The Art of Qin - Chinese classical music & culture associated with guqin

Chinese Zithers




Guqin - Chinese 7-stringed zither

Guqin is seven-stringed zither without bridges, the most classical Chinese instrument with over 3000 years of history. It is literally called qin () yet commonly known as "guqin" (, where "gu" stands for ancient), whereas the qin has become a generic name for all string instruments today.

Guqin has the most well-documented history and best preserved repertoire among all the intruments from China. There are a lot of literatures around guqin, and the information about the guqin is plenty.

Guqin has been frequently referred to as the preferred instrument of the sages and literati. For instance, Confucius (551 – 479 BC) was a great master of this instrument. Another notable great master is Ji Kong (223–262) who is one of the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove".

To learn to play qin used to be regarded as a very important element for education for the purpose of enriching the heart and elevating human spirit or spirituel communication (to associate with the values and attitude of the past sages). In Imperial China’s past, monks, scholars and ladies of the elite society were supposed to master the four traditional arts, namely, qin, qi, shu and hua.

Being on top of the four traditional arts, the guqin has historically been regarded as one of the most important symbols of Chinese high culture. Unfortunately only small number of people in China could play the instrument, because classical musical education of this kind has never really reached general public . The situation for today has not been improved much until recently. Due to this reason, a lot of ancient repertoire was lost with the pass-away of masters or the written scores were burned or destroyed in war or social turmoil. The situation for the Chinese lute pipa was similar. However, the guqin repertoire has been much better preserved than all other instruments. Since November 2003, Guqin has been registered as one of the master pieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the humanity by the United Nations' Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).


Chinese writing consists of an individual character or ideogram for every syllable, each character representing a word or idea rather than a sound; thus, problems caused by homonyms in spoken Chinese are not a matter of concern in written Chinese. Whereas in every day spoken Chinese, people often avoid using single character to call a thing. Additional characters (which have somilar meaning or offer additional information) are often used to avoid confusion, for instance, the zithers qin () and zheng () are often called guqin() , and guzheng() in spoken Chinese, where "gu" means ancient; qi is called weqi, etc. Since the "new culture" movement (starting from the beginning of the last century), Chinese literatures have been more and more linked to spoken language, and many words that were used in spoken language have come into common usage for written literature. The above-mentioned guqin, guzheng and weiqi are just few examples.

see "An introduction to Chinese traditional music - classical literati tradition and folk traditions"

qin, qi, shu and hua () are four kinds of traditional arts in China where the qin is the guqin, qi is a kind of chess (game), now called weiqi in China, but known as "Go" in the West according to the Japanese pronunciation; shu and hua are Calligraphy and painting, respectively.

The ancient sages often compared the principle of qin-playing with the art of government, with the ultimate goal of searching for harmony - celestial harmony between human and nature, harmony between people (social harmony), and harmony with oneself. It is said that if one would know the principle of playing the qin, and when put into practice, one could also be good governor.

As for the qi (the chess), it is said to have been invented by the lengendary sage King fuxi for educational purposes.

see "UNESCO: Quqin and its music - Inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity"


Guqin music sample online listening - performed by Guan Pinghu, great master.

Some of the master pieces for guqin have been transcribed for guzheng. In the following two example, the famous guqin tunes "The three variation of plum blossom" (extract, first two minutes) and "Guangling fantasia" were performed by Liu Fang on the guzheng (see the description for detailed information).

A story about guqin music and friendship

In Chinese classical repertoire, there is a famous piece called "High mountain and flowing water" – derived from the ancient story of how the guqin master Buya met his good friend Ziqi who is a woodcutter. Boya lived in the "Spring and Autumn" era (around 600 BC) in the Kingdom of Chu (during that time China was temporarily divided into several Kingdoms when the central Empire of Zhou became weak). Boya's art was always inspired by the beautiful nature, and he did much traveling around. One day he traveled to the south mountain and played his guqin (seven stringed zither) in a hut. Suddenly one of his strings was broken. He felt that at the moment the energy was so strong, that there must be somebody else listening whose spirit was resonating with his. So he open the door, and to his surprise, found a woodcutter standing outside, apparently moved to tears by his music. His name is Ziqi. Boya invited him in, and played one tune for him. Ziqin said softly that he saw this "lofty spirit in the mountain" and this "vast spirit in the flowing water". Boya expresses surprise saying: "your heart is the same as mine". They become good friends. Some years later, when Boya traveled to this place again, but only found that his friend Ziqi was died a while ago. Boya went to play in front of his tomb for the last time and then smashed his instrument, saying "now that my zhi-yin has passed away, what is the purpose of my playing the guqin?" Note that the two Chinese characters zhi-yin() literally mean "know" and "music" respectively, which refers to people who understand the music deeply). From that time on, these two characters "zhi-yin() together have formed a new word (or a new phrase) which stands for "intimate friend" or "soul mate".

To this theme there are classical pieces from the ancient traditions for guqin, guzheng as well as pipa of various versions originated from different regions or schools. The styles of playing are also different, however, they all have the same title "High mountain and flowing water". In Liu Fang's guzheng solo album(track No. 4), she has used the version from Zhejiang province, south-east China. In her first pipa solo album The soul of Pipa Vol. 1(track No. 3), Liu Fang took the version derived from Hennan Province. Traditionally, when musicians meet for the first time, they often play this tune to show respect and appreciation to each other.

(Text by Risheng Wang, PHILMULTIC)



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