The Music of the Qin

The qin (pronounced “chin”; also called guqin, or “ancient qin”) has a unique place in Chinese culture; according to our most accurate information, it has been played in China regularly since the time of Confucius. This would mean its performance tradition goes back at least 2500 years. During that period, the instrument has enjoyed almost unrivalled status. Allusions to its poetic beauty, pristine character, connection with heaven, and even magical properties are found throughout Chinese poetry and literature.

The historical players and composers of qin music were not professional musicians. However, to describe them as amateurs brings us into a fundamental dichotomy between the concepts of “amateur” and “professional” in Western and Chinese artistic cultures. In the West, “professional” means not only someone who pursues a vocation for money, it also implies that a person is at the top tier of a particular artistic activity. In traditional China, a professional painter would be someone who painted designs on a wall or, at the high end, made copies of the great works of painting. A professional musician would be from the class of people who put together ancillary music for weddings, funerals, and other important social events. The amateur painter or musician, on the other hand, would be someone with the leisure, from important government position or high court status, to pursue art for art’s sake. There were never professional qin players until very recently. Thus, qin music, like many types of painting, calligraphy, and poetry, was created by a literati class, with no regard to financial compensation for their work. It was the product of an educated elite.

One aspect of this situation with particular relevance to today’s event is this: in Imperial China, a literatus was expected to be skilled in four arts—Qin, Qi (chess), Shu (calligraphy) and Hua (painting). As a result, most painters understood qin music, and most qin players understood painting. Partly because of this, qin pieces very frequently use gestures that are reflective of brush strokes, such as beginning or ending a phrase with a sort of vibrato or trill which, at least from the player’s point of view, is very much like the little hooks at the beginning and end of a line. Or the gentle slide down and back that is reminiscent of the curved stroke. At the same time, there is a sense of time in calligraphy and painting, which both have the same basic materials and techniques. The brush, ink and paper act together to create that sense of time. For one example, a brush moving slowly over the paper will bleed all around the edges, leaving a cloudy effect; while the same brush moved quickly and lightly will not bleed, but will leave characteristic trails of the bristles. Such visual artifacts of the painter’s technique will have an immediate connection to many of the player’s techniques, which in turn leave their own sonic artifacts.

Photo: Jonathan Histed
Playing the qin is the perfect integration of music and meditation.
The New York Qin Society

One of three English-language qin societies in the world.

My Performances on Qin

Some selected performances.

Qin Construction

Many of the great qin players and patrons of ancient times made (or had made for them) qins which had particular design features. That tradition continues, with (mostly) very happy results. 


Home        Events       Compositions        Qin         Contact        Search