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R.H. van Gulik     cordophone chart 首頁
Qin: Lute or Zither?
- or "harp", "lyre", "guitar", etc.

Is this the image we wish to convey? 1
Since the early 20th century musicologists have developed and used a system for categorizing instruments according to the way their sounds are produced. There were originally four broad categories: idiophones, membranophones, chordophones and aerophones; later a separate category was added for electronic instruments.2 These were then further sub-divided. Chordophones, in particular, were divided into zithers, lutes, lyres and harps;3According to the physical descriptions, the qin is clearly a type of zither. However, the best known book in English on guqin history and ideology calls it a lute. This book, Lore of the Chinese Lute by R.H. van Gulik,4 is an essential English language source on the qin, and otherwise highly admirable. As a result, Van Gulik's use of the word 'lute' for qin has been very influential, even though it is incorrect.

Van Gulik explains why he calls the qin a lute, rather than a "cither", as follows.

"It is quite true that the shape of the psaltery (a cither) resembles that of the Chinese ch'in, while our Western lute rather resembles the Chinese pear-shaped mandolin, the p'i-p'a. In my opinion, however, the shape of an Oriental musical instrument should not constitute the first consideration when selecting an English equivalent; the spirit of the music produced by an instrument and the place it occupies in the culture of its native country are as important factors as its shape and structure. This point holds true especially in the case of the Chinese ch'in, which occupies so unique a position in antique and modern Chinese life. In selecting 'lute' as translation of ch'in, my object was to convey to the general reader something of the cultural significance of this instrument and its music. Since the word 'lute' is associated by Westerners with poetry and refined enjoyment, it adequately suggests the atmosphere that surrounds the ch'in, while 'psaltery', on the other hand, suggests an instrument doomed to obsolescence since many centuries." (Lore, p. ix, f.3)

To my mind it is unfortunate that van Gulik thus popularized the incorrect term "lute" for "qin". Imagine that, instead of succumbing to such Eurocentric attitudes as well as to the fear that one cannot always accurately describe the truth, he had had confidence that through his ability to describe the nature of the qin he could convey the lofty history of zithers outside of Europe.

It is also unfortunate that, for perhaps similar reasons, as well as to fit the meter, translators of Chinese poetry also often use lute" or other incorrect words for qin, including "harp", "lyre", "guitar", and so forth.5 Unfortunately this causes a lot of confusion, making it even more difficult to gain a sense of the original intended imagery and feeling.

In Van Gulik's day, in certain groups, there may have been some justification for this translation, but few people today have the associations van Gulik mentions for either lute or zither. One might just as well say that the image "lute" evokes is one of a musician wearing tights, with a balloon-like garment around his waist. In any case, the main result has been a continuing confusion when reading translations, as well as added difficulties for the translator.

Clearly the best long range solution is to gain better recognition for the word "guqin", so that people don't ask any more how you translate it into English, any more than they ask how to translate "sitar" into Enlish. Unfortunately the Chinese romanization system still makes this quite problematic. On the other hand this, in turn, also might make one more sympatheric to Van Gulik's problem: getting the average Westerner to correctly pronounce "guqin" is perhaps today akin to the problem in his day of getting people to accept the word "zither" to describe a lofty musical instrument.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Renaissance lutenist
This image, by Adrian Le Roy (1574), was copied from the site "Eats Lutes and Leaves."

2. Categorization of Musical Instruments
This contrasts with the traditional Chinese system in which instruments were categorized according to (one of) the materials from which they were made; these were called the Eight Sounds (or Eight Tones [八音 ba yin [Wiki]).

The system based on the way sounds are produced was largely developed (though based on earlier work) by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs; it has thus become known as either Hornbostel–Sachs or Sachs–Hornbostel. Their system was originally outlined in an article they first published in 1914 in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. Relevant parts of this classification are outlined in Music Instrument Categories and their Chinese translation on the glossary page. (See also Wikipedia.)

3. Chordophones
The following shows samples of the five types of chordophones:
Left to right: old Middle Eastern lyre, model of biblical lyre; Western concert harp, Chinese konghou; renaissance lute, early Chinese pipa; Chinese se above an eastern European zither; musical bow

In East Asia during antiquity zithers seem to have been the most popular type of chordophones, but in the rest of the world they seem to have developed much later.

4. Lore of the Chinese Lute
Tokyo and Rutland, Tuttle, 1969 (2nd ed.). Long out of print but reissued in 2011 by Orchid Press.

5. Various translations of 'qin"
Internet automatic translations are just as likely to translate "qin" as "piano".

Return to the Guqin ToC, to miscellanea or to ideology.