qin or guqin


or 古琴

The qin, pronounced "tchinn", also known as guqin, is a seven-stringed Chinese zither without bridges. Archaeologists have found qins along with other musical instruments in tombs dating back to several centuries BC. Under the Han Dynasty, 2,000 years ago, the qin looked pretty much as it does today.

Along with calligraphy, painting and chess, over time the qin became emblematic for Chinese scholars. One plays the qin in private, perhaps for a few select friends. So while the qin is often played solo, it can be accompanied by the voice or by the xiao, a notched flute. Countless Chinese paintings show examples of musicians playing the qin out in the open air. One also sees representations of a qin hanging on the wall of a scholar's room. In some of these representations the instrument has no strings, in which case it symbolizes a vehicle of music for someone who is not himself a musician.

The qin has been played continuously in China, and though the instrument hasn't really changed and the ancient repertoire is still performed, some musicians also use it in a modern-day repertoire and the education has evolved.

As is so often the case in China, the different parts of the instrument have symbolic meanings, such as the seasons, the 365 days of the year, the five elements, etc. There are even rules for the number of silk threads to be used in each string.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the qin can be played in many different ways. The tuning of the qin is pentatonic, i.e. it consists of five notes, but all the notes in-between can be played. As well as plucking all the strings separately, the musician can shorten the strings with his left hand or play harmonics by using the 13 dots or inlays (usually made of mother-of-pearl) on the sound board as a reference. Much of the interest and beauty of the music for qin lies in the pursuit of subtle timbres. A note can be played in different ways and it is not unusual to repeat the same note on a different string to produce a slightly different timbre.

Qin notation is written in tablature, which indicates very precisely how the right hand should pluck the string (which string, with which finger and the correct movement) and what the left hand should do (its position, either pressing the string on the board or just touching it for playing harmonics, with or without glissando, what type of vibrato, etc). The pupil learns the qin by imitating the master; the notation is not used like our scores and there is next to no rhythm.

In Western literature and in poetry in particular, the word qin has often been translated as lute (instrument with a neck) whereas it is a zither (it has no neck and the strings are stretched over the sound box).  This choice of word is misleading. Even Robert Van Gulik, best known for the adventures of Judge Ti, wrote an important work about the qin entitled The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1940).

The mim has two nineteenth-century qins in its collection. One is in the 'Traditions in the world' gallery along with other zithers from Asia and Africa. Unlike the qin, most of the long zithers from the Far East, like the Chinese zheng, the Korean komungo and the Japanese koto, have a movable bridge under each string and the playing technique is very different from the qin.  

Tip: on January 23rd you can attend first a qin workshop, then a lecture and finally a concert. Click here for details.


qin M759
scholar with qin, Ming period (1368-1644), in Robert van Gulik, 1940