Education About Asia

The Qin: China’s Most Revered Musical Instrument

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Editor’s Note: Readers can visit the EAA spring online supplement for audio and performance examples of the music specifically discussed in this essay.

China is home to numerous distinctively Chinese musical instruments, but none is more revered than the qin (pronounced something like the English word “chin” and sometimes written “ch’in”). The instrument’s name is often translated as “Chinese lute” or “ancient lute” (guqin). The qin is associated with the elite class of scholar-officials of imperial China, and it boasts a history of thousands of years. Men of rank and privilege learned to play the qin primarily as a means of self-cultivation. Confucius admonished the readers of the Analects to “Be awakened by poetry, be established by ritual, be perfected in music.” (note 1) The qin was traditionally used for the solitary, private edification of the player, and thus there are many depictions of qin players playing in remote locations in the countryside, often in the mountains. At most, qin enthusiasts played for a small group of friends, many or all of whom probably also played the instrument. Qin performers were not professional (that is, paid) musicians, though they apparently took great care to learn how to play. Their main work was that of scholars, gentlemen, and officials. These men—women are almost never mentioned as qin players in writings or portrayed in pictures—undertook qin study as one of the four arts that educated gentlemen of their class and rank were expected to master, the other three being calligraphy, painting; and weiqi, an ancient form of chess. A true scholar’s study included a qin amongst its furnishings. By practicing the qin and learning to appreciate its music, scholar-officials refined their personalities, leading to a more harmonious world.

NOTES

1. See Zehou Li, The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition, trans. Maija Bell Samei (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2010), 47.