhaps with minimal examination of the tablature. What has generally been missing from this, unfortunately, is critical comment on why changes are made.

Related to this, although it is clear that when people do "dapu" they sometimes consult my online recordings, and although the reaction I have received in China to my own reconstruction work is generally positive, this has mostly concerned the effort. I have not yet seen or heard much critical analysis of the results.

16. I suspect that, if left to my own devices I will probably focus more on reconstructing some of the "newer" old music (i.e., from 16th instead of 15th century sources). And if I try to put a new interpretation on old pieces I suspect the changes will be fairly conscious and considerable.

17. Figuring out the exact notes
Here "exact notes" means their specific relative pitch names and note values. Usually working out the notes is quite straightforward: the tablature clearly indicates these by giving the relative tuning and the finger positions. While doing this I usually use charts such as those shown under Tuning a qin. (See also my comments on incorporating just intonation tuning).

Figuring out possible note values is much more complicated, since the tablature only tells the finger techniques and ornamentation, without directly state note values. In addition, the descriptions of finger techniques and ornamentation are not always clear. In particular, the older tablature, such as that in Folio 1 of Shen Qi Mi Pu, is especially problematic: although I believe I have found explanations for all of the finger techniques and ornamentation, for many there are multiple explanations; and some explanations are vague and/or conflicting. This problem is compounded by the fact that, most likely, much of the tablature we see today was probably edited at different times, perhaps centuries apart. Someone doing this editing may simply copy down parts of the tablature in some areas, then add or change something in another area using a different interpretation. This is a particular problem with multiple-note clusters. Generally my solution is to select the explanations that reveal music structures that seem right to me based on structures I find elsewhere.

18. Copying the tablature into staff notation
Initially I would write all the notes as whole notes; now I am more likely to guess note values as I am initially writing down the notes. To my knowledge, most Chinese players do their dapu in their heads, perhaps writing it down afterwards. I cannot imagine how one can find all the structures using this method. Since I need structure, I think such a method would also make me more likely to add or change notes (if you don't find structures you are more likely to create them).

19. Couplets (對聯 duilian: "antithetical couplets" (Wiki)
Here one should distinguish between the types of couplets that are displayed in public places such as doorways and those that pervade various Chinese poetic forms (again Wiki), where the structures may have been quite a bit looser. Although musical couplets follow different rules from those of poetic couplets, the effects are comparable: they help the poetry and/or music flow, and they help make the words and music more memorable/memorizable.

Characteristics of the musical couplets found in Ming qin melodies include:

  1. Two lines paired by having the same rhythm; this may be more explicit (e.g., both lines have the same fingering) or less explicit (subjective decision during reconstruction);
  2. Repeated melodic line, with only the final note changed; here the first line often ends on a secondary tonal center, the second line on the primary tonal center;
  3. Repeated melodic line but, while keeping the same number of beats, having an increased or decreased number of notes expressing it (e.g., doubling each note);
  4. Repeated (or related) melodic lines, but with the second line then extended;
  5. Musical units formed by stringing couplets together, especially two couplets. This in particular parallels for qin songs. For example,

    • If the lyrics are 絕句 jueju (two 5+5 or 7+7 character couplets; Wiki), or four such couplets (compare 律詩 lüshi; also Wiki) then perhaps the rhythm should also reflect this.
    • If the melody has a form such as that of the cipai Yi Wangsun (7, 7. 7+3, 7) perhaps the 3-character variant on 7,7.7,7 should be brought out in the rhythm. Other such "qinci" might have much more irregular structures, which may or may not directly reflect the rhythmic structure of of the songs on which they are presumably based.
    • Chants such as Yasheng Cao may call for a chant-like rhythm. In general, it might be said that adding lyrics or a melody can help the player remember the melody itself. And while these lyrics might in some ways help justify using an irregular rhythmic structure, putting a song into an easily remembered rhythm might also help the singers remember how to sing the song, particularly the musical instrument involved.

    Most commonly there are further hints within these structures as to what the structures might be, such as melodic contours, fingering patterns and modal structures. In cases where the patterns are less obvious one may have to try forcing some rhythmic patterns into the music. These generally fail at first; but other times, if one keeps repeating them often enough until muscle memory takes over, they do then turn out to have a unique natural sounding beauty.

    All such structures can directly influence the rhythms chosen during the dapu process, no matter whether the poetic forms have lines of irregular length or of fixed length.

All of these, and others, could also be categorized as repeating and/or varying the musical contours. As for how these structures may have changed since the Ming dynasty or to what extent they are still found in the modern repertoire, to my knowledge no similar research has been done. Likewise, it is important that there be more independent reconstruction of melodies, so that the more subjective aspects of this search for structures can be compared (see disclaimer).

20. Relative pitch and absolute pitch
Today Chinese number notation is sometimes used as though it expresses absolute pitch. Thus 1 becomes C rather than do. Parallel to this seems to be a tendency to follow the modern Western treatment of "A" as having a pitch equal to 440 Hz (vib/sec). A study of fixed pitch instruments such as organs shows that in the past these pitches could vary considerably from instrument to instrument. In the Baroque period the notes were generally about a half tone or whole tone lower than they are today.

21. In addition to the article on Modality, see also the discussion of individual modes, such as gong mode and yu mode, as well as the discussions of the mode of individual melodies, such as that of Pei Lan.

22. Some people apparently would like to argue that there in fact was no structure in early qin music. My prejudice is that good music always has some structure, though it may not be at all obvious. Thus, a crucial question for me is whether my methods lead to creating structures that were never part of the original music. This is the fundamental reason why it is so important that a number of different people independently try to reconstruct the same melody, then afterwards have a debate as to how note values were selected.

23. My repertoire includes over 200 melodies. Many people have asked how I have been able to learn so many. No one wonders how a piano player can remember hundreds of Western melodies, but few qin players ever learn more than a handful. The simple answer to this is that my reconstructions give the music a logical structure and so it is no more difficult to remember than the Western melodies.

24. Accuracy vs. authenticity
Within a specific context, such as performing arts, some people have defined "authenticity" simply as "the attempt to be accurate". Another way to define would be is as "the attempt to do what one says one is doing". Here "accuracy" is seen as an objective quality (within the limit that all our own perceptions are subjective) while "authenticity" is seen as more subjective, thus requiring a different sort of qualification.

When I was working with the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts (FAA) I had to make careful distinctions between these two concepts. Thus, something might be "authentically Asian", but within the context of the FAA it might not have been accurate to call it Asian. Within the FAA I was trying to promote the concept of Asian arts defined as "arts with a significant input from training in an Asian tradition", without claiming that this was the only possible definition. There was no tradition of spoken drama in pre-modern China: theater always involved music and stylized movement ("dance"). Thus according to the FAA definition to say a modern Chinese spoken drama production was "Asian theater" would not be accurate. However, this did not mean that the production could not be authentically Asian, or even uniquely Asian, expressing points of view that have developed out of a uniquely Asian experience.

Some people argue that personal concepts of accuracy can get in the way of having an authentic experience. I am not sure what that means: because of an unwillingness to suspend disbelief (see Coleridge below) not being able to enjoy something that one might otherwise enjoy? What is an experience that can not in some way be seen as authentic? Can we distinguish between intellectual authenticity and emotional authenticity? This is a very interesting area for research and discussion, but it is not necessary to go into that in order to come up with a working definition of accuracy.

25. For more on such changes see also my comments on Celestial Airs of Antiquity in Bell Yung on Dapu,

26. See, for example, Dongting Qiu Si. The justification for combining versions seems generally to be that this is the way to get the "best version". It may also be a way extending a piece, or of working around apparent mistakes in tablature. This is quite different from consulting different tablatures in order to resolve unclear passages or inconsistencies.

27. The most easily identifiable examples of this are most people's versions of the masterpiece Guangling San. There are dozens of recordings but very few of the full melody. Such shortening is not per se antithetical to playing in an old style, but the justifications used often are. A typical example of this would be, "It is too long for modern tastes".

28. A mixture of flatted 3 with whole-tones 3 is particularly common in eary qin melodies in shang mode. See also Guangling San.

29. The use of metal strings is often justified simply on the basis that this way the music "sounds better". Sometimes it has been argued that the early players would also have used them, had they been available. What is rarely discussed is how using metal strings changes the way people play, or how they can damage instruments.

30. Some handbooks are remarkably free of obvious errors. These are the ones on which I have generally put my greatest emphasis.

31. Coleridge: "The willing suspension of disbelief" (柯爾律治﹕自願懸置懷疑)
In his Biographia Literaria (1817), British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that in his "Lyrical Ballads" he aimed for "the willing suspension of disbelief". The implications of this are discussed in a footnote to the page Historically Informed Performance.

32. Chen Changlin: Min (Fujian) River Qin Music 陳長林﹕閩江琴韻 (Hugo HRP 7129
See first paragraph on page 11 of the CD booklet. Prof. Chen, now retired from the Institute of Computing Technology of the Academia Sinica, has made many recordings, but it is not clear how many are available. He is also known to have done many reconstructions of old melodies but it is also not clear how many have been recorded. At present only a few of his SQMP reconstructions have been included in available CD recordings. These include Da Hujia, Longshuo Cao, Zhi Zhao Fei and Zhuang Zhou Meng Die.

33. 祝鳳喈與"按譜鼓曲" Zhu Fengjie and "playing qin according to the tablature"
Chen Changlin's program notes (jpg) are referring to a chapter in Yuguzhai Qinpu (Folio 3/29-31) called "按譜鼓曲奧義 An pu gu qu ao yi (Subtleties of playing qin according to the tablature)"; the following chapter (Folio 3/31, 念工尺法 Nian gongche fa (Method of reading gongche [notation]) may also be relevant. These are both also included in Qin Xue Rumen (QQJC XXIV/285-6).

The full text of these two chapters (plus the beginning of the third) is as follows (characters in parentheses were in the original written in double columns):




While these two chapters do not mention using qin as "recreating", i.e., as a method for creating new music, they also do not suggest "strict dapu", i.e., they do not give advice on how to reconstruct accurately the structures of the original music. Instead they present a fairly straightforward description of playing qin from tablature, and this is followed by the chapter called "按彈看譜架 About a frame for playing while reading the tablature", which gives instructions on how to make such a music stand.

34. Prof. Yung compares the work of a "dapu-ist" with that of a Western composer (see., e.g., 1985, p. 378). In line with this he says (personal email) "so-called tanqin dapu is much more relevant than kanpu dapu, which totally ignores non-aural effects in making music." To me this is rather like saying it is more relevant to play a melody well than it is to learn how to play it. However, this reflects Prof. Yung's basic belief (see Bell Yung on Dapu and the bibliography of his writings) that one cannot accurately reconstruct from qin tablature the way a piece was played by the original player. Since he believes that the tablature can only be used to create new music, he has ignored attempts to be accurate in studying the early tablature.

35. 榮鴻曾,太古神品 (Bell Yung, Celestial Airs of Antiquity). Madision, Wisconsin, A-R Editions, 1997, p.8.

36. Nevertheless, since finishing my Shen Qi Mi Pu CDs in 2000 my tendency has been to reconstruct music from later handbooks rather than focus on freely playing the earlier tablature.

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