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The audio speaker iconguqin  literally "ancient stringed-instrument" is the modern name for a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family. It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favored by educated people as an instrument of great beauty and refinement.

Traditionally the instrument was called simply qin, but by the 20th century the term had come to be used on many other musical instruments as well (for example, the yangqin hammered dulcimer, the huqin family of bowed string instruments, and the Western piano), so the prefix "gu-" (meaning "ancient") was added for clarification. It can also be called qixianqin ("seven-stringed instrument"). The guqin is not to be confused with the guzheng, another Chinese long zither also without frets, but with moveable bridges under each string. Because Robert Hans van Gulik's famous book about the qin is called The Lore of the Chinese Lute, the qin is sometimes inaccurately called a lute. Other incorrect classifications (mainly from music CDs) include "harp" or "table-harp". Other Western nicknames for the guqin include "Chinese guitar" and "Chinaman's harp".

The qin is a very quiet instrument, with a range of about four octaves, and its open strings are tuned in the bass register (its lowest pitch is about two octaves below middle C, or the lowest note on the cello). Sounds are produced by plucking open strings, stopped strings, and harmonics. Stopped sounds are special for the variety of slides and ornaments used, and the use of glissando (sliding tones) gives it a sound similar to a pizzicato cello or fretless bass guitar. Extended sections in music scores consisting entirely of harmonics are common. This is made possible because the 91 indicated harmonic positions allow great flexibility; early tablature shows that even more harmonic positions were used in the past. By tradition the qin originally had five strings, but ancient qin-like instruments with 10 or more strings have been found. The modern form has been standardized for about two thousand years.

History[change | change source]

Legend has it that the qin has a history of about 5,000 years and that the legendary people of China's pre-history; Fuxi, Shennong and Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), were involved in its creation. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and related instruments have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. Chinese tradition says the qin originally had five strings, but then two were added about 1,000 BCE, making seven.

Based on the detailed description in the poetic essay "Qin Fu" by Xi Kang / Ji Kang (223–262), the form of the qin that is recognizable today was most likely set around the late Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). The earliest surviving qin in this modern form, preserved in both Japan and China, have been dated to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Many are still playable, the most famous perhaps being the one named "Jiuxiao Huanpei" , said to have been made by the famous late Tang dynasty qin maker Lei Wei. It is kept in the Forbidden City Museum in Beijing.

According to Robert Temple, the qin played an important part in the gaining the first understanding of music timbre for the Chinese. He said that "the Chinese understanding of the nature of sound as vibration was much increased by studying the production of timbre on the strings of the ch'in." This understanding of timbre, overtones and higher harmonics eventually led the Chinese to discover equal temperament in music.

In 1977, a recording of "Liu Shui" (Flowing Water, as performed by Guan Pinghu, one of the best qin players of the 20th century) was chosen to be included in the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated LP recording containing music from around the world, which was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts. It is the longest music track included on the disc. In 2003, guqin music was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Schools, societies and players[change | change source]

The famous painting "Ting Qin Tu" (聽琴圖, Listening to the Qin), by the Song emperor Huizong (1082–1135)

Historical schools and societies[change | change source]

Because of the difference in geography in China, many qin schools known as qin pai developed over the centuries. Such schools generally formed around areas where qin activity was greatest.

The main schools are:

  • Guangling; Yushan (also known as Qinchuan ) or Shu ) in Changshu
  • Shu (or Chuan ) in Sichuan
  • Fanchuan
  • Songjiang
  • Jinling
  • Zhucheng
  • Mei'an
  • Min in Fujian
  • Pucheng
  • Jiuyi
  • Zhe
  • Shaoxing
  • Wu
  • Shan'nan

Most qin schools and groups are in China. During the 20th century some societies began in other countries. Qin study was confined to China in ancient times. Today countries like Japan also have their own qin small traditions. The Tokyo Qin Society was recently founded. Japan has published a qinpu (qin tablature collection) in the past, known as Toukou Kinpu or Donggao Qinpu .

Players[change | change source]

There have been many players throughout the ages. The instrument was a favourite of the scholars, so many artists played it. Some famous players are also associated with some melodies, like Confucius and Qu Yuan.


  • Confucius : Philosopher, 551–479 BCE, associated with the piece Kongzi Duyi, Weibian Sanjue and Youlan .
  • Bo Ya: Qin player of the Spring and Autumn Period, associated with the piece Gao Shan and Liu Shui .
  • Zhuangzi: Daoist philosopher of the Warring States Period, associated with the piece Zhuang Zhou Mengdie and Shenhua Yin.
  • Qu Yuan: Poet of the Warring States Period, associated with the piece Li Sao .
  • Cai Yong : Han Dynasty musician, author of Qin Cao.
  • Cai Wenji : Cai Yong's daughter, associated with the piece Hujia Shiba-pai
  • Sima Xiangru : Han poet, 179-117 BCE.
  • Ji Kang : Sage of the Bamboo Grove, musician and poet, writer of Qin Fu .
  • Li Bai : Tang poet, 701-762.
  • Bai Juyi : Tang poet, 772-846.
  • Song Huizong : Song emperor famous for his patronage of the arts, had a Wanqin Tang ("10,000 Qin Hall") in his palace.
  • Guo Chuwang Patriot at the end of the Song Dynasty, composer of the piece Xiaoxiang Shuiyun .

Classical books such as Qin Shi, Qinshi Bu and Qinshi Xu have biographies of hundreds of more players.

Playing technique[change | change source]

The beauty of qin melodies comes not only from the melodies themselves, but from the variation a player can apply to the individual tones and their combinations. The rich tones of the qin can be categorised as three distinctively different "sounds." The first is san yin, which means "scattered sounds." This meant simply pluck the required string to sound an open note. The second is fan yin , or "floating sounds." These are harmonics, and the player simply lightly touches the string with one or more fingers of the left hand at a position indicated by the white hui dots, pluck and then lift, creating a crisp and clear sound ringing sound. The third is an yin , or "stopped sounds." This forms the majority of most qin pieces and requires the player to press on a string with a finger or thumb of the left hand until it touches with the surface board, then pluck. Afterwards, the hand can slide up and down, thereby changing the pitch.

When plucking the strings, it is not required to attach fake-nails on one's fingers. Players will often leave their fingernails long, and cut them into an rounded shape. The length is subjective and will depend on the player's preference, but it is usually around 3-4mm from the finger tip. If it is too short, then the finger tip will deaden the sound as it touches the string after the nail has plucked it. If it is too long then the fingers can make playing difficult. Generally, the nails of the right hand are kept long, whilst the nails of the left are cut short, so as to be able to press on the strings without difficulty.

There are eight basic right hand finger techniques: pi (thumb pluck outwards), tuo (thumb pluck inwards), mo (index in), tiao (index out), gou (middle in), ti (middle out), da (ring in), and zhai 〉 (ring out); the little finger is not used. Out of these basic eight, their combinations create many more. Cuo is to pluck two strings at the same time, lun is to pluck a string with the ring, middle and index finger out in quick succession, the suo technique involves plucking a string several times in a fixed rhythm, bo cups the fingers and strums two strings at the same time, and gun fu is to create a sequence of sounds by running up and down the strings continuously with the index and middle fingers.

Left hand techniques start from the simple pressing down on the string (mostly with the thumb between the flesh and nail, and the ring finger), sliding up or down to the next note (shang and xia ), to vibrati by swaying the hand (yin and nao , there are as many as 15 plus different forms of vibrato), plucking the string with the thumb whilst the ring finger stops the string at the lower position (qiaqi ), hammering on a string using the thumb (yan ), to more difficult techniques such as pressing on several strings at the same time.

Techniques executed by both hands together are more difficult to achieve, for example, qia cuo san sheng (a combination of hammering on and off then plucking two strings, then repeating), to more exciting forms, like pressing of all seven strings with the left, then strumming all the strings with the right, then the left hand quickly moves up the qin, creating a rolling sound like a bucket of water being thrown in a deep pool of water (this technique is used in the Shu style of Liu Shui to copy the sound of water).

In order to master the qin, there are in excess of 50 different techniques that must be mastered. Even the most commonly used (such as tiao) are difficult to get right without proper instruction from a teacher.

Tablature and notation[change | change source]

Written qin music did not directly tell what notes were played like many other musical instruments; instead, it was written in a tablature detailing tuning, finger positions, and plucking technique, thus made up of a step by step method and description of how to play a piece. Some tablatures do indicate notes using the gongche notation system, or indicate rhythm using dots.

The earliest example of the modern shorthand tablature survives from around the 12th century CE. An earlier form of music notation from the Tang era survives in just one manuscript, dated to the 7th century CE, called Jieshi Diao: You Lan (Solitary Orchid, in Stone Tablet Mode). It is written in a longhand form called wenzi pu (literally "written notation"), which gives all the details using ordinary written Chinese characters. Later in the Tang dynasty, Cao Rou and others simplified the notation, using only the important elements of the characters (like string number, plucking technique, hui number and which finger to stop the string) and combined them into one character notation. This meant that instead of having two lines of written text to describe a few notes, a single character could represent one note, or sometimes as many as nine. This notation form was called jianzi pu (literally "reduced notation") and it was a great step forward for recording qin scores. It was so successful that from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) onwards, a lot of qinpu (qin tablature collections) appeared, the most famous and useful being "Shenqi Mipu" (The Mysterious and Marvellous Tablature) compiled by Zhu Quan, the 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. In the 1960s, Zha Fuxi discovered more than 130 qinpu that contain well over 3360 pieces of written music.

Existing qinpu generally come from private collections or in public libraries throughout China. Those that are available for public purchase are photographic copies printed and bound in the traditional Chinese bookbinding process. More modern qinpu tend to be bound in the normal Western way on modern paper. The format uses qin notation with staff notation and/or jianpu notation.

Repertoire[change | change source]

Qin pieces are usually around three to eight minutes in length, with the longest being "Guangling San" , which is 22 minutes long. Other famous pieces include "Liu Shui" (Flowing Water), "Yangguan San Die" (Three Refrains on the Yang Pass Theme), "Meihua San Nong" (Three Variations on the Plum Blossom Theme), "Xiao Xiang Shui Yun" (Mist and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers), and "Pingsha Luo Yan" (Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank). The average player can generally play around ten pieces from memory which they will aim to play very well, learning new pieces as and when they feel like it. Players mainly learn popular well studied versions, often using a recording as a reference. In addition to learning to play established or ancient pieces very well, highly skilled qin players may also compose or improvise, although the player must be very good and extremely familiar with the instrument to be successful at it.

Dapu is the conversion of old tablature into a playable form. This can be used to create new music as well as to reconstruct the ancient melodies. Since qin tablature does not indicate note value, tempo or rhythm, the player must work it out for him/herself. Normally, qin players will learn the rhythm of a piece through a teacher. They sit facing one another, with the student copying the master. The tablature will only be looked at if the teacher is not sure of how to play a certain part. Because of this, traditional qinpu do not indicate them. If one did not have a teacher, then one had to work out the rhythm by themselves. But it would be a mistake to say that qin music has no rhythm or melody. By the 20th century, there had been attempts to try to replace the shorthand notation, but so far, it has been unsuccessful; since the 20th century, qin music is generally printed with staff notation above the qin tablature. Because qin tablature is so useful, logical, easy, and the fastest way (once the performer knows how to read the notation) of learning a piece, it is invaluable to the qin player and cannot totally be replaced. There are two views of how to best use dapu: one is to use it to create new music, and the other is to use it to reconstruct the way the original music was played.

Construction[change | change source]

According to tradition, the qin originally had five strings, representing the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Later, in the Zhou dynasty, Zhou Wen Wang added a sixth string to mourn his son, Bo Yihou . His successor, Zhou Wu Wang, added a seventh string to motivate his troops into battle with the Shang. The thirteen hui on the surface represent the 13 months of the year (the extra 13th is the 'leap month' in the lunar calendar). The surface board is round to represent Heaven and the bottom board flat to represent earth. The entire length of the qin (in Chinese measurements) is 3 feet, 6.5 inches, representing the 365 days of the year (though this is just a standard since qins can be shorter or longer depending on the period's measurement standard or the maker's preference). Each part of the qin has meaning, some more obvious, like "dragon pool" and "phoenix pond" .

The sound chamber of the qin is constructed with two boards of wood, typically of differing wood types. The slightly rounded top board (soundboard) is usually made of tong wood , the Chinese parasol tree, or Chinese paulownia. The bottom board is made of zi mu catalpa (Catalpa ovata) or, more recently, nan mu camphor wood (Machilus nanmu). The wood must be well aged, that is, the sap and moisture must be removed (of the top board wood). If sap remains then the sound will not be clear and, as the moisture evaporates, the wood will warp and crack. Some makers use old wood to construct qins because most of the sap and moisture has been removed naturally by time (old shan mu , Chinese Cunninghamia or Japanese Cryptomeria, is often used for creating modern qins). Some go to lengths to obtain extremely ancient wood, such as that from Han dynasty tomb structures or coffins. Although such wood is very dry, it is not necessarily the best since it may be infected with wood worm or be of a bad quality or type. Many modern qins made out of new tong wood (such as those made by Zeng Chengwei) can be better than the quality of antique qins.

There are two sound holes in the bottom board, as the playing techniques of the qin employ the entire surface of the top board which is curved / humped. The inside of the top board is hollowed out to a degree. Inside the qin, there are 'nayin' sound absorbers, and a 'tian chu' and 'di chu' soundposts that connect the bottom board to the top. The boards are joined using bamboo nails. Lacquer from the Chinese lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera) is then applied to the surfaces of the qin, mixed with various types of powder, the most common being "lujiao shuang" , the remains of deer antler after the glue has been removed. Often, ceramic powder is used instead of deer antler powder, but the quality is not as good. After the lacquer has dried (a qin will need several layers), the surface will be polished using oil stones. At the head end of the instrument is the "yue shan" or bridge, and at the other end is the "long yin" (dragon's gums) or nut. There are 13 circular mother-of-pearl inlays which mark the harmonic positions, as well as a reference point to note position, called hui ("insignia").

Strings[change | change source]

Until the Cultural Revolution, the guqin's strings were always made of various thicknesses of twisted silk, but since then most players use modern nylon-flatwound steel strings . This was partly due to the scarcity of high quality silk strings and partly due to the newer strings' greater durability and louder tone.

Silk strings are made by gathering a prescribed number of strands of silk thread, then twisting them tightly together. The twisted cord of strings is then wrapped around a frame and immersed in a vat of liquid of natural glue that binds the strands together. The strings are taken out and left to dry, before being cut into the appropriate length. The top thicker strings (i.e. strings one to four) are further wrapped in a thin silk thread, coiled around the core to make it smoother.

Recently in China, production of very good quality silk strings has resumed and more players are beginning to use them. Although most contemporary players use nylon-wrapped metal strings, some argue that nylon-wrapped metal strings cannot replace silk strings for their refinement of tone. Furthermore, it is the case that nylon-wrapped metal strings can cause damage to the wood of old qins. Many traditionalists feel that the sound of the fingers of the left hand sliding on the strings to be a distinctive feature of qin music. The modern nylon-wrapped metal strings were very smooth in the past, but are now slightly modified in order to capture these sliding sounds.

Tuning[change | change source]

To string a qin, one traditionally had to tie a butterfly knot (shengtou jie ) at one end of the string, and slip the string through the twisted cord (rongkou ) which goes into holes at the head of the qin and then out the bottom through the tuning pegs (zhen ). The string is dragged over the bridge (yueshan ), across the surface board, over the nut (longyin dragon gums) to the back of the qin, where the end is wrapped around two legs (fengzu "phoenix feet" or yanzu "geese feet"). Afterwards, the strings are fine tuned using the tuning pegs. The most common tuning, "zheng diao" , is pentatonic: 1245612 in the traditional Chinese number system or jianpu . Today this is generally interpreted to mean C D F G A c d, but this should be considered do re fa so la do re, since historically the qin was not tuned to absolute pitch. In fact the same tuning can also be considered as 5612356 when the third string is played as do. Thus, except when accompanied by other instruments, only the pitch relations between the seven strings needs to be accurate. Other tunings are achieved by adjusting the tension of the strings using the tuning pegs at the head end. Thus manjiao diao (slackened third string) gives 1235612 and ruibin diao (raised fifth string) gives 1245712, which is transposed to 2356123.

Playing context[change | change source]

The guqin is nearly always used a solo single instrument, as its quietness of tone means that it cannot be heard over the sounds of most other instruments or an ensemble. It can, however, be played together with a xiao (end-blown bamboo flute), with other qin, or played while singing. In old times, the se (a long zither with movable bridges and 25 strings, similar to the Japanese koto) was frequently used in duets with the qin.

In order for an instrument to accompany the qin, its sound must be mellow and not overwhelm the qin. Thus, the xiao generally used for this purpose is one pitched in the key of F, known as qin xiao, which is narrower than an ordinary xiao. If one sings to qin songs (which is rare nowadays) then one should not sing in an operatic or folk style as is common in China, but rather in a very low pitched and deep way; and the range in which one should sing should not exceed one and a half octaves. The style of singing is similar to that used to recite Tang poetry. To enjoy qin songs, one must learn to become accustomed to the strange style some players may sing their songs to.

Traditionally, the qin was played in a quiet studio or room by oneself, or with a few friends; or played outdoors in places of outstanding natural beauty. Nowadays, many qin players perform at concerts in large concert halls, almost always, out of necessity, using electronic pickups or microphones to amplify the sound. Many qin players attend yaji ( literally "elegant gatherings"), at which a number of qin players, music lovers, or anyone with an interest in Chinese culture can come along to discuss and play the qin.

References[change | change source]

Chinese books on qin:

  • Zhou, Ningyun (1915). Qinshu Cunmu.
  • Zha, Fuxi (1958). Cunjian Guqin Qupu Jilan. Beijing: The People's Music Publishers. ISBN 7-103-02379-4.
  • Xu, Jian (1982). Qinshi Chubian. Beijing: The People's Music Publishers. ISBN 7-103-02304-2.
  • Li, Xiangting (1992). Tangdai Guqin Yanzou Meixue ji Yinyue Sixiang Yanjiu. Taipei.
  • Gong, Yi (1999). Guqin Yanzhoufa; 2nd ed., rev. inc. 2 CDs. Shanghai: Shanghai Educational Publishers. ISBN 7-5320-6621-5
  • Li, Mingzhong (2000). Zhongguo Qinxue. Volume one. Shanxi: Shanxi Society Science Magazine Association.
  • Yin, Wei (2001). Zhongguo Qinshi Yanyi. Yunnan: People's Publishers of Yunnan. ISBN 7-222-03206-1/I‧866
  • Li, Xiangting (2004). Guqin Shiyong Jiaocheng. Shanghai: Shanghai Music Publishers. ISBN 7-80667-439-X
  • Yao, Bingyan and Huang, Shuzhi (2005). Tangdai Chen Zhuo Lun Guqin Zhifa: Yao Bingyan Qinxue Zhu Shu zhi Yi. Beijing: Shu zhi Zhai Wenhua Co. Ltd. ISBN 988-98739-1-5.
  • Wu, Zhao (2005). Jueshi Qingyin; inc. 1 CD. Suzhou: Ancient Inn of Wu Publishings. ISBN 7-80574-908-6/G‧259

English books on qin:

  • Gulik, Robert Hans van (1940, 1969). The Lore of the Chinese Lute. 2nd ed., rev. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles Tuttle and Sophia University; Monumenta Nipponica. ISBN 0-804-80869-4
  • Gulik, Robert Hans van (1941). Hsi K'ang and his Poetical Essay on the Chinese Lute. Tokyo: Monumenta Nipponica. ISBN 0-804-80868-6
  • Lieberman, Fredric (1983). A Chinese Zither Tutor: The Mei-an Ch'in-p'u. Trans. and commentary. Washington and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 0-295-95941-X

Other websites[change | change source]


Qin society sites

  • North American Guqin Association Wang Fei's US based qin society, with a link to a store that sells good quality qins, CDs and books as well as other Chinese instruments, updates often and a library of qin music samples and other useful material
  • London Youlan Qin Society Cheng Yu's UK based qin society with information about each yaji and regular updates on upcoming events
  • New York Qin Society New York based qin society, with information of their previous yaji, now updated with new material.

General Qin sites

  • John Thompson's Silk-stringed Qin A host of information on the qin and silk strings for qins in English, including extensive study of Shenqi Mipu and analysis of playing style, plus useful section on qin sources
  • Yugu Zhai Qinpu Jim Binkley's translation of the qin construction manual with links to other sources. Includes a qin FAQ section and pictures of his 'blue qin' made by himself
  • Friends of Guqin : Amics del Guqin 古琴之友 A site by Qin players in Spain (English)/(Spanish)/(Catalan)

Other specialist Qin sites

Sites with music samples