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House of the Lute 1
A film directed by Lau Shing Hon,3 1979
慾火焚琴 2
Two images from the film (enlarge; film clips) 4        
"Easily one of the best films of the Hong Kong New Wave", at present this 93 minute Cantonese feature film seems still to be the only feature film that uses guqin throughout (see Appendix, Guqin in film). I wrote, played and arranged all of the music using guqin except for one segment (the one urban scene, at 30.26 - 39.52 of the VCD), which has music by then Cheung Chau neighbor Colin Churchill (with bongos by Au Yiu Kwok5).

The film tells the story of what happens after an older man with a beautiful young wife hires a young gardener. The director has the old man engage in the scholar's Four Arts, deciding to represent this by having a film score using only guqin (see also another reason). The film starred (see lower image, left to right), Lok Bec-Kay, Kwan Hoi-Shan, Simon Yam Tat-wah, and Chan Lup-Pun.6

As mentioned, except for Colin Churchill's guitar and flute music (during a segment showing the young lovers going into the city), all the music for the film is solo guqin melodies played by me. Some of it is straightforward early music that I had reconstructed from a 15th century music book, some has the timing altered to fit the movements (I had to teach Kwan Hoi-Shan to pretend to play qin in time with my recording, then where necessary and/or possible alter the sound track to better fit his hand movements), some is motifs from these pieces selected to fit the scenes, some has been electronically altered to enhance the mood. Most of the music came from four Shen Qi Mi Pu melodies. These melodies traditionally have certain associations which were to a certain extent used in making the film score:

  1. Jiu Kuang: drinking
  2. Meihua Sannong: nature and romance
  3. Zhi Zhao Fei: loneliness (of the living and dead)
  4. Tianfeng Huanpei: calm and beauty.

This, of course, could mean that the film score was designed for people who were familiar with these melodies, with the worry that they might then consider these associations too obvious. On the other hand, since very few people are familiar with these emlodies, there was the worry that those who read this might think the music references were intended to be my little secret, and thus irrelevant to the listener.7

The following timings from my DVD of the film highlight the use of motifs from the melodies listed above:8

00.00 "Video Village" VCR sign
00.06 Opening credits (Meihua Sannong, altered)
01.34 Opening Scene (Meihua again; clip): Ah Shek comes to 幽蘆 You Lu, home of Mr. Lui
03.58 Ah Shek enters house (Tianfeng Huanpei; clip), begins work
10.26 Dinner (Jiu Kuang at 10.58)
15.14 Morning in study: Shen Qi Mi Pu tablature and qin called Scourge of the Rat (鼠畏 Shu Wei; clip and image)
20.43 Mr. Lui's evening bath
28.55 Lonely Mr. Lui plays Zhi Zhao Fei in his studio (clip)
38.45 Hong Kong (music by Colin Churchill)
48.03 Return to You Lu; dissonance for jealousy and plotting
62.30 Dinner (Jiu Kuang altered; clip)
63.40 A lonely embrace (clip)
65.45 Burning the qin
88.50 A rat's demise brings on the ending (clip)
92.18 End of film; silent credits
93.20 end

Under Acquiring a Qin there is a relevant comment regarding the qin seen in this film.9

Relevant press articles currently online include:10

In 1979 House of the Lute was invited for competition in the Chicago International Film Festival; it then was shown in Edinburg, Mannheim, London National Film Theatre and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1 House of the Lute (慾火焚琴 Yu Huo Fen Qin)
A commercial VCD was made of the film but they all sold out and no DVD version has been released. The HK Film Archive has a 35mm film copy and a D-Beta version that can be used for public screening. Their library has copies of the VCD; apparently this can be seen there by the general public, but it includes some editing mistakes. Occasionally the original is screened. (For example, 15 June 2019 as part of their series New Waves-New-Shores, Cannes Directors' Fortnight 50 Meets Hong Kong Cinema, 2-23 June 2019)

Regarding the use of "lute" in the title, see Qin: lute or zither?.

2 慾火焚琴
The Cantonese pronunciation of this in the Yale system is Yuk Fo Fan Kam"; the director suggested "Yuk For Fun Kum". For some reason the online transliteration of the film title into Cantonese on other sites seems generally to be given as Yuk feng fai kam, clearly a mistake as well as a testimony to how the tendency for people to build up their website by blindly copying information off other websites sometimes leads to a spread of misinformation.

3 Lau Shing Hon (劉成漢; mandarin: Liu Chenghan)
Lau Shang Hon's most recent work is a feature-length documentary, 希聲:一個美國琴人的境界 Music Beyond Sound: An American's World of Guqin (2019).

In addition to being a film director and scholar, Lau has also been a professor of film in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There are further details on various websites such as www.hkfilmdirectors.com and hkmdb.com; he also has a Chinese page on 微博 Weibo.

Guqin and the erotic aspects of House of the Lute (see also Passions of the Literati)
Regarding erotic aspects of the film (see the poster), and the opinions of some that this should not be associated with the qin, Lau wrote the following,

One of the reasons why I wanted to use qin in House of the Lute is that I have always found its music sexy, and I think many of those refined ancient Chinese scholars and ladies must have done so as well. The slender curvy qin in all its refinement, with its silk strings and its smooth and shiny wood surfaces, can easily bring to mind the body and skin of a beautiful woman, and any lady watching the qin being played could easily have fantasized the scholar's hands pressing and sliding over her body. Also, the sliding sound of the fingers on the silk strings naturally evokes the sound of a silk gown being removed. Furthermore, the sound of certain types of vibrato, such as 猱 nao (slow and circular) can definitely be sexy. Take even a common expression for playing qin, "挑琴 tiao qin". One of the meanings of 挑 tiao is to arouse, and this certainly has sexual implications. Specifically, the expression 琴挑 qin tiao is a common reference to the story of Sima Xiangru using the strings of his qin to pluck (tiao) the strings of Wenjun's heart (see 鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Huang), and this in turn inspired a number of later opera scenes. And then there are the suggestive melody titles, not just the obvious romantic titles such as Feng Qiu Huang but also, for example, a melody such as Beating Cloth (搗衣 Dao Yi), where the sound of the melody can conjure up the movements of attractive young girls washing their clothing by the river.

Needless to say, Lau is not a fan of metal or composite strings. See further comment there under Sexual connotation of "qin strings".

To this might it might be added that "qin strings (琴絃 qinxian) is a term from classical Chinese meaning "vagina" (琴絃 21570.56xxx and 琴弦 4/586xxx, but see Van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China

4 Images and film clips
See also the poster (from the HKMDB database).

The following list has links to seven short clips from the film. These illustrate several comments about the music made above.

These timings from the VCD are somewhat off, as there were problems in its production (also with its sound). In addition, the entire film is not currently in general release.

5 Au Yiu Kwok 區躍國

6 Lead actors
洛碧琪 Lok Bec-Kay, 關海山 Kwan Hoi-Shan, 任達華 Simon Yam Tat-wah, and 陳立品 Chan Lup-Pun.

7 Musical associations
It could also mean that I had enough faith in the music that, even if it was familiar only to me, selecting the music this way would help bring across the appropriate mood to the audience. In any case, it made it become more meaningful to me.

8 Timings
Various copies have circulated with different timings.

As of December 2009 "162manman" in Hong Kong had uploaded to Youtube the film in 12 segments, but this was subsequently removed because of "terms of use violation"; the director has not yet released internet rights.

9 Qin used om the film
The qin used in the film was a very inexpensive one from China Products; the one I played was my own, with silk strings.

10 Press (online comments include "Easily one of the best films of the Hong Kong New Wave" (Mubi, 2014).
In addition to the English articles listed above there were numerous commentaries in Chinese, but I do not have a listing of these.

Appendix: Guqin in film
Details in progress (December 2009)

Guqin ("old qin") music can be very effectively used for a film score. My first effort at this was providing music for the Hong Kong feature film House of the Lute (see above). Doing this work brought up for me interesting questions about intercultural clichés. Unfortunately, to my knowledge no film since House of the Lute has tried to take advantage of the unique and evocative sounds of a qin with silk strings. (This seems to be related to the general attitude of many film directors: often when they film a period drama they make an effort to get the story, costumes, etc., historically correct, or at least believable, but when it comes to the music they ignore the historical aspect; in the case of Asian film directors in particular they will just throw in some generic Western film music regardless of the story setting.)

Here are some examples of the qin as used in other films:

  1. Confucius (孔子 Kongzi; directed by 胡玫 Hu Mei; 2010)
    Qin music (always metal string) can be heard vaguely in the background during the opening credits and during a scene where Confucius arrives in Wei (1.15.05-1.16.00); one is shown sitting on a table in another scene (1.59.30), and it has a distinctive presence in the Faye Wong pop song during the closing credits (available on the DVD as a separate film clip). There is one scene showing Confucius playing qin, in a vignette during which he and his disciples are starving in Chen (from 38.45 then 41.45). There was once a qin melody on this theme (Kongzi E), and the story is mentioned in the lyrics of an existing qin melody (Yasheng Cao). What Confucius plays, however, is totally irrelevant: a modern metal string rendition of the 19th century version of Liu Shui. The rest of the film music is totally bland Western film music with no connection whatsoever to any Chinese tradition. (The lead female character 衛南子 Wei Nanzi is identified elsewhere not as the qin playing virtuous Woman of Wei but as one of the "Two Depraved Women of Wei" [CTP; English].)

  2. Red Cliff (赤壁 Chi Bi; directed by 吳宇森 John Woo, 2008)
    See also further comment: the original uncut version has a scene where Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu (image) show their likemindedness by successfully playing a qin "duet" together (it repeats particularly flashy phrases from the melodies Guangling San and the modern Liu Shui as played by 趙家珍 Zhao Jiazhen).

  3. Kung Fu Hustle (工夫 Gongfu; directed by 周星馳 Stephen Chow, 2004)
    In one scene two men shoot weapons from a pseudo-instrument that is a sort of qin and zheng hybrid.

  4. Hero (英雄 Ying Xiong; directed by 張藝謀 Zhang Yimou, 2002)
    This is perhaps the best known recent use of qin in film. The opening sequence shows a replica of an instrument (see picture) often considered a predecessor of the qin (incorrectly, I believe); the actual music is played on a modern metal string qin by 劉麗 Liu Li, who apparently suggested motifs from the modern Liu Shui as a basis for Tan Dun's composition.

  5. The Emperor's Shadow (秦頌 Qin Song; directed by 周曉文 Zhou Xiaowen, 1996)
    Loosely inspired by the story from the Records of the Grand Historian, Chapter 86, Assassin Retainers of the dog butcher Gao Jianli attempting to kill the emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Here Gao's mother is also wet nurse to Zheng Ying, the boy who became Qin Shi Huang so he and Gao are childhood friends; Gao grows up amongst a group of assassins that include Jing Ke (see under Wen Xing and 荊軻刺秦王 The Emperor and the Assassin), but is more focused on making as well as playing qin (changed in the film from the original silk string zhu into a modern metal string qin [played by 李祥霆 Li Xiangting].) The story focuses on the emperor wanting his daughter to persude Gao to create a 琴頌 Qin Imperial Anthem. (After 45.30 he is trying to teach her the opening of the modern Liu Shui. In general, though, the music is Western with Chinese instruments only providing some color.)

  6. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義 San Guo Yan Yi; )
    This CCTV 1995 television series has what seems to be newly composed guqin music in traditional style, though played with metal strings. Examples include:

    On the other hand, there is an early scene where you hear Cao Cao playing Liu Shui on the guqin, but then the camera pulls back and there is a guzheng (info from Jim Binkley; I have not seen it).

  7. Justice Bao, Unit 12: Complaint of the Guqin (包青天,古琴怨,臺灣電視, Taiwan Television, 1993)
    This TV drama aired in 1993 with five episodes. It tells of a corrupt magistrate who covets a "burnt tail qin" that is a family heirloom of 蔡玉媛 Cai Yuyuan. Shortly after 38.00 on a clip of the first episode (包青天之古琴怨(第1集)) Yuyuan tells her 相公 gentleman she would like to play him a melody; he says he would like to hear her play On a Rainy Night Send a Message North (? 夜雨寄北 Yeyu Jibei); the film then shows her hands playing a qin but it is guzheng music. Then at 02.30 of the second episode () 宣大人 Magistrate Xuan says he would like to see her family's 神器蒙塵 treasure, a burnt tail qin; after 17.00, in a room filled with boxey guzhengs, the magistrate comes in and suddenly smashes one to bits, after which there is some discussion of his qins (referring to the zhengs?). I gave up after this.

  8. The Swordsman (笑傲江湖 Xiaoao Jianghu; directed by 胡金铨 King Hu and/or 徐克 Tsui Hark, 1990)            
    This film is based on a 1967 novel by 金庸 Jin Yong (Louis Cha; 1924 -) with the same Chinese title, which translates literally as "Smiling Proud in Rivers and Lakes". "Rivers and lakes" often refers in modern popular literature to "vagabonds" or "wanderers" (see further under Lu Guimeng), hence the common English title for this film, Smiling Proud Wanderer. The qin is essential to the original story, there is some reference to its philosophy, and a qin does appear on screen at important moments. In addition, the text also refers to a qin melody called 有所思 You Suo Si. However, I have found no further reference to this title, and in fact the film music is orchestral and totally devoid of any connection to qin music or traditional qin aesthetic. The two images at right (expand) are from the scene on board ship just before the singing of the well-known theme song, Sea Smile (滄海一聲笑 Canghai Yisheng Xiao). First, a scroll called Xiaoao Jianghu is unrolled; one can see that it contains fingering instructions for playing qin (鼓琴圖 , beginning with an image comparable to the one here). Then, as they prepare to sing the song, 劉正風 Liu Zhengfeng is shown strumming a qin (the qin sound being represented by a series of arpeggios on a harp), while 曲洋 Qu Yang plays di flute. (It is interesting to compare the arguments of those who say the music here actually represents a qin ethos with the arguments of those who say metal string qin music can represent the ethos surrounding the original silk strings.)

    In addition, at least three martial arts novels by Jin Yong/Louis Cha have been translated into English:

    1. The Deer and the Cauldron (鹿鼎記 Lu Ding Ji, 1969), translation by John Minford, 1997-2002.
      The original Chinese edition has 50 chapters, but in the translation these are re-arranged as 27 Chapters.
    2. The Book and the Sword (書劍恩仇錄 Shu Jian En Chou Lu, 1955), translation by Graham Earnshaw, 2004
      Chapter 4 begins with "Dongfang" (Qianlong) playing his own composition on the qin (there have been paintings of him playing, but here qin is mis-translated as lute), after which Chen Jialuo plays Pingsha Luo Yan. Then in Chapter 9 on pp. 457-8 Qian Long in the Precious Moon Pavilion he had built for Hasli plays the qin he had apparently given Chen Jialuo, while on p.483 Hasli says that she can tell from the way Qian Long played it that he plans to kill someone (Cai Yong reference).
    3. Legends of the Condor I (射雕英雄傳 Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan, 1959/1978/2003), translation by Anne Holmwood, 2018. First of a trilogy.

  9. A Touch of Zen (俠女 Xia Nü; directed by 胡金铨 King Hu, 1971)
    Recently I heard a part of the sound track with silk string qin and a female singer, but I have not seen the film in a long time, and cannot recall the scene or who the player was.

  10. The Arch (董夫人; Dong Furen); directed by 唐書璇 Cecile Tang Shu Shuen, 1970; YouTube)
    Set in "17th century southwest China", it tells "the story of a widow's unconsummated passion for a male houseguest". Lui Tsun-yuen (呂振原 Lü Zhenyuan) composed and performed an appropriately evocative music score, mostly on pipa but also guqin (nylon strings). No one is shown playing, nor are there any recognizable melodies, though the occasional village ensemble presumably plays from their traditional repertoire.

  11. The Six-fingered Lord of The Lute, Pt. 1 (六指琴魔 Liuzhi Qinmo; directed by 陳烈品 Chan Lit-bun, 1965)
    Also titled "The Ghost with Six Fingers" or "Six-Fingered Demon of the Lute", the film was based on a martial arts novel by 倪匡 Ni Kuang. The story features an all-powerful weapon called a 天魔琴 tianmo qin (demon qin, in English subtitles called a "magic lyre"). However, the "qin" shown in the film is actually a zheng (the story outline on the 陳寶珠 Connie Chan website includes an image) and the music is zheng and/or orchestral. Two sequels (Part 2 and Part 3, or Episode 2 and Episode 3) were rushed out later in 1965. Since then there have been at least two more films with the same Chinese title, still loosely based on Ni Kuang's original story:

    Demon of the Lute (六指琴魔 Liuzhi Qinmo, directed by 龍逸升 Lung Yat-Sing, 1983)
    The "qin" here is a very strange looking instrument resembling a shield with six strings in the center.

    Deadful Melody (sic.; 六指琴魔 Liuzhi Qinmo, directed by 吳勉勤 Ng Min-Kun, 1994)
    This film has 林青霞 Brigitte Lin (supposedly dressed as a man) playing the instrument, which again is shown as a zheng, sometimes with the moveable bridges, sometimes without (even within the same scene). The case in which it is carried around is boxier than that of a real qin. The music again is zheng and/or orchestral.

  12. The Enchanting Shadow (倩女幽魂 Qiannü You Hun; directed by 李翰祥 Li Hanxiang, 1960)
    This film is loosely adapted from the tale Nie Xiaoqian (聶小倩) in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異 Liaozhai Zhiyi). The Liaozhai version (it has been translated by Wang Juan) does not mention qin or any other musical instrument, but the presence of the qin in the film, though short, is significant enough that the film's poster shows the scene in which Nie (the actress is 樂蒂 Betty Loh Ti) plays it. In the film Nie is a female ghost living in an eerie temple, where she is forced to seduce young men so that a witch can kill them and drink their blood. A young scholar, 寧採臣 Ning Caichen (also written 𡩋采臣), comes to spend the night in the temple, where from 16.10 to 18.45 in this online version (Chinese subtitles only) he hears Nie play the Mei'an qin melody Yu Lou Chun Xiao on a silk string qin (the actual player is not identified in the credits for the online version). At 20.15 a string breaks (斷絃 duan xian) when Ning enters her pavilion. According to the Wikipedia entry for the 1987 remake,

    "The string breaking (a common metaphor for a troubled heart or being surprised) is symbolic of the parting of ways, and could represent an absolute separation. The Cantonese Chinese expression for this is 'tyun yun' (團圓) and it could be directly translated as 'breaking fate'. She is a ghost and he is a mortal and that fate that had briefly brought them together had at that point broken. They could never have been together anyway and they had to part so as to preserve the natural order of things."

    Actually, the Cantonese expression 'tyun yun' should be written '斷絃', which has the same pronunciation; the characters literally mean 'breaking a string', but the meaning is breaking off a relationship.

    Other versions of this title (中文) are dated 1987 (remake of 1960), 1990 (A Chinese Ghost Story 2), 1991 (A Chinese Ghost Story 3), 1997 (remake in animation) and 2003 (a TV series of this title). Of these only the following are potentially relevant here:

    A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂, a 1987 remake with same Chinese title, directed by Tsui Hark)
    This version keeps the qin but modifies its treatment as well as other details of the story. Here, at about 19.40 of an online copy, just as the scholar is about to notice skeletons climbing in the attic above him, he is distracted by the sound of a guzheng; but then the images we see beginning at about 19.50 are of Nie strumming a qin. This zheng sound with qin images continues through 20.54, when we see the qin string break. Considering the fact that so few people today seem to be aware of how the abandonment of silk strings has changed the qin sound and aesthetic, perhaps it is not surprising that few viewers or critics seem either to have noticed or cared about this confusion of the instruments.

    Chinese Ghost Story Xiao Qian (1997, animated version, also Tsui Hark)
    Here, the story is quite modified, its focus becoming "lighthearted slapstick comedy". Music not yet heard.

  13. Confucius (孔夫子 Kong Fuzi; directed by 費穆 Fei Mu, 1940)
    This film, as restored in 2009 by the Hong Kong Film Archive (99'), has qin music played by 衛仲樂 Wei Zhongle. At ca. 37' Confucius plays in a class for his disciples; at ca. 71' he plays at a funeral for a disciple, then plays and sings a song with lyrics beginning "茫茫山野兮草木黃 Boundless is the wilderness, the grass is withered and yellowing." In another place there is only qin with cello (at ca. 49'). In general the music on the film is very sparse; this is also true of the qin music, which has a plain style with little ornamentation.

In sum, there are many ways qin can be utilized effectively in film scores, and not just in period films. However, a comparison of Chinese films made prior to the development of metal strings during the Cultural Revolution with those made afterwards shows clearly that this has led to not just a change in the basic sound of the qin, but also to a major change in attitude towards its musical use: it must somehow seem dramatic and exciting.

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