Also:       guqin      qixianqin      ch’in      

Title: Exotic Music of Ancient China—The Elegant Orchid; Liu Tsun-Yuen, qin. Label: Lyrichord. Format: LP. Catalogue#: LLST 7122. Track: B-4.

Contextual Associations

The qin is a plucked box-zither chordophone of the Han Chinese, also referred to, justifiably so given its more than 3,000 year history, as the guqin (‘ancient qin’). That certain physical features of the qin have long been associated with aspects of Chinese religion and cosmology, and that each qin is bestowed a name by its maker, suggest that to the Confucian intelligentsia, the primary performers of the instrument, the qin had significance beyond its use-value as a musical instrument. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was himself a qin player and composer, and by the end of the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BCE), the qin had gained an exalted status in court culture and was frequently played, along with other instruments, in ceremonies both civic and religious. In Confucian thought the qin is associated with morality, elegance, learning, and life, and is used to enrich the individual and the state to bring peace to the realm. It was during the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) that the seven-string model of the instrument pictured here became the standard. By the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), the qin had been largely reinterpreted as a solo instrument, a physical aid to the scholar's highly personal contemplation of matters aesthetic and spiritual. Following the brief period of the Cultural Revolution (1970s) during which the Chinese government labeled the qin as decedent, it was decreed that the qin be brought into public performance. This has transformed qin performance from an art of amateur subtlety to one of more professionalized brightness, even virtuosity. One can now earn a degree in qin at conservatories, and aspire to present public solo recitals or even be a soloist with a Chinese orchestra. Throughout its long history the qin has accrued a body of symbolic meaning: its length of 3.65 ‘Chinese feet’ symbolized the length of a year (365 days); the thirteen soundboard studs stood for the thirteen moons of the year; several physical features and measurements are named after parts of mythological creatures such as the dragon and the phoenix; and the shape of its resonator represented heaven and earth that, when combined with the scholar/musician, represented the philosophical heaven-earth-man triumvirate.


The roughly oblong resonator body of the qin is made from gluing together two pieces of wood: the flat bottom board and sides are carved out of a board of zi wood; the arched soundboard from wutong wood. Two oval soundholes, one twice as large as the other, are carved into the bottom board. The resonator is covered with numerous heavy coats of lacquer. A straight bridge is glued across the soundboard near the wider end of the instrument, and at the narrower end a short ridge at the edge of the soundboard serves as a nut. Seven twisted silk strings of varying gauges are stretched over the bridge and the nut. The strings are threaded through holes just behind the bridge and, after passing through the resonator, are tied to wooden tuning pegs protruding vertically from the flat back surface. At their other end, after crossing over the nut, the strings are grouped into two sets of four and three strings that are then wrapped around two knobs attached to the backboard. The long convex soundboard serves as a fretless fingerboard, and thirteen mother-of-pearl dots are inlaid in a row along its length.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The qin is placed flat on a table so that the end with the tuning pegs (left in the photo) clears the end of the table (this gives the performer easy access to the tuning pegs). The seated player faces the side of the instrument (in the picture on this page he would be on the far side of the qin facing the camera) slightly off-center, closer to its bridge end. The thinnest, highest pitched string is nearest the player, the thickest, lowest string the furthest away. There are multiple tunings for the qin, but the most common one in use today is an anhemitonic pentatonic scale: C2 - D2 - F2 - G2 - A2  - C3 - D3; the range of the instrument is from C2 to C6. The performer plucks the strings near the bridge with the thumb and the first, second and third fingers of the right hand. Stopping the strings, either fully against the soundboard or lightly to produce harmonics, is accomplished mostly with the thumb and index finger of the left hand. The thirteen inlaid dots on the soundboard mark the points on the strings where harmonics can be played. Plucking and stopping techniques have become numerous and highly codified over time, so much so that a complex tablature system has evolved that is unique to the qin. This notation communicates to the performer how to produce a sound, not what the pitch or duration of that sound is. The mood of the composer is given great consideration in qin performance as a result of its association with literati. It is a fairly soft sounding instrument meant, for most of its history, to be performed in a scholar’s study for himself or a small group of intimates.


The precise origin of the qin is unknown, although scholars speculated it likely descended from the archaic yueh zither around 3,000 years ago. Prior to the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) it was a five-string zither, but during that period two additional strings were added. The instrument has basically remained unchanged to the present day, identical to the two qin pictured on this page. The first, which has an inscription on its backboard that reads ‘Guangling qin society’ (‘Guangling’ is a school of qin playing with its roots in the early Qing dynasty), was likely made during the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE); the second was manufactured in the 1990s.

Bibliographic Citations

Liang, Mingyue. 1972. The Chinese Ch’in: Its History and Music. San Francisco: Chinese National Music Association, San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

________. 1984. “Qin [ch’in].” NGDMI v.3: 171-173.

________. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Van Aalst, J. A. 1964. Chinese Music. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp.

Van Gulik, R. H.  1969. The Lore of the Chinese Lute. new ed. Tokyo: Tuttle.

Yung, Bell. 2002. "Instruments: Qin." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 157-165.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.122 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: vertical tension peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


48.8 in. length

Primary Materials

string - silk

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin