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Dreaming of the Qin 琴
An exploration of the guqin 古琴 and its role in the novel and the opera.
Introducing the Qin 琴
In the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Daiyu 黛玉 and Baoyu 寶玉 share an intimate moment over a musical instrument. In the opera, this moment appears as well, which also marks the only appearance of a Chinese instrument in the score. What is this instrument, and why does it stand out in such an important way?
In fact, qin 琴 has come to refer to many different kinds of instrument, and so what we are talking about is now commonly referred to as guqin 古琴, or “ancient instrument.” This “ancient instrument” is, as the name suggests, a tremendously important part of Chinese high musical culture. The guqin is a seven-stringed instrument, whose closest Western counterpart is the zither. Over the course of this exhibit, we will explore what the qin is, how it is played, how it fits into Chinese culture, and why it shows up in both the novel and opera, between these two important characters. To help go into greater detail, we traveled to Queens, New York to interview Chen Tao 陳濤 and Liu Li 劉麗, two members of Chinese musical group Melody of the Dragon. Chen Tao will explain aspects of the qin and its context, while Liu Li will play us some examples of qin music. The video for these segments was shot by Chloe Gbai.
Introducing the Qin – Interview
In this interview with Andrew Schumacher-Bethke, Chen Tao talks about the important role of music and art in enabling young Chinese of the Qing period to express their feelings. He tells us that the qin is one of the oldest of Chinese musical instruments. He also tells us that the original qin had five notes, and explains that the pentatonic scale had its origins with the five notes of the qin.
Looking at the Qin
In this video clip, Chen Tao describes the symbolic significance of the construction of the qin. He first tells us that when one stands a qin up, it resembles a human body. But it is not just the human body that the qin evokes. In Chinese cosmology, the sky is regarded as round and the earth is square and flat. The front surface of the qin is rounded, invoking the sky, and the back is flat, invoking the earth. The top of the qin recalls mountains, the bottom, the sea. The 13 dots along the side of the instrument recall the 12 months, plus one for the intercalary month (a month that is periodically added to make up for the fact that the lunar calendar and the solar calendar are not in sync). Chen Tao tells us that the qin evokes the concept of yin/yang （陰/陽) and is an embodiment of the Chinese saying “heaven and earth are harmonized” (tianren he yi 天人合一）.
Chen Tao goes on to tell us that the qin originally had only 5 strings, but Zhou Wenwang 周文王 (the founder of the Zhou dynasty, 1152 – 1056 BCE) used his founder’s prerogrative to add a sixth string, and his successor Zhou Wuwang 周武王 (who was the actual first emperor) added a seventh string.
Playing the Qin 琴
How do you play the qin? First, the basics. While some Chinese instruments are bowed like violins, the qin is exclusively plucked. There are seven strings: the first five are distinct notes, while the last two are repetitions of the first two, but an octave higher.
Just as in Western classical music, the qin is played from written music. In Western music, there are seven notes that are laid out along a staff. Musical notation primarily indicates which note is to be played, and for how many beats the note should be held. Any other information is optional, and left to the discretion of the composer. Qin notation, or qinpu, is much different. In some respects, it is similar to guitar tabs, where the music shows what strings are to be plucked, but qin tablature gives much more information than this. In addition to which strings are to be played, qin music also must indicate how they are to be played. This can be a simple, single pluck, involve multiple notes at once, sliding motions, or any number of other possible actions and combinations. This is a lot of information! Qin tablature conveys this information in a straigtforward, if dense, way: through language. As we can see in the example to the left, qin tablature does not involve an entirely separate means of notation, like Western music, but instead uses words to give instructions. Thus a “note” in qin music contains information clearly instructing the player about not only which note to play, but how to play it.
Because qin notation involves actual writing, we have a hint as to who traditionally played the qin, and where it was played. In order to read qinpu, one needs to be able to read in general. Thus, traditionally, qin playing was restricted to literate people. Generally, the qin was considered a scholar’s instrument, played in the privacy of one’s office, either alone or with a small group of people. It was not a public instrument, instead being intended for private enjoyment, meditation, and personal study. Playing the qin requires great physical and mental effort, as reading qinpu, arranging one’s fingers, and figuring out rhythm, tempo, and other music aspects takes a great deal of time and study. Further, playing the qin is supposed to be a contemplative activity. Ideally it should be played in beautiful surroundings, either in nature or in a carefully prepared space, and the player must be ready to play. All of this lent the qin and qin music an air of privileged culture. While cultural changes in contemporary China meant that qin playing rapidly decreased in the 20th century, recent attempts, including the Dream of the Red Chamber opera, have begun to renew interest and encourage learning.
While the “characters” in the above tablature, dated 1670, look as if they are Chinese characters, they are in fact not characters, but are rather a set of short-hand instructions as to how the qin should be played. On the next page, we will turn to a passage from the novel where Baoyu first sees the tablature which Daiyu is using to play the qin. The passage expresses the emotional intimacy between qin player and listener, as well as providing concrete information (which may be of particular interest to those of you who read Chinese) as to what the symbols on a tablature mean.
This image comes from a mid-19th century Qinpu. It explains the right hand finger position known as gou 勾, which means something like “hook. “The text is an explanation of the hand position in the illustration. The text reads (slightly modified from the translation of James Binkley).
The middle finger bends down from the bottom joint. The middle and top two joints are held straight. The thumb is as in previous examples, inclined and under the middle finger. When gou is played, the last joint of the middle finger must fall past and under the fingernail of the thumb. It should not strike the next string. Motion comes from force exerted from the middle joint of the middle finger. The index and ring fingers are straight and extended in a similar way and are also higher than the middle finger. The little finger is (held) as in previous (examples).
Text from chapter 86: Baoyu Encounters Qinpu (Qin Handbook)
Let’s turn to the novel and watch as Baoyu first sees the tablature which Daiyu is using to play. The scene occurs in the second part of chapter 86 in the novel.
Looking down at the page open in front of Daiyu, Baoyu found that he couldn’t understand a single character on it. Some of them seeemed familiar, like the characters for Peony and Vast; but on closer inspection he saw that even they had been in some way changed. There was the character for Hook, with a Five inside it, and a Nine and a Big on top and there was a Five next to a Six, with Wood below and another Five at the very bottom It was all very puzzling.
“You must be very advanced, to be able to decipher this esoteric script!” he said.
“Not much of a scholar really are you! Fancy never having seen a qin tablature before!”
“It’s music, of course! But why don’t I know any of the characters? Do you know what they mean?”
“No, of course not, that’s why I am reading it…”
“Do you really? I never knew you could play. Did you know about the qins hanging on the wall in the main library? There are quite a few. I remember the year before last Father had a friend who was a qin player–Antiquarian Ji, I think he was called. Father asked him to play a piece, but when he tried the instruments, he said none of them were fit to play. He said if Father really wanted to hear him play, he would come back another day with his own instrument. But he never did. I think he must have decided Father was tone deaf. Well! So all this time you’ve been hiding your light under a bushel.”
“Oh no,” replied Daiyu. “I’m no good. It just happened that a day or two ago, when I was feeling a little better, I was looking through my bookcase and came across an old Qin Handbook. It seemed such a fine thing and made such fascinating reading. It began with a preface on the general philosophy of the qin, which I found most profound and then it explained the technical side in great detail. I realized that playing the qin is a form of meditation and spiritual discipline handed down to us from the ancients.
“I had a few lessons when we lived in Yangzhou and made some progress. But since then I’ve become so out of practice, and now my fingers are all ‘overgrown with brambles’ as they say. The first Qin Handbook I found only had the names o the Airs, it didn’t have the words and music. But now I have found another with the Airs written out in full. It’s so interesting! Of course, I realize that I shall never be able to do justice to the score. To think what the great Master Musicians of the past could do–like Master Kuang, whose playing could summon wind and thunder, dragon and phoenix! And to think that Confucius could tell from his Music Master Xiang’s first notes that he was listening to a musical portrait of King Wen.! To play a Rhapsody of Hills and Streams and share its inner meaning with a fellow music lover…”
Daiyu fluttered her eyelids and slowly bowed her head.
Baoyu was completely carried away:
“Oh, coz! How wonderful it all sounds! But I’m afraid I still don’t understand these peculiar characters. Please teach me how to read some of them.”
“I don’t need to teach you. It’s easy.”
“But I’m such a fool! Please help me! Take that one there–all I can make out is Hook, with Big on top and Five in the middle.”
Daiyu laughed at him.
“The Big and Nine on top mean you stop the string with the thumb of your left hand at the ninth fret. The Hook and Five mean you hook the middle finger of your right hand slightly and pull the fifth string toward you. So you see, it’s not what we’d call a character, it’s more a cluster of signs telling you what the next note is and how to play it. It’s very easy. Then there are signs for all the graces-the narrow and the wide vibrato, the rising and the falling glissando, the mordent, the tremulo, the falling glissando with open string drone…”
Baoyu was beside himself with joy.
“As you understand it so perfectly, coz, why don’t we start studying the qin together?”
“The essence of the qin,” replied Daiyu, “is restraint. It was created in ancient times to help man purifiy himself and lead a gentle and sober life, to quell all wayward passions and to curb every riotous impulse. If you wish to play, then you must first,
seek out a quiet chamber,
a studio with a distant view,
or upper room;
or some secluded nook
‘mong rocks and trees,
on craggy mountain-top
by water’s edge…
Let the weather be clear and calm, a gentle breeze, a moonlit night. Light some incense, and sit in silent meditation. Empty the mind of outward thoughts. Poise Blood and Breath in Perfect Harmony. Your Soul may now commune with the Divine and enter into that mysterious Union with the Way.
“As the ancients said, true music-lovers have always been few. If there is o one able to share your music’s true delight, then sit alone, and
serenade the breeze and moonlight,
hymn the ancient pines and weather-worn rocks;
let wild monkeys and
hear your song,
rather than the vulgar mob, whose dull ears would only sully the precious virtue of the qin.
“So much for the setting. The next two essential are finger-technique and touch. And before you think of playing, be sure to dress in a suitable style–preferably in a swansdown cape or other antique robe, Assume the dignified manner of the ancients, a manner n keeping with the chosen instrument of the sages. Wasj your hands. Light the incense. S on the edge of your couch. Place the qin on the table before you and sit with your chest opposite the fiffth fret. Raise both hands slowly and gracefully. You are now ready, in body and mind, to begin.
“”You must while playing observe carefully the dynamic markings–the piaon, forte, allegrom adafuo–and maintain a relaxed but serious manner at all times.”
“Goodness me!” said Baoyu. “I was thinking we could do it for fun! If it’s as complicated as that, I am not sure I’d be up to it!”
The Chinese text for this passage is on the next page.
Text from chapter 86: Baoyu Encounters Qinpu (in Chinese)
The above text is available at the Chinese text project here.
Seeing How to Play the Qin
In this video Chen Tao 陳濤 talks about three sounds made by the qin: fanyin 泛音, anyin 按音 or 案音(which he calls stopped) and sanyin 散音(which he calls casual).
Intimacy and the Qin 琴
Friendship and the Qin
As we can hear from the interview with Chen Tao 陳濤, the qin is an instrument that involves a great deal of intimacy. Not only was it traditionally meant to be played alone or to at most a few other people, the time and study involved meant that playing music was always an intimate and involved affair. Obviously many instruments can be used in intimate settings or to produce feelings of intimacy, but we must remember that the qin was never intended for public performance. It is not just that the qin can be intimate, but in fact was always intended to be.
An excellent example, as we will see in this segment of the interview, is a story of two friends brought together by a unique, intimate understanding of qin music, the story of the musician Boya 伯牙 and the woodcutter Ziqi 子期. When Ziqi died, Boya broke his qin and swore to never play music again. This type of intimacy can give us clues about what is happening when we see or hear the qin in literature or on the stage. In both the novel and opera Dream of the Red Chamber, there is a scene where Baoyu encounters Daiyu playing the qin. While their flirty conversation also gives away their feelings, the inherent intimacy of the qin is also very important. As we’ve seen, playing the qin is an involved process that combines mental, spiritual, and physical calm and readiness, as well as a high degree of literary sophistication. Daiyu is choosing to share this work and intimate space with Baoyu. This sharing is somewhat like young lovers sharing poetry, but is also more than that, because no one could ever see or experience what the two are sharing in that moment.
Qin 琴 Musical Pieces
In this piece, Liu Li 劉麗 plays “Intoxicated by Wine” (“Jiu Kuang” 酒狂) which is said to have been written by Ruan Ji 阮籍 (210–263), one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.
In this video, Chen Tao 陳濤 tells us that there are three types of qin performance. The qin can be performed as a solo instrument, with a xiao 簫 ( a kind of flute), or with a singer (who may or may not be the qin player). In this segment, Chen Tao plays the xiao and Liu Li 劉麗 plays the qin in a piece called “Meditating.”
More about Liu Li 劉麗 (recordings and a brief bio)
In this recording, taken from youtube, Liu Li 劉麗 plays “Flowing Water” (Liu shui 流水）。
In this recording, Liu Li plays a variety of classical qin tunes, as well as some of the music composed by Tan Dun 譚盾 which she played with Itzhak Perlman for the movie “Hero.”