The Oldest Chinese Stringed Zither, and the First of the Four Ancient Chinese Arts
In ancient China, there were four artistic skills considered to be the trademarks of the ‘literati’ (or ‘Wenren’) who were the scholars of ancient China; the seven stringed zither (qin), the game of go (qi), calligraphy (shu), and painting (hua).
An ancient Chinese “Seven-stringed Zither”, the Guqin (also known as “Qin” – “Qin” means zither, and “gu” means ancient) is the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, and one of the few instruments played today known to have originated amongst the Han Chinese.
The legendary Chinese emperor Fu Xi is said to have ‘invented’ the Guqin, and historically it has been viewed as a symbol of high culture, as well as the instrument most able to express the essence of Chinese music.
Symbolism and the Guqin
There is a great deal of ‘symbolism’ surrounding the Guqin. The instrument measures 3 Chinese feet and 6.5 Chinese inches, to represent the 365 days of the year. The upper surface (made from the softwood of the ‘Tong’ tree or other pine wood) is rounded to represent the sky, and the back (made from the hardwood of the ‘Catalpa’ tree or other hardwood) is flat, to represent the earth.
The two surfaces are glued together and lacquered. There are 13 small dots (‘hui’) inlaid on the outside of the soundboard which mark the note positions.
The earliest Guqin had five strings, and they represented the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Emperor Wen of the Zhou Dynasty added a sixth string in mourning for his deceased son, and the seventh string was said to be added by the second Zhou ruler, Emperor Wu, to inspire his soldiers as his country went to war.
The Qins lowest pitched string (String 1, situated on the opposite side to the player) is tuned to C2 (2 Cs below middle C). Thus, the usual tuning is C D F G A C D (strings 6 and 7 being 1 octave higher than strings 1 and 2).
The Unique Qualities of the Guqin
Compared with other Chinese instruments, the Qin is unique for at least three reasons:
a. The effective vibrating length of the Qin strings is longer than of any other Chinese instruments, resulting in a large vibrating amplitude, and a tone rich in the lower register that fits the sounds of nature. b. The fingerboard of the Qin is not fretted. Its sound holes are opened on the lower board, which means that the sound is transmitted downwards.
c. Over 100 harmonics can be played on the Qin, making it the instrument with the largest number of overtones.
Qin remains have been found in ancient Chinese tombs dating back to 500 to 200BC, and descriptions of the Qin and its music can be found in many ancient Chinese writings, giving the Qin a history well exceeding 2000 years.
History and the Confucian Way
Historically, the Qin, in accordance with the ‘Confucian Way’, was used as a “vehicle for worship, formation of character, and regulation of political life of the state.” It was the instrument of the Confucian ‘Superior Man’, and most of the scholars of the day were required to study and regularly practice the instrument. Confucius said that without studying poetry, a gentleman should never talk. He also said that without special reason, a gentleman should never stop practicing the Guqin. The vast majority of references to musical instruments in classical Chinese painting and poetry are to the Qin.
Among the existing 3000 pieces of Qin music, only about 70 of them are played by today’s musicians. The oldest Qin score, ‘Orchid in Seclusion in Jie Shi Diao’, is 1400 years old and is said to have been composed by Confucius.
Many Guqin music pieces are reflections of Confucianism, teaching people to be sincere, kind and sympathetic. Some of them also tell people to love their homeland, their family and their friends, and so we find that the Guqin embodies the many righteous thoughts of ancient China’s intellectuals. Despite its ‘highbrow’ associations, ancient poems from the Tang Dynasty bear witness to the fact that the Guqin permeated every aspect of social life.
Guqin MP3: ‘Moon Over the Guanshan Mountain’