Many essays describe the silk string qin zither as an instrument solely for scholars and recluses, men of principle who exercised restraint. But how accurately did this represent the view of most educated Chinese? In the past, how did the literati interact with popular culture, and how was the qin depicted there?4 How is it depicted in modern popular media?5
A perusal of existing qin melody titles shows that they do in fact most often deal with nature and the lofty and pure attitudes of qin players; and purists (some might say fundamentalists) even wrote that one shouldn't play the qin for merchants, courtesans, foreigners or other sorts of vulgar people.6 Certainly, they wrote, the instrument of the sages should not be associated with gain or romance, only with the Confucian desire to serve and the Daoist urge to remain aloof.7
On the other hand, it is important to note that depictions of the qin in popular culture often show the instrument in a somewhat different light. Novels and operas often mention the above attitudes towards the qin, but they also sometimes mock the pretence involved.8 They also temper these ideals with depictions of worldly activities. And the mention of qin is often confined to such stock phrases as "qin and books", qin and sword, and qin, chess, books and painting.
Relevant novels/stories and operas can be divided into two types, those which mention the qin, and those which have the same theme as qin melodies.9
I. Novels and operas with significant reference to the qin (and/or specific qin melodies10):
Selective list,11 in rough chronological order, operas first then novels.
- Story of the Western Chamber (Xi Xiang Ji)
- Listening to the Qin from a Bamboo Thicket
(Zhuwu Ting Qin)
- The Disembodied Soul of Miss Qian (Qiannü Linghun)
- Scholar Zhang Boils the Sea (Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai)
- Story of the Lute (Pipa Ji)
- Ruse of the Empty City (Kong Cheng Ji)
- Zhuo Wenjun (Zhuo Wenjun [and Sima Xiangru], by
Zhu Quan, etc.; discussed under
- Story of the Jade Hairpin (Yuzan Ji; includes Qin Tiao)
- Journey to the West, especially the Dialogue between a fisherman and a woodcutter (Yu Qiao Wenda in Xi You Ji)
- Investiture of the Gods (Feng Shen Yanyi)
- Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng)
- Daoist Master Sa at night cuts an emerald peach flower
(Sa Zhenren Ye Duan Bi Taohua; includes a 張道南醉題青玉案)
II. Stories found in the repertoires of both qin and opera:
Chronological listing; pre-Qing dynasty titles only
(info in LXS where indicated12)
- Butterfly Dream (Hudie Meng; see LXS 11 etc. and
Zhuang Zhou Meng Die)
- Han Palace in Autumn (Han Gong Qiu; see LXS 22, etc. and
Longshuo Cao; see also Zhaojun Chu Sai below)
- Going for Shoes under the Bridge (Yi Qiao Jin Lü; see LXS 28 and
Yi Qiao Jin Lü)
- Red Cliff Ballad (Chibi Fu; see LXS 86 etc.,
Qian Chibi Fu and
Hou Chibi Fu)
- The Sage Guangchengzi (Guang Chengzi; see LXS 148 and
Kongtong Wen Dao)
- Meeting at Lanting Pavilion (Lanting Hui; see LXS 187 and
- Zhaojun Goes Out to the Desert (Zhaojun Chu Sai; see LXS 190 and
Zhaojun Yuan; see also
Hanjie Cao above)
- Wenji Enters the Desert (Wenji Ru Sai; see LXS 190 and
- Ruan the Soldier (Ruan Bubing; see under
Jiu Kuang and
- Yan Ziling Fishes at Qilitan (Yan Ziling Chuidiao Qilitan; see under
In addition, the 1833 commentary connecting Wild Geese on the Frontier
(Saishang Hong) with kunqu suggests that this and hence perhaps other qin melodies may have been inspired by or even taken from opera. In this regard it may be useful to examine qin melody titles that have also been identified as qupai (opera tunes).13
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a
The Qin in Popular Culture
For qin in popular art, see some preliminary comments under
Women and the qin.
Image: Boyi Kao and Da Ji, from Fengshen Yanyi
The flavor of modern popular illustrations is usually very different from pre-modern illustrations (compare the old Boyi Kao). The above illustration accompanies Chapter 19 in the
1992 English edition of Fengshen Yanyi (thanks to David Keffer).
Literati and popular culture
Few scholars were expert on the qin, but on various occasions in official and private life they enjoyed popular music. Now the qin supplied a means of self-justification for these scholars, both to other people and to themselves. In all sorts of mixed company the scholar could listen with delight to performances of popular music, and from time to time lustily chime in with some gay song; but when asked about his views on music, he could gravely point to the qins hanging up in his library, and thereby definitely remove all doubts that might exist with regard to his elevated disposition. On the other hand, returning from a noisy banquet with some old friends, enlivened by the presence of some charming singing girls, the scholar could, in the silence of his library, take the qin from its brocade cover, burn incense, and touch a few strings, thereby convincing himself that, although he might temporarily amuse himself with vulgar music in order to while away some moments of leisure, in reality he only appreciated the sacred music of the Ancients.
R. H. Van Gulik (Lore, pp. 48-9) wrote the following about the reality of the rôle of the qin in Chinese society.
The use of incense is discussed further
Guqin in modern media
The focus of this page is qin references in classical times. For some more modern references see some Wikipedia pages, such as
answers.com and schools. The latter mentions a Cantonese feature film for which I wrote and played qin music, House of the Lute (1979). (2010 update: someone seems to have removed that mention. My own page on House of the Lute has a relevant appendix called Guqin in Film.)
Restrictions on playing qin
Certain handbooks list sets of rules for when and where not to play qin. Complementing these rules about for whom one should not play are the statements in the first three paragraphs of Zhu Quan's Shen Qi Mi Pu preface saying who should not be playing (but who were at that time). The modern reader then must decide: How many people actually followed these rules? Was Zhu Quan accurate? Perhaps this is simply evidence of the qin's broader role in society. In this regard it is interesting to note illustrations 35 and 36 in Van Gulik's Lore of the Chinese Lute (between pp.224 and 225). In one someone is playing a qin facing a woman (geisha?) playing a sanxian three string banjo. In the other some merchants are playing qin, sanxian, sheng mouth organ and xiao end-blown flute.
The qin ideology section has more on orthodox attitudes towards the qin.
Satire on attitudes towards qin
See, for example, Musical Instruments/Zither in the indices to David Tod Roy (trans.), The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei), Volumes One and Two. There is a clear element of satire involved in the author's presentation of people who give lip service to the lofty ideals connected to the qin.
Opera titles often change or have variants. Only one title is included here.
Specific qin melodies played or mentioned in novels and operas
In opera the reality is that "played" means an actor pretends to play the melody; the music heard is probably unrelated. The melody titles include:
- Feng Qiu Huang (Wen Jun Cao; in Xi Xiang Ji)
- Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
- Zhi Zhao Fei
(in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
- Guanghan You
(in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
- Feng Ru Song
(in Pipa Ji)
- Si Gui Yin
(in Pipa Ji)
- Zhaojun Yuan
(in Pipa Ji)
- Hujia Shibapai
(in sequel to Pipa Ji?)
- Gao Shan
(in Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai and
Hong Lou Meng)
- Liu Shui
(in Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai and
Hong Lou Meng)
- Wen Wang Cao
(in Hong Lou Meng)
- Si Xian (Yasheng Cao; in Hong Lou Meng, combined with next)
- Yi Lan
(in Hong Lou Meng, combined with previous)
- Yu Qiao Wenda
(in Xi You Ji)
See also the qupai below.
Other novels and operas considered
In preparing this topic I have come across a number of works that mention qin but for which either the mention is not significant enough to warrant a separate page, or I have not yet found significant enough such information. Examples include:
Searching for more such references remains an ongoing process.
Complete Record of Han Xiangzi (韓湘子全傳 Han Xiangzi Quan Zhuan), by 楊爾曾 Yang Erzeng (1623)
This is one of several titles of a
novel that several times mentions Han Xiang, one of the Eight Immortals, playing a qin. The Chinese text of the novel can be found
online, but I have not seen an illustrated version. The
illustration showing Han Xiang holding a qin is actually from the opera about Lü Dongbin mentioned next.
- Zhongli (Quan) of the Han Released from Time Limitations (Meets) Master Lü of the Tang (漢鐘離度脫唐呂公 Han Zhongli Dutuo Tang Liu Gong)
The illustration that includes Han Xiang with qin is actually one of a pair of illustrations specifically related to this opera, the 正名 proper title of which is 邯鄲道省悟黃粱夢 Handan Dao Xingwu Huangliang Meng (On the Handan Road Awakening from a Yellow Millet Dream). The opera, which tells a story about 呂洞賓 Lü Dongbin (Lü Yan; see under Ba Ji You; Lü also became one of the Eight Immortals), is attributed to 馬致遠 Ma Zhiyuan (c. 1250–1321, Wiki) and others. Ma also wrote a play called Han Gong Qiu. See also 黃粱夢 Huangliang Meng (Yellow Millet Dream), by 湯顯祖 Tang Xianzu (1550-1616,
Wiki). The story tells of Lü Dongbin, while on his way to the capital to take the exams, stopping at an inn. While his millet cooks he has a dream in which he has a successful career but his wife cheats on him and he is about to be killed when he wakes up to find that the millet is not yet cooked. An immortal named Zhongli Quan (also written 鍾離權) explains the dream to Lü after which Lü, enlightened, also becomes an immortal. The illustration seems to show the Eight Immortals with Lü facing the other seven and Zhongli center front facing him. Behind him Han Xiang is holding up a qin while Immortal Woman He (何仙姑 He Xiangu, Wiki) is holding her usual lotus flower.
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義 San Guo Yan Yi;
The main connection to the qin in this 14th century novel attributed to 羅貫中 Lo Guanzhong is through through its character
Zhuge Liang, mentioned historically as an important qin master. In the novel his
qin connection is most famous from the story of the Ruse of the Empty City, later made into an opera.
- Water Margin (水滸傳 Shuihu Zhuan;
This novel, attributed to 施耐庵 Shi Naian (ca. 1296—1372), today has 120 chapters but many scholars argue that Shi can be credited only with the first 70 or perhaps 100 of these, the rest having been added later. This online 120 chapter version mentions qin one time each in Chapters 2, 13, 38, 45, 53, 75, 85, 91, 97 and 108, and twice in Chapter 114. Generally they refer to it only as a symbol of culture, not to someone actually playing.
- The Scholars (儒林外史 Rulin Waishi)
In Chapter 18 of this novel by 吳敬梓 Wu Jingzi completed in 1750 (for an unexplained reason the Wiki page for The Scholars currently shows the Du Jin painting called 18 Scholars, which illustrates the Four Arts) there is mention of an Elegant Gathering, but it does not include qin. In the novel qin is briefly mentioned in Chapters 7, 8, 10, 25, 34, 37, 44, 53 and 55 of the
56 chapter version. The most substantial mention is in Chapter 55.
- Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲團; Wiki)
By 李漁 Li Yu (1610—1680; see comment)
LXS: 李修生（主編），古本戲曲劇目提要 (北京，文化藝術出版社，1997)
- Li Xiusheng (ed.), Guben Xiqu Jumu Tiyao (Outlines and Analyses of Old Opera Scripts)
The list here was compiled from titles found in this Chinese compendium of old opera stories - in other words there is a description of the opera story. In many cases a story may the the subject of more than one opera; the effort here is to use the name of only the earliest version, followed by "etc.". Many other relevant operas exist in title only. These are often mentioned in my introductions to individual melodies (see next footnote).
Qu Pai and qin melody titles shared with qupai (opera tune) titles
The ICTCL entry on qu says, "Ch'ü (aria or lyric verse, earlier called ci) has been used in China since ancient times to designate song, but in current usage the word specifically denotes Yüan-ch'ü, the large corpus of lyric and dramatic songs which ripened in the poetry and drama of the Yüan and early Ming dynasties....Each ch'ü is written according to a different metrical pattern (the total repertoire is about 350) bearing the name of a musical air, and to one of various modes." These 350 seem to be the so-called "qupai". though the article does not specifically mention this term
There is no particular information suggesting any melodic connection between the following qin melody titles and the qupai with the same titles, but no one has studied this topic so it cannot be stated that there is no connection. Relevant qupai titles include:
- Zhegui Ling
(under Guanghan Qiu)
- Chun Gui Yuan
(under Yulou Chun Xiao)
- Fenghuang Taishang Yi Chui Xiao
- Shui Long Yin
- Feng Ru Song
- Wuling Chun
(under Tao Yuan Chun Xiao)
- Wu Ye Ti
- Qing Jiang Yin
(under Ting Qin Fu)
- Huang Ying Yin
This list was compiled by searching this site for 曲牌 or qupai, so it would have only yielded identified Yuan opera or opera tunes. Hence it does not include the titles listed above, which came later.
Return to the top
or to the Guqin ToC