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Ancient depictions  /  10 friends the qin dais Close-up of qin below left  /  中文   目錄
The guqin as an object
Physical properties, seeing one, acquiring one
古琴體質
A qin should be hung vertically,
so the wood won't gradually curve
The qin was prized as a collector's item as well as a music instrument (this sometimes
causes problems for players who would like to play an old instrument). Stringless qins,
while they may seem to refer to the instrument itself, concern more the issue of qin ideology.

Links here are to articles about the physical qin, including

  1. Qin Body
    Basic construction, with links to more information

  2. Silk strings   (availability from China and Japan)
    Compared with metal strings, introduced during the Cultural Revolution
    - Warning: the so-called "NAGA new silk strings" are not made of silk 1
    Plus:  Can metal strings cause damage?
    A scientific examination of the different tonal colors....
    And:  An article by Wong Shu-Chee.

  3. Tassels (see at right, hanging down from the qins)
    Making and attaching them

  4. Zhen (tuning pegs; the tassels are attached to them)
    Their origin and use

  5. Hui (studs; see at right, along the right side of each qin)
    Their origin and use

  6. Cases for qin
    Modern cases for modern travel

  7. Acquiring a qin
    Some basic rules, silk and metal string differences, and a link to the biggest US source

  8. Qins in public and private collections
    Mostly concerns museums where you can see qins, plus in captivity?

  9. Xiao Xiang Ye Yu,
    The qin used in my CD Music Beyond Sound.
 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Misuse of the words "silk strings"
Because of the aura evoked by "silk", and perhaps also due to the increasing awareness of the history and special nature of silk strings, the word silk is sometimes evoked even where no silk is actually involved. For example, the "Silk String Quartet", a London-based Chinese music group, plays instruments traditionally classified as "silk", but today none of the players ever actually uses silk strings.

"NAGA new silk strings"

"NAGA new silk strings", introduced in 2008, also have no silk in them; nor do they sound like silk to anyone who uses it. They seem to have been developed in Xiamen in imitation of Western gut strings, but for use on guqin. Nevertheless, as of 2013 the NAGA website continues to claim, "We are the only supplier that carries these exciting new silk strings, developed by NAGA and its associates http://www.guqin.org." Having been challenged they no longer claim there is real silk in the strings (though this statement can still be found on websites that quote the original NAGA promotion). NAGA still does not reveal either the producer, maker or the actual material.

Xiamen composite strings (廈門复合絃 Xiamen fuhe xian)
From direct examination by several people, including myself, these "NAGA new silk strings" seem to be identical to the "龍人古琴絃 Longren Guqin Xian", strings sold by the 廈門龍人琴坊 Xiamen Longren Qinfang.
The Longren product web page, in Chinese only, calls them 冰絃 bingxian ["ice strings"], and they are also marketed as 龍人冰絃 Longren Bingxian, thus creating in some a false assumption that they have some connection to the famous "ice strings" of the past. The Xiamen website used to include a testimonial by Li Xiangting, but in my last search of their website I could not find it. It said/says in part:

"High-strength composite fiber strings" from Xiamen have a timbre like traditional silk strings and are as smooth and firm as steel strings.... They eliminate the noise while moving fingers along the strings, are less sharp and their sound is not as long-lasting as steel ones.... They are appropriate for playing all sorts of pieces in any style..., are strong and firm, not easily broken and work well in a wet environment.... I tried the strings on a 1,000-year-old qin as well as on a Zeng Chengwei qin; on both they are ideal.... (Thanks to Chunson Wang for the translation.)

People I met in China in 2009 were calling them "composite strings" (复合絃 fuhe xian"; fuhe is short for 复合材料 fuhe cailiao). I was told that they were a joint production between people in Shanghai and Xiamen, and that they cost 300 RMB a set (less when making a bulk purchase). They do not include any silk.

In spite of what Li Xiangting says, these fuhe strings most closely approximate the sound and feel of gut strings, but are more resonant; in this way they resemble the lute strings often used today (by "non-purists", defined as people who do not accurately describe what they are doing) for early Western music. The nature of the fuhe string construction seems to require that the lower strings be tightened considerably more than the upper ones, leading to some playing difficulties. A number of senior players in China have criticized them for their uneven sound and the way they continue to need tightening, a process that eventually weakens them. The second generation of fuhe strings are pre-knotted; I assume they are also pre-stretched in Xiamen, but have not yet personally confirmed this.

These fuhe strings sometimes make an interesting alternative to nylon/metal, and on some occasions I have enjoyed playing on them, but only for short periods: they are too bland and simply incapable of reproducing the sort of color variation that characterized qin music for millennia, much less the silk sound itself. From my experience no one who generally plays a silk string qin thinks the composite strings sound or feel like silk. As with nylon-metal strings they are thus best used for playing in less-quiet environments, for playing together with other instruments, and for expanding/changing the traditional qin aesthetic.

Thus the NAGA statement that the sound of their strings "is good as that of silk strings made before and during the 1950s" is best seen as a promotional strategy underlain by an attempt to justify the rejection of the silk string tradition by players such as Li Xiangting. This rejection is underlined by the fact that NAGA declines to make real silk strings available through their online store (see comment on availability).

Regarding the sound of old silk strings, in 2009 Wang Fei wrote to me that,

"The reason (Li Xiangting) doesn't use the type of silk string that you think is traditional silk is because he thinks the quality is not the same as with the type of silk strings he played in the 1950s....I can tell you now that he prefers NAGA new silk strings because he thinks their quality is close to that of the silk strings he used in the 50s....I still have some new sets of 1950s silk strings in sealed boxes since the 50s which I got through a very valuable donation from a scholar...."  

Based on an essay by Zha Fuxi about problems with qin strings in the 1950s (see further), I think Wang Fei may be referring to the Jinyu Qinshe strings of the 1930s (see Jinyu Qinkan). My own experience with such strings is playing ones made in the 1970s by the company of Fang Yuting. My experience with those strings shows that it would then certainly have been possible to revive the art of making silk strings (comment).

In any case, hopefully one day Wang Fei or Li Xiangting will make a recording with such old strings to demonstrate the validity of their claims about them. Meanwhile, it would also be valuable to me to hear specific comments by them (or anyone) describing in what way the silk string sound of modern recordings, such as my own (many of which are online), differs from the silk string sound to which they refer.

As for other claims in the testimonial by Li Xiangting, my teacher Sun Yü-ch'in told me that the (hopefully smooth) sliding sound of the fingers on silk strings was the qi (life force) of the music. As for putting the composite strings on 1,000 year old instruments, if their hardness affects the lacquer at all the way nylon-metal does (during the period I was using metal strings, after a year or two of regular use they began to make divots in the lacquer where they were most often pressed down), this is indeed a tragedy.
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