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The Qin and the Chinese Literati
by James Watt,
1 Orientations Magazine, November 1981, pp. 38-49
Copied with permission
Lofty Recluses in Mountains and Valleys, detail
By 王蒙 Wang Meng (1308-85; see comments below)
National Palace Museum, Taipei
(Most illustrations from the article are not yet added)

It may seem superfluous to write an article in English about the qin, the Chinese zither, which Robert H. van Gulik called the Chinese lute (on cultural rather than musicological grounds), as there exists an excellent monograph on the subject by van Gulik himself which cannot be bettered as a succinct and comprehensive introduction to the instrument and its cultural associations (The Lore of the Chinese Lute; an essay in ch'in ideology, Sophia University, Tokyo 1940). Nevertheless, the subject is vast and one can go on introducing it, from different points of view, without repeating too much of what has been said before. A special issue on van Gulik must not go without a note on the qin, if only as a tribute to the gifted sinologist who was himself a keen student of the 'lute', and who did so much to widen the scope of the Western reader's appreciation of Chinese culture.

There are two ways of approaching the qin for those who have not grown up with it -- and this means practically everybody. One is to give full credence to the mystique surrounding the instrument and say that no one understands it; or one can approach it in the way one approaches any musical instrument and find that there is no mystery at all to the music, provided one has some general knowledge of Chinese music and is prepared to delve into other related areas of Chinese culture -- which is the same as saying that one understands the piano better if one knows more of Western music and culture. Qin music was never a mystery to the musical Chinese. It was the excessive veneration of qin music on the part of the amusical which estranged it from the musical public and almost effected its demise through the lack of an appreciative audience. Another cause of the depopularisation of the instrument was the peculiar development of qin music during the Qing period in which there was excessive concentration on the quality of the sound produced as opposed to the melodic line, which after all is a vital element in any music. Even van Gulik himself, as he describes the characteristics of qin music in the opening paragraphs of his great essay on the subject, fell victim to this fallacy, owing no doubt to the way in which he was introduced to the subject by the his teachers. In the present author's opinion, van Gulik was wrong -- and this is the only major point on which one takes issue with him -- when he described qin music as 'not primarily melodical' and concluded that, 'Its beauty lies not so much in the succession of notes as in each separate note itself.' However, his positive description of this particular aspect of qin music is to the point: 'This timbre being thus of utmost importance, there are very great possibilities of modifying the colouring of one and the same tone... The techniques by which these variations in timbre are effected is extremely complicated: of the vibrato alone there exist no less than 26 variations.'2

It is certainly true that many late Qing qin players, and some of the oldest living ones, play each note as if it was 'an entity in itself' with scant regard to the melodic line. To listen to such music is like listening to someone declaiming poetry in a sweet and seductive voice with no regard to scanning or even the correct emphasis on the syllables of individual words. It may be captivating in a strange and exotic way, but it makes little sense. How did this situation arise, in which one aspect of the music became emphasised almost to the exclusion of others? Perhaps one can provide an explanation by referring to another Chinese art form which has suffered a similar fate in the past few centuries, beginning in the Ming and concluding in the Qing. It is well known to those who appreciate the Chinese visual arts that in later Chinese painting the expressive brushwork became more important than the representational content of the picture; hence the movement towards a kind of 'abstract expressionism' which relied on greatly simplified pictorial conventions for any allusion to physical reality. Similarly, the sensuous tones of the qin strings during the same period became predominant in qin music in many regional schools of playing, and the melodic line, which is the other important element of the music, became neglected to the point of almost total disregard. This tendency is particularly notable in the Guangdong 廣東 school of playing in recent years.

The link between painting and the qin is, of course, the Chinese literati, who embodied Chinese culture and nearly destroyed it. To put it in simple terms, the Chinese literati assumed that if one was full of lofty thoughts, whether as a result of inborn genius or after having immersed oneself in the classics and literature, one was then capable of painting a nobler picture and playing music with greater refinement than the man without similar endowment or accomplishments. This was true in some exceptional cases where the literati happened to possess certain basic facility in painting and music, but the validity of the assumption upon which the literati built their arrogance is open to question. Their mistake was to put taste and discernment above practical skills or, at least, to confuse theory with practice. At any rate, the literati, using their superior social positions and exchanging their patronage of 'artisans' for patronage of each other, brushed aside the professionals and assumed themselves both the roles of critic and performer. It was this usurpation of the arts of painting and the qin (not music generally, as nearly all other musical instruments were socially beyond the pale) which gave the special twist to the parallel lines of development of painting and qin music in China -- not, one must add, with totally disastrous results. The saving grace of the literati take-over of the qin was that the purity of the tradition has survived through the hands of a few scholars who happened to be musical, and qin music did not vanish altogether even though much was lost during the Qing period. One uses the word 'purity' because the changes in the music and style of playing of the qin in the hands of the literati during the Qing period were relatively slight, whereas with other instruments the changes were probably much greater. At least, in the case of pieces which were modernised in recent years, such as the Three Variations on the Plum Blossom Theme 梅花三弄 , there are players who can still play the older version.

One might ask why it was that the qin was singled out for favour by the literati. Apart from purely musical considerations, the instrument had long claims to superior virtue and exclusivity going back to the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BC). In the Shiji 史記 is recorded the story (translated by van Gulik, The Lore of the Chinese Lute, pp. 136-7; 1969 edition, pp. 145-6) of how the Duke Ping of Jin 晉平公 (sixth century BC) brought disaster upon himself and his state by insisting on listening to qin music of which he was not morally worthy. This story and others, such as that of the Marquis Wen of Wei 魏文侯 (426-387 BC) who danced to qin music and was rebuked by his court musician for indecorous behaviour (translated by van Gulik, Lore, p.151; 1969 edition, p.155), firmly established the lofty position of the instrument in the Confucian order of things. Even Confucius himself was known to have studied the instrument and enjoyed it.

In the former story, which involved Duke Ping of Jin and the musician of legendary fame, Master Kuang 師曠 , there is also a Daoist element. This is one of the earliest mentions of the magical power of qin music which causes cranes to gather and dance.

What is the qin? It is one of the oldest instruments, going back to at least Zhou times. It is an unfretted 'zither' with usually seven silk strings strung over a sound box composed of two boards, the upper one being a soft wood such as tong 桐 wood and the bottom board a hard wood such as zi 梓 wood. The upper board is concave while the bottom board is flat with two rectangular perforations, called the 'dragon pond' and the 'phoenix pond' respectively. In the modern manner of playing the performer is seated at a table on which the instrument is placed with the 'head' (the wider end) protruding over the side of the table and the tuning pegs pendent from the underboard just clear of the table. With his right hand he plucks the strings with both inward and outward movements of the fingers, and with the left hand he touches or stops the strings to produce harmonics or effects such as vibrato and glissando. The small fingers of both hands are not employed in the playing and they must be stretched out straight at all times. In his book van Gulik gives an excellent account of the finger techniques and the associated symbolisms.

Because the qin is a quiet instrument, considerable attention is paid to the table which serves as a second sound-box. The modern wooden version usually has a hollow compartment. Literati players of the qin have been known to use as qin tables hollow 'bricks' dating form the Han or the preceding qin 秦 period; these measure about 60 centimetres in width and over one metre in length. A small resonant room is preferred to a large spacious one in which to play the qin. When it is played in the open, as is often represented in Chinese paintings, the sound tends to be dissipated unless the spot is exceptionally secluded.

The instrument did not always have seven strings. and the tuning of the instrument varied from time to time. In the standard tuning nowadays, the third to seventh strings (counting towards the player) are tuned according to the Chinese pentatonic scale (or mode) with the first and second strings at an octave lower than the sixth and seventh strings respectively. Thus the tuning of a 'key' of F would be CDFGACD. Different tunings are sometimes employed to play music in other modes, although this is not always necessary.

From time to time, qins with five or nine strings (or even one or two) would appear. This was the case in the Song period, especially during the Northern Song. However, the five-string instrument was adopted mainly for dogmatic reasons as the five strings would represent the five notes of old. During a brief period in the reign of Huizong 徽宗 (1101-25) the five-string instrument was the only one used in the official music of the court, but this was not destined to last long as it would have severely circumscribed the range of the instrument. The nine-string instrument also enjoyed a brief period of vogue in the early part of the Song period under Emperor Taizong 太宗 and was advocated by certain court musicians, notably a certain Zhao Yi 趙裔 , against the opposition of other professional musicians such as Zhu Wenji 朱文濟 , who was reputed to be the best player of his time. Nevertheless, all three varieties (at least in theory) survived in the Southern Song and the poet-musician Jiang Kui 姜夔 dealt with all three in his theoretical writings. The disputes regarding the relative merits of the five-string and the nine-string instruments as opposed to the seven-string variety are typical of the kind of musical controversy which occupied Chinese musicians and scholars throughout Chinese history, especially in connection with the qin. The advocates of the five-string instrument could be classified as adherents of the orthodox school whose concern was to turn the tide of contemporary development and make music conform to the standards of the ancients -- or rather, what were imagined to be the standards of the ancients. The nine-string advocates were professional musicians more concerned with enlarging the range and expressivity of the instrument to play contemporary music to the point of disregard for the individuality of the instrument. However, the seven-string instrument was on the whole preferred.

Another dispute between the orthodox and musical schools took place in the thirteenth century and centred around Yang Zuan 楊纘 , one of the key figures in the history of qin music. As he was no literatus and otherwise contributed little to public life, there is no biography of him in the Song Shi 宋史 . He was nevertheless a prominent social figure as he was the adopted son of a family related to the royal house by marriage, and his own daughter was the wife of the Emperor Duzong 度宗 and bore Prince Shi 是 (should be 正 on bottom?), who might have succeeded to the throne had the Song dynasty survived. Yang Zuan was well known to writers on artistic matters including Zhou Mi 周密 , his younger contemporary, who wrote of him in admiration and with affection. It was mainly through Zhou Mi's writings that the legend of Yang Zuan's supreme musical talent has survived. However, the literatus-painter Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 was critical of him and wrote a minor musical treatise entitled Qin Yuan 琴源 in which he particularly criticised Yang Zuan for regarding the third string in the standard tuning of the qin as the fundamental of the scale (thus depriving the first string of its rightful place). The same criticism was voiced by Song Lian 松濂 in the fourteenth century. Song Lian also criticised Yang Zuan for following the tradition of lowering the second string to the pitch of the first in the special tuning for playing the piece Guangling San 廣陵散 , a composition made famous through its association with Xi Kang 嵇康 (AD 223-62, of whom more later). In his criticism Song Lian was simply repeating the opinions of certain Tang writers such as Han Gao 韓皋 who said that 'to lower the second string to the pitch of the first is equivalent to elevating the position of the vassal to that of the lord' -- which, of course, goes against the grain of all good Confucians. However, anyone who has listened to the magnificent recording of the Guangling San by the modern qin master Guan Pinghu 管平湖 would surely agree that the majesty of the music, played on this 'heretical' tuning, is equal to that of any ruling lord of the past.

Thus we see that the literati have always interfered with the music of the qin, but it was not until the Ming period that the final blow was delivered when the literati took the qin unto themselves and perpetuated the rule that 'ignorant and vulgar persons' may not be initiated into the mysteries of the music.

To relate how this has come about we have to go back further in time, and trace, however sketchily, the history of qin music from the beginning. In the Zhou period, or perhaps even going back to Shang times, the qin was one of the most important instruments in the Chinese orchestra. It was also used for ensemble playing and as a solo instrument or for accompaniment of songs. Even today, surviving qin tunes can be broadly divided into the two categories of instrument and vocal music. In actual performance today the instrumental pieces far outnumber vocal pieces. During the Eastern Zhou period, the qin began to acquire an exalted position in Chinese music and was associated with the legendary emperors of China's remote antiquity, Fuxi in particular. Some of the stories relating to the qin in the Eastern Zhou period have already been referred to. The earliest historical characters associated with the qin lived in the second and third centuries AD. They are Cai Yong 蔡邕 (AD 133-192), a gifted scholar who was a great musician and calligrapher, and Xi Kang 嵇康 , a member of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who were living legends in their time and were later regarded as archetypes of superior literary men. A number of anecdotes relating to Cai Yong the musician can be found in van Gulik's Lore of the Chinese Lute, and Xi Kang's Poetical Essay on the Lute has been translated and published as a separate book by van Gulik.

Very little study has been made on the history of qin music of the Tang period. Indeed, with the exception of Cai Yong and Xi Kang, remarkably little is known of the development of qin music before the tenth century, and Zhu Changwen's 朱長文 (1041-1098) Qin Shi 琴史 (History of the Qin, published in 1233) remains to this day the most important source book on the history of the qin up to the eleventh century. However, it must be assumed that qin music had to compete for attention with that of other instruments imported from Central Asia. Nearly all of these are represented in eighth-century pottery figures of musicians which have been unearthed in large quantities in recent decades. The Tang period was one of major changes in Chinese music, during which the old ceremonial music associated with court rituals all but vanished. Those who achieved the greatest fame in connection with the qin in the Tang period were not performers but a family of musical instrument makers by the name of Lei 雷 . Instruments made by this family were regarded as great treasures even in Song times, and the Emperor Huizong is said to have possessed a number of them, which were taken from Bianliang 汴梁 (Kaifeng 開封) with other treasures to Yan 燕 (Beijing) by the Jin 金 (Jurchen) invaders at the fall of the capital of the Northern Song. A qin found a decade ago in the tomb of Prince Lu 魯 (Zhu Tan 朱檀 ), one of the sons of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Taizu 太祖 (Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 ), was inscribed with the name of one member of the Lei family, but such inscriptions are difficult to authenticate on the basis of our present inadequate knowledge of the history of the manufacture and design of the instrument

The first known imperial patronage of the qin was under the Emperor Taizong (reigned 976-997) of the Song dynasty when handbooks on the qin, which usually included a theoretical section as well as the 'tablatures' for the music, were collected, edited and compiled. A number of professional qin players were employed as court musicians including those already mentioned in connection with the controversy of the nine-string instrument. Later qin music was included in the grand compilation of court music, known as the Dacheng Yue 大晟樂 , carried out in the time of Huizong. However, the capital Bianliang fell to the Jin soon after the completion of Dacheng Yue and the music, books and instruments were all taken to the north. Throughout the Southern Song period, great efforts were made to recover as much as possible of what was lost in the disaster of Jingkang 靖康 (1126). The most successful effort to reassemble lost music of the Northern Song was that conducted by Zhang Yan 張巖 , who was a cabinet minister for brief periods in the Jiatai era (1201-04) during the reign of Ningzong 寧宗 . He obtained his material both through 'secret purchases' from the north and from the house of Han Chazhou (Han Tuozhou 韓侂胄), a prime minister and, incidentally, a much detested historical figure of the Southern Song. Han owned one of the richest collections of works of art and musical books in his time, most of it inherited. It would appear that some of the rich houses managed to retain most of their possessions in the great move to the south. Zhang Yan was a friend of Han Tuozhou and it was probably through Han's influence that Zhang achieved high office, albeit briefly. The musical scores (or 'tablatures') and texts thus gathered by Zhang Yan were later to provide the major part of the material for the great work of Yang Zuan toward the end of the Song period.

In the meantime the bulk of the musical material acquired by the Jin remained in the north, and qin music flourished under the patronage of successive Jin emperors (Xizong 熙宗 , Shizong 世宗 , Xianzong 顯宗 and Zhangzong 章宗 ). Of the qin masters at the Jin court, the most famous was Miao Xiushi 苗秀實 who was much admired by the literatus-official Yelü Chucai 耶律楚材 , a sinicised Chitan who served at the court of the Jurchens and later the Mongols. It was through the poetic writings of Yelü Chucai that we know not only of Miao Xiushi the person but also something of his style of qin playing. Yelü Chucai was himself much influenced by Miao Xiushi in his own playing.

The son of Miao Xiushi, Miao Lan 苗蘭 , later became the Director of Music at the Mongol court. It is unlikely that the qin was much appreciated by the Khans; however, a few Mongol names have come down in Chinese history as qin players. During the Yuan period it was the Chinese literati in the south who carried on the tradition of the music collected by Zhang Yan and transmitted through his associate Guo Mian 郭沔 . The latter is known to all qin players as the composer of one of the most glorious pieces of music ever written for the qin entitled Water and Clouds on the Rivers Xiao and Xiang 瀟湘水雲 . It may be said that no other piece of qin music has enjoyed such continuous popularity. Ni Zan 倪瓚 , the literatus-painter par excellence of the Yuan period, was also fond of this piece, as can be deduced from his poem, 'On listening to the Qin at the House of Judge Sa'. Judge Sa was Sa Tianxi 薩天錫 , one of Ni Zan's numerous musical friends. Among his contemporaries Ni Zan himself was equally renowned as a qin player and as a painter.

The reason for the close association of the literati with the qin in the Yuan period was twofold. The lack of imperial patronage was one aspect; another was the increasing interest taken in the instrument by the literati of the Southern Song and Jin. (The parallel with painting has already been noted.) This tendency was further intensified in the Ming period so that by the sixteenth century it became de rigueur for every scholar to hang a qin in his study whether he played the instrument or not. This explains also why so many instruments were made in the late Ming period, and many of them have survived to the present day. The late Ming literatus' attachment to the qin can be studied in a number of 'notebooks' on style and taste such as Gao Lian's Zun Sheng Bajian 遵生八牋 . The development of 'literati music' in the Ming is somewhat paralleled by literati painting. The notable similarity is in the specialisation. Most literati musicians studied the qin on its own and disregarded other music, just as most literati painters specialised in landscape paintings. We cannot comment as yet on the technical aspects of qin playing among the literati, but most pieces surviving from the Ming period are relatively short and expressive pieces like the Geese on the Sandbank 平沙落雁 . Many pieces which were accompaniments to verse were revived and other literary compositions were set to music for the first time. The so-called Wu School 吳派 of painting during the Ming was known to favour vocal pieces, and the Wu area was of course the stronghold of the literati.

In the meantime what has happened to the great compilation of Yang Zuan's which he entitled the Zixiadong Qinpu 紫霞洞琴譜 (Zixia, purple mist, being one of Yang Zuan's literary names) and which contained no less than 468 tunes? It is, alas, no longer extant and the chances are that it was lost during the upheaval which attened the collapse of the Song dynasty. The title is listed in the catalogue of a Ming library but it is by no means certain that it was the original work. Yang Zuan's school of playing and some of the music survived through the Xu 徐 family who dominated professional qin playing for the greater part of the Ming period. Xu Yu 徐宇 , or Xu Tianmin 徐天民 , the primogenitor of the school, was one of the chief editors of Yang Zuan's compilation and was himself a pupil-once-removed of the great musician Guo Mian who took part in the work of Zhang Yan to recover music of the Northern Song period. Thus something of the Southern Song school of qin playing did survive until at least the middle of the sixteenth century. The Xu family tradition was also known as the Zhe school, but here one must avoid making too close a comparison with the so-called Zhe school of painting as the Xu family numbered among them scholars, poets and calligraphers, thus qualifying for literati status. Nevertheless, the Zhe school was represented at the Ming royal court through the musical eunuchs, of whom at least one was a considerable performer of the Zhe school. This was Dai Yi 戴義 , the teacher of Huang Xian 黃獻 who published the Wugang Qinpu 梧岡琴譜 (preface by Chen Jing 陳經 dated 1546) in which he claimed direct musical descent from the Xu family.

The Zhe school seemed to have suffered a decline during the closing years of the sixteenth century, and another school, known as Yushan 虞山 , rose to prominence towards the end of the Ming. The founder of the school was Yan Cheng 嚴澂 , a native of Changshu 常熟 , and the son of Yan Ni 嚴訥 , a prime minister during the Jiajing era. (Yan Cheng) published in 1614 the Songxian Guan Qinpu 松弦館琴譜 . But the man who popularised the Yushan school was Xu Hong 徐谼 , or Xu Qingshan 徐青山 (1580-1650), who published the Xishan Qinkuang 谿山琴況 and the Dahuange Qinpu 大還閣琴譜 . It was Xu Hong who, by his style of playing and through his writing, especially the Xishan Qinkuang, give the emphasis to the production of each individual note, which became a characteristic of qin playing throughout the Qing period -- and which van Gulik regarded as the most essential aspect of qin music.

The close association between the literati and the qin is well reflected in many paintings of the Ming and Qing periods, not only in paintings by the literati but paintings of the literati. However, subtle changes in the relationship occurred during the Ming period. Two paintings in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, will serve to illustrate this change. The first one, by Wang Meng (王蒙 1308-85, (see top), portrays the early phase of the association. In this painting the recluse scholar sits in his thatched cottage in a secluded mountain area with his qin and his crane. The crane, of course, alludes to the earlier association of the bird with the instrument and to the Yuan literati artists' association with Daoism. There is no furniture apart from bookshelves. A man in flowing robes is approaching the house and he is probably one of the very few friends who are welcome to the house or care to visit. The grandeur of the natural setting, and the towering peaks which awe and protect, contrast with the sparseness of the worldly goods. What the scholar does possess, the books, the qin and the crane, are all visible signs of his spiritual life, or rather, the mountains and streams, the qin and the crane provide the spiritual solace sought by the scholar in his retreat. The crane conveys not so much an intimation of immortality as removal from the world of dust, and the observation of its elegant stretching and contracting movements has helped generations of Daoists to perfect their techniques in breathing and 'whistling' exercises. Thus in this painting, dedicated to his qin friend Juchuang 菊窗 , Wang Meng has provided us with a perfect illustration of the qin in a setting which complies with the ideals of the literati of the fourteenth century. Qin players like Ni Zan of the same period may not actually have played the qin under such conditions, but the bleakness of Ni Zan's landscapes certainly suggests a similar mental state. Moreover, Ni Zan would in his early life have had the leisure and the means to create for himself such a setting of extreme simplicity and elegance.

(Part of) The Qin Player ("lutanist"), by Tang Yin (1470-1523), National Palace Museum, Taipei

The other painting, The Lutanist 琴士圖 by Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470-1523), dating from nearly two centuries later, conveys quite a different spirit. First of all, the setting is no longer in the country but is probably in a 'rustic' part of some grand garden in Suzhou 蘇州 . The conveniently placed stone table in the picture certainly adds to this impression. Then the qin player, Yang Jijing 楊季靜 (ca. 1477–after 1530), surrounds himself with a great collection of antiquities and elegant objects. A number of these objects were just coming into fashion at this time, such as the ruyi 如意 carving in the large zun-beaker behind him and, above all, the small teapot and cup placed just in front of him. The brewing of tea in a teapot with whole leaves was just coming into vogue and the small earthenware teapots made and used by the monks of Yixing 宜興 were just beginning to be appreciated by the literati of Suzhou. (For most people at this time, tea was still drunk in larger bowls with all kinds of herbs, seeds and grain added -- the kind of tea that some farmers in Guangdong still drink for 'breakfast'.) In the painting incense is burnt in a ding-shaped tripod and the incense is kept in a lacquer or porcelain box near the vase-shaped holder with the implements for burning incense. Incense burning was not only for qin playing but was very much part of civilised living in the sixteenth century -- but the custom of burning incense while playing the qin has survived from this time to the present day. Even the headgear of the qin player is the latest in high fashion for casual wear at the time. He is accompanied not only by books but also by paintings, an indication of diverse delectation in the literary arts. The objects on the stone table a short distance away are tools for painting and calligraphy, and the vase on the ground by the table contains 'arrows' for the ancient game of touhu 投壺 , 'throwing arrows into the hu'. Thus the whole painting depicts not so much a scholar seeking spiritual solace as a life of refined affluence.

The qin player in question, Yang Jijing, is the subject of another painting by Tang Yin now in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Freer painting was executed more than fifteen years previously on the occasion of Yang's departure for Nanjing to seek his fortune. Both these paintings are mounted with colophons by the literary set of Suzhou. Other paintings of Yang Jijing are known. A portrait of him dated in correspondence with 1526 by Wen Boren 文伯仁 (1502-75), nephew of Wen Zhengming文徵明 (1470-1559), is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Another painting by Wen Zhengming himself entitled Qin Player Among Plantain and Rocks was done in 1528 and dedicated to Yang. This was probably also a portrait. Yang Jijing was thus well in with the literary set of Suzhou. His contact was Wen Zhengming, who was a friend of Yang's father, and his entree to the qin. Nevertheless, in spite of the impressive degree of acclaim from the Suzhou literati, Yang never achieved what he always wanted, which was an introduction to the court or high official circles. His associates were mainly people like Tang Yin who gave up officialdom or who were given up by officialdom, and were in no position to provide the necessary introduction even if they themselves had become famous through their writing or paintings. Yang's association with the Suzhou literati did, however, ensure him a place in Chinese history as there is otherwise no mention of him in musical literature. His father, who transmitted the art to him, apparently studied with a certain Liu Hong 劉鴻 in Guangdong, of whom again there is no mention in musical circles -- which does not mean that he was not proficient in the art. One of the colophons appended to The Lutanist, written by Zhu Xin 朱辛 , apparently after the death of Yang Jijing, made the point that the musician Master Xiang 師襄 would not have been known to the world if he had not been Confucius' teacher of the qin. Zhu further made the rather condescending remark that Yang would achieve immortality through the paintings of him and through the poems written about him by the scholars of Suzhou. His condescension is confirmed by his quoting the Grand Historian's remark that 'people who come from common origins would not be known to posterity if they did not in any way associate with lofty people.'

To return to the comparison of the two paintings, one can say that Wang Meng's painting for his qin friend or 'friend-in-qin' was an expression of a genuine feeling of a communion of kindred spirits, whereas Tang Yin's painting was a social gesture, genuine enough as such, but lacking the basic sympathy of the former painting. Both works are idealised representations according to the canons of taste in the two respective periods of history. The difference is that in Wang Meng's painting the visitor and the player were interchangeable, as were the painter and the subject, because the same setting can apply to both Wang Meng and his qin-friend Juchuang; but in Tang Yin's painting the setting was singularly inappropriate for the subject. The impoverished musician would certainly not have at his disposal such a grand setting with attendants and many fashionable and precious objects unless he was a guest at a big house. Thus Yang Jijing is made rather a pathetic figure in this elegant setting and Zhu Xin's colophon is sadly apt. In the former painting the qin is the real subject, and in the latter the qin is but one of the accomplishments of the literati.

To elaborate the point further, the literati's embrace of the qin was genuine enough in the Yuan period, and the literatus and qin player were one. By the sixteenth century it was no longer enough to be a musician (just as it was no longer enough to be a painter); one had to lay claim to literatus status before the artistic achievement could be recognised. For Wang Meng, Juchuang was friend and equal. In the case of Yang Jijing, it was a matter of having to associate with 'lofty people' in order to gain any recognition at all -- and, for that matter, a living. (One must remember that the Xu family were scholarly and had court connections, and the Yushan school was founded by the son of a prime minister.) The sad thing is not Yang Jijing's borrowing of a smart setting for his portrait, but the beau-monde's appropriating for itself the label of 'lofty people'.

In a way, the strong bond between the literati and the qin ensured its survival through the Qing period, but the decline in literary life also meant a decline in the art of the qin. In certain areas in China the 'local schools' of qin playing in recent years were of extremely low musical standard. For different reasons, the art of the qin survived strongest in Beijing and in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Sichuan. There was a brief period after the establishment of the People's Republic when there was a strong and successful effort to rescue the music, and sensible distinctions were made between the musically sound ideas and those which had a social bias in later writings on the subject. During the 'Cultural Revolution' the qin suffered inevitably a great hammering as a result of its 'class associations'. At present , there are again some signs of a revival, as in the early part of this century, a development which was to a certain degree witnessed and recorded by van Gulik. In the new order of things, the future of qin music will depend largely upon its successful disengagement from the literati (if they survive), and upon the critic's not imputing 'class association' into the music where none exists.

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Footnotes (Original article had none; shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. James Watt 屈志仁﹕The Qin and Chinese Literati 琴與文人
As of 2000 Mr. Watt was Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For further information see their press release.

2. Not melodic?
See Lore/, pp. 1-2 (complete quote here). The focus on ornamentation over melody might be compared to, when playing duets, always playing it unison. Thus, melodies that have lyrics paired to the tablature give no indication of interaction, but early examples of oral traditions in China suggest a preference for heterophonic interaction (example and more).

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