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The Qin in Popular Culture: Novels and Opera
For modern times see Guqin in Film
Boyi Kao and Daji 2
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 did this change over time?5 And how is it depicted in modern popular media?6
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.7 Certainly, they wrote, the instrument of the sages should not be associated with gain or romance, only with the Confucian desire to serve or the Daoist urge to remain aloof.8
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.9 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.10 A third category, opera melodies written in qin tablature, is to my knowledge as yet completely unstudied.
I. Novels and operas with significant reference to the qin (and/or specific qin melodies11):
Selective list, in rough chronological order, operas first then novels.
There are quite a few more that can also be considered.12
II. Stories found in the repertoires of both qin and opera:
Chronological listing; pre-Qing dynasty titles only (LXS13 generally refers to these as qu or qupai14)
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 should be useful to examine qin songs that share lyrics with existing operas,15 or melody titles that have also been identified as qupai (opera tunes).16
III. Qin tablature for actual opera melodies?
A comment in QQJC suggests that the handbooks to consider for this type of melody include :
Today one can find opera melodies written out in Chinese number notation; this is a modern development from traditional systems such as the 工尺譜 gongche notation. Such traditional notation forms may date back as far as the Tang dynasty but the information they provide is quite skeletal. It was useful at the time, in particular providing a basis for improvisation, but is of limited use in trying to reconstruct an interrupted tradition.20
The question then to consider is whether the detail with which qin melodies were written down, when compared to the sketchy written indications of music in traditional libretti, might allow melodies actually written for guqin to help with the recovery of opera melodies. Such research should probably begin with melodies in the handbooks just listed. If one can compare these melodies with the same melodies in traditional opera handbooks that have the sketchy indications one can find for opera melodies, perhaps one can devise some guidelines to help reconstruct even more opera melodies. For earlier melodies one might then put special focus on melodies and commentary in qin handbooks that might seem specifically to have adapted opera melodies for guqin.
Comments by Zha Fuxi outlined in his article Differentiating Qin Songs point out clearly some of the issues that would be involved in such an endeavor.
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)
The Qin in Popular Culture
For qin in popular art, see some preliminary comments under Women and the qin. The page on Nanjing may also have useful references with regard to qin songs. Opera references are mostly to 崑曲 kunqu if only because there is much more literature on this opera than on other forms.
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
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
Changing attitudes towards guqin over time
James Watt's article The Qin and the Chinese Literati argues through analysis of paintings that from the Ming dynasty onward there was a shift from people naturally interacting with nature while playing the qin to people saying, "Look at me I am interacting with nature as I play the qin". This was perhaps connected to the rise of popular culture through commercial media such as printed books and popular opera.
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
Specific references to be added, but they include in particular the mention of qin in The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei, below).
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:
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:
To find the references search the indices for "zither" under "Musical Instruments". Most are passing references but 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.
Searching for more such references remains an ongoing process.
Qu Pai (qupai) titles shared with qin melody titles
The Wikipedia entry on qupai defines it as a,
The ICTCL entry on qu seems to suggest an even stronger connection to opera. It says,
These 350 seem to be the so-called "qupai", though the ICTCL article does not specifically mention this term.
Qin songs set for opera lyrics
See for example Feng Yun Hui Si Chao Yuan from the famous opera Pipa Ji?7
Ming dynasty qin melody titles identified in
ZWDCD as qupai
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:
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.
Qinxue Canbian (琴學參變; 1827?; QQJC XX/351-361; .pdf of original;
.pdf of modern commentary)
The connection of this handbook to opera is emphasized by the fact that the lyrics here are not paired in the standard way: fewer characters!
The preface in QQJC (.pdf; by Zha Fuxi?) has three paragraphs; the first two mention five tone and seven tone scales, saying the latter have two "altered sounds" (變音 bianyin), i.e., half tones. Since the southern style of kunqu uses only five tones while the northern style adds the two "bianyin", the "參變 can bian" ("use bian?) of the title means the book has northern style kunqu melodies. In his third paragraph Zha says the handbook was copied by 錢一桂 Qian Yigui at the age of 74(?). He then seems to suggest there are examples from three operas, but the third title he gives is "詠花 Yong Hua", not "大紅袍 Da Hong Pao". It may be an alternate title. He also mentions here two other handbooks that have such melodies.
The items (melodies?) in the handbook are as follows (showing some or all of the lyrics):
or: 仙緣側弄 Xian Yuan Ce Nong； 仙緣 Xian Yuan (391.xxx); related to "仙圓 Xian Yuan" and "邯鄲記 Handan Ji" by 湯顯祖 Tang Xianzu?
Zha referred to this as "詠花 Yong Hua", an anonymous 19th c. Kunqu
(Further regarding the first item here, there was a song published in Shuangqin Shuwu Qinpu Jicheng (1884) called 賞荷 Shang He, Appreciating Lotuses (see comment below, this original tablature [XXVII/349] and the transcription by Wang Di in her Xian'ge Yayun). It has the following lyrics related to the Pipa Ji above:
However, the melody in 1884 (which as published in QQJC also does not seem to have any other opera-related melodies) is quite different (see also this comment).
Qinxue Canbian was not included in Zha's Guide and I am not clear on some of these titles. In addition, I have not yet yet confirmed the specifics of the opera connections.
Zhang Jutian Qinpu (張鞠田琴譜; 1844; QQJC XXIII/209-340)
pdfs: original, pp.217-260; transcriptions, pp.153-180; modern commentary
Transcriptions, marked "Wang Di", are from her Xian'ge Yayun.
Zhang Jutian, from Zhaoyang (northeast of Yangzhou), was an artist as well as a qin player. There is further detail about him in QSCB Chapter 9, p.172, entitled, "Zhang Jutian who dared to 'follow the inelegant'" (~1779 - ~1846). According to QSCB, some local songs had previously been adapted for qin (e.g., compare Cheng Xiong), but Zhang did it in a much larger way; he also added gongche notation (but no apparent note value indications). Later people who also made these sorts of settings included such players as Zhu Fengjie, Zhang He and Yang Shibai.
Zha Fuxi's preface to the handbook (attached .pdf) says "only the last 15 entries are traditional qin melodies. The rest, such as Yangguan Qu, Xie Ben, Ban Qiao Dao Qing, Tie Luo, Wu Gua Mei and Hua Gu from the 11 Kunqu melodies, come at the front...." All seem to have some sort of notation as well as the tablature. They are not strictly paired in standard way.
A complete list of melodies in Zhang Jutian Qinpu is as follows. Note that at front there is a beginner's melody, then 11 pieces presumably with connection to opera (6 have been transcribed by Wang Di), then the last 14 melodies are traditional qin melodies):
(Traditional qin melodies:)
To my knowledge none of these melodies has been reconstructed from the tablature in this handbook.
雙琴書屋琴譜集成 Shuangqin Shuwu Qinpu Jicheng (1884)
This handbook actually seems to have only one relevant piece: Shang He (XXVII/349; further comment); this assumes that the "雙琴書屋黃笛樓" mentioned by Zha actually refers to 雙琴書屋琴譜集成.
Recovering an interrupted tradition
The discussion here is purely about the notes/pitches. Matters such as tonal color/vocal technique may be even more elusive (speaking as a qin player, where the instrument is essentially unchanged for perhaps two millennia and the notation is written out in great detail).
Listed below are two articles by 徐芃 Xu Peng that have very interesting insights into the vocal styles of old Chinese songs. In them Prof. Xu discusses literary clues she has found about the styles in which late-Ming songs might have been sung.
Currently both can be downloaded from
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Currently both can be downloaded from
Return to the top or to the Guqin ToC