Taking it on the qin

Following my tribute to Lin Youren, I should explore my ambivalent relation with the qin zither. Such a dominant image of Chinese musical culture, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord.

In my first few years studying Chinese music I was obsessed with the qin, practising constantly while seeking out the Great Masters of the day—Wu Jinglue, Zhang Ziqian, Wu Zhaoji, and so on. Later I came to feel less involved with it, partly because I found less time to devote myself to playing—not exactly that I no longer felt worthy, rather that my studies of local folk culture and ethnography gradually distanced me from elite culture.

Immersing myself in the culture of shawm bands—by far the most common form of instrumental music in China for many centuries—performing for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I found myself among poor people, many disabled and former opium smokers—virtual outcastes, like gypsies. See my

  • “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese Music (University of Rochester Press, 2013), 112–26.

But their music too was always played at the behest of the imperial elite, even if the latter wouldn’t dream of playing it themselves; the musicians often consider notation superfluous, but it was of great complexity, sophistication, and, well, antiquity. So too for the vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble of ritual specialists.

In China at least, I don’t find terms like “classical” (or “art”) and “folk” very useful. “Classical” musics are somehow old and prestigious, favoured by social elites, and often handed down partly by means of notation; folk music (like herpes, as observed in Molvania) is largely handed on by oral transmission.

Our image of Asian culture is still largely based on the “art” traditions, like sitar in India—at the expense of local folk traditions. In China the qin is represented by several hundred CDs and a wealth of material online. But however wonderful we may find it, in imperial times, despite its prominence as an image for poets and painters, there were never more than a few hundred people who could play it. A solo amateur tradition, its main life, still today, is not on the concert stage but in gatherings of amateurs, called qinhuiqin meeting” (perhaps “qin wag”), and there are lively little qin communities all round the world.

Great—but in China and elsewhere a lot of music (like folk-song or ritual opera) is presumably “old” too, although it never stands still, and it’s dangerous to make assumptions about the superiority of one or the other: any music is valued, or not, within its social context. But if you think how many people there must be in China who sing folk-songs—at least a few tens of millions, at a conservative estimate. So how many CDs are there of genuine Chinese folk-singing (he asked polemically)? Putting aside vast numbers of recordings of conservatoire-trained performers on stage, and apart from several CDs of ethnic minority singing, I know of precisely two. The diverse repertoires of the shawm bands are similarly under-represented.

When we know so little about most Chinese musical cultures, it seems fair to say that the qin is one topic that is over-subscribed.

Of course, elite culture is clearly part of the whole fabric, but—until recently—it has naturally dominated the discourse of the elite. In most social groups in the West, few people have heard of Bach. And when qin scholars do study the social background of the qin, they describe not temple fairs or funerals, but poetry, painting, calligraphy—the inner life of the imperial literati and their modern evolution. But its sanitized image, and the lack of broader social context, seem to feed into the whole patriotic spiel about the glory of ancient Chinese culture.

So I now find the qin something of an autonomous zone, even a fetish. We have plenty of recordings, and its distinctive notation (a form of tablature) is of course a rich historical treasury. But I’m somewhat disturbed by the slavish adherence to the reified text. As with Daoist ritual studies, scholarship concerns texts more often than social ethnography. The process of dapu, recreating early scores whose performing tradition has long been lost, has become popular since the 1950s. The qin’s codification and fetishization of timbre, too, is overestimated; folk-singers, shawm players, and so on, are just as sensitive to timbre.

“Just saying, like…” Still, the qin is a wonderful way into the elite culture of the imperial literati, and its music is mesmerizing.

It gets ever harder to give a succinct outline of sources, so I’ll just mention a few that I have found useful. One place to start is John Thompson’s comprehensive site, including a section on Zha Fuxi’s 1956 fieldwork and recordings, one of the most numinous resources for the sound-world of bygone generations, partly found on the 8-CD set An anthology of Chinese and traditional folk music: a collection of music played on the guqin (China Records, also reissued in Taiwan).

There are fine CD sets of archive recordings from Wind Records, ROI, and Hugo.

The qin features impressively on youtube, under guqin.

The regular coverage in the CHIME journal is accessible.

Bell Yung writes well not only on music and notation but also on social change:

  • “Music of qin: from the scholar’s study to the concert stage”, ACMR Reports 11 (1998): 1–14, and his chapter in
  • Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung eds. Music and Cultural Rights (University of Illinois Press, 2009).

A classic is Robert van Gulik’s The lore of the Chinese lute (1940).

Remembering an old friend 憶故人

That’s the title of one of the most soulful, and popular, pieces in the qin zither repertoire—unusually, not documented until 1937.


You can find tributes to my mentor Lin Youren (1938–2013) online, including the delightful

and as part of the fine article

So here I’ll just add a few of my own memories of Lin Youren.screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-12-20-31

Excerpts from my liner notes with the CD:

Lin Youren is a true eccentric. [Here I’m thinking of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove]. His story contains intriguing contrasts, since he learned and taught the qin under the conservatory system, but came to find the juxtaposition incongruous, quietly subverting it from within. […]

His preferred way of playing is alone with a few friends—and, in another ancient tradition of the qin player, a bottle or two of Shaoxing wine. […]

If his playing roams the clouds of Daoist selflessness, his conversation is quirky, cryptic and full of puns.

The CD is very fine, but one unusual feature is its inclusion of his “Improvisation for Michael Owen”. More from the notes:

I’m not sure you really want to know this, but the musical germ of this fantasia was the singing of exhilarated English fans in my local pub after we relished Michael Owen’s superb goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Lin found the famous football song reminiscent of the singing of Miao tribespeople in southwest China (“Not a lot of people know that”, I mused as we emerged from the pub), but by the time we got to the recording session he had wholly internalized it for the intimacy of the qin.

Actually, since he was staying with me, he tried it out for the first time as soon as we got back from the pub. A couple of days later we took the train for the recording session at Nimbus’s fine studio near Monmouth. To help him feel at home we plied him with Shaoxing wine; and he felt it would further help the vibe if I sat with him as he played, so he would have a real, and empathetic, audience. He improvised for much longer than the version on the CD, which is edited down—not quite to his satisfaction. Still, this CD was his favourite among all his recordings.


With qin master Zhang Ziqian, 1987


Qin gathering, 1987. With beard is Suzhou qin master Wu Zhaoji.