Social history of the guqin
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Social History and the Guqin 1
With a focus on the Ming dynaty2
  Ceramic painting: images reflecting popular taste 3      
This website resulted from my personal bias that qin music is first of all beautiful by itself,5 leading to my attempts to re-create as much as possible early manifestations of that music - i.e., the sources of the current repertoire (my over 200 reconstructions mostly from Ming dynasty tablature are listed here).6 Naturally leading from this was (and is) a desire to find out more about the culture that produced it: both the facts and the myths.7

The guqin and its music was certainly one of the treasures of Chinese literati culture (or literate Chinese culture). Part of the re-creation effort is music analysis. Other parts include learning about the people, overwhelmingly literati, who created the music (at least that which has survived8) and the stories connected to them as well as to the melodies themselves. And delving into the poetry and painting created by the same group of people. In sum, all of this might be seen as part of an effort to penetrate the milieu of the people who created the guqin music tradition. This could also be seen as an attempt as best as possible to appreciate it the way a person from the society that created it might have appreciated it: learn as much as possible about the background, but then simply play or sit and listen.

Stories about the creation of individual qin are quite suspect (even if one excludes the issue of what it means to "zuo" them). How important is it to have a "willing suspension of disbelief" about any of the stories connected to guqin?9 To what extent can this actually be done? Obstacles to this are many, the fundamental contradiction being that knowing about something is not the same as believing it or being a part of it. How can someone from outside have the same experience as someone from inside?10

Guqin in the Ming dynasty: literati culture vs. literate culture

From the middle Ming dynasty there was a rapid rise of a money-based merchant economy. Almost all of what was written in relation to guqin until that time, and most of what was written from then until well into the twentieth century, reflects typical Confucian attitudes. However, the actuality of Chinese society had some very significant changes that can be traced to the middle Ming period.11 Regarding this, writes Dorothy Ko,12

Traditional social distinctions - between high and low, merchant and gentry, male and female, respectable and mean - were idealized constructs best suited for a self-sufficient agrarian society. By the sixteenth century, these binary oppositions seemed at odds with the complexity of human relationships in the highly commercial region. The ideal Confucian norms, devised to instill social harmony by perpetuating hierarchies and distinctions, became more prescriptive than descriptive, although they were no less powerful because of that.

As outlined by Prof. Ko, a good way to study such changes is to examine the rise of a book culture during this period. The changes did not result from technological developments (block printing in the Ming was not much different from what it was during the Song dynasty) but from the rise of a money-based economy which commercialized the sale of books. And although prior to the 20th century the percentage of literate people in China was probably never more than 10%, there was a significant increase from an even lower base as a result of the rise of this book culture.

Effects from the development of a book culture

The writing down of guqin music began before the Tang dynasty, and evidence shows that by the Song dynasty a considerable amount of qin music had been written down. However, until at least 1425 CE (date of the handbook called Shen Qi Mi Pu) almost none of this was printed.13 Thus printing certainly had a considerable hand in the preservation of ancient melodies. Several questions then arise.

  1. To what extent did printing affect the development of qin music itself? For example, did the preservation of old tablature inhibit the development of new melodies?
  2. To what extent might the fact of printing influence our understanding of the relative importance of oral tradition (e.g., qin songs?) and written tradition during that period?

Guqin music can be seen as perhaps the world's oldest tradition of music written in sufficient detail that individual pieces can be almost fully recovered. Thus a corollary to the first question is: to what extent did writing down qin music affect its development? How can the effect of this be compared to the effect writing down music had on the world's other great written music tradition, classical Western music?14

Regarding oral tradition, and leaving aside the issue of the extent to which players were expected to follow written tablature, there is much to suggest that there were in particular a considerable number of qin songs that were sung but never written down. This, however, is another matter that has received very little study. What is the significance, for example, of the fact that it is only from the 17th century that we have handbooks with melodies accompanied by lyrics that follow ci patterns (thus allowing other lyrics to be sung to the same qin melodies)? What can be learned, for example, from studying songbooks from that period?15


Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Social history and the guqin (古琴與社會史)
"Social history of the guqin" (古琴社會史) would be too ambitious a title, as the coverage here is in no way comprehensive. To my knowledge there are as no comprehensive works on this topic. One of the most interesting relevant essays is James Watt, "The Qin and the Chinese Literati".

2. Ming dynasty focus
There are few publications of guqin music that survive from before the Ming dynasty, though some of the music in those publications is probably quite a bit older.

3. Images reflecting popular taste Another image: Mr. Zuoyin    
The reverse images on the two ceramic paintings above (expand) perhaps refer to a specific story - copied from an old print?

The wood block print at right (Mr. Zuoyin, i.e., Mr. Sit in Seclusion: 5067.156 refers to comments by 颜之推 Yan Zhitui about playing chess), dated 1609 and attributed to 歙縣汪耕 Wang Geng of She county in Anhui, refers to a story called 坐隱先生精訂捷徑棋譜二卷. See 徽派版畫藝術 Art of Woodcut of the Huizhou School, 安徽省美術出版社 Anhui Publishing House, 1995, pp.70-71). There seems to have been a series of stories called 坐隱先生精訂.... (e.g., 坐隱先生精訂滑稽餘韻) attributed to Nanjing-born 陳鐸 Chen Duo, a well-known song and sanqu essay writer (and painter?) during the late Ming period. See ICTCL p.235. (Linked with 徐霖 Xu Lin. )

5. Studying qin
According to my personal experience many people today say they wish to study the guqin ("old qin) because of its importance in Chinese culture (i.e., not because they actually enjoy the music). This is also a valid point of view, one that I suspect was also true in the past, at least judging from my own feelings when I read long technical arguments about qin which seem to have little to do with the beauty of its music.

In addition, I am somewhat the same in that I began studying guqin hardly having heard it, intrigued mainly by what I read in the writings of Van Gulik. The most important factor drawing me in, however, was discovering the beauty of melodies as they existed in Ming dynasty publications.

6. Ancient music: and modern
Focusing on Ming dynasty music does not mean considering it superior to, or more enjoyable or essential than, modern guqin music. In different circumstances I might just as easily have focused on modern tradition. However, the modern tradition reflects a society different in many ways from the ancient one and so it is not the one under discussion here. One should also be able to appreciate both ancient and modern guqin music simply as music: adding an understanding of the background to these simply adds new dimensions.

7. Facts and myths
How does belief affect one's appreciation when listening to guqin ("old qin) music? To what extent is it helpful or even necessary to accepts as real such myths as those that say the instrument itself has a history of 3,000, or 5,000, years, or that Confucius created a melody still heard today? For me it is quite frustrating to read in program notes that a piece played by a modern orchestra was "composed" (again see "zuo") by Confucius. Reading the same claims for qin melodies published in the Ming dynasty is also frustrating to someone curious about actual origins, but interesting for what it says about people's beliefs. In addition, classical Chinese is often sufficiently vague that one can often use poetic interpretations (e.g., "而孔子作" becomes not "and so Confucius created it" becomes "and so Confucius created something related to this".)

8. Sources of the music: "folk"?
In Zha Fuxi's Guide, Section 7, wherever a qin handbook did not directly ascribe the source of a melody to a specific person, the text is likely to say the melody is "民間 from the people". This was most likely a political statement necessary at that time (1950s). My own reconstructions assume a connection between known qin melodies and what is known of Chinese music in a more purely oral tradition. Unfortunately there is little if any evidence of how the non-literate (as discussed above) might have reacted to the final product as reflected in qin handbooks (even with qin songs).

9. Willing suspension of disbelief
This is a term with a wide variety of interpretations (Wikipedia). Here it used in the way it is generally used for theater: the audience temporarily forgets that the people on stage are actors. However, it could also be used in a broader way, e.g., accepting that ancient fables actually are true.

10. Outside vs inside
Here "outsider" does not mean simply "non-Chinese". Many literati made arguments that could be interpreted as saying that women were not (or should not be) a significant part of the literati culture that created qin music and aesthetics: the page Women and the guqin tries to address this, as well as to show that knowing women's contributions is essential to having a full picture of the qin world. Perhaps more importantly over 90% of the Chinese population was also never fully part of this literati culture but rather viewed it from what might also be considered as outside: pages in the section called The qin in popular culture attempt to show how in the past the guqin showed its presence outside of the literati culture that created it.

11. Change in Chinese society
There is of course much about earlier Chinese society that is hidden from us because most of the writings that have survived come from the literati class.

12. Dorothy Ko (高彦頤 Gao Yanyi)
Dorothy Ko is a professor at Barnard College. The quote is from p.31 of "In the Floating World: Women and Commercial Publishing", the first chapter in her book Teachers of the Inner Chambers (Stanford, 1994).

13. Earliest printed handbooks
See further comment.

14. Written music tradition
Two basic differences between the Western written music tradition and that of the guqin are:

  1. Guqin tablature applies to only one instrument, thus allowing potentially better accuracy but then also perhaps less impetus for development
  2. Guqin music also remained very much an oral tradition as well as a written one. Whether or not one considers qin tablature to have been written down with sufficient detail to recover the particular performance that was recorded, this does not mean that the player had only one way of rendering that piece, or that other people were expected to render it in the same way. A student learns from a teacher, but then is free to go his or her own way.

There are, in fact, other music traditions, particularly in Asia, that lay claim to great antiquity. The issue here is not to what extent these claims have validity. The point is that with qin tablature (the "teacher") there was an attempt to write down everything necessary for a student to re-create the piece, leaving out only the note values (rhythms), which to a certain extent were personal (one's initial understanding of the rhythm of a melody comes from one's teacher). Whether this is sufficient for claiming accuracy in reconstructing early qin music can only be determined through further research. Most important here is for different people independently to reconstruct a melody, then for either them or others to analyze and try to explain the different intepretations.

15. Songbooks
Study just beginning. (See lyrics)

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