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Silk Strings
 
絲絃 1
Suxin advertisement; Marusan Hashimoto strings 2        
No characteristic of the traditional qin music sound was more basic than the rich timbre of sounds produced by the qin's silk strings; indeed, no other type of string can produce this essential element required by the musical aesthetics of its original listeners.3 Nevertheless, although a common term for qin was "silk-wood" (sitong),4 the expression "sixian qin" (silk-string zither) is not to be found, as yet, in any dictionary. Originally it would not have been meaningful, since all Chinese stringed instruments were categorized as having silk strings.6 However, by the mid-20th century the qin (now usually called guqin, i.e., "old qin") was one of the few Chinese instruments still strung with silk.6

Then during the Cultural Revolution this last bastion of the traditional string instrument sound was largely abandoned when metal strings (also called nylon strings, or nylon-metal strings, since they are nylon with a metal core) specifically for qin7 were developed and, largely through their enforced use in Chinese conservatories as well as the unavailability of silk strings, soon replaced silk strings for the qin.8 Although these new strings produce a much thinner sound, they are smoother and louder and thus easier for performance. As a result, by the 1990s it was rare to find anyone in China playing with silk strings.9 This has also had an effect on the basic construction of guqins.10

Since then there has been a gradual revival of interest in silk, first in Hong Kong,Taiwan and elsewhere overseas,11 then eventually in mainland China, though largely outside the conservatories.12 Still, though, almost all players use metal strings (or perhaps other synthetic strings). Articles by Wong Shu-Chee, who since the 1990s has been working to revive the art of silk-string making, have further details on these issues.

As a result of this abandonment of the silk string tradition, most available CDs of silk-string qin recordings are re-issues of recordings from before 1965 (see the silk string qin discography). It is partly because of this that on this website I consciously use the term "silk-string zither". It is important for people to keep in mind that there is a distinctive silk-string style of play to go along with the silk-string sound. In fact, one of the strengths of the qin is that it can accommodate both a silk-string style and a metal-string style.

My qin teacher Sun Yü-ch'in called the sliding sound of fingers on silk strings the qi (breath or life force) of qin music.13 Literati often used the term "silk-wood" (sitong) to refer to the qin and its sounds. Indeed, silk strings can be said to epitomize the qin's traditional role as an instrument of self-cultivation. Metal strings clearly damage the lacquer on a qin top, and there is also strong evidence that metal strings can cause structural damage to instruments.14 So why would a player interested in the qin tradition try to eliminate the sliding sounds?15 And why would so many of them completely abandon silk strings?

Basics of qin strings

For at least 2,000 years, until the Cultural Revolution, qin strings were always made of silk filaments that had been twisted into strands, the strands then combined into strings by twisting them together in various numbers depending on the thickness required;16 the silk was also boiled in glues mixed with various chemical subtances.17

At some stage the lower three or four qin strings came to have in addition a mesh ("wrapping gauze") around the twisted core.18 These lower strings are wrapped in sequence around one of the legs; the upper strings go in sequence around the other leg. With four strings wrapped, as is common today, the strings that break most often are the fourth and the seventh; these are the last to be wound around each leg, so when they do break none of the others needs to be re-wound around the leg. In addition, many sets contain an extra seventh string - it generally breaks more often than the fourth.

Relevant measurements for silk qin string length include the following:

These dimensions allow the string to extend under the qin, at the player's left end, about 40 cm (15-16") beyond the nut (where the vibrating part of the string meets the body) before being wound a number of times around one of the two legs under the qin.

The strings have graded diameters (gauges), the first (lowest) string ranging from about 1.4 to 1.75 mm, the seventh from about 0.70 to .9 mm.19 In theory the tension of the strings could all be the same, the pitch then being determined be the relative string gauges.

Silk strings usually break right where they rub against the bridge. The string is then trimmed neatly near the break and several more inches are required to tie a new knot before the string is reconnected to the tassel at the bridge end, then re-wound around the leg under the qin. In this way a string may be able to break as many as 10 times before it has to be replaced.20

Silk strings become more mellow with use.21 According to my teacher, Sun Yü-ch'in, strings should last for about seven years of normal use, and be at their best during the period of about two to five years.22 But he thought none of the strings then available (they had to be brought to Taiwan from the mainland) could compare with the good strings of former days.

Problems with Silk Strings?

The traditional sound of the qin as developed over the millenia is characterized by rich colors produced through overtones possible only with silk strings. The richness and subtlety of these overtones generally makes playing with other instruments seem superfluous, while the quiet nature of the tones means that qin music cannot compete with other sounds.

This is primarily a problem because the qin is so often presented in an inappropriate environment. In a perfectly quiet concert hall with superior acoustics one can play without amplification for rather large audiences; here silk strings can be appreciated. Unfortunately, it is more often presented in a venue that has bad acoustics, extraneous sounds, and a low quality amplification system: here of course the traditional musical qualities are totally lost and one may be better off using metal strings. In the past the scholar would take a qin to the mountains, then in an appropriate landscape pause to imagine its music. When invited to play at court, of course such a person would refuse: how could anyone appreciate a delicate representation of nature in such a noisy or otherwise acoustically poor environment?23

The tradition that qin music either represents or complements natural sounds is related to what can perhaps be called the "beyond-sound" aspect of qin music. Going further, a common theme in paintings shows a scholar in the countryside with a stringless qin. I have a fan with such a scene, accompanied by an inscription to the effect that there is no need to play if one can already hear the sounds of nature.

One can debate whether the qin was intentionally designed to be quiet. In any case, it would seem that currently there are few people willing to wait for (or confident of finding) the proper environment for the silk string style of qin play. Instead people have developed a taste for the strong and smooth sound of nylon-metal strings instead of the delicate rich sound of silk.

Another perceived problem with silk strings, in addition to their quieter nature, is the belief that they break more easily than nylon metal. This tends to be overemphasized: silk strings are in fact very strong. The main reason for strings breaking is tuning them too high.24 The problem then is the inclinations of the modern player (encouraged by conservatories and the flashy style of play they often promote) to consider the modern Western concert pitch of A=440 vib/sec to be an appropriate standard for Chinese music, including the qin.25 Instead silk string players must often tune the strings to a lower pitch (I often use A=415, common in early Western music), perhaps tuning down even further when the climate (humidity in particular) is variable: climate changes do make silk strings more likely to break.

The other main problem attributed to silk strings is the belief that, besides having a more delicate sound, the sound from the silk strings may be rather scratchy; people say that they would play with silk strings if only we still had the famous "ice strings" of the past.26

Although it is true that new nylon-metal strings are immediately ready to play, while silk strings may sound scratchy until they are broken in, it is not correct simply to blame this scratchiness on the quality of the strings now available. Once again the main problem is with the players. Players used to nylon-metal generally have little understanding of how to play with silk: of course when they first try to do so it will not sound good, as the technique for playing them is quite different from that used on nylon-metal. Another factor is that with silk strings if the fingers are not completely clean and dry the sound will be scratchy even with an experienced player. In performance this problem may be particularly critical: if the player gets at all nervous and/or if the room is too warm, the hands may become clammy; with clammy hands, playing on silk strings becomes impossible.

Because of the low sound output of the qin, amplification is often necessary for performance. Amplification may put disproportionate emphasis on the sound of the fingers sliding on the strings; in addition, standard microphones often fail to pick up the rich overtones which give the silk string qin its distincitve color. A noisy performance environment can have the same effect, and this is why the best performance space is a concert hall with good acoustics and no extraneous sounds. Otherwise the difference between the rich tones of silk strings and the plain tones of nylon-metal are not so apparent.27

Recording with silk strings also requires paying particular attention to certain factors, and the problems are accentuated if one does not want to put the microphones close to the qin. Since the silk-string qin cannot compete with other sounds, the required additional amplification means an exceptionally quiet recording environment is required. Thus beside using metal-string qins, almost all other modern qin recordings have had the microphone right next to, or even under, the instrument. As of around 2010 the main exceptions that I knew of were a few recordings made in Europe. (Artificial reverberation is also the rule).

When listening to a qin in a natural environment -- a perfectly quiet studio, for example -- the original delicate sound is much quieter than the sound one usually hears in a concert hall. Because in a performing environment the size of the venue as well as the inevitable room noise usually make amplification essential, I feel that a recording often has more potential for conveying the traditional qin spirit than a concert performance does. However, when most people listen to qin recordings almost invariably, in my experience, they set the volume control so that the sound level is much higher than what one would hear in a non-amplified performance. Again, the amplification proportionately increases the sound of the fingers sliding on the strings.

Related to this is the problem that modern silk strings do seem to be more coarse than the good quality silk strings of the past. As mentioned above, the sound of the fingers sliding on silk can be considered as the qi: the breath or life force, of the music. But if the strings are too coarse the breath becomes raspy, and if the player does not know how to play with silk the breath is like gasping. So how does one manage this qi?

The first attempt I heard of to solve the "problem" of sliding sounds came from Lui Tsun-yuen.28 During the 1970s he switched from silk to nylon wire, thus anticipating the nylon metal strings that were invented during the Cultural Revolution. With such strings clammy hands are no problem -- one simply puts a bit of oil on the fingers and goes on playing.

The problem with these substitutes for silk strings (and here one should also discuss silk strings intended to be "smooth as ice") is that one might then lose the original qi of the qin. Silk strings can be made smoother with the application of wax or glue, but the best solution with modern silk strings is to have the patience to break them in,29 learn how to play with them properly, and find appropriate venues in which to play.

The development of metal strings

Metal qin strings today are almost always wrapped with nylon. To summarize the situation prior to their introduction, the basic materials for music strings are gut, hair, fiber (in Asia, mainly silk), metal and, more recently, synthetics.27 As for metal, although there is evidence it was used for strings in ancient Persia, more substantial records seem to begin around the 10th century. The New Grove Dictionary mentions them in Europe at that time, and Laurence Picken has written that they may have been used on the huqin two-string fiddle in the Tang dynasty and were definitely used there on a harp (sic) in the 14th century.31 Metal strings on the Middle Eastern qanun zither are mentioned as early as the 13th century, so presumably the closely related santur hammered dulcimer had them when it was introduced into China, where it became the yangqin, about two centuries later. By the end of the 19th century the Chaozhou guzheng zither commonly had metal strings.

This sketch is sufficient to show that, although in China all string instruments were once put in the "silk" category, other materials have also long been in use. In this context it is noteworthy that, although there are classical writings on the "problem" of the low volume output of the qin, any suggested solutions were always in terms of the environment (quiet; solid table; play over a water vat; etc.) or qin design. No known writings, at least until the 1960s, suggested using a material other than silk for qin strings.

All this changed during the Cultural Revolution. One reason given for the introduction of metal strings during that period is the poor quality and lack of availability of silk strings. However, another factor in the switch from silk to metal strings was certainly political: silk strings were thought to emphasize the inward and meditative nature of qin music, while with metal strings it could become a performance instrument, an instrument performed for ordinary people.

Apparently the first metal strings for qin were very smooth. However, much research was focused on trying to re-capture the sound of silk while still taking advantage of the durability of metal. This led to experimenting with different coiling effects: today the inner metal core is usually covered with very smooth nylon, but experiments were also done making the nylon somewhat rough, as silk would be. Apparently attempts were also made to wrap nylon around a silk core, to avoid the roughness of silk. Strings have also been made with metal coiled around silk or nylon. As a result of the research, today some of the metal strings are much more mellow than others, but still the metal sound is quite distinctive.

As mentioned above, by the year 2000 virtually all qin players in China were exclusively using metal strings wrapped in nylon. Metal strings obviously expand the potential scope of the instrument in some ways but, in my opinion, the scope would be even broader if, instead of talking about whether silk is better or metal is better, there was more effort made to distinguish the developing metal-string styles from silk-string styles. We could then consciously develop each style in a manner natural to their different properties.

For a time I also used metal strings alongside the silk ones -- switching back and forth. It is not making a value judgment but simply stating a fact to say that using metal strings has a definite effect on the way one plays. For reconstructing old music I feel most comfortable using silk strings, and so today about the only time I play with metal strings is when required to do so: while visiting other players who only have metal strings, perhaps when playing together with other instruments, or perhaps when playing in certain environments, particularly noisy or humid.

I must emphasize that I don't object to metal strings per se. As with close miking, the sound can be quite interesting, and indeed I hope one day to have an electric qin with metal strings and magnetic pickups (as it is I do have a qin with piezo pickups.32 It particularly concerns me, though, that in China today virtually no one uses silk strings, almost all recordings use close miking plus reverberation, and there is little debate about this. If the Western guitar is broad enough to embrace classical, folk, popular and so forth styles, so too is qin, and the place to begin is by developing distinctive silk-string and metal-string sounds. With the qin this might naturally result in classical styles (reconstructing, preserving and developing the past) and modern styles (re-interpreting the past and encouraging new development).

An interesting characteristic affecting the ability of metal strings to reinterpret the past is their longer resonance. This may facilitate a meditative style of play, and one might even argue that, in spite of their lack of color, the cleaner and longer lasting sounds that metal strings produce during slides makes them just as capable of evoking meditative qualities as even the best quality silk strings of the past. And because they lack the color of silk, metal strings compensate by encouraging the development of new forms of slides, vibrato and other ornamentation. For new music the longer resonance is already used in some meditative (or New Age) styles of music. Meanwhile, the increased tension of metal strings also allows faster play (as can be heard in the conservatory styles that now seem to dominate). Their thinner sound allows more precision and may make blending the qin with other instruments easier. When playing with other instruments metal strings also have a particular advantage in that they are much more easily amplified. There are today experiments with electric qins; these of course require metal (or metal core) strings.

Balanced against this is the fact that metal strings can cause severe damage to a qin. For this reason, metal strings should be used exclusively on the new instruments now available, some of which are very good. Unfortunately, many people use them on lovely antique instruments, perhaps causing them permanent damage.

Scientific analyses comparing the metal and silk string sounds 33

In addition to being gentler on the instrument and less likely to cause permanent damage, silk strings on a qin produce a very rich sound that is quite distinctive from that of the nylon/metal strings commonly used in China since the Cultural Revolution or that of the even newer composite strings. This is something that can be measured scientifically.

One set of scientific measurements has suggested that the sound of silk strings on a qin is characterized by weak fundamental (1st harmonic) tones combined with extremely rich overtones that fade very slowly. Other stringed instruments can also produce quite rich overtones, but so far research seems to indicate that they die very quickly (within one second on a guitar, for example), whereas on the qin the overtones can remain strong for five seconds or more; as the overtones fade, they merge in such a way as to make the overall sound somewhat unstable, perhaps even seeming to raise and fall in pitch.34

The colors thus created help explain the appeal of certain characteristics of the traditional repertoire, such as repeating the same note on different strings; nylon-metal strings do not seem not capable of producing such varied color from repeating one note. And now, in addition to such anecdotal evidence from people who can hear that the sound of non-silk strings on a qin is much less rich, there is also growing scientific evidence supporting these opinions.35

Reviving silk strings

The above may suggest that metal strings are more appropriate than silk strings for modern music that silk strings. It would be more accurate, however, to say that metal strings are more appropriate than silk for certain types of modern music. Much of the perceived problems with silk strings concern their small volume of sound. With technology this problem can be overcome. This means that that the rich overtones that often make the silk string sound somewhat unstable can be naturally or digitally manipulated in interesting new ways. If color is important to a music composition, the silk string sound has a big advantage.

If the aim is "historically informed performance", then the advantages of metal strings generally become disadvanges. If metal strings allow the development of methods of ornamentation that were not possible with silk strings, that is wonderful: as long as one remembers that this was not part of the original music. People who hear silk strings in an appropriate environment often agree readily that their basic sound is more beautiful than the metal string sound. The problem is that it is rare to hear high quality performances of silk string qin in an appropriate environment.

This problem is often directly connected to the venues commonly used for qin performance. Because the qin was more likely to be played in a studio or garden than on a stage, such venues are often used for qin performances. The problem with this is that such places are usually noisy and the sound system inadequate. It is much easier to appreciate qin music in a quiet concert hall with good acoustics and, if necessary, a good sound system, than to appreciate it in a beautiful but noisy traditional environment. Unfortunately, in China these modern venues seem generally to be reserved for concerts of Western music or modernized Chinese music.

Recent problems in silk string production

By the end of the Cultural Revolution top quality silk strings were not even in production. Most silk strings were either too coarse, giving a rough sound, or too thin, giving a somewhat thin sound, or both. In addition, they broke or frayed too easily, perhaps due to the quality of silk and glue as much as to the skill of the string makers: they also have to be wrapped just right, or they may unravel.

Since then the quality of silk strings has gone up and down, but there are also things which can be done with even the lower quality strings. Regarding the coarseness, for example, my teacher simply advised me to play with them regularly for some months and they would eventually become smoother. Preserving them is also influenced by how they are treated, e.g., not tuning them too tight, especially in places where the temperature and humidity changed rapidly. However, other methods of preserving and smoothing them have also been suggested.36

According to a 1955 article by Zha Fuxi (see pp. 384ff of his Collected Writings), for about 800 years the best silk strings were said to come from Hangzhou, in particular using silk made in the Tangqi district near Hangzhou. However, disruptions in China from the end of the Qing dynasty eventually led to that industry closing down. During the 1930s some qin players, in particular Wu Jinglue and Zhuang Jiancheng, got together with Fang Yuting, a qin string maker in Suzhou, and helped Fang start a company which then produced the best strings. After 1949 Fang's company dominated the industry and the Hangzhou companies never revived. Some have suggested that Fang might in some ways be considered the last traditional maker of silk strings for qins.37

Unfortunately the Suzhou strings, if they ever were of the same quality as the best old Hangzhou strings, did not maintain that quality in the 1950s. Zha wrote that the government structure made it difficult for musicians (qin players in particular) directly to contract factories to give advice on quality control, and in addition the silk string factories couldn't get the best quality silk (3A) from Hangzhou. Fang wanted to move to Hangzhou, but wasn't allowed to. As of 1955 they were still trying to get a consignment of good Tangqi silk to make strings.

The production of silk strings stopped during the Cultural Revolution. When in 1972 the young qin player Gong Yi came to Hong Kong to perform (with metal strings), Tong Kin-Woon asked him about the situation with silk strings. Gong said he was not sure if Fang Yuting was still alive, but he thought perhaps Fang's son could still make strings. Tong asked Gong if he could order some sets of good ones to be especially made. This was said to be unlikely because, as mentioned, individuals were not supposed to tell factories what to do. Nevertheless, about a year later about 100 sets of good silk strings suddenly arrived in Hong Kong from Suzhou. Another year or so later perhaps another 100 sets were also sent, but some of these were not of such good quality (the best are wrapped in purple thread; the next best in red thread). For my CD Music Beyond Sound I used strings from a purple-wrapped set which I had used about one year; to my ears the sound is excellent.

However, there was apparently little general demand for these strings as by then qin teachers all used nylon/metal and encouraged or demanded that their students do likewise.38

Taigu and the improvement of silk strings

Nevertheless, a revival of silk string production began about 1995. First, reasonably good strings were again available from Suzhou; although not of the same quality as the ones made over 20 years earlier, people took notice and began working with them to improve the quality.

More notably, in 1998 Shum Hing-Shun of Hong Kong organized the production of some sets of silk strings, calling them Taigu strings; I used a set of these on the recordings for Folio III of my Shen Qi Mi Pu CD set. These strings became available in two gauges. Subsequently, Wong Shu-Chee, now living in Vancouver, took over Shum's work, and in early 2000 he produced some very high quality silk strings, also called Taigu strings, in three different gauges. After this Shu-Chee produced several more sets, but then in 2004 said he could not continue to do this. As of 2014 some of these were still available online. And Shu-Chee did continue for some time to make individual sets on special order.39

This, of course, is very important work. Fortunately old Chinese books have a lot of information about most aspects of sericulture and silk string making. See in particular Taiyin Daquanji (15th c. or earlier) and Yuguzhai Qinpu (1857).

One spinoff from that project may be the strings made by Pan Guohui, who had been involved with Shu-Chee's project.40 As of 2012 it was possible to find online strings attributed to him under the name Jinyu Qin Strings.41 Another brand available online in 2012 was Tiger Hill.42

Meanwhile, another promising sign has been the interest of some early Western instrument players in silk strings. Some strong arguments have been made that silk strings were used on medieval Western instruments.43 (Another not-so-well-known fact is that silk strings have continued in use in on certain West instruments, albeit rarely.44) The argument is based on references in texts (references to silk are mostly indirect) as well as descriptions of sound (silk is much more resonant than gut). Currently Alexander Raykov in upstate New York is making good quality silk strings for early Western instruments. He has also made a set for me to use on qins; they are very good (upper strings only). His website has further information (as of 2009 not functioning: see Raykov on silk).

More recent revival of silk string manufacture

Although by around 2010 it seemed that people had given up on making good silk strings in China. I had even heard that because of the air pollution there one would never get good enough Chinese silk for silk strings. However, since then the situation seems to have changed once again. This is largely related to the explosion of interest in the guqin since 2000.

This interest is partly fueled by the performers and performances coming from Chinese conservatories, but it also includes people whose interest in Chinese traditions makes them more eager to hear the guqin as it sounded in the past. This has led first to a dramatic increase in the price of qins, especially those by certain makers.45 More relevant to this page, it has also led to a greater availability of the silk strings already in production, and also to considerable work being done again to revive good quality silk string production.

Regarding distribution, as of the present writing in 2013, online ordering has improved the situation considerably. With most teachers in China still demanding use of nylon metal strings the market for silk strings remains relatively small. However, the silk string supply does seem to be increasing, and as people are increasingly able to buy strings online, as well as in shops, demand seems likely to increase further. This has also led to an increase in the variety of silk strings now available, in shops as well as online. This now includes strings from Japan46 as well as China.47 Some of these strings have become very expensive.

Regarding improving the strings one might divide this into the work being done in Japan and in China.

Japan
As mentioned, part of the interest in Japanese silk strings comes from a belief that the quality of silk there may be better. Whether or not that is the primary impetus, some Chinese and Japanese qin players have been working with Japanese companies to make or improve strings intended for the qin; these efforts clearly have the China market in mind. Here there are basically two types of Japanese silk strings, those already being made (e.g., Tobaya for the Japanese market, which do not use mesh on the lower strings); and new-style Japanese silk strings made more directly in the style of Chinese silk strings (Marusan Hashimoto.) 48

China
The revival of interest in the guqin in China has led to at least half a dozen groups working on improving the quality of silk strings there. At present the most successful of these seems to be the project in Beijing led by Fang Suxin. These are now discussed further on a separate page. separate page.49

Silk strings are best served by good quality instruments, and since today there are again some very good qin makers it should not be surprising that good silk strings seem not to be very far behind. It is also not surprising that with the cost of qins by well-known makers skyrocketing there will also be strings that similarly expensive. In my opinion, however, just as one can still find qin through careful searching, the older and less expensive silk strings are still quite adequate for enjoyable playing.

Conclusion

Summing up, to take account of the differences between a qin with silk, nylon-metal or composite strings perhaps one should revert to the old term "seven-string qin" (qixian qin) when referring to all three versions. Although one could make a good argument that the nylon-metal string qin is sufficiently different that it should have its own name, and that with the addition of nylon-metal strings the "old qin" (guqin) has become a "new qin", such a radical change should not really be necessary; in addition the term "new qin" is already in common use to refer to any newly made stringed instrument. (Unfortunately, the romanization of "qixianqin" makes it unlikely to catch on in English.)

To compare the situation with that of the Western guitar, there are major differences between the guitars used for classical music, folk music and rock music. Guitars can be described as electric guitars, steel-string guitars, nylon-string guitars and so forth, but they are still guitars. The important thing here is being aware of the differences caused by strings and by the subsequent related changes both to the structure of the instruments and to the playing methods. When this happens people will naturally wish to know whether the seven-string qin about to be heard or discussed has nylon-metal strings (gangsixian qin), composite strings (fuhexian qin), or silk strings (sixian guqin or, simply, guqin).50

Preserving the old helps give a more solid base to the new. It also allows more variety: the more the better.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Silk strings 絲絃 or 絲弦
Although this page presents an argument for the distinctive qualities of silk strings it is not intended to suggest that this makes them "better" in any abstract philosophical or aesthetic sense. Specifically, some old writings tell of literati playing the 箏 zheng zither with the same lofty aims as are more commonly connected to the qin (example). There are even Western compositions, such as John Cage's I Ching, that have claimed to be inspired by this sense. So although one can argue that the sounds or the appearances are different (whether the strings are of silk or metal), who can speak with certainty of differences in the mind of the player, or of the listener?

My dictionaries have no specific references to "silk string qins" per se. 28058 絲 has no 絲絃琴 (or 絲弦琴) sixianqin; what it has is simply 28058.53 絲絃 si xian, which it defines as a string for music instruments, giving 紅樓夢 Hong Lou Meng as a reference.

On the other hand 4 (七) has both 4.231 七絃 qixian and 4.232 七絃琴 qixianqin. The former is said to be short for the latter, with a reference given to 嵇康,酒會詩 Poem of a Wine Gathering by Xi Kang. The latter names the seven strings as on a guqin, though only using the word "qin" rather than "guqin". "Seven-string qin" may in fact be the best term to use today when referring to a "guqin" regardless of what type of strings it uses (further comment above and below).

It must be noted that nowadays use of the word "silk string" does not guarantee strings made of silk. One example is the ensemble formed in England in 2006 calling itself "Silk String Quartet". It consists of pipa, zheng, erhu and yangqin, but none of the players actually uses silk strings. When it comes to the qin world, the prevalent conservative ideology contrasts starkly with most players' ignorance of silk strings. Dealing with silk strings is sometimes inconvenient, largely due to the fact that most current teachers do not present them as an alternative. But the basic conundrum is that, while there are no real problems with silk strings if you follow the tradition of playing for self-cultivation, even people who want to think they are following the tradition are in fact more focused on performing, usually for people who do not know the traditional aesthetic. There is further comment on this in the footnote Misuse of the words "silk strings".

Articles on silk strings by Wong Shu-Chee (黃樹志 Huang Shuzhi)
Wong Shu-Chee, who since the 1990s has been involved in projects to produce higher quality silk strings, has written several interesting articles in Chinese on the subject. He has given me permission to post them on this website:

  1. 從琴絃探討古琴過去、現在與未來的發展路向
  2. 談古琴絃規格
  3. 琴絃答問

The first of these is translated as "Through Qin Strings, Inquiring about the Guqin's Past, Present and Future Path of Development."

Unauthorized versions of these articles, often abridged and with mistakes, can be found in various places online. Some time ago I give a link to one as an example, only to be told later that someone had apparently taken over that Chinese site so the link was quite embarrassing! (It is gone now, but I wonder how often that happens.)

Gut strings
Gut strings were used on some Chinese instruments, but apparently never on the guqin. Nevertheless, since the present article discusses the importantce of gut strings on early Western instruments in several places, it is interesting to compare the making of strings from with the making of them from gut. A good article on the latter can be found at
gamutmusic.com. The basics are that the gut is cleaned and processed into long tubes. Strings may be made from these tubes, but more commonly the tubes are split into ribbons and the strings are made from ribbons in various numbers. The linked website says that gut strings for the violin family typically range from 3 ribbons on the highest violin string to 64 ribbons on the lowest bass string.
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2. Image: Suxin advertisement; Marusan Hashimoto strings
More details about this image are on the links given above. The Suxin image presumably shows the strings when new (see also Fang Suxin and silk string research in China). The Marusan Hashimoto image shows their strings after some use (see also Japanese silk strings for guqin).
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3. Silk string aesthetics
This statement is not intended to suggest that one cannot express the essential "Dao" (Way) of the qin when using metal strings - or when playing any instrument, for that matter (see further comment on this above).

However, one of the reasons I began reconstructing and playing melodies from Ming dynasty tablature was that, in addition to finding the melodies beautiful, I could imagine myself communicating with the people who had created the music by playing their music. This led to my trying to establish principles of historically informed guqin performance. And, knowing that (until the Cultural Revolution) for centuries if not millenia qin players had rejected the opportunities presented by metal strings, even as they were adopted on other instruments, and that to my knowledge listeners had never asked for them, how could I imagine having such communication while making sounds that would clearly have been rejected?

One of the essential characteristics of guqin music is the fact that different colors can be achieved when playing the same pitch in different ways. Thus, any particular pitch will sound different when played as an open string, as a harmonic, or as a stopped sound on differing strings. This variety of color was an essential part of the traditional aesthetic of guqin music - quite likely on a par with the melody itself. To my ears the variety of color brought out by these techniques is much diminished without silk strings. Indeed, this distinction becomes even sharper when simply playing a single note. This became most clear the first time I played a high quality qin with silk strings: I would play a single note, and it would be so beautiful I was hesitant to play the next note. The subtle beauty of the notes also gave an indication as to why the guqin was seldom combined with other instruments, except in a ritual context.

Thus, although nylon metal strings have their own advantages, the lack of this type of color leads players to a different style of play, one that emphasizes other melodic possibilities on the guqin, including playing with cheaper instruments and playing together with other instruments (also important is desire to perform combined with the fact that the distinctive sound of silk strings usually gets lost with the recording and amplification systems that are in common use). Stated simply, since one note on the new strings is not as aurally complex as one played on a good instrument with silk strings, players naturally seek new ways to combine the sounds when using the new strings.

Fortunately, it is now possible to gain some scientific understanding of the sounds which created the traditional guqin aethetic, as well as how they are different from the sounds on the modern strings. This is because musical colors can best be defined in terms of the musical overtones of the pitches being played, and these can be measured through scientific experiments. As has been shown by experiments such as the one discussed further in the main text, especially in related footnotes, nylon metal strings do not produce the variety of overtones created on silk strings. Thus the instrument becomes fundamentally different.
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4. 絲桐﹕silkwood, silk-wood, silk and wood
28058.45 絲桐 sitong says this is another name for the qin, with numerous references beginning with 史記 Shi Ji Chapter 46, 田敬仲完世家 Hereditary House of Tian Jingzhong Wan (more under Zou Ji).
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5. Silk string category 絲絃類
At least by the Han dynasty the Chinese had categorized music instruments according to eight materials into "8 sounds" (八音 1475.217):

  1. 金(鐘)       gold (bells)
  2. 石(磬)       stone (chimes)
  3. 絲(絃)       silk (strings)
  4. 竹(管)       bamboo (tubes, for blowing)
  5. 匏(笙)       gourd (mouth-organ)
  6. 土(壎/塤) earth (ocarina)
  7. 革(鼓)       leather (percussion)
  8. 木(柷敔)  wood (zhu and yu; ancient wooden instruments for stopping and starting an ensemble respectively)

All stringed instruments were categorized under silk, and perhaps at that time all Chinese stringed instuments did use silk. However, most Chinese instruments played today were introduced into China from outside after the Han dynasty, and presumably many of these came with strings made of other materials, such as 馬尾絃 horse-hair strings, 腸絃 gut strings, or 鋼絲絃 metal strings. Western language writings on musical instruments seem very happy to ignore the issue of strings, and in China I am not familiar with research on the introduction of these materials for use as strings on musical instruments.
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6. Abandonment of silk strings on other Chinese instruments
There is some further comment under "The development of metal strings", but in general it is difficult to get specific information about this, as strings seem rarely to be mentioned in historical documents.
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7. Metal strings (鋼絲絃 gangsi xian)
Presumably the term "metal-nylon" or "nylon-metal" would be most accurate, but generally the term used is either "metal strings" or "nylon strings".
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8. Abandonment of silk strings for the qin during the Cultural Revolution
The fact that this happened during the Cultural Revolution brings up the question of to what extent politics went into this abandonment: could the qin be played as a form of self-cultivation, or should it be an instrument played for the common people? What was the role of politics in the general unavailability of silk strings (see story)? To what extent did the change become a matter of preference (see another story)? Whatever the impetus, as the qin became largely taught in conservatories, the traditional attitude of playing the qin for self-cultivation was replaced by the belief that to preserve the qin it had to be turned into a performance instrument.
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9. Current attitudes in China to silk strings
Since leaving Hong Kong in 2000 I have had several noteworthy experiences of playing along side qin players who have either never used silk strings or have not used them in a long time. Often they say that they think the silk string sound is better. Some have switched to silk. More common, though, seems to be the opinion that silk strings are "too much trouble" (太麻煩 tai mafan). And yet the essence of the qin tradition is to take you out of ordinary society. As Wong Shu-Chee tells students who say this, if you don't want this kind of mafan you shouldn't be playing qin
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10. Effect of string type on qin construction
There is some discussion of this under Qin Body.
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11. Return to silk strings outside mainland China
The work by Shum Hing-Shun and Wong Shu-Chee to improve the quality of silk strings is an indication of the revived interest in silk strings in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. After I moved from Hong Kong to New York in 2001 memebers of the New York Qin Society (NYQS) started playing again with silk strings there. Since then the then-president of the New York Qin Society, Yuan Jung Ping, has returned to Taiwan, where he has played a major role in the revival of interest in silk strings there. And in 2002 Wu Zhao, when during his visit there in 2002 I had the chance to perform together with him, said he didn't know anyone in China using silk strings, but after hearing them side by side with his metal strings he wanted to use silk again himself; it took some years, but his subsequent CD, Song of Life in the Mountains, became one of the first of the new silk string recordings now coming from China (2011?).
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12. Return to silk strings within mainland China
Some credit here should probably be given to museums; partly because of advice from the Hong Kong silk string advocates, they are becoming aware of the damage caused by metal strings on ancient instruments and thus now requiring these instruments to use silk.
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13. Sliding sounds as 氣 qi
I have not found this claim in other sources, and so do not know whether Sun Yü-ch'in was passing on a traditional attitude or was giving a personal response resulting from his having to play with strings rougher than he had been used to. In any case, it may be more precise to say that what he was trying to convey was that when sliding on the strings any resultant noise should be smooth, like healthy breathing, not harsh, like rasping: he wasn't advocating any accentuation of that sound. Indeed, in later years, in spite of these comments about qi, he followed the trend to metal strings.

Related to this, Liang Mingyue wrote the following in The Chinese Ch'in, Its History and Music, p.296:

Even the scratching sounds of the finger rubbing against the string and fingerboard contribute to the image of the sound and are like the breath of the unheard sounds. This friction is an enlargement of the musical sounds and aesthetically motivates or generates the sounds themselves. Therefore, they are the primitive or basic sounds and are essential to the music-making process. An old adage popular among traditional ch'in players says that the fingers should be pressed into the wood, "an lin jou mu." In listening to good players, from the scratching sounds, one can distinguish the technique and style being used, such as the twenty-four touches....

Liang's "an lin jou mu" should be "an ling ru mu", i.e., "按令入木: when pressing down cause (the finger) to enter the wood" (source). As for "scratching sounds", around this time Liang made a recording in Germany called Liang Mingyue, Yangguan Sandie, where his sliding sounds are indeed very scratchy. However, I believe this was mainly as a result of his using a rather average instrument with new silk strings that had not been broken in properly. Later recordings by Liang use nylon metal strings. Nevertheless, if one substitutes "sliding" (or perhaps "gliding" for "scratching", the above is a good statement of the traditional attitude towards the sound made by fingers moving on the strings (compare the sound the hand makes when sliding along a silk dress.)
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14. Causes of damage from metal strings Divots in the lacquer (see #1)  
The potential for damage from metal (metal/nylon) strings is largely due to the following:

  1. The hardness of nylon-metal strings combined with the requirement that the player push down firmly on the strings can lead to divots in the lacquer under the strings (see at right and detail; I have never seen this on a silk string qin). The lacquer is a form of cement firmly connected to the wood, but which loosens somewhat over time.
  2. The increased string tension possible with metal strings can cause more stress on the wood. This can also affect the lacquer.
  3. The ultra-sonic vibrations from metal strings might damage the cellular structure of the wood. For example, one study looking for an answer as to why violinists who use metal strings change the violin bridge more often than those who play with gut strings discovered that the cellular structure of the bridge decayed very rapidly when metal strings were used.
  4. The nature of sound means that the soundbox inside a qin should be different for metal vs silk strings. Sometimes people modify the sound box of an old qin so that it sounds better with metal strings, thereby doing permanent damage to an antique treasure.
  5. Also regarding the soundbox, old qins traditionally had two sound posts. These are often missing, but if they are present people who use metal strings sometimes remove them: the sound posts apparently reinforce the fundamental, and with metal strings this may not be so necessary. Placement of the soundposts is very important and this positioning may be lost.
  6. The way the strings vibrate (silk wider, metal tighter) means that metal strings can be closer to the strings than silk can. Sometimes an old bridge is lowered to take advantage of that. Less commonly, if the instrument is re-lacquered the contour of the top surface may be modified to accommodate metal strings.

See also Instrument construction: Consequences of the change from silk to metal strings
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15. Eliminating the sliding sound
Today efforts are being made to make silk strings as smooth as metal ones, presumably under the assumption that the old "ice strings" (bingxian) were similarly smooth. On the one hand I have not yet seen any old bingxian; in addition, I have not read specific comments in traditional literature that say bingxian were made with the intention of avoiding sliding sounds. Thus further comment on this on my part would simply be speculation.
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16. Silk string manufacture: filaments and strands
As I understand it, what comes from the silkworm is called a "brin": one of these emerges at the same time from each of the two silkworm glands; right at the glandular opening (spinneret) they fuse to make a "bave" (rhymes with "have"). This bave thus actually consists of two filaments, but since they are fused they are here referred to as a filament. The size of a filament as it twists into the cocoon can be 300 to 1500 meters long and 1.8 to 3.0 deniers in "thickness". "Denier" is actually a unit of weight but from what I can tell it might suggest that a filament would typically have a diameter of 10 micrometers (.01mm). However, to fit with the data given here the diameter of the filament should probably be closer to 1 micrometers (.001mm): in accord with the information given here and here the diameter of a strand (12 filaments) would then be about 12 micrometers (.012mm) and a string with a diameter of 1.2mm (a typical fourth string) would consist of 100 strands.

In addition to getting clarification for the diameter of the filaments it would also be interesting to have some further information as to why they were made first into strands instead of directly twisting them together to make strings. How is this done for silk thread?

As an aside, silk thread gauges tend to be given in weight tends come come in sizes; I have seen diameters ranging from .16mm to .67mm but I am sure there are many more.
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17. Silk string manufacture: glues
See the earliest known description: boiling/mixing the strings in a liquid both strengthened the strings and helped determine the color/richness of the sound. The earliest known liquid combined "fish glue" (isinglass?) with various chemicals ("potions"), mostly natural substances one could find in a Chinese medicine store. Japanese silk strings have long been boiled in a rice paste; the origins of this technique is not clear.

Similar substances may be used for smoothening and strengthening strings already in use.
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18. Silk string manufacture: mesh (wrapping gauze)
It would be interesting to know more about the introduction of the mesh and whether after its introduction it was always used on Chinese qin strings.
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19. String gauges
The page on Ancient techniques has further details about string wrapping and gauges, including the following chart (see also length/breakage):

Sample modern silk string gauges (mm)
  thickest thick standard medium thin
1st 1.88 1.75 1.64 1.52 1.40
2nd 1.78 1.60 1.49 1.38 1.27
3rd 1.60 1.45 1.35 1.24 1.14
4th 1.40 1.30 1.20 1.10 1.00
5th 1.20 1.15 1.10 1.00 0.90
6th 1.10 1.03 1.02 0.90 0.80
7th 1.00 0.90 0.85 0.80 0.75

The middle measurements above, here called "thick", "standard" and "medium", correspond quite closely to the three gauges that Wong Shu-Chee made for his Taigu strings; there they were called "加重 jiazhong", "太古 taigu" and "中清 zhongqing" respectively.

See also the comments on Japanese string gauges.
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20. Qin string length and breakage
As mentioned above unused silk qin strings may have a length of 250 cm (100"); however, ones made today seen often to have a length closer to 200 cm (6'9") when new. Typical vibrating length of strings on a qin is 110-117 cm (43-46"), however some qin may be several centimeters shorter. About 6 cm (2-3") are used to tie a knot at one end of each string, allowing it to be held by a tassel that goes through the bridge to the sound pegs; at the other end the strings extend about 40 cm (15-16") beyond the nut (where the vibrating part of the string meets the body) before being wound around one of the two legs under the qin. When a string breaks it is usually where it rubs against the bridge. Trimming the broke string and tying a new knot shortens the string about 6 cm. This is why the top three strings, which do not have an outer mesh, might break more than 10 times before they are too short to be used. As for the lower 4 strings, which have an outer mesh, with my older sets this mesh may extend on a new string almost all the 38 cm to the foot. This means they may break five or more times before having to be replaced. On the newer sets, however, the mesh often extends only about 8 cm. This means that, good as they sound, one of these strings can break at most twice before it must be replaced.
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21. Mellownesss with age
In contrast, strings of gut and other materials are usually considered to be at their best when new.
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22. Two years needed to break in strings?
When
Sun Yü-ch'in was talking about the time needed to break in strings it is not clear to me now whether he was talking about the strings then available to him, which by then (1974) were rather coarse, or about qin strings in general. A large part of the breaking in process may have been related to trying to make the strings smoother.
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23. Performing with silk strings
Perhaps my favorite performance was one at N.S.I. in San Diego: it seated 300 people but the sound was just as good at the back of the hall as it was on stage. Here one could close one's eyes and imagine listening personally in a scholar's quiet studio. Unfortunately, it is more common to present the qin in a place where you might be able to see remnants of traditional Chinese culture, but you have to have a vivid imagination to hear the music as it was originally intended. Everywhere there seems to be little effort put into making acoustically superior small recital halls. In their absence one must hope for an amplification system of such high quality that it can capture the rich colors of silk strings (since nylon-metal do not have these colors, this is not such an issue with them - the aesthetic is very much changed).
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24. Strings breaking due to being tuned too high
It should be noted that the problem of tuning too high also can also apply to Western instruments. Alex Raykov (mentioned in the text above) tells me that he has had complaints of breakage from people using his silk strings on early Western instruments, but always because they wish to tune the strings too high, usually at least two tones higher than what is known to have been the standard pitch during the period from which they play the music. If people have proper respect for the sources of their music then breakage is rarely a problem.

Other causes of breakage
Constant heat and high humidity also may not been good for the silk strings. However, it has been my experience in humid places such as Hong Kong and Singapore that if the qin is kept away from temperature extremes (for example, by keeping it in its box within a ventilated room, as well as not tuning it too high, breakage is not a major problem.
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25. Was there ever a standard pitch for guqin tuning?
With early Western music there is evidence that allows us to know the specific pitches used on certain instruments (e.g., through the pitches used in early organs); this is how we know that in the past pitch was often not standardized, as well as that there have been periods when pitch gradually became higher. Perhaps with Chinese instruments comparisons of this type can be made by measuring the pitch used by fixed pitch instruments such as flutes. This should be done, though, with instruments that can be said for certain not to have been influenced by Western pitch.

It is within this context that one must consider the fact that many of the guqin recordings made during Zha Fuxi's recording project in the 1950s are of instruments that seem to use A=440 Hz as their standard, making C (i.e., C=65 Hz) the closest pitch to their open lowest string in standard tuning. In the past the actual pitches of the strings on a qin would have been determined by such factors as qin length, quality of strings and weather, not to mention personal taste. But by the 1950s Western ideas of pitch were already common in Chinese conservatories. The available project notes do not seem to comment on this or on the possibility that for these recordings the instruments were tuned up higher so as to have a brighter sound; there is also the possibility that the recordings were speeded up to give them a higher pitch, but there is no evidence to support this. However, it should be noted in this regard that for quite a number of the recordings in this project (as can be heard on the related 8-CD Guqin Collection) the open first strings are tuned (based on C=65 Hz) to B or B flat, and at least one is tuned down to G sharp (in a Qiujiang Yebo as played by Cheng Wujia).

It should also be kept in mind that in the past there would normally have been no problem acquiring silk strings at a reasonable price (at least reasonable to the sort of people who could afford to buy a qin). In this case there would be less fear of strings breaking, as they could easily be replaced. One must also consider the possibility that such tasks as stringing and tuning the instrument might have been the job of a "qin servant" (琴童 qin tong).
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26. Ice Strings (冰絃 bingxian)
"Bingxian" was an ancient term denoting silk strings of the highest quality, not necessarily for qin; this reference connects it to another ancient term with an apparently similar meaning, "crystal strings" (水晶絃 shuijing xian). Although today it seems to be assumed that the term "bingxian" refers to strings that are smooth and clear as ice, as yet I have not been able to find early descriptions that specify this; some descriptions suggest that "white as snow" might be a better description. In any case, today its fame has led to the term "bingxian" sometimes being misused.

The following references from this site suggest that the term was used in three ways: technically, to refer to strings made in a certain way; poetically, to refer fondly to the qin itself; and commercially. In all cases (even with other instruments), it was essential that they be made of silk.

  1. 1648.113 only mentions bingxian as 唐白秀貞所獻之琵琶 the name of a pipa lute given to the Tang emperor Xuanzong by Bai Xiuzhen. Its strings were said to have been made of "ice silkworm silk" (1648.196 冰蠶絲; earliest reference given is to 樂府雜錄 Yuefu Zalu).
  2. 1658.44 冰絃玉柱 bingxian yuzhu (ice strings, jade posts) is mentioned only as a poetic descripion of a guzheng (ref: 長生殿 Palace of Eternal Youth, a popular opera story). This name was apparently intended to indicate that the strings were both translucent and smooth as ice.
  3. 1/395 says these were said to be the best quality silk strings for qin, originally made, as with the previous reference to pipa, from "ice silkworm silk". The earliest reference is gives is to Yuan dynasty script for Xi Xiang Ji (the translation Western Chamber Romance refers to them as "icy strings").
  4. Taiyin Daquanji, said originally to be a Song dynasty source, mentions them as one of the "The Emaciated Immortal's Ten Friends of the Qin Dais". A comment says they were what the ancients called "crystal strings" (水晶絃 shuijing xian), but as yet I have not found further reference to the latter.
  5. They are mentioned in the lyrics of several qin songs, perhaps the earliest surviving one being Xiang Fei Yuan.
  6. In this article Wong Shu-Chee mentions their manufacture during the Ming dynasty. Here the term is used commercially.

Sun Yü-ch'in told me in 1975 that he had one ice string; TKW says that it is chemicals that make strings either white or translucent.
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27. Amplification
A superior amplification system is essential to bringing out the full range of delicate colors available from a silk string guqin. Once again, because such systems are rarely used, or incorrectly used, in guqin performances, many people have never heard the distinctive possibilities of the silk string sound.
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28. Lui Tsun-yuen (呂振原; Mandarin: Lü Zhenyuan) and his nylon strings
Lui Tsun-yuen taught guqin for many years at U.C.L.A., and in the mid 1970s, shortly after I had begun qin studies, I visited him there. At that time Lui was one of a tiny handful of active qin performers and his recordings were among the very few then available. He had a lovely old Song dynasty qin, but he used nylon fishing wire for strings. He related to me his opinion that the noisiness of the sound of fingers sliding on the strings was a major reason for the qin's lack of popularity, and so he was using strings that were perfectly smooth. (At the time some people in China used or had tried pure nylon strings, but I do not have details of that.)
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29. Breaking in new silk strings
My teacher Sun Yü-ch'in said silk strings were at their best after a two year breaking in period, then began to deteriorate after five. This perhaps applied to the type of strings then available, which were rather coarse, and he did not suggest any methods for breaking them in other than by playing them regularly until they become smoother.

With the better quality of strings available from around 1980 until the early 2000s such breaking in was much quicker. Unfortunately the more recently available strings are more coarse again.

The process of breaking in qin strings can be speeded up by various methods. Originally I would take a piece of silk or cotton cloth, pinch it around a string and run it back and forth many times. The strings would heat up and you had to be careful, but this would make them smoother after a while. Another method is first to put some wax (chemical wax of the type that melts at a temperature higher than body temperature) into the cloth, then apply this to the strings; this method can be very effective. A third such treatment is to apply raw egg white. This also assists in the smoothing process, but mainly helps keep the mesh on the lower four strings from unraveling.
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30. Synthetic materials for strings
Since Dupont developed nylon in the 1930s, this material has become common for music strings all over the world. Other sythentic forms include the composite qin strings (复合絃 fuhexian) made in Fujian since 2007. These latter are often advertized misleadingly as "new silk strings", but their sound is more like that of modified gut strings.
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31. Laurence Picken, Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey, p.269.
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32. Piezo pickups for guqin
Paul Hostetter, a luthier near Santa Clara, California (webiste), installed piezo pickups for me on a guqin made by Tong Kin-Woon. It can be as loud as the amplification system allows, but it gives a completely clean sound devoid of guqin color. In order to keep some of the original color I have used it together with a small exterior mic placed directly under one of the guqin sound holes.

Piezo pickups are discussed further with the general discussion of amplification under My Performances.
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33. Scientific measurements of the sonic qualities of silk strings
Musical colors can best be defined in terms of the musical overtones of the pitches being played. A musical pitch is usually defined in terms of the frequency of that pitch. Thus the modern concert A is usually defined as 440 hertz, i.e., 440 vibrations per second. However, the pure pitch 440 hz is a very piercing and mechanical sound, generally considered to be ugly. What gives beauty to the sound are the overtones that can be produced when playing this pitch on a musical instrument. These overtones are essentially multiples of the fundamental using ratios such as 2/1 (880, 1760….), 3/2 and so forth. When the ear listens to what it thinks is a pitch of 440 hz, it is actually hearing a whole series of overtones that it combines and interprets as 440 hz.

As yet, to my knowledge the only test of how this applies to the qin has been the one supervised in 1998 by Andrew Horner and Lydia Ayers (website) of the computer science department at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Andrew and Lydia had previously measured the overtones produced by several other stringed instruments. After discussing the issue with me, they had one of their students carry out a project trying to synthesize silk string guqin sounds, in the process measuring overtones created by open, stopped and harmonic tones. For this I played only single notes (no slides or ornaments) using each technique. The most noticeable results from measuring the harmonics were their richness, the strength of the fourth harmonic in particular, and the slow fade of the overtones over five seconds or more.

Thus, although our tests confirmed the richness of the overtones produced by silk strings, since we did not make comparable measurements on an instrument with nylon/metal strings, any conclusions must be considered preliminary. (See also the next footnote.)
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34. Instability of pitch
This apparent rising and falling of pitch is so subtle that, although measurable scientifically, I am never sure I can actually hear it. It does, though, affect my playing sometimes: when holding a stopped note I may try to emphasize this with a very slight movement of the finger stopping the string. This is also sometimes my interpretation of the vibrato technique known as "fixed vibrato" (定吟 dingyin), sometimes described as a vibrato during which you do not move the finger, but only let your pulse create the vibrato.
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35. Scientific tests of guqin sound
The research mentioned above suggested but did not prove scientifically the differing quality and fading of overtones between qins with silk strings and those with strings made with other materials. Since then at least two further scientific research projects have shed further light on the differences between silk and non-silk strings.

  1. Model-Based Sound Synthesis of the Guqin (.pdf)
    This paper, published in Finland in 2006, analyzed sounds from a nylon-metal string qin; the main aim was apparently to synthesize the guqin sound. In addition to the paper linked here (pdf), there was also an introductory webpage of the same title, including some linked sound samples. The test considered all three components to the string vibrations: transversal (a combination vertically and horizontally at one point of the string), longitudinal (horizontally from one end of the string to another, as with a slinky), and torsional (if the string twists/rotates). It particularly comments on "inharmonicity" (overtones/partials produced that do not have the theoretically correct relation [e.g., 2/1; 3/2] to the fundamental) and "phantom partials" (very high overtones related to longitudinal vibrations of the strings).

    The summary of their results includes the statement, "Guqin tones are slightly inharmonic and they exhibit phantom partials." This suggests either that no special effort was made to measure the overtones and their decay, or that the overtones on a nylon/metal stringed qin are not at all remarkable. If, as the paper states, the "inharmonicity [is] caused by string stiffness", this should be stronger on a qin with nylon-metal strings than one with the less rigid silk strings. If my understanding is correct, phantom partials are also more likely with rigid strings, and thus should be less with silk strings.

    Whether or not my understanding of this and other observations made in the paper are correct, clearly it would be very interesting to compare the results of their measurements of the rather modern nylon/metal sounds with results from similar measurements made of the traditional silk string sounds. In particular, once similar research has been done on a guqin with silk strings, the results of their nylon-metal string research will be very significant for understanding not just traditional guqin sounds per se, and how they have changed since the Cultural Revolution; it will also help explain how and why the new strings are changing the methods people use when playing the instrument.

  2. Sound Analysis of Longitudinal Vibrations of Qin Strings (pdf)
    This paper, by Dr. Tse Chun-yan and his student Wong Chun-fung, is the English version of a paper first published in 香江琴緣 in connection with a qin exhibition at the HK Heritage Museum in 2014. According to Dr. Tse "The topic is on longitudinal vibration as a cause of metallic noise qin strings, an issue which I have been interested in for some years. Recently, a qin student of mine who is an IT expert assisted me to do spectral analysis of the qin sound, and we obtained objective evidence to support my previous speculations on the topic."

    Dr. Tse does not take a position on whether silk strings or metal strings are "better"; rather his conclusions include advice on how to mitigate the metalic noise when playing with nylon-metal strings: the severity of the sound is related to a variety of factors such as: the place at which the strings are plucked, the precise tuning used, the quality of the instrument, the brand of strings and the interaction of all these to each other.

These papers both focused on the sound from metal string qins. I have not yet seen similar research done on the sound quality of silk strings.
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36. Preserving and smoothening silk strings A fraying string and glue        
The various techniques I have heard for accomplishing this include:

  1. Constant play (see further); the hands must be clean.
  2. Rubbing the strings with a glue or paste similar to that in which the strings were originally boiled.
  3. Rubbing the strings with a type of wax that melts at or near body temperature and is low in acid; this could be a chemical substance such as paraffin, or perhaps an organic substance such as lanolin.
  4. Wiping the silk strings with egg white. This eventually might make them very smooth, but some people claim that it may also affect the chemical composition of the strings themselves, specifically the glue, making the strings more likely to break. It has also been suggested that the egg white may also attracts bugs to chew on the strings.

I have not heard of any pre-modern essays discussing this issue. It should be noted that when applying glue or paste one should put paper or cloth under the strings so that the glue or paste does not stick to the top surface of the qin.

Further regarding the application of glue or paste, there are two focuses for this:

  1. To strengthen as well as smoothen all the strings in general.
  2. To preserve the mesh wrapping for the lower strings, which with time tends to tear/fray. For this reason, the whole of strings 1 to 4 should be periodically checked to see if the wrapping is coming loose from the core, but perhaps extra glue should be applied to the area where the strings are plucked (and under which one can often see a powder, which is glue that has been stripped from the strings through plucking with the nails).

To my knowledge the application of additional glue to preserve and strengthen silk strings originated with Wong Shu-Chee for his modern Taigu strings, and I do not know to what extent this may be necessary due to a deterioration in the quality of silk available. The Taigu strings come with additional glue. To my knowledge such glue is not sold separately from sets of qin strings. To apply the glue that comes with the strings, add water to the hard glue and rub it with the fingers until it feels sticky (do not close the lid until the glue is very dry again). According to Wong Shu-Chee, the glue should be applied thinly but regularly, as a preventative: once the string starts to fray it cannot be repaired.

In addition to this prepared glue, there are also several types of glue that can be easily made at home.

Once again, there is no historical information available on string maintenance. Perhaps this was because in the past strings were better made, but perhaps also it was the case that the expense of strings was not an issue. In any case, one should beware of information based on "logic" or anecdotes (including such information that may be given here).
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37. Fang Yuting 方裕庭 (1885-1977)
Some accounts call him the last traditional maker of silk strings for qins, but see also Pan Guohui. Some information about Fang can be found through an internet search in Chinese for "方裕庭" (an English search rather stupidly turned up a stolen [because unattributed] old copy of the present page on a website selling metal strings, adding a corny picture of a harpist). The 塘棲 Tangqi district is centered about 20 kilometers north of Hangzhou. 查阜西 Zha Fuxi, 吳景略 Wu Jinglue and 莊劍丞 Zhuang Jiancheng were all famous qin masters. Most of the information about this comes from 琴絃問題 Qinxian Wenti, an article in Zha Fuxi: Collected Writings about Qin, pp. 384-387.
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38. Discouraging the use of silk strings
One time in the mid 1990s after I had played at a gathering of the Beijing Qin Society, using silk strings as usual, several young players came up to me, said they really liked the sound, and asked where they could get silk strings. I asked who their teacher was. They said Li Xiangting. I said certainly Li could tell them. They told me he had refused to do so.
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39. Availability of Taigu silk strings (太古琴絃 Taigu Qinxian) from 黃樹志 Wong Shu-Chee (see also his articles)
As of 2014 the situation is that in Hong Kong these strings are still available from gift shops at the Chilin Nunnery (Wiki; 志蓮淨苑) in the Diamond Hill section of Kowloon. They are said to have Taigu strings in two categories, "精製 jingzhi" (HK$1,600; one gauge) and "標準 biaozhun" (HK$800; two gauges). I have not yet seen the latter and am not sure whether they are the same as the strings made earlier. Before selling they may try to ascertain that you do in fact play the qin, then they will sell one set of each of the three types of string. These strings can also sometimes be found advertised online, sometimes at very high prices; I do not know how reliable these sources are.

Contact for Wong Shu-Chee himself is taigustring@yahoo.com.hk. In January 2007 he had told me the following about the availability of his strings.

Qin players outside of China who would like his silk strings (供應海外琴人) should contact:

New Asia Qin Society 新亞琴社
The New Asia Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies
6 Farm Road, To Kwa Wan, Kowloon, Hong Kong (every Saturday)
香港九龍土瓜灣農圃道6號 新亞研究所 (逢星期六有活動)
Contact person: Miss Jade Tse 謝淑瓊
Tel: (852) 9465-8442
Email: jadetse@gmail.com

Qin players in China who would like the silk strings (只供應國內琴人) should contact:

Miss Sun Song 孫嵩
Tel: (86)139 1776 7235
E-mail: sunsong100@gmail.com

Perhaps this latter information is now out of date.
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40. 潘國輝 Pan Guohui
An online article (see translation) says that Pan Guohui studied silk string making from Fang Yuting (see above). My contacts with Pan have been mostly through Wang Duo, as above, though see next footnote.
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41. Jinyu Qin Strings (今虞琴絃 Jinyu Qinxian) (see label)
Some details about ordering these strings can be found by searching in www.taobao.comm, as mentioned above. As far as I understand they have three gauges with price per set between 300 and 400 RMB; the labels say they were all made by Pan Guohui in Suzhou. In the sample label linked here the writing is all in standard characters, not simplified ones. On the right side is some comment as to how they were made; the left side concerns how to take care of them.

A student recently bought for me some Jinyu Qinxian strings online. Labeled as "白笈加粗", which literally means "thick with baiji", these strings have the thickest gauges I have ever seen. They seem to be of quite good quality. Shortly after getting them I installed a set on a new and rather heavy qin made by 夏林余 Xia Linyu of Yangzhou. As usual, removing the existing nylon metal strings gave the sense of releasing a prisoner from chains; putting on the silk strings was like dressing the same person to meet the sages. Fortunately, although the strings were somewhat coarse (as is common with thick strings) and so will require considerable breaking in, their sound on thie instrument is very melodious.
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42. Tiger Hill Brand Qin Strings (虎丘牌琴絃 Huqiupai Qinxian) (label; availability)
Tiger Hill is a famous spot in Suzhou and these strings, which I first saw there in 2004, are apparently also made there. They also make erhu fiddle strings. In 2012 I found several sets in Beijing; they seem to be of quite good quality, as were sets ordered through the internet around that time.
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43. Silk strings on early Western musical instruments
Evidence suggesting that early Western instruments sometimes used silk strings includes the following (see details):

  1. The general assumption is that stringed instruments usually used gut for the strings; gut strings are made from sheep's gut, and there is no reason given how it came to be called catgut. In fact, medieval and renaissance sources rarely mention the actual material used for the strings, and when they do mention this they often specify both "sheep's gut" and "cat's gut", as though they are different.
  2. Silk string is known to have existed in Europe even before medieval times; its uses included for fishing line, and a 16th century source mentions a fisherman using a catgut lute string as a fishing line.
  3. Some early records mention strings vibrating for up to 10 seconds after being struck: gut strings vibrate a second or two at most, but silk vibrations can continue for 10 seconds.
  4. The biggest expense for string instrument players was string-replacement: gut strings could break very easily and often; thus, although silk strings would have been very expensive, the fact that they can last for years makes the likelihood of their use less remote, even if the silk strings were imported from Asia.
  5. The etymology of the word "catgut" is disputed. One theory suggests that the word "caterpillar" comes from a French expression meaning for "wooly cat"; caterpillers are the producers of silk and most European caterpillars are wooly in appearance. This suggests that "catgut" might originally have referred to silk cord.

With regard to the last comment, there are also a number of other etymologies not related to silk: one is that "catgut" comes from "catapult gut". In addition, the word catgut can be seen in some old dictionaries as the name of a type of twisted rope tied on a sailing boat to a protective piece of wood called a "cat".

As for other uses of silk strings in Europe, Per-Ulf Allmo informs me that "Polish fiddles in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as old Swedish nyckelharpa always had the highest string made of silk".

Asia

Silk strings were used for a long time in Central and Western Asia, and from there they apparently also made their way to India. Thus, importing them into Europe may have meant they only had to come from as far away as the Ottoman Empire. Their use in South Asia is mentioned in the following quote (from Allyn Miner, Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries, 1993 and 1997, p.61):

Amir Kusrau during the 13th-century Delhi Sultanate period mentions the rabab frequently. In one passage he says:

In order to display the beauty of the bridal-bed of poetry 12 screens [pardah:modes] have been stretched along the fine and thin silken chords fastened to the wooden pegs of the Rabab (Askari 1972:110).

Silk strings may also have been used later by the famous Mughal court musician Tansen. Unfortunately, there is little discussion of the qualities of various string materials in any of these sources.
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44. Silk strings on other Western instruments A "Chancellor" violin string (expand)    
The image at right, from 王耕 Wang Geng, shows a "Chancellor violin string".

According to Alexander Raykov (who also sent this price list),

The German Chancellor string was probably made by an arm of the old British - American company that was selling violin - cello accessories as late as 1950s. The "Chancellor" brand name seems to be one of the eternal favorites of the musical companies: right now there is a "Chancellor" drum company and I still see sometimes "Chancellor" violin bridges and chin rests.

Apparently there were at least three distinct places in Europe making silk strings, one each in Italy, France and Germany, and possibly one in England, too. These three or four silk string making centers apparently supplied most of the companies that packaged and sold the strings to musicians. Again from as late as the 1950s I have seen a variety of brands clearly being supplied from each of the first three places. Most of them are clear in appearance, cooked in clear gelatine, many of them were varnished, some with quite heavy varnish. It was traditional in European gut string making, and it was probably felt that a silk string would "hair out" less if it was covered with varnish.

The clearness of a string, that seems to attract the fancy so much, can be a result of one of two things:

Sericin does offer some UV protection, but most of the glues I have mentioned do not. From the standpoint of string longevity I would suggest that keeping the original fiber sericin, or adding it to the glue would be important.

Alexander also added further updates to his comments on silk strings.
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45. Increase price of guqins
Nevertheless, some of the least expensive qins have proven to be quite useable when strung with silk. In my experience, for these cheap instruments the best result usually comes from lighter ones.
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46. Silk strings from Japan (for China see above)
As in China, most Japanese stringed instruments used to use either silk or gut strings. Today in Japan composite strings have often replaced silk, but good quality silk strings have always continued to be available as well. Strings made for these other instruments, however, have never worked well with guqin. I don't know about the history of silk strings made for guqin in Japan, but for the past few years some Japanese companies have shown an increased interest in making them.

At present there are two main limitations to the usefulness of the Japanese strings:

  1. Some sets include only twisted strings, not the wrapped ones that help give body to the sound on the lower strings (in traditional Chinese guqin string sets the first to fourth strings are wrapped with a fine mesh.)

  2. The Japanese strings are about five times more expensive than silk strings made in China

In spite of this, some people consider them now to be either already better than strings from China, or potentially better as they continue to work on them - and as the environment in China continues to degrade: many people say that the air pollution in China has already led to a serious deterioration in the quality of silk. In this regard it is interesting to note that as of 2014 a version of the strings made by Marusan Hashimoto (see below) was being sold in China by Wang Peng's Juntian Fang, under its own label.

As of June 2013 there were, to my knowledge, two Japanese companies making strings designed for use on the guqin, Tobaya and Marusan Hashimoto. Details are as follows:

Tobaya (烏羽屋; website) Tobaya packaging  
Tobaya, located in the Kamigyō district of Kyoto (京都市上京区油小路通下立売下る西裏辻町260), apparently traces its origins to 1655, first in dyeing then, since 1849, in string making. They make silk strings for a variety of music instruments. They say they have made qin strings for "a long time"; as of this writing (2013) these strings can be ordered directly from Tobaya; one set is US$232, including international postage. I saw a set when I helped a student put them on his qin.

The gauges of the Tobaya strings (in mm) put them between the standard and medium gauges for Chinese silk strings:

  1. 01.52
  2. 01.28
  3. 01.15
  4. 01.10
  5. 00.95
  6. 00.90
  7. 00.85

The Tobaya strings are very smooth and well-made, but none of them has the traditional mesh wrapping (described above). I do not know if this suggests that in the past qins in Japan often did not have wrapped strings. Related to this would be the question of to what extent qin strings might have in the past been imported from China; as yet I have no information about this.

Marusan Hashimoto (丸三桥本; website) (Further details)      
Marusan Hashimoto are located in Kinamoto, Nagahama-shi, Shiga-ken, near Lake Biwa (〒529-0425 滋賀県伊香郡木之本町木之本1049番地); as of October 2013 English language contact was via a Mr. Chen (w.chen@ise-jp.com).

Because these seem to be the best silk strings currently in production, further details are given about them on a separate page.

For both Tobaya and Marusan Hashimoto making silk strings for guqin seems to be a spinoff from the silk strings they make for traditional Japanese instruments. In China their quality is challenged only by the 素心絲絃 Suxin Sixian.
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47. Current availability of silk strings for guqin made in China (see also Japan)
      (For the misleadingly named "new silk" or metal/nylon see NAGA)
Judging the quality of a set of silk strings based simply on their brand is a complicated issue for two basic reasons. Different people have different tastes; and the quality of individual brands can change. For example, in 2012 when I bought some Huqiu Pai (see below) silk strings in Beijing from Jin Wei he told me that they were now better than Pan Guohui strings, whereas the previous year it was the other way around.

With that in mind, here is a listing of recent successes in obtaining silk strings in China and Hong Kong (see also Japan)

  1. As of 2014 Taigu strings made over 10 years ago by Wong Shu-Chee could still be bought in Hong Kong. However, although the information above was updated in 2014, I do not know for how long it will be correct.

  2. As of 2014 it was also possible to order silk strings from various online sources. For example, go to taobao.com and search for 古琴絲絃 (without quotes). For orders in a foreign currency an intermediary may be necessary (e.g., in Singapore through Vpost). I cannot vouch for the reliability of these sources, but strings said to be available online at this time seem to include the Taigu Strings as well as 虎丘牌 Huqiu Pai strings, 今虞琴絃 Jinyu Qinxian strings and some of the Japanese made strings.

  3. As of 2012 there was an increasing number of shops in Hong Kong selling silk strings, particular the 虎丘牌 Huqiu Pai qin strings (see image), for which the price for several years has been about HK$320 - 350 a set. The most reliable shops are perhaps:

  4. In December 2012 I saw some new silk strings from Suzhou called 吳聲絲絃 Wusheng Sixian: Silk strings with the sound of Wu (the Suzhou area)
    These are apparently being made by another descendant or relative of Fang Yuting, with advice from Wang Duo. The quality seems rather comparable to that of Huqiu strings.

  5. As of 2012 I heard that 潘國輝 Pan Guohui was not actively making strings and that the quality of strings under his name had declined. In July 2009, in Suzhou, I had bought silk strings directly from him. At that time he had two types, what he called regular (RMB 250/set) and coarse (I do not recall the price). I put one set of the regular strings on a nylon-metal string qin on loan from Wang Peng and another set on a qin by Ni Shiyun. Wang Peng does not seem to like to use Pan's strings; this means that, having only a very limited number of Wong Shu-Chee's strings, he has very few silk string qins available. In fact, although Pan's strings do need some breaking in, they seemed to me quite adequate. His latest name card had a cell number (138 6255 7861) and bank account number but no email address.

  6. In November 2007 I found silk strings available at several music instrument stores in Suzhou. The owners were somewhat vague about their origin. The strings came in the same light blue boxes with light red labels and six digit telephone numbers that packaged strings being sold in the 1990s. (See label.)

  7. In 2006 I bought silk strings through 汪鐸 Wang Duo from 潘國輝 Pan Guohui. These strings came in a clear plastic cover with an insert (see copy).

In sum, although it takes some determination and perhaps Chinese language skills, it is possible to find silk strings. Thus the main reason for the difficulty in finding them is the fact that almost all teachers in China use metal strings and thus have a vested interest in them, while overseas organizations such as NAGA for apparently similar reasons decline to make them available for sale (see further comment).
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48. Work on silk strings in Japan
In June 2014 Marusan Hashimoto informed me they have modified their strings, presumably after input from their Chinese distributor.
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49. Fang Suxin and silk string research in China (see also this separate page)
方素心 Fang Suxin left a career in finance several years ago to devote herself to making silk strings for guqin. With technical help from qin maker 宋增霖 Song Zenglin and multi-instrumentalist 王耕 Weng Geng she has produced strings of increasingly high quality. In November 2013 Wang Geng brought a "gamma" set (third version) to New York, where we were able to test them out. They are very good, but her fourth version, out in December, promises to be even better. (We also visited Alexander Raykov in Cortland, New York, to hear more about his silk strings for early Western instruments).

There is further information about Fang Suxin's strings, "素心絲絃 Suxin Sixian", on their website as well as on their Facebook page.
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50. A new name for the guqin ("old qin") that does not use silk strings?
It is probably futile to argue that the modern metal stringed "guqin", while clearly a qin, should not be called "gu". Also, as mentioned, it is very unlikely that modern players will ever start calling the metal string version a "new qin" (xinqin 新琴). Other attempts at new terms also have problems. Thus, since "steel qin" (鋼琴 gangqin) has already been given to the Western piano, terms like "steel-string qin" (鋼絲琴 gangsi qin) would probably cause more confusion with pianos. Metal-wire qin (鐵絃琴 (tiexian qin) seems equally unlikely. Steel string guqin (鋼絲絃古琴gangsixian guqin) and silk string guqin (絲絃古琴 sixian guqin) are terms that clearly describe two types of guqin. thus, instead of finding a new name for the pervasive metal string instruments perhaps one should (at least in English, and in an academic context) concentrate on using a term such as silkqin or silkchin for the old qin and otherwise use a more general term such as seven-string qin (七絃琴 qixianqin): the new strings have taken the gu out of those qins.
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