2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical Instruments

Chinese Silk (絲)
Western Strings ( plucked)
IPA [tɕʰin], [kutɕʰin] or [tɕʰiɕiɛntɕʰin]
Plain "chin", "goo-chin" or "chi-shien-chin"
Chinese Name
Chinese 琴, 古琴, 七絃琴
Hanyu Pinyin qín, gǔqín, qīxiànqín
Wade-Giles ch'in2, ku3-ch'in2, ch'i1-hsien2-ch'in2
Zhuyin ㄑㄧㄣˊ, ㄍㄨˇㄑㄧㄣˊ, ㄑㄧㄒㄧㄢˊㄑㄧㄣˊ
Cantonese Yale kam4, gu2kam4, chat1yin4kam4
Ancient names 瑤琴 (yáoqín), 玉琴 (yùqín)
Ancient variants 琹, 珡, etc
Other names 國樂之父 (guóyuè zhī fù)
聖人之噐 (shèngrén zhī qì)
Japanese Name
Hiragana きん, こきん, しちげんきん
Katakana キン, コキン, シチゲンキン
Hepburn kin, kokin, shichigenkin
Kurei-shiki kin, kokin, sitigenkin
Korean Name
Hanja 琴, 古琴, 七絃琴 or
笒, 古笒, 七絃笒
Hangul 금 ( 친), 고금 ( 구친), 칠현금
McCune-Reischauer kŭm (ch'in), kogŭm (kuch'in), ch'ilhyŏn'gŭm
Revised Romanization geum (chin), gogeum (guchin), chilhyeon-geum
Variant names 徽琴 (or 徽笒) (hwigŭm / hwigeum)
English Name
Usual spellings qin, guqin
Unusual spellings Gu Qin, GuQin, Gu-qin, Gu qin, Gu Qing, etc...
Organologically correct name ( Fretless) Seven- stringed Zither
Other (incorrect) variants used Lute, Harp, Table-harp

The guqin  (Chinese: 古琴; pinyin: gǔqín; Wade-Giles: ku-ch'in; IPA: [kutɕʰin]; literally "ancient stringed-instrument") is the modern name for a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family (中華絃樂 噐/中华弦乐器). It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favored by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as 「國樂之父/国乐之父」, meaning "the father of Chinese music" or 「聖人之噐/圣人之器」, meaning "the instrument of the sages".

Traditionally the instrument was called simply qin 「琴」, which can also be written as 「琹」, 「珡」 or other ancient forms, but by the twentieth century the term had come to be applied to many other musical instruments as well. The yangqin 「 揚琴/扬琴」 hammered dulcimer, the huqin 「 胡琴」 family of bowed string instruments, and the Western piano ( Traditional Chinese: 鋼琴; Simplified Chinese: 钢琴, pinyin: gāng qín; literally "steel stringed-instrument") are examples of this usage, so the prefix "gu-" 「 古」 (meaning "ancient") was added for clarification. It can also be called qixianqin 「七絃琴」 ("seven-stringed instrument"). The guqin is not to be confused with the guzheng (「古 箏/古筝」 "ancient stringed-instrument (with moveable bridges)"), 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 guqin is sometimes inaccurately called a lute. Other incorrect classifications, mainly from music compact discs, include " harp" or "table-harp".

The guqin 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 noteworthy for the variety of slides and ornaments used, and the use of glissando — sliding tones — gives it a sound reminiscent of a pizzicato cello, fretless double bass or a slide guitar. Extended passages 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 millennia. A number of players and listeners have commented that qin music sounds very much like Blues music.


An ancient guqin unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Note the tuning pegs, the goose feet and the bridge
An ancient guqin unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Note the tuning pegs, the goose feet and the bridge

Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-history — Fuxi, Shennong and Huang Di, the " Yellow Emperor" — were involved in its creation. Nearly almost all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the factual origins of the qin, although this is now presently viewed as mythology. 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. Non-fretted zithers unearthed in southern Chinese tombs show similar instruments that gradually became longer and had fewer strings, but they are not named in the tombs. Chinese tradition says the qin originally had five strings, but then two were added about 1,000 BCE, making seven. Some suggest that larger zithers with many strings gradually got smaller with fewer and fewer strings to reach seven. Whether the southern instruments can be called "qin," or simply southern relatives of a northern instrument that has not survived, is questionable. The extact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades.

The ancient form of the qin was short (almost a third of the size of a modern qin) and probably only played using open strings. This is because the surface of these early qins where not smooth like the modern qin, the strings were far away from the surface, had engravings on the surface (which would make sliding impossible) and did not mark the harmonic positions to be able to indicate to the player who would play them.

Based on the detailed description in the poetical essay "Qin Fu" 【琴賦/琴赋】 by Xi Kang (223–262), the form of the qin that is recognizable today was most likely set around the late Han Dynasty. The earliest surviving qin in this modern form, preserved in both China and Japan, have been reliably dated to the Tang Dynasty. Many are still playable, the most famous perhaps being the one named "Jiuxiao Huanpei" 《九霄環佩/九霄环佩》, attributed to the famous late Tang dynasty qin maker Lei Wei (雷威). It is kept in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Famous titles are often repeated: a Tang qin of the same name which was recently sold in an auction was not the famous one kept in the Palace Museum inside the Forbidden City, but it has been played by Li Xiangting, who praised it highly.

According to Robert Temple, the qin played an important part in the Chinese gaining the first understanding of music timbre. 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"【流水】(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 excerpt included on the disc. In 2003, guqin music was proclaimed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Ancient and modern variants of the character for the word qin, often found in old books
Ancient and modern variants of the character for the word qin, often found in old books

Mentions in Chinese literature

When consulting ancient Chinese texts, one will come across frequent references to the qin. Such references are particularly frequent in poetry, such as those of the ancient Shijing and of the Tang period.

In the Shijing 【詩經】 (Book of Songs), several poems mention the qin (with their numbers according to their order in the anthology):

  • 「窈窕淑女, 琴瑟友之。」 "Fair and gentle is the maiden; Use qin and se to give her a friendly welcome..." [《關睢》 1]
  • 「琴瑟在御, 莫不靜好。」 "The qin and se in your [the husband's] hands; Will emit their quiet pleasant tones..." [《女曰雞鳴》 82]
  • 「我有嘉賓, 鼓瑟鼓琴。」 "I have fine guests; So I strum the se, strum the qin..." [《鹿嗚》 161]
  • 「妻子好合, 如鼓琴瑟。」 "The love between mother and child; Is like the strumming of qin and se..." [《常棣》 164]

In Tang Poetry, we have many mentions, including:

  • 「主人有酒歡今夕, 請奏鳴琴廣陵客, 月照城頭烏半飛, 霜淒萬木風入衣, 銅鑪華燭燭增輝, 初彈淥稅後楚妃, 一聲已動物皆靜, 四座無言星欲稀, 清淮奉使千餘里, 敢告雲山從此始。」 Listen  "Our host brings wine, for merry-making tonight; And bids the guest from Guangling, to play upon the zither; Moonlight bathes the city walls, crows fly mid-air; Frost petrifies ten thousand tress, wind pierces our robes. But the copper stove gleams bright, and candles add their shimmer; First he plays Lu Water, then The Princess of Chu. As the first note trembles, all else falls silent; From the whole company not a word, till the stars begin to pale. The thousand miles to Qinghuai, I was sent by the Emperor's mandate; On such a night I venture to speak of, retiring to the mountains and the clouds." [A Zither Song : Li Qi, 《琴歌》 : 李頎]
  • 「泠泠七弦上, 靜聽松風寒, 古調雖自愛, 今人多不彈。」 Listen  "Emotionless the mood of your 'seven-strings'; In the quiet, I sense the cool of the 'Wind through the pines'; I am one who loves the ancient tunes; There are few now who can play them." [Playing the Zither : Liu Changqing, 《彈琴》 : 劉長卿]
  • 「蜀僧抱緑綺, 西下峨嵋峯, 爲我一揮手, 如聽萬壑松, 客心洗流水, 餘響入霜鐘, 不覺碧山暮, 秋雲暗幾重。」 "A monk from Shu, clasping a Luqi zither; Descends the west face of Emei peak. He sweeps his hand over the strings for me; And I seem to hear pines sigh in a thousand ravines; And a running stream, that washes the ache from my heart. The faint notes blend with the icy bells. I had not noticed the dusk on the green mountains: How many folds are hidden in the autumn clouds?" [On Hearing Jun, a Monk from Shu, Play the Zither : Li Bai, 《聽蜀僧濬彈琴》 : 李白]
  • 「晚年惟好靜, 萬事不關心, 自顧無長策, 空知返舊林, 松風吹解帶, 山月照彈琴, 君問窮通理, 漁歌入浦深。」 "In my later years, I care only for quite; The ten thousand affairs, no longer concern me. Communing with myself, I find no plan: I only know, I must return to the old woods. A pine wind, will loosen the girdle of my gown; A mountain moon, glitter on my zither. You question me about, success and failure? Listen — a fisherman's song drifting up the estuary!" [A Reply to Assistant Prefect Zhang : Wang Wei, 《酬張少府》 : 王維]
  • 「獨坐幽篁裡, 彈琴復長嘯, 深林人不知, 明月來相照。」 "Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo; I thrum my zither, and whistle lingering notes. In the secrecy of the wood, no one can hear; Only the clear moon, comes to shine on me." [Hut Among the Bamboos : Wang Wei, 《竹里館》 : 王維]
The above poems are from 【唐詩三百首】 Tangshi Sanbai Shou [Three Hundred Tang Poems].

Guqin literature

There are a number of ancient sources that discuss qin lore, qin theory and general qin literature. Some of these books are available inserted into certain qinpu (qin tablature collections). The basic contents of qin lietrature is mainly essays discussing and describing the nature of qin music, the theory behind the notes and tones, the method of correct play, the history of qin music, lists of mentions in literature, etc. The detail can be very concise to extremely detailed and thorough. Some are mostly philosophical or artistic musings, others are scientific and technical.

The biggest collection of qin literature in existence is the Ming dynasty Qinshu Daquan 【琴書大全】 (1590), with a collection of 22 volumes.

  • Qin Fu 【琴賦】
  • Xishan Qinkuang 【谿山琴况】

Schools, societies and players

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

Historical schools

Because of the difference in geography in China, many qin schools known as qin pai (琴派) developed over the centuries. Such schools generally formed around areas where qin activity was greatest. The main schools are:

  • Guangling (廣陵/广陵) in Yangzhou 揚州/扬州
  • Yushan (虞山 also known as Qinchuan (琴川) or Shu (熟)) in Changshu 常熟
  • Shu (蜀 or Chuan (川)) in Sichuan 四川
  • Zhucheng (諸城/诸城) in Shandong 山東/山东
  • Mei'an (梅庵/楳盦), off-shoot of Zhucheng
  • Pucheng (浦城 also known as Min (閩/闽)) in Fujian 福建
  • Jiuyi (九嶷) in Beijing 北京
  • Zhe (浙) in Zhejiang 浙江
  • Lingnan (嶺南/岭南) in Guangdong 廣東/广东
  • Shaoxing (紹興/绍兴)
  • Wu (吳/吴)
  • Shan'nan (山南)
  • Songjiang (松江)
  • Jinling (金陵)
  • Fanchuan (泛川)

Some schools have come and gone, some have off-shoots (such as the off-shot of Zhucheng school, the Mei'an school). Often, the school is originated from a single person, such as the Wu school which is named after the late Wu Zhaoji. The style can vary considerably between schools; some are very similar, yet others are very distinct. The differences are often in interpreratation of the music. Northern schools tends to be more vigorous in technique than Sourthern schools. But in modern terms, the distinction between schools and styles is often blurred because a single player may learn from many different players from different schools and absorb each of their styles. This is especially so for conservatory trained players. People from the same school trained under the same master may have different individual styles (such as Zhang Ziqian and Liu Shaochun of the Guangling school).

Guqin societies

It should be noted that there is a difference between qin schools and qin societies. The former concerns itself with transmission of a style, the latter concerns itself with performance. The qin society will encourage meetings with fellow qin players in order to play music and maybe discuss the nature of the qin. Gatherings like this is called yajis, or "elegant gatherings", which take place once every month or two. Sometimes, societies may go on excusions to places of natural beauty to play qin, or attend conferences. They may also participate in competitions or research. Of course, societies do not have to have a strict structure to adhere to; it could mostly be on a leisurely basis. The main purpose of qin societies to to promote and play qin music. It is often a good opportunity to network and learn to play the instrument, to ask questions and to receive answers.

Most qin schools and societies are based in China, but during the twentieth century many overseas societies began to form. Although qin study was initially confined to China in ancient times, countries like Japan also have their own qin traditions via import from China, but are extremely small in scale. The Tokyo Qin Society was recently founded, opening up more opportunities for qin study in Japan. Japan has published a qinpu (qin tablature collection) in the past, known as Toukou Kinpu or Donggao Qinpu 【東臯琴譜】. Other qin societies exist in North America and Europe, which are less formal than their counterparts in mainland China, such as the North American Guqin Association and the London Youlan Qin Society.


Many artists down through the ages have played the instrument, and the instrument was a favourite of scholars. Certain melodies are also associated with famous figures, such as Confucius and Qu Yuan. Some emperors of China also had a liking to the qin, including the Song dynasty emperor, Huizong, as clearly seen in his own painting of himself playing the qin in "Ting Qin Tu" (聽琴圖, Listening to the Qin) .


  • Confucius 孔子: Philosopher, 551-479 BCE, associated with the piece Kongzi Duyi 《孔子讀易》, Weibian Sanjue 《韋編三絕/韦编三绝》 and Youlan 《幽蘭/幽兰》.
  • Bo Ya 伯牙: Qin player of the Spring and Autumn Period, associated with the piece Gao Shan 《高山》 and Liu Shui 《流水》.
  • Zhuang Zi 莊子: Daoist philosopher of the Warring States Period, associated with the piece Zhuang Zhou Mengdie 《莊周蒙蝶》 and Shenhua Yin 《神化引》.
  • Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BCE): Poet of the Warring States Period, associated with the piece Li Sao 《離騷》.
  • Cai Yong 蔡邕: Han musician, author of Qin Cao 【琴操】.
  • Cai Wenji 蔡文姬: Cai Yong's daughter, associated with the piece Hujia Shiba-pai 《胡笳十八拍》, etc.
  • Sima Xiangru 司馬相如: Han poet, 179-117 BCE.
  • Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234): Chinese military leader in the Three Kingdoms, one legend has him playing Guqin calmly outside his fort while scaring off the enemy attackers.
  • Xi Kang 嵇康: Sage of the Bamboo Grove, musician and poet, writer of Qin Fu 【琴賦】.
  • Li Bai 李白: Tang poet, 701-762.
  • Bai Juyi 白居易: Tang poet, 772-846.
  • Song Huizong 宋徽宗: Song emperor famous for his patronage of the arts, had a Wanqin Tang 『萬琴堂』 ("10,000 Qin Hall") in his palace.
  • Guo Chuwang 郭楚望: Patriot at the end of the Song Dynasty, composer of the piece Xiaoxiang Shuiyun 《瀟湘水雲/潇湘水云》.

The classical collections such as Qin Shi, Qinshi Bu and Qinshi Xu include biographies of hundreds more players.

Qin player Guan Pinghu 管平湖
Qin player Guan Pinghu 管平湖


  • Li Xiangting
  • Gong Yi
  • Zha Fuxi
  • Wang Fei
  • Cheng Yu
  • Wu Zhaoji
  • Zeng Chengwei
  • Guan Pinghu
  • Robert Hans van Gulik

Contemporary qin players extend from the early twentieth century to the present. More so than in the past, such players tend to have many different pursuits and occupations other than qin playing. There are only a few players who are paid to exclusively play and research the guqin professionally and nothing else. Qin players can also be well-versed in other cultural pursuits, such as the arts. Or they can do independent research on music subjects. Often, players may play other instruments (not necessary Chinese) and give recitals or talks.


The note range of a qin
The note range of a qin

In the performance and playing of the qin, the player will use a variety of techniques to utilise the full potential of the instrument. They would read the specialist and unique tablature that was developed over the centuries and amass a repertoire of popular and ancient tunes for the qin.

Playing technique

The beauty of qin melodies comes not only from the melodies themselves, but from the colors a player can apply to the individual tones and their combinations. The exceedingly rich tones of the qin can be categorised as three distinctively different "sounds." The first is san yin 散音〕, which means "scattered sounds." This is produced by plucking the required string to sound an open note Listen . The second is fan yin 泛音〕, or "floating sounds." These are harmonics, in which the player lightly touches the string with one or more fingers of the left hand at a position indicated by the hui dots, pluck and lift, creating a crisp and clear sound Listen . The third is an yin 按音 / 案音 / 實音 / 走音〕, or "stopped sounds." This forms the bulk of most qin pieces and requires the player to press on a string with a finger or thumb of the left hand until it connects with the surface board, then pluck. Afterwards, the musician's hand often slides up and down, thereby modifying the pitch. This technique resembles that of playing a slide guitar across the player's lap, though with a more room for flexibility and expression Listen to Pei Lan .

When plucking the strings, it is not required to attach fake- nails on one's fingers. One will often leave their fingernails long, and cut them into an elliptical 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 be cumbersome and can impede performance. 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 hindrance. For people who have brittle fingernails, the Yugu Zhai Qinpu has some methods of strengthening them. Unlike other plucked instruments, like guzheng and pipa, plectrums and fake-nails should be avoided. For the guzheng and pipa where one must attack the strings with force, thus, susceptible to fingernail breakage, the qin requires gentle force to play. Also, fake-nails tend to hinder the fingers, or create an unsatisfactory tone, thus it is best to pluck with natural fingernails. That and because one can feel the qin strings better.

The top four figures are from an old handbook, the bottom four are photos.

There are eight basic right hand finger techniques: pi 劈〉 (thumb pluck outwards), tuo 托〉 (thumb pluck inwards), mo 抹〉 (index in), tiao 挑〉 (index out), gou 勾〉 (middle in), ti 剔〉 (middle out), da 打〉 (ring in), and zhai 摘〉 (ring out); the little finger is not used. Out of these basic eight, their combinations create many. Cuo 撮〉 is to pluck two strings at the same time, lun 輪/轮〉 is to pluck a string with the ring, middle and index finger out in quick succession, the suo 鎖/锁〉 technique involves plucking a string several times in a fixed rhythm, bo 撥/拔〉 cups the fingers and attacks two strings at the same time, and gun fu 拂〉 is to create glissandi by running up and down the strings continuously with the index and middle fingers. These are just a few.

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 上〉 and xia 下〉), to vibrati by swaying the hand (yin 吟〉 and nao 猱〉, 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 起 / 搯起〉), hammering on a string using the thumb (yan 掩 / 罨〉), to more difficult techniques such as pressing on several strings at the same time.

Techniques executed by both hands in tandem are more difficult to achieve, like qia cuo san sheng 〈掐撮三聲/掐撮三声〉 (a combination of hammering on and off then plucking two strings, then repeating), to more stylised 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 imitate 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. Also, certain techniques vary from teacher to teacher and school to school.

There are also a lot of obsolete fingerings and notation that are rarely used in modern tablature. There are now new books that have began to be published about these fingerings and notation as Qin culture and study gains momentum.

Tablature and notation

First section of Youlan, showing the name of the piece: 《碣石調幽蘭第五》 "Jieshi Diao Youlan No.5", the preface describing the piece's origins, and the tablature in longhand form.
First section of Youlan, showing the name of the piece: 《碣石調幽蘭第五》 "Jieshi Diao Youlan No.5", the preface describing the piece's origins, and the tablature in longhand form.

Written qin music did not directly tell what notes were played; instead, it was written in a tablature detailing tuning, finger positions, and stroke technique, thus comprising a step by step method and description of how to play a piece. Some tablatures do indicate notes using the gongche system, or indicate rhythm using dots. The earliest example of the modern shorthand tablature survives from around the twelfth century CE. An earlier form of music notation from the Tang era survives in just one manuscript, dated to the seventh century CE, called Jieshi Diao Youlan 《碣石調幽蘭》 (Solitary Orchid in Stone Tablet Mode). It is written in a longhand form called wenzi pu 字譜〕 (literally "written notation"), said to have been created by Yong Menzhou (雍門周) during the Warring States Period, which gives all the details using ordinary written Chinese characters. Later in the Tang dynasty Cao Rou (曹柔) 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 減字譜〕 (literally "reduced notation") and it was a great leap forward for recording qin pieces. It was so successful that from the Ming dynasty onwards, a great many qinpu 〔琴 譜〕 (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. Sadly, many qinpu compiled before the Ming dynasty are now lost, and many pieces have remained unplayed for hundreds of years.

Another major change in the tablature happened during the Qing period. Before, the recording of the note positions between hui were only approximations. For example, to play sol on the seventh string, the position the player must stop is between the 7th and 8th hui. The tablature of Ming times would only say "between 7 and 8" 「七八日( 間)」 or for other positions "below 6" 「六下」 or even say "11" 「十一」 (when the correct position is slightly higher). During the Qing, this was replaced by the decimal system. The space between two hui were split into 10 'fen' 〔 分〕, so the tablature can indicate the correct position of notes more accurately, so for the examples above, the correct positions are 7.6, 6.2 and 10.8 respectively. Some even went further to split one fen into a further 10 'li' 〔 釐/ 厘〕, but since the distance is too minute to affect the pitch to a large degree, it was considered impractical to use. Some people argue that the old system is just as accurate as the new system when qin tuning theory is observed. Also, these old positions may actually conform to the rules of equally tempered music, with its pitches slightly flater, such as in the case of 8 for 7.9 and 11 for 10.8. Another main property for this old system is that it requires the player to "feel for the note", just as one would do for any other fretless stringed instrument, be it erhu or violin, instead of relying solely on fixed positions (which pitches can change slightly depending on how the player tunes their qin).

Existing qinpu generally come from private collections or in public libraries throughout China, etc. Those that are available for public purchase are facsimile qinpu 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.

New developments in Qin tablature

A number of efforts have been made to further develop qin tablature. A book by Wang Guangqi (王光祈) uses Roman and Arabic numerals to express the information provided by qin tablature. The qin player, Gong Yi, developed a format using staff notation combined with some tablature marks . Others have tried to write a computer program that will do this. Chen Changlin, a Beijing-based computer scientist and qin player of the Min (Fujian) School, developed the first computer program to encode qin notation from ancient tablature sources.


The Qinxue Rumen 【琴學入門】 (1864) tablature has dots and gongche notation next to the qin tablature to indicate beats and notes.
The Qinxue Rumen 【琴學入門】 (1864) tablature has dots and gongche notation next to the qin tablature to indicate beats and notes.

Qin pieces are usually around three to eight minutes in length, with the longest being "Guangling San" 《廣陵散》, which is 22 minutes long. Other famous pieces include "Liu Shui" 《流水》 (Flowing Water), "Yangguan San Die" 《陽關三疊/阳关三叠》 (Three Refrains on the Yang Pass Theme), "Meihua San Nong" 《梅花三弄》 (Three Variations on the Plum Blossom Theme), "Xiao Xiang Shui Yun" 《瀟湘水雲》 (Mist and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers), and "Pingsha Luo Yan" 《平沙落雁》 (Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank). The average player will generally have a repertoire of around ten pieces which they will aim to play very well, learning new pieces as and when they feel like it or if the opportunity arises. Players mainly learn popular well transcribed 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 pull off successfully. A number of qin melodies are program music depicting the natural world.

A list of guqin pieces which includes mostly played pieces, is used for Guqin Certification Examinations in China.


Dapu 〔打譜〕 is the transcribing 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 or master. They sit facing one another, with the student copying the master. The tablature will only be consulted if the teacher is not sure of how to play a certain part. Because of this, traditional qinpu do not indicate them (though near the end of the Qing dynasty, a handful of qinpu had started to employ various rhythm indicating devices, such as dots). If one did not have a teacher, then one had to work out the rhythm by themselves. But it would be a mistake to assume that qin music is devoid of rhythm and melody. By the 20th century, there had been attempts to try to replace the "jianzi pu" 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 (just as staff notation cannot be replaced for Western instruments, because they developed a notation system that suited the instruments well). There are two views of how to best utilize 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.

The Qinxue Congshu 【琴學叢書】 (1910) uses a more detailed system involving a grid next to main qin notation; right grid line indicates note, middle indicates beat, left indicates how the qin tablature relates to the rhythm.
The Qinxue Congshu 【琴學叢書】 (1910) uses a more detailed system involving a grid next to main qin notation; right grid line indicates note, middle indicates beat, left indicates how the qin tablature relates to the rhythm.

There is a saying that goes "a short piece requires three months [of dapu to complete], and a long piece requires three years". In actual practice, it needn't be that long to dapu a piece, but suggests that the player will have not only memorised the piece off by heart, but also have their fingering, rhythm and timing corrected. And afterwards, the emotion must be put into the piece. Therefore, it could be said that it really does require three months or years to finish dapu of a piece in order for them to play it to a very high standard.

Rhythm in qin music

It has already been discussed that qin music has a rhythm, and that it is only vaguely indicated in the tablature. Though there is an amount of guesswork involved, the tablature has clues to indicate rhythm, such as repeating motifs, indication of phrases or how the notation is arranged. Throughout the history of the qinpu, we see many attempts to indicate this rhythm more explicitly, involving devices like dots to make beats. Probably, one of the major projects to regulate the rhythm to a large scale was the compilers of the Qinxue Congshu tablature collection of 1910's to 1930's. The construction of the written tablature was divided into two columns. The first was further divided into about three lines of a grid, each line indicating a varied combination of lyrics, gongche tablature, se tablature, pitch, and/or beats depending on the score used. The second column was devoted to qin tablature.

Western composers have noticed that the rhythm in a piece of qin music can change; once they seem to have got a beat, the beats change. This is due to the fact that qin players may use some free rhythm in their playing. Whatever beat they use will depend on the emotion or the feeling of the player, and how he interperates the piece. However, some melodies have sections of fixed rhythm which is played the same way generally. The main theme of Meihua Sannong, for example, uses this. Some sections of certain melodies require the player to play faster with force to express the emotion of the piece. Examples include the middle sections of Guangling San and Xiaoxiang Shuiyun. Other pieces, such as Jiu Kuang has a fixed rhythm throughout the entire piece.

Generally, qin melodies sound better with a rhythm and the composers had that in mind when creating pieces.


Whilst the qin followed a certain grammar of acoustic in its construction, its external form could and did take on a huge amount of variation, whether it be from the embellishments or even the basic structure of the instrument. Qin tablatures from the Song era onwards have catalogued a plethora of qin forms. All, however, obey very basic rules of acoustics and symbolism of form. The qin uses strings of silk or metal- nylon and is tuned in accordance to traditional principles.


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 (周文王) added a sixth string to mourn his son, Bo Yihou (伯邑考). His successor, Zhou Wu Wang, added a seventh string to motivate his troops into battle with the Shang. The thirteen hui 徽』 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 chi, 6 cun and 5 fen 分」; 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" 『 池/龙池』 and "phoenix pond" 『 沼/凤沼』.

Names of (from left to right) the front, inside and back parts of the qin
Names of (from left to right) the front, inside and back parts of the qin
The qin Hewu Longxiang 《鶴舞龍翔》 in the Lianzhu form
The qin Hewu Longxiang 《鶴舞龍翔》 in the Lianzhu form

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 『 桐』, the Chinese parasol tree, or Chinese paulownia. There are many different types of tong wood, the names of which are listed in the Yuguzhai Qinpu: wutong 梧桐』 (Firmiana platanifolia, Sterculia platanifolia or Firmiana simplex), baitong 白桐』, qingtong 青桐』 (Japanese paulownia), paotong 泡桐』 (Paulownia tomentosa), yitong 椅桐』 and nantong 南桐』; the best is wutong, but paotong is now widely used. The bottom board is made of zi mu 梓木』 catalpa (Catalpa ovata) or, more recently, nan mu 楠木』 camphor wood (Machilus nanmu). The wood must be well seasoned, that is, the sap and moisture must be removed (of the top board wood). If sap remains then it will deaden the sound and, as the moisture evaporates, the wood will warp and crack. Some makers use old or ancient wood to construct qins because most of the sap and moisture has been removed naturally by time (old shan mu 杉木』, 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 inferior quality or type. Many modern qins made out of new tong wood (such as those made by Zeng Chengwei) can surpass the quality of antique qins. Unfortunately, the supply of good wood to make qins has dwindled in recent years, causing a rush to make more qins. Paulownia takes many years to grow and requires a curing period of at least 20 years for the sap and moisture to be properly removed. As for old wood from old houses, there are not much old houses left after modernization of the cities and towns.

Jiu Xiao Huan Pei 《九霄環佩》: The famous Tang Dynasty qin in the Fuxi form by Lei Wei
Jiu Xiao Huan Pei 《九霄環佩》: The famous Tang Dynasty qin in the Fuxi form by Lei Wei

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 (if the board is too thick, then the sound will be dull and deadened; if the board is too thin, the sound will be too bright and loud). Inside the qin, there are 'nayin' 『 納音』 sound absorbers to reinforce the sound, and a 'tian chu' 『 柱』 and 'di chu' 『 地柱』 soundposts that connect the bottom board to the top (which act as sound reinforcers but also anti-warping devices). The boards are joined using a "hinge joint" method to produce the typically mellow sounds of the qin. Lacquer 『 漆』 from the Chinese lacquer tree ( Rhus verniciflua) is then applied to the surfaces of the qin, mixed with various types of matrix, the most common being "lujiao shuang" 『 鹿 霜』, the remains of deer antler after the glue has been extracted. 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" 『 山』 or bridge, and at the other end is the "long yin" 『龍 齦/龙龈』 (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 『徽』 ("insignia"). They are roughly the same size, but the 7th hui in the middle is usually slightly bigger. If the hui are too big, then it is considered vulgar or ugly. The book Yugu Zhai Qinpu is perhaps the most famous book that describes in detail the construction method of the qin.

The distinctive form of the Luoxia style, noticably difficult to create
The distinctive form of the Luoxia style, noticably difficult to create

Generally, the qin should be stored in an appropriate climate. That is, a constant environment. Sudden changes may cause it to warp or split at the joint. Generally, the appropriate climate to keep a qin in depends on where it is manufactured (mostly, in China, which is humid). The air temperature is best at around 20-24°C, with a humidity of around 50-70%. If the temperature is too high, then the glue may melt or soften, causing the joints to split (in the worst case, the edge of the qin cracks open). If the humidity drops too low, typically below 25-30%, then the wood may warp and/or crack, either internally or externally, and maybe the joints could split. Some players, particularly in dry countries or in countries that have a very dry summer, obtain a humidifier to protect the qin from damage by correcting the humidity level of the room in which the qin is stored.

The qin must always be placed vertically and not horizontally (i.e. resting on the goose feet and/or tuning pegs), otherwise the qin would gradually curve, making it unplayable. That is why the preferred way to store a qin is to hang it up on a wall, away from sunlight. The weight of the instrument pulls it straight and stops it from curving (though it might curve or wrap anyways if the climate is not constant or the wood is not sufficiently seasoned or cured).

Sometimes, the player may attempt minor repairs to the instrument (major repairs like structural faults and splitting of the joints, warping of the wood, etc are best done by professional qin makers). Minor repairs include re-lacquering areas of the surface of the qin that have had the lacquer chipped, re-patching areas of the surface where the lacquer is worn causing "running-cloud markings", repairing cracks in lacquer, etc. Because these are relatively minor and can often happen due to ageing and constant use, it is more easier to do repairs by oneself than call a qin maker to do it, especially if there isn't a qin maker available to do the work. Small quantities of lacquer and deer horn powder (known as 『角粉(つのこ)』 "tsunoko" in Japanese) are available to purchase online by the player to carry out simple repairs.


Qin forms are shapes or styles which a qin can be made in. In the Wuzhi Zhai Qinpu there is a large number of qin forms listed with their origins. The most popular form is the Zhongni 「仲尼式」 form, which is named after Confucius' style-name. It is the most simple yet elegant. Other popular forms include the Fuxi 「伏羲式」 form which was popularlised by the famous Tang qin Jiuxiao Huanpei, which is difficult to create to an elegant standard. There is the Lianzhu 「連珠式/连珠式」 form and the distinctively attractive forms of Luoxia 「落霞式」 ("falling mist"), Cijun 「此君式」 ("this gentleman") or "bamboo" and Jiaoye 「蕉葉式/蕉叶式」 ("banana leaf") forms. Although there is a dizzying array of forms a maker can use (which includes some rather bizarre ones), generally, makers stick to more usual and popular forms. This is because not only are they easier to make, but because changing the outer shape can alter the shape and volume of the soundbox considerably, and the more chunks and indentations on the outer shape, the smaller the soundbox becomes.

There is also a special construction process called baina 衲』 (literally "hundred patches") which uses around a hundred or so small pieces of wood, in square or diamond shapes, fitted and stuck together, then carved into a qin. This method is only used by only a few makers. One of the properties claimed by making a qin in such a way is that the sound can emit more easily out of the instrument. Unfortunately, the glue holding the pieces could melt in a bad climate condition and may go through a lot of repair work due to the nature of the structure before it stablises.

Examples of duanwen. Top to bottom: Flowing-water markings with running-cloud markings 『流水行雲紋』, snake-skin cracks 『蛇腹斷』, ice-crack markings 『冰裂紋』
Examples of duanwen. Top to bottom: Flowing-water markings with running-cloud markings 『流水行雲紋』, snake-skin cracks 『蛇腹斷』, ice-crack markings 『冰裂紋』


On the surface of the qin there may be cracks or patternations called duanwen 紋/断纹〕. These cracks appear after a long period of time due to ageing. The wood's water content slowly evapourates, so the wood retracts; the lacquer, however, does not, so it cracks. It should be distinguished from cracking or warping from the wood, which creates structural cracks. Duanwen are highly prized by the qin connoisseur because they not only prove the qin's antiquity (to a certain degree of error), but are also pleasant to look at. There are many names for different cracks, such as "snake-skin cracks" 『蛇腹斷』, "ice-crack markings" 『冰裂紋』, "cow-hair cracks" 『牛毛斷』, "flowing-water markings" 『流水紋』, "running-cloud markings" 『行雲紋』, "tortoise-back markings" 『龜背紋/龟背纹』, " plum-blossom cracks" 『梅花斷』, etc. Modern qin makers can artificially create cracks by first heating the lacquered qin for a few hours until it is hot, then immersing it in a bath of ice cubes, thus the wood retracts quickly causing cracks on the surface of the qin (this is not a new method). Of course, this method does not create the best of cracks. Although a qin may have duanwen, one can still play it, providing the duanwen is not flaking off or lifting off the surface. Otherwise, it would have to be re-lacquered, partially if the flaking is not too severe, entirely if it is literally unplayable. Qin makers tend to avoid removing the old lacquer when re-lacquering and maintain as much of the duanwen as possible since real duanwen cannot be created overnight but through centuries of natural aging. Some makers when re-lacquering would use a different hue or colour of lacquer so that the lacquer underneath can contrast with the new, and thus be seen more clearly. The colour of the lacquer used can range from extreme black to brown to purple to red (in the rarest cases). Colour is achieved by using minerals or chemicals added to the processed lacquer. The most beautiful duanwen are, understandably, from old antique qins.

Another property of duanwen is that the lacquer does not stick to the wood so tightly, therefore, the sound is not restricted as in a newly lacquered qin.

The back of the Hewu Longxiang qin with its name inscription
The back of the Hewu Longxiang qin with its name inscription

Inscriptions and seals

Other than the form and the duanwen of the qin, the qin player may marvel at the inscriptions at the back of the qin. These will be names, poems, dates of manufacture, seals and other artistic inscriptions. Of course, some qins have 'no name' on them, or are plain. Some think that there is no need to adorn the qin with written words, the sound should speak for itself. Most would just write the name and date inside the qin. However, carving inscriptions into the back of the qin is an art form in itself. It is a point of admiration to the qin, and collectors may add their own inscriptions on the qin, much like they would do to a piece of Chinese painting that they praise highly. Inscriptions can be used to date the qin as well, since most makers brush in their names and years of manufacture, mostly inside the soundhole, on the sound absorder or next to it. A calligrapher maybe called in to compose a piece and that will be copied onto the qin.

The name given to the qin may reflect its sound quality, or reflect an ideal or philosophical musing. It may be the name of a piece of qin music or a mode or tuning. The seal/s are often the maker's seals, often large and square, but the owner may add their own.


Until the Cultural Revolution, the guqin's strings were always made of various thicknesses of twisted silk 『 絲/丝』, but since then most players use modern nylon-flatwound steel strings 『鋼絲/钢丝』. 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 composed of a special mixture of natural glue that binds the strands together. The strings is 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. According to ancient manuals, there are three distinctive gauges of thickness that one can make the strings. The first is taigu 〖太古〗 [Great Antiquity] which is the standard gauge, the zhongqing 〖中清〗 [Middle Clarity] is thinner, whilst the jiazhong 〖加重〗 [Added Thickness] is thicker. According to the Yugu Zhai Qinpu, zhongqing is the best.

Recently in China, production of very good quality silk strings has resumed and more players are beginning to use them. The American qin player and scholar John Thompson advocates for the use of both silk and nylon-wrapped metal strings for different styles of qin music, much like the guitar exists in both classical (nylon-string) and steel-string forms. It must be noted that playing silk strings is different from playing metal-nylon one, as you need to pluck much more gently in order to avoid buzzing and the string slapping on the surface. Thus, silk strings are slighty more difficult to play.

A selection of different qin strings. Top to bottom: 〖太古琴絃〗 Taigu Silk Qin Strings [中清 zhongqing gauge] with a container of 'string gum' 「絃膠」, 〖上音牌琴弦〗 Shangyin Shanghai Conservatorie Quality Qin Strings (metal-nylon), 〖虎丘古琴絃〗 Huqiu Silk Strings
A selection of different qin strings. Top to bottom: 〖太古琴絃〗 Taigu Silk Qin Strings [中清 zhongqing gauge] with a container of 'string gum' 「絃 膠」, 〖上音牌琴弦〗 Shangyin Shanghai Conservatorie Quality Qin Strings (metal-nylon), 〖虎丘古琴絃〗 Huqiu Silk Strings

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. Further, 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.

Although silk strings tend to break more often than metal nylon ones, they are stronger than one may be led to think. Silk is very flexible, and can be strung to high tensions and tuned up to the standard pitch that was proposed by mainland China (5th string at A) without breaking. Also, although they may be more likely to break at higher tension, they are hardly discardable once a string has broken. Silk strings tend to be very long (more than 2 metres) and break at the point where it rubs on the bridge. One simply ties another butterfly knot at the broken end, cut the frayed bit, then re-string. In this way, the string can be re-used up to ten times for the thinner strings (three or four times for thicker ones), and every set includes an extra seventh (most likely to break) and probably a fourth (next most likely to break). Because silk strings break easily, there are very few that survive from the past dynasties.

Traditionally, the strings were wrapped around the goose feet 『 足』, but there has been a device that has been invented, which is a block of wood attached to the goose feet, with pins similar to those used to tune the guzheng protruding out at the sides, so one can string and tune the qin using a tuning wrench. This is good for those who lack the physical strength to pull and add tension to the strings when wrapping the ends to the goose feet. However, the tuning device looks rather unsightly and thus many qin players prefer the traditional manner of tuning; many also feel that the strings should be firmly wrapped to the goose feet in order that the sound may be "grounded" into the qin. Further, one cannot wrap silk strings around such tuning pins as they tend to break more easily at the wrapping end. Stephen Dydo of the United States has recently developed a customised tuning device which uses violin pegs rather than zither pins. It is more suitable for silk strings. However, it is still difficult to control and tune accurately. Such devices are really best used for metal-nylon strings.

The new tuning device which clips onto the goose-feet and is strung using a tuning wrench on the zither-pins. The pins are adjusted to more-or-less the required pitch, whilst the tuning pegs on the head are used to tune it more finely
The new tuning device which clips onto the goose-feet and is strung using a tuning wrench on the zither-pins. The pins are adjusted to more-or-less the required pitch, whilst the tuning pegs on the head are used to tune it more finely

Although the future of metal-nylon string manufacture is secure, the manufacture situation of silk strings is not. Throughout the ages, particularly the political disturbances of the twentieth century as well as the popularity of the metal-nylon strings, has seen silk string manufacture decline. Plus the difficulty in obtaining the best quality silk and the difficulty in obtaining a high quality throughout has brought about only short phases now and again of silk string manufacture. There is currently a steady supply of standard silk strings (from Suzhou), plus a fluctuating quality and supply of extremely good quality strings.

Pros and cons

To summarise, here are the pros and cons of silk and metal-nylon strings:



  • Uniqueness: has a special quality and sound that metal-nylon strings cannot fully embody.
  • Elegance: more elegant and ancient to use. Preferred by the traditionalists.
  • Re-usability: one string can be re-used several times before it must be replace.
  • Less harmful: does not damage the instrument or wear down the lacquer.
  • Stringing: more easier to string than metal-nylon.
  • Environmental: bio-degradable and natural. Renewable source. Can last centuries.
Stringing the qin in the traditional way. The end of the string is pulled into tune then, keeping that tension, the end is wrapped around the goose feet. Afterwards, the short end is tucked into the incoming strings.
Stringing the qin in the traditional way. The end of the string is pulled into tune then, keeping that tension, the end is wrapped around the goose feet. Afterwards, the short end is tucked into the incoming strings.


  • Stability: tends to de-tune from time to time and requires re-stringing or re-adjusting. Also, the climate plays a part in its playability.
  • Strength: tends to break more often and more easily than metal-nylon. Not suitable for excessively hard play.
  • Volume: very quiet and requires you to be in a near perfect environment in order to hear yourself play.
  • Usage: much more difficult to play. Weaknesses in play become more noticeable.
  • Sound: some may find the scratchy sounds during the slides not to their taste. Also, buzzing sounds can occur, but that arises from the player plucking too hard.
  • Cost: quality sets are expensive, but that is mainly due to the market situation.



  • Volume: louder and more suitable for concert and performance to a large number of people.
  • Strength: stronger and breaks less than silk.
  • Stability: retains tuning without further adjustments.
  • Usage: easier to play and smooth to slide on.
  • Cost: inexpensive in the long run.


  • Harmful: tends to wear the instrument down (especially the lacquer), meaning more repairs.
  • Tone: tends to be too 'metallic' for some.
  • Stringing: hard to string. High tension requires a lot of strength and effort on the player, though this is eliminated if you use the new tuning device.
  • Re-usability: once a string has broke, it cannot be re-used like silk.
  • Environmental: not bio-degradable.
How the qin is traditionally strung; the strings wrap around the goose-feet. Strings 1 to 4 on the outer foot, and strings 5 to 7 on the inner foot
How the qin is traditionally strung; the strings wrap around the goose-feet. Strings 1 to 4 on the outer foot, and strings 5 to 7 on the inner foot

Etymological note on the word 'string'

There are a number of Chinese characters for the word string(s). 『 絃』, 『 弦』, 『 線』 and 『 綫』. According to Chinese Characters (1915), 『線』 and 『綫/线』 are both the same character (the former used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the later used in mainland China in its simplified form), which meaning is 'thread', 'line' or 'wire'. However, the characters 『絃』 and 『弦』 mean the same thing ('string'), but have different etymological meanings. In the case of 『絃』, the radical is 「 糸」, which is the radical for silk, whilst for 『弦』, the radical is 「 弓」 which is the radical for the archery 'bow'. It is important to distinguish from the two as they are often used to refer to the strings of the qin, or any other stringed instrument, sometimes together on the same page. However, etymologically, 『絃』 is the correct character to be used to refer to strings of the qin as the radical denotes, qin strings were made of silk (though probably etymologically incorrect for the modern metal-nylon strings). But for 『弦』, it probably denotes a string used on an instrument which requires a bow to play, such as erhu or violin. Maybe, 『弦』 can also be used to refer to metal / metal-nylon strings...


Tuning pegs of the guqin. The twisted cord goes through the bottom hole, through the side hole in the neck, around, under and through the hole in the neck again, and out the top hole. Pegs can be made from wood or jade
Tuning pegs of the guqin. The twisted cord goes through the bottom hole, through the side hole in the neck, around, under and through the hole in the neck again, and out the top hole. Pegs can be made from wood or jade

To string a qin, one traditionally had to tie a butterfly knot (shengtou jie 結/蝇头结』) at one end of the string, and slip the string through the twisted cord (rongkou 剅/绒扣』) which goes into holes at the head of the qin and then out the bottom through the tuning pegs (zhen 軫/轸』). The string is dragged over the bridge (yueshan 『岳山』), across the surface board, over the nut (longyin 『龍齦』 dragon gums) to the back of the qin, where the end is wrapped around two legs (fengzu 『鳳足』 "phoenix feet" or yanzu 『雁足』 "geese feet"). Afterwards, the strings are fine tuned using the tuning pegs (sometimes, rosin is used on the part of the tuning peg that touches the qin body to stop it from slipping, especially if the qin is tuned to higher pitches). The most common tuning, "zheng diao" 〈正調〉, is pentatonic: 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 in the traditional Chinese number system or jianpu 〔簡譜/简谱〕 (i.e. 1=do, 2=re, etc). 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 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 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 〈慢角調〉 ("slackened third string") gives 1 2 3 5 6 1 2 and ruibin diao 〈蕤賔調/蕤宾调〉 ("raised fifth string") gives 1 2 4 5 7 1 2, which is transposed to 2 3 5 6 1 2 3. It is important to note that in early qin music theory, the word "diao" 〔 調〕 means both tuning and mode, but by the Qing period, "diao" meant tuning (of changing pitch) and "yin" 〔 音〕 meant mode (of changing scales). Often before a piece, the tablature names the tuning and then the mode using traditional Chinese names: gong 宮》 (do), shang 商》 (re), jiao or jue 角》 (mi), zhi 徵》 (sol), yu 羽》 (la), or combinations thereof. A more modern name for tunings uses the word jun 均〕 to mean key or pitch of the piece, so for example, zhonglü jun 〈仲吕均〉 means "F key", since zhonglü is the name of the Chinese pitch which Western equivalent is "F".

Close-up of standard wood tuning peg.
Close-up of standard wood tuning peg.

There are more than 20 different tunings used in qin music, out of which only between two and four are commonly used. Some of these, however, are actually alternate names for the same tuning. A single tuning can have several different names depending on which system the composer was taught and used; an additional confusion is caused by the fact that two different tunings can share the same name. For example, huangzhong diao 〈黃鐘調/黄钟调〉 could mean either "lower first string and tighten fifth string" (e.g. Shenqi Mipu, etc), "lower third string" (e.g. Qinxue Lianyao), or normal tuning (e.g. Mei'an Qinpu). Another potentially confusing problem is the naming of some of the tunings which may have misleading names, like the ruibin tuning. Ruibin is the name of the Chinese pitch which Western equivalent is "F♯", but that note does not appear or is used in the tuning, and so it is difficult to explain the logic in the naming.

Although Chinese music is said to be pentatonic in scale, it in fact is not so strictly true. In qin music, if one examines the modes and scales, one can often find that after the first few notes, notes that are out of the pentatonic scale are used. Examples like this include pieces like "Shenren Chang" [Harmony Between Gods and Men] which uses a lot of "strange" notes not much heard in modern Chinese music. One might say that Chinese music was not truly pentatonic in the beginning, but became so because of standardisation. Thus, many of the more "popular" Chinese instruments such as the erhu, dizi, or pipa adopted more purely pentatonic scales and modes, whilst the qin which was secluded from such standardisations kept much of the old tradition of music. We can see from older, more ancient scores, such as Youlan using such rare notes; comparing that to a more modern piece one can hear the difference in tonality, scales and mode.

Method of tuning

The standard scale of the guqin
The standard scale of the guqin

The qin is one of a few instruments which changes the pitch tunings in order to change the key. The qin is tuned finely using the tuning pegs to adjust the pitch. The method of finding to right pitch to adjust to is straight forward. One way is to tune by ear, plucking the open strings and picking out the relation differences between the strings. This is the least accurate way of tuning and is only attempted by those with a toned ear. The next method is by comparing open and stopped notes, by playing an open string and pressing on another string at the correct position and adjust if they sound different. This is more accurate, but is not by very much. Since open and stopped sounds sound different, plus the fact that the way you press on the strings can vary the tone to a certain degree, it can only be used for pieces without harmonics. The more accurate (and generally preferred) way is to tune by harmonics. Since harmonics are consistent, the tuning is more accurate. Two harmonics are sounded on two strings and the pitch can be adjusted whilst they still sound.

List of common tunings

Below is a list of common tunings for the qin. Note that some tunings have more than one scale and names, and that the relative relations are transposed (i.e. the do note is shifted to the appropriate string) in accordance with Chinese music theory. There can be several different names for a single tuning, and some even overlap, creating confusion. The table below uses the most common name for the tuning and lists the variants.

Note: This list is not exhaustive.

Name of Tuning (Chinese) English name Tuning method Pitch relation Relative relation Key Other names Representing melodies Listen to the scale being played
正調 Zheng Diao Original Tuning N/A C D F G A c d 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 F 宮調, 仲呂調, 黃鐘調, 角調, 羽調, 林鐘調 《平沙落鴈》, 《梅花三弄》, 《流水》, 《漁樵問答》, 《漁歌》, 《神人暢》 Listen 
1 2 4 5 6 1 2 C 借調, 商調, 徵調, 商角調 碣石調幽蘭》, 《醉漁唱晚》, 《龍翔操》, 《憶故人》
蕤賔調 Ruibin Diao Lush Guest Tuning Raise 5th string C D F G B c d 2 3 5 6 1 2 3 B 金羽, 清羽, 無射均 《瀟湘水雲》, 《陽關三曡》, 《龍翔操》 Listen 
慢角調 Manjiao Diao Lowered Third-string Tuning Lower 3rd string C D E G A c d 1 2 3 5 6 1 2 C 角調, 黃鐘均, 林鐘調, 黃鐘宮 《風雷引》, 《鳳求凰》 Listen 
清商調 Qingshang Diao Sharpen Re Tuning Raise 2nd, 5th and 7th strings C E F G B c e 6 1 2 3 5 6 1 E 商調, 夾鐘調, 無射調, 小碧玉調, 姑洗調 《搗衣》, 《秋鴻》 Listen 
慢宮調 Mangong Diao Lowered First-string Tuning Lower 1st, 3rd and 6th strings B D E G A B d 3 5 6 1 2 3 5 G 太簇調, 夷則均, 徵調 《挾仙游》, 《獲麟》 Listen 
慢商調 Manshang Diao Lowered Second-string Tuning Lower 2nd string C C F G A c d 1 1 4 5 6 1 2 C None 《廣陵散》 Listen 
黃鐘調 Huangzhong Diao Yellow Bell Tuning Raise 5th and lower 1st strings B D F G B c d 1 3 5 6 1 2 3 B 黃鐘宮調, 無射調 《大胡笳》, 《小胡笳》, 《胡笳十八拍》 Listen 
凄凉調 Qiliang Diao Cold Misery Tuning Raise 2nd and 5th strings C E F G B c d 2 4 5 6 1 2 3 B 楚商調, 外調 《離騷》, 《澤畔吟》, 《屈原問渡》 Listen 
側商調 Ceshang Diao Besides the Re Tuning Lower 3rd, 4th and 6th strings C D E F A B d 7 1 2 3 5 6 1 D None 《古怨》 Listen 
1 2 3 4 6 7 2 C
無媒調 Wumei Diao No Intermediary Tuning Lower 3rd and 6th strings C D E G A B d 1 2 3 5 6 7 2 C 慢角 《孤舘遇神》 Listen 
3 5 7 1 2 3 5 G

Playing context

The guqin is nearly always used a solo instrument, as its quietness of tone means that it cannot compete with 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. Sadly, the se has not survived into this century, though duet tablature scores for the instruments are preserved in a few qinpu, and the master qin player Wu Jinglüe was one of only a few in the twentieth century who knew how to play it together with qin in duet. Lately there has been a trend to use other instruments to accompany the qin, such as the xun (ceramic ocarina), pipa (four-stringed pear-shaped lute), dizi (transverse bamboo flute), and others for more experimental purposes.

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 「琴簫」, 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 eccentric style some players may sing their songs to, like in the case of Zha Fuxi.

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 yajis, 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. In fact, the yaji originated as a multi-media gathering involving the four arts: qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting.

Ritual use of the qin

Being an instrument of the scholars, the qin is also played in a ritual context, especially in yayue in China, and aak in Korea. The National Centre for Korean Traditional Performing Arts of Munmyo jeryeak (Confucian ritual music) uses the last two surviving aak melodies from the importation of yayue from the Song Dynasty emperor Huizong in 1116 using the seul (se) and geum (guqin). In China, the qin was still in use in ritual ceremonies of the imperial court, such can be seen in the court paintings of imperial sacrifices of the Qing court (e.g. The Yongzheng Emperor Offering Sacrifices at the Altar of the God of Agriculture 《雍正祭先農壇圖》, 1723-35).

Qin aesthetics

When the qin is played, a number of aesthetic elements are involved. The first is musicality. In the second section of "Pingsha Luoyan", for example, the initial few bars contain a nao vibrato followed by a phase of sliding up and down the string, even when the sound has already become inaudible Listen carefully to the sliding sounds of Pingsha Luoyan . The average person trained in music may question whether this is really "music". Normally, some players would pluck the string very lightly to create a very quiet sound. For some players, this plucking isn't necessary. Instead of trying to force a sound out of the string one should allow the natural sounds emit from the strings. Some players say that the sliding on the string even when the sound has disappeared is a distinctive feature in qin music. It creates a "space" or "void" in a piece, playing without playing, sound without sound. In fact, when the viewer looks at the player sliding on the string without sounds, the viewer automatically "fills in the notes" with their minds. This creates a connection between player, instrument and listener. This, of course, cannot happen when listening to a recording, as one cannot see the performer. It can also be seen as impractical in recording, as the player would want to convey sound as much as possible towards a third audience. But in fact, there is sound, the sound coming from the fingers sliding on the string. With a really good qin, silk strings, and a perfectly quiet environment, all the tones can be sounded. And since the music is more player oriented than listener oriented, and the player knows the music, he/she can hear it even if the sound is not there. And with silk strings the sliding sound might be called the qi or "life force" of the music. The really empty sounds are the pauses between notes. However, if one cannot create a sound that can be heard when sliding on a string, it is generally acceptable to lightly pluck the string to create a very quiet sound.

In the music of the qin, we often come across (especially in harmonics) the use of the same note to two different strings. A good example of this would be in the main harmonic sections of "Meihua Sannong", where at the last three notes of the first two phrases all play sol (first sol on the sixth string at 7th hui, second on third string at 9th hui, then again on the sixth string at 7th hui) Listen carefully to the two/three notes at the end of each phrase of the harmonic section Meihua Sannong . The question would be why does one need to play the sol on the third string when one can play sol thrice on the sixth string. One reason is timbre; although both these two positions sound the same note, they sound different or have a different quality to them. Another reason is to add flavor during performance. We have other examples, like the first two phrases of Shenren Chang, where the playing of the harmonics is on the left of the qin on the first phrase, then the same notes are played on the right of the qin. This adds symmetry to the play, and we often see this in many qin melodies where the same notes are mimicked in a different way.

Philosophy of the qin

The seals at the back of the Hewu Longxiang qin
The seals at the back of the Hewu Longxiang qin

Qin music tends to linger on certain notes, with an emphasis on silence and timbre, giving it a meditative quality. Being an instrument historically associated with literati, its aim is Confucian (in trying to cultivate one's mind) as well as Daoist (in seeking harmony between man and nature). 「琴棋書畫」 (qin qi shu hua) refers to the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, wherein 『琴』 qin/music refers specifically to guqin. [This phrase is a rather late invention of the Song period (according to the Wuzhizhai Qinpu), so it is not clear how essential it was to the pedagogy of earlier scholar classes]. It is rarely used to play popular and fast tunes which are deemed to be vulgar to the instrument of the scholars.

Because of this, the qin is not so popular amongst the uninitiated, and because of the decline of its popularity in the periods of political disturbances (when the qin was seen as an elitist and feudal instrument. These days, the qin is referred to as a "folk instrument" to move away from these connotations), very few people are familiar with it, even in China. However, there has been a revival of interest in recent years, especially among Westerners, as the qin embodies a philosophy which appeals to those who wish to escape the stress and confusion of the modern world. Some may argue that the spiritual side is one of the most appealing aspects of qin music, since much other music concerned with entertainment, social bonding or academic issues, the music of the qin offers a breath of fresh air, concerning with the individual and his/her connection with nature and surroundings. Of course, there is no reason why one cannot submit to a realist and/or idealistic view of the purpose of the qin music. It all depends on the player's preference of what s/he wants out of qin music.

There is much comment in qin texts decrying "vulgar" music, but this really only means that there was a lot of it around. And it is interesting to hear people decry "popular and fast tunes" and then find out their favorite qin melody is Flowing Water. By focusing only on what the scholars have idealized, people can miss a lot of the reality and beauty of pure music.

Some people (particularly the younger generation) find qin music difficult to appreciate upon first listening. The reason for this maybe due to the fact that they rate it against music that they only heard in their life, namely modern or popular music. Because qin music is very simple and plain ( minimalist some might say), they may find it boring when compared to the fast beat and sound saturated songs of the modern era. This can lead to a misunderstanding of the true nature of qin music and its aesthetical purposes. Perhaps some people's perceptions of qin music can be summed up in a quote by Curth Sachs:

Occidental listeners have great difficulty in perceiving the delicate shades of ch'in [qin] playing and in appreciating its spirituality. But the average Oriental cannot appreciate it either. The ch'in does not court popularity, nor does it suit dilettantism. It is the instrument of philosophers and sages. In the privacy of a closed room, alone or before a few selected friends who listen respectfully and silently, the immaterial notes of the ch'in reveal to the listeners the ultimate truths of life and religion.

On the other hand, musicians and music lovers can easily appreciate qin music because they can hear music objectively and have a better understanding of music in an ethnomusicological context.

There has also been a move to a more Western approach to qin music. A hand full of professional players prefer to look at the qin from a purely realist and scientific approach, treating the qin as a purely musical instrument, rather than a cultural phenomena. This is due to some traditionalist treating the instrument as an 'other-worldly' object than a 'this-worldly' one. This move to a much more technical approach signifies a progression in qin study and appreciation; holding onto too much old values tends to impead the transmission of qin. An example would be composition. Although around 60 odd new compositions has been composed for the qin since the 1960's, all in all, no one plays them. he reason is because many believe these new compositions do not compare with ancient scores. But technically, these ancient scores were new at the time when they were composed. Some fear that in a 100 years time, people then might say that we have contributed nothing new to qin. That is not to say that the qin cannot be viewed in a traditional way, but to say that the qin is also capable of a progression into new territory. There is no reason why players cannot embrace both traditional and scientific study of the qin.

Manifestations of qin music

In the past, written in a lot of literature, there is discussion and analysis of what is called shengjiang 〔聲像〕 or "manifestations of sound" of the qin. These are basically single words used to describe the mood or theme of the piece. The number of these 'manifestations' are disputed. Some say only 4, some say 13-16 , and some say over 24. Listed in some qinpu they have very lengthy descriptions of each manifestation, going into every detail.

The most basic words used to describe qin music are, for example, Yushan school's qing 『清』, wei 『微』, dan 『淡』 and yuan 『遠』, or "pure", "profound", "light" and "distant". Another important essay on qin manifestations is Xishan Qinkuang 【谿山琴况】 which lists 24 qin manifestations in great detail . This essay has several layers; some words describe the playing method, some describe ornamentation and some describe the body of the music. They also explain the union between musician and instrument and how to achieve unity with the music.

Related instruments

The Japanese ichigenkin 「一絃琴」, a monochord zither, is believed to be derived from the qin. The qin handbook Lixing Yuanya (【理性元雅】, 1618) includes some melodies for a one-string qin, and the Wuzhi Zhai Qinpu contains a picture and description of such an instrument. The modern ichigenkin apparently first appeared in Japan just after that time. However, the honkyoku 〔本曲〕 (standard repertoire) of the ichigenkin today most closely resembles that of the shamisen 「三味線」.

The Korean komungo 「거문고」 may also be related, albeit distantly. Korean literati wanted to play an instrument the way their Chinese counterparts played the qin. For some reason they never took to the qin itself, instead playing the komungo, a long fretted zither plucked with a thin stick. The repertoire was largely the komungo parts for melodies played by the court orchestra. It should be noted that another ancient Chinese zither, the zhu 「筑」, was likely plucked with a stick, so the komungo may also be related to that instrument.

Guqin in popular culture

Being a symbol of high culture, the qin has inevitably been used as a prop in much of Chinese popular culture to varying degrees of accuracy. One can find references to the qin in a variety of media, most notably television serials and film. Mostly, the actors may not know how to play the instrument and mime it to a recorded piece by a qin player who may have recorded it specifically for the project. At other times, the music that is mimed to is guzheng music, rather than qin music. We also see the rather stereo-typical hybrids of qin and zheng psuedo-instruments of Kung Fu Hustle, to the more faithful and loving representation of the qin in Hero.

  • In the 1960s Hong Kong fantasy horror film, Deadly Melody (六指琴魔), one of the villains' weapon is a qin.
  • In the 1967 Louis Cha novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖), the guqin was featured prominently in the story, as the hero of the novel Linghu Chong inherits a manuscript Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (which happens to also be the title of the novel) from Liu Zhengfeng and Qu Yang which was a masterpiece that features a duet between the guqin and the xiao (a Chinese flute).
  • The sound track of the 1979 Hong Kong feature film House of the Lute (慾火焚琴), by John Thompson, is almost exclusively solo qin music he adapted and played. This ghost story features an old man who considers himself a scholar, so he engages in the skills of qin, chess, calligraphy and painting.
  • In the 1987 Hong Kong fantasy horror film, A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂), the ghost, Nie, plays a qin and she breaks a string (a common metaphor for a troubled heart or being surprised) when the man Ning steps into the pavillion.
  • In the 1996 historical drama The Emperor's Shadow (Qin Song; 頌), Gao Jianli, a famous qin maker and performer uses his music to gain favour with the Emperor's daughter.
  • In the Hong Kong fantasy serial adaptation of Fengshen Bang (封神榜) (English title: Gods of Honour), the character Bi Gan plays a (historically inaccurate) qin. Another character (the Queen of the last Shang emperor Di Xin) actually grabs it and smashes it on a table. Qins are also used in scenes in a teaching academy.
  • In the Hong Kong animated series adaptation of Shendiao Xialü (神鵰俠侶) or The Return of the Condor Heroes, the character Xiaolongnü plays a qin when Yang Guo first sees her. She also plays the qin again in the second season.
  • In the 2002 Zhang Yimou film Hero (英雄), Xu Kuanghua plays an ancient version of the qin in the courtyard scene in which Hero (Jet Li) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen) play go. He in fact mimes it to the music composed which is actually played by Liu Li, formerly a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. It is suggested that Xu made the qin himself.
  • In the 2004 film Kung Fu Hustle (功夫), the main weapon of the Killers', a couple with the title of Greatest Assassins in Circulation, was a pseudo guqin- guzheng hybrid instrument (body structure of a qin, bridges and sound of a zheng). It has the unique ability to form swords, fists, and even undead warriors once certain notes are played.
  • In the 2004 Hong Kong historical drama called The Prince's Shadow (御用閒人), a guqin with an inscription on the surface is involved in a murder case, and another is played by the empress of the Qianlong Emperor, who breaks a string. The qin is depicted the wrong way round in this serial (i.e. played with the hui side towards the player rather than away from). The piece played was Feng Qiu Huang ("The Phoenix Seeks his Mate").

The qin is also used in older Chinese novels, such as Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber and various others.

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