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The Qin in Popular Culture: Novels and Opera 1
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.

  1. Story of the Western Chamber (Xi Xiang Ji)
  2. Listening to the Qin from a Bamboo Thicket (Zhuwu Ting Qin)
  3. The Disembodied Soul of Miss Qian (Qiannü Linghun)
  4. Scholar Zhang Boils the Sea (Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai)
  5. Story of the Lute (Pipa Ji)
  6. Ruse of the Empty City (Kong Cheng Ji)
  7. Zhuo Wenjun (Zhuo Wenjun [and Sima Xiangru], by Zhu Quan, etc.; discussed under Wenjun Cao)
  8. Story of the Jade Hairpin (Yuzan Ji; includes Qin Tiao)
  9. Journey to the West, especially the Dialogue between a fisherman and a woodcutter (Yu Qiao Wenda in Xi You Ji)
  10. Investiture of the Gods (Feng Shen Yanyi)
  11. Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng)

    Tentatively added:

  12. 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)

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)

  1. Butterfly Dream (Hudie Meng; see LXS 11, etc. and Zhuang Zhou Meng Die)
  2. Han Palace in Autumn (Han Gong Qiu; see LXS 22, etc. and Longshuo Cao; see also Zhaojun Chu Sai below)
  3. Going for Shoes under the Bridge (Yi Qiao Jin Lü; see LXS 28 and Yi Qiao Jin Lü)
  4. Red Cliff Ballad (Chibi Fu; see LXS 86 etc., Qian Chibi Fu and Hou Chibi Fu)
  5. The Sage Guangchengzi (Guang Chengzi; see LXS 148 and Kongtong Wen Dao)
  6. Meeting at Lanting Pavilion (Lanting Hui; see LXS 187 and Liu Shang)
  7. Zhaojun Goes Out to the Desert (Zhaojun Chu Sai; see LXS 190 and Zhaojun Yuan; see also Hanjie Cao above)
  8. Wenji Enters the Desert (Wenji Ru Sai; see LXS 190 and the long qin song Hujia Shibapai [1597])
  9. Ruan the Soldier (Ruan Bubing; see under Jiu Kuang and Ruan Bubing)
  10. Yan Ziling Fishes at Qilitan (Yan Ziling Chuidiao Qilitan; see under Qiujiang Wandiao)

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 :

  1. Qinxue Canbian (1829?),17
  2. Zhang Jutian Qinpu (1844)18
  3. Shuangqin Shuwu Qinpu Jicheng (1884).19

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)

1. 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.

2. 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).

4. 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.

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.

The use of incense is discussed further here.

5. 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.

6. 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.)

7. 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.

8. The qin ideology section has more on orthodox attitudes towards the qin.

9. 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).

10. Opera titles often change or have variants. Only one title is included here.

11. 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:

  1. Feng Qiu Huang (Wen Jun Cao; in Xi Xiang Ji)
  2. Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
  3. Zhi Zhao Fei (in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
  4. Guanghan You (in "Qin Tiao" from Yuzan Ji)
  5. Feng Ru Song (in Pipa Ji)
  6. Si Gui Yin (in Pipa Ji)
  7. Zhaojun Yuan (in Pipa Ji)
  8. Hujia Shibapai (in sequel to Pipa Ji?)
  9. Gao Shan (in Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai and Hong Lou Meng)
  10. Liu Shui (in Zhang Sheng Zhu Hai and Hong Lou Meng)
  11. Wen Wang Cao (in Hong Lou Meng)
  12. Si Xian (Yasheng Cao; in Hong Lou Meng, combined with next)
  13. Yi Lan (in Hong Lou Meng, combined with previous)
  14. Yu Qiao Wenda (in Xi You Ji)

See also the qupai below.

12. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義 San Guo Yan Yi; Wiki)
    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.

  4. Water Margin (水滸傳 Shuihu Zhuan; Wiki)
    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.

  5. 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 (online) 56 chapter version. The most substantial mention is in Chapter 55.

  6. Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲團; Wiki)
    By 李漁 Li Yu (1610—1680; see comment)

  7. The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅; Wiki)
    By the anonymous self-styled Scoffing Scholar of Lanling (蘭陵笑笑生 Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng)
    Translation in five volumes by David Tod Roy, The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P'ing Mei; Princeton Library of Asian Translations, as follows:

    1. The Gathering
    2. The Rivals
    3. The Aphrodisiac
    4. The Climax
    5. The Dissolution

    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.

13. 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 be 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).

14. Qu Pai (qupai) titles shared with qin melody titles
The Wikipedia entry on qupai defines it as a,

"generic term for a fixed melody used in traditional Chinese music. The literal meaning is 'named tune,' 'labeled melody,' 'titled tune,' or 'titled song'. Qupai are relatively brief, most comprising between 20 and 70 measures in 2/4 meter. Many qupai are centuries old, but only a few of these have been handed down to the present. (They) are commonly used in Chinese opera, such as kunqu and Beijing opera, as well as by folk and ritual ensembles, including Jiangnan sizhu and Taoist ritual music."

The ICTCL entry on qu seems to suggest an even stronger connection to opera. It 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 ICTCL article does not specifically mention this term.

15. Qin songs set for opera lyrics
See for example Feng Yun Hui Si Chao Yuan from the famous opera Pipa Ji?7

16. 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:

  1. Zhegui Ling (under Guanghan Qiu)
  2. Chun Gui Yuan (under Yulou Chun Xiao)
  3. Fenghuang Taishang Yi Chui Xiao
  4. Shui Long Yin
  5. Feng Ru Song
  6. Wuling Chun (under Tao Yuan Chun Xiao)
  7. Wu Ye Ti
  8. Qing Jiang Yin (under Ting Qin Fu)
  9. 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.

17. 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):

  1. 賞荷撡, i.e., 賞荷操 Shang He Cao; 商音 shang mode (XX/353)
    See 琵琶記·琴訴荷池 (Pipa Ji)

  2. 仙緣雅弄 Xian Yuan Ya Nong (少商兼變律)
    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?

  3. 大紅袍 Da Hong Pao (XX/360)
    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. It has the following lyrics related to the above:


However, the melody there is quite different (see (XXVII/349). The 1884 handbook as published in QQJC also does not seem to have other opera-related melodies (compare 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.

18. Zhang Jutian Qinpu (張鞠田琴譜; 1844; QQJC XXIII/209-340; .pdf pp.217-260; .pdf of modern commentary)
See also QSCB Chapter 9, p.172, entitled, "Zhang Jutian who dared to 'follow the inelegant'" (~1779 - ~1846)

Zhang, from Zhaoyang (northeast of Yangzhou), was an artist as well as a qin player. QSCB says that previously local songs had 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 it is actually the beginner's melody, then the last 14 melodies that actually are traditional qin melodies):

    和絃 He Xian (a beginner's melody; XXIII/215)
    No lyrics

  1. 陽關曲 Yangguan Qu (first of the opera tunes here; XXIII/217)
    "逞軍容出塞榮華,這其間有喝不倒的灞陵橋跨...." (5 sections in all)
  2. 冥判曲 Ming Pan Qu (XXIII/222)
    "蝴蝶呵,恁粉版花衣勝剪裁。蜂兒呵,...." (1 section)
  3. 寫本 Xie Ben (XXIII/225)
    "恨權臣協謀樹黨,專朝政顚覆朝綱...." (1 section)
  4. 板橋道情 Ban Qiao Dao Qing (XXIII/226)
    "楓葉蘆花並客舟,煙波江上使人愁。...." (6 unnumbered sections)
  5. 跌落 Die Luo (XXIII/231)
    "怕春去春偏去,怕春去春偏去,...." (1 section)
  6. 劈破玉 Pi Po Yu (XXIII/235)
    "綠沉沉蒼苔,黃霜霜敗草,見此兩般鋪積堦前...." (1 section)
  7. 五瓣梅 Wu Ban Mei (XXIII/240)
    "碧雲天,黃花地,西風緊,北雁南飛...." (1 section)
  8. 四大景 Si Da Jing (XXIII/244)
    "春色嬌麗融和艷陽天,景物飄飄美增妍...." (1 section)
  9. 花鼓 Hua Gu (XXIII/245)
    "身背着花鼓,手提着鑼,夫妻恩愛...." (7 unnumbered sections)
  10. 四美具 Si Mei Ju (XXIII/252)
    (No lyrics)
  11. 傍妝臺 Bang Zhuang Tai (XXIII/258)
    (No lyrics)

    (Traditional qin melodies:)

  12. 鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Huang (XXIII/261)
  13. 歸去來 Gui Qu Lai (XXIII/262)
  14. 平沙 Ping Sha (XXIII/266)
  15. 墨子 Mozi (XXIII/272)
  16. 漁歌 Yu Ge (XXIII/280)
  17. 釋談章 Shi Tan Zhang (XXIII/288)
  18. 清夜聞鐘 Qing Ye Wen Zhong (XXIII/296)
  19. 梧葉舞秋風 Wu Ye Wu Qiu Feng (XXIII/301)
  20. 鷗鷺忘機 Ou Lu Wang Ji (XXIII/304)
  21. 佩蘭 Pei Lan (XXIII/307)
  22. 風雷音 Feng Lei Yin (XXIII/315)
  23. 秋塞吟 Qiu Sai Yin (XXIII/320)
  24. 塞上鴻 Saishang Hong (XXIII/326)
  25. 關雎 Guan Ju (XXIII/332)

To my knowledge none of these melodies has been reconstructed from the tablature in this handbook.

19. 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.

20. 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 millenia and the notation is written out in great detail). An article with very interesting ideas about recovering the vocal style of old Chinese songs is:

徐芃 Xu Peng, Courtesan vs. Literatus: Gendered Soundscapes and Aesthetics in Late-Ming Singing Culture (T’oung Pao 100-4-5 [2014], pp.404-459).

In her article Prof. Xu discusses literary clues she has found about the style in which late-Ming songs might have been sung.

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