Music from the Spiritual Mists of China: the Qin


B. C. Vermeersch

Wild Geese Descending on the Sandy Shores (Píngshā Luò Yàn, 平沙落雁)
Ode to Plum Blossoms: Three Refrains (Méihuā Sannòng, 梅花三弄)
Marilyn Wong Gleysteen 王妙蓮, qin

‘A cedar ten thousand years old’: The Long-Duration History of the Qin
Bo Lawergren 勞鎛

Mist on the Rivers Xiao and Xiang (Xiao Xiang Shue yún, 瀟湘水雲)
Innocent Seagulls (Ou Lù Wàng Ji, 鷗鷺忘機)
Pei-you Chang 張培幼, qin

Han Credentials (Hànjié Cao, 漢節操)
John Thompson 唐世璋, qin


Qin Love Songs:
Song of the Qin (Guqin Yin, 古琴吟)
Immortal of the Magpie Bridge (Quèqiáo Xian, 鵲橋仙)
Cry of the Ospreys (Guan Ju, 關雎)
Mingmei Yip葉明媚, metal-string qin

Modern Qin:
Tears for Yan Hui (Qì Yán Huí, 泣顏回)
Jade Tower in Spring Morning (Yù Lóu Chunxiao, 玉樓春曉)
Stephen Dydo戴德, metal-string qin

Spring Water on Rocks (Shí Shàng Liú Quán, 石上流泉)
Stephen Dydo 戴德, electric qin

B. C. Vermeersch

The Audience


Marilyn Wong Gleysteen
Wild Geese Descending on the Sandy Shores (Ping sha luo yan)

Wild geese are free-spirited subjects of painting, poetry and music: their soaring and gliding are symbols of a learned and searching mind. This piece is a classic of qin repertory, its musical language evoking the primal sounds, movements and energy of these remarkable birds and their connection with water and air. I learned this version with master Yuan Jungping, who learned it from his teacher Wu Zhaoji. There is high regard for the antiquity of the tune, which traditionally dates back to the 8th or 9th century, with its earliest written form dating to the early 17th century.

Ode to the Plum Blossom: A Theme in Three Refrains (Old Version) (Meihua san nong[Lao mei])

  While snow still covers the ground, the plum is the first to bloom in the chill of late winter, a tribute to its stalwart spirit and vigor. Along with pine and bamboo, the plum is known in Chinese painting and poetry as the “Three Friends of Winter.” This is a musical ode to the blossoming plum, which blooms only from new shoots growing from the old tree trunk; an analogy to the fresh but hardy spirit of the scholar. Originally written for the xiao end-blown flute, the tune of the refrain was adapted for the guqin in the 8th century and first published in the early 15th century. This version after master Wu Zhaoji is also known as “Old Plum Blossom” and differs from a later more embellished version.

-- Marilyn Wong Gleysteen

‘A Cedar Ten Thousand Years Old’: The Long-Duration History of the Qin

(A 12-minute talk Greenwich Music School, 46 Barrow street, Sunday, June 4th, 2006 at 5 PM)

Bo Lawergren
There is a lot of history surrounding the qin, be it its music, players, qin manuals, or the New York Qin Society. For the instrument itself, I see two types of histories. The most common one puts the origins in or before the Shang dynasty. It has mythical heros who invented the qin, its details imbued with many symbolic meanings. Most books on the qin present that version of history. But there is a less known one that avoids speculation and prefers concrete evidence, and that’s the model I will follow. But first we need to examine the classical qin.

(Demo: Classical Qin)

The classical qin got its shape just before the beginning of the Tang dynasty, and since then it has changed little. Every classical qin has a name, and sometimes these are derived from a story. I’ll read you one included in the great qin survey written by Robert van Gulik in 1940:

“Zhang Ji was skilled in healing illness. One day he entered a cedar wood, looking for medicinal herbs. There he met a sick man, who asked for a consultation. Having examined him, Zhang Ji said: “How is it that you have the pulse of an animal?” Then the man told him the truth, that in reality he was an old monkey living in a cave. Zhang Ji took some pills from his bag, and gave him one. Having taken this, the monkey was immediately cured. The next day this monkey came again in his human form, bearing on his shoulder an enormous log. He said: “This is a cedar ten thousand years old. I offer it as a slight requital.” From this beam Zhang Ji made two lutes. One he called Old Monkey, the other Ten Thousand Years” (Gulik, p. 154).

Bo was showing his Ten-stringed qin-zither which he duplicated from the 5th century B.C. qin, found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng.
The design of the classical qin and its longevity has been the central tenet for at least a millennium. Because of the stability people reasonably assumed it had always looked the same, ever since the putative origin back in the Shang dynasty. But then, in 1977, and unusual instrument was discovered by archaeologists in the middle of China, and this is a copy. It dates to 433 B.C. It has many features in common with the classical qin and it seemed to be a precursor. I’ll call it the ancient qin. The discovery ushered in a new chapter in qin-history, one based on solid evidence 1000 years earlier than the classical qin of the Tang dynasty. I am reminded of the famous paradigm-shift which occurred in Physics a century ago. In 1890 physicists believed they completely understood Physics; all that remained was to work out details. Then, suddenly, radioactivity was discovered, and it opened up a new spectacular world – to say the least.

So, what makes it a qin? (Demo: Ancient Qin) Still, the two instruments look very different. For one thing, the ancient type has two parts — neck and body — while the classical qin has no such division. The later model is also much larger than the earlier one. Some may feel uneasy calling both a qin. But a clear set of images show that the early instrument gradually changed to the later one. These images were cast on bronze mirrors throughout the Han dynasty. We see the two parts of the ancient qin gradually transform into the one part of the classical qin and, at the same time, the qin grows longer. It is very lucky that the ancient artists chose to illustrate the qin on bronze mirrors, providing us with a movie-like sequence that spanned at least the four centuries of the Han dynasty.

This ancient qin is contemporary with Confucius, and it’s the qin he would have played, if he had been so inclined. Since the Han dynasty text have repeatedly assured us that he had played the qin, and it has now become dogma.

Did Confucius actually play the qin? Robert van Gulik cites several pre-Han texts which assert that Confucius did. The weightiest text is the Analects written by Confucius himself. However, recent textual analysis by Professor Bruce Brooks at University of Massachusetts (Amherst) has shown that the Analects was gradually put together over 3 centuries, roughly 500 to 200 B.C. At the end of the process, there could have been no living memory of the historical Confucius. It is at this time the statement about Confucius and the qin was added. It made him into an artistically accomplished gentleman discontent with the lack of political power. This portrait is exactly in accord with the Daoist ideal prevalent at this time. Earlier textual strata of the Analects do not mention him as a player. In other words, he was no qin player. In that respect all of today’s players are superior to Confucius.

-- Bo Lawergren

Peiyou Chang
Xiao Xiang Shui Yun is attributed to the Southern Song Dynasty (1128-1276 AD) qin player and poet Guo Chuwang 郭楚望. Guo felt regret about the Southern Song being cut off from northern China by the Jin Dynasty. As he floated down the river Xiao and Xian in the Hu Nan province on a boat, he gazed upon the Jiuyi Mountain, which rose majestically into the clouds brought home the sorrow of losing his country. This piece presents a combination of the image of flowing water, blowing wind, a drifting boat and the lofty atmosphere.

Ou Lu Wang Ji was composed during the Qin dynasty (1644-1911 AD). The word “Ji” means looking for opportunity or the idea of scheming to take advantage of others. “Wang Ji” means to forget or abandon the idea of trying to put something over on others. “O Lu” means “the seagulls.” This piece was based on a fable from the Lei Zi, 列子 Huang Di 黃帝. There was a fisherman who was used to petting the seagulls and one day he had the idea of trying to catch them, in response, the seagulls all flew too high and never came down to him as before. This piece presents the image of innocent seagulls flying above the ocean, in calm and peaceful scenery.

-- Peiyou Chang

Han Credentials 漢節操, also called Su Wu Thinks of His Lord (Xilutang Qintong, 1549)
Notation of Yingzhong Yi 應鐘意 reconstructed by John Thompson
With Yingzhong Modal Prelude: tuning 1 3 5 6 1 2 3 ("C E G A C D E")
John Thompson (performance and reconstruction); further details at
Section titles:
1, Receiving credentials in the Vermilion Hall
2, In the remote desert stopping the chariot
3, A grand nature reaches for the sky
4, His loyalty continues day after day
5, Chewing on a rug (to stay alive while in captivity at) Lake Baikal
6, (Harmonics) Stretching out the neck to look south - towards home
7, The credential banner has fallen ("the sound of geese" evokes story of the message)
8, (Harmonics) His hair is all turning white
9, To die separated from Li Ling
10, While still alive, entering the Jade Gate (returning to the imperial palace as a hero)

To some people qin music is exotic, beautiful, calming; to others it is unstructured and alien. So what does it take actually to understand it? Music may be an international language, but it still helps to study the language if one wishes properly to appreciate it. Understanding Chinese literati culture is very useful in appreciating qin music, but sensing the structure of the music is also essential to proper appreciation. Most of us probably have some sense of Western music structure, even if we cannot verbalize this. Appreciating how someone interprets a familiar qin melody is basic to hearing qin music as an insider. The melody I am playing today is one I personally reconstructed from a 16th century handbook. Probably no one else plays it, and in any case it is in an ancient style, so who can appreciate it fully on first hearing? Qin tablature details how physically to play a melody, but does not directly indicate note values. So reconstructing the music involves finding motifs, structures and allusions. What I will do today is first go through the melody, pointing out some of these. Hopefully when I then play it through from beginning to end, you will be able to appreciate it as well as enjoy it.

John Thompson
As for the story behind the melody, it concerns two famous Han dynasty men who spent many years in captivity around the area that is today Mongolia. Li Ling was a Han general captured in 99BCE by the nomadic people generally called the Xiongnu. Around the same time Su Wu, a Han scholar official and chief palace attendant, was given credentials (often depicted as a staff with a banner) by his “Lord”, Han emperor Wudi, and sent out from the capital, Chang An, as an emissary to the Xiongnu. His main responsibility was to return some Xiongnu emissaries to their home and bring back the Han ones then being held captive by the Xiongnu. However, while he was there some of the emissaries revolted, with the result that Su Wu was himself detained by the Xiongnu; he then spent almost 20 years in captivity.

The Xiongnu brought Su Wu and Li Ling together, hoping to get both to work for them. Li Ling did cooperate after hearing that his family had been executed by Han Wudi. The Xiongnu then had Li Ling try to persuade Su Wu to work for them, but Su Wu steadfastly refused, trying at one time to commit suicide. Because of this steadfast refusal, the Xiongnu then subjected him to many hardships, including sending him off to a remote area with little sustenance, where he had to tend sheep.

In 86 BCE the Xiongnu and Han made peace, and the new Han emperor asked for Su Wu's return. The Xiongnu said he had died, but the emissaries said they knew Su Wu was still alive because he had sent the emperor a message attached to the foot of a goose. Finally in 81 BCE Su Wu was able to return home. Li Ling never did return. (Website has several links to famous paintings depicting their parting.)

Su Wu's steadfast loyalty to Han is recounted in numerous songs, poems and plays. In painting he is most popularly depicted as a shepherd tending his sheep, epitomizing his refusal to work for the enemy.

-- John Thompson

Song of the Qin
Lyrics/music: Introduction to the Qin (1864)
Translation: Mingmei Yip

Songs, so many songs
So ungrateful
Left me long ago.

Remembering those vanished years:
our soft singing, wine softly pouring
One song worth a thousand pieces of gold.

Now I sit by the crumbling wall.
Autumn wind withers the grass;
white clouds drift far away.
Water flows under the tumbling bridge,
no old friends to be seen.

Bitter sorrow, Cheerless cold.
Bitter sorrow, Cheerless cold.


音音音 爾負心
爾負心 真負心
辜負我 到于今
記得當年 低低喟
淺淺斟 一曲值千金
如今拋我 古墻陰
淒淒切切 冷冷清清
淒淒切切 冷冷清清

Mingmei Yip

Immortal of the Magpie Bridge
Lyrics: Qin Guan (1049-1100)
Translation/music: Mingmei Yip

Lyrics of Immortal of the Magpie Bridge were by the Song dynasty poet Qin Guan 秦觀 (1049-1100). This is his most famous love song.

Delicate clouds scamper above on the seventh evening of the seventh month
Falling stars carry my bitterness,
secretly traversing the remote Milky Way.
Meeting but once amidst the autumn wind and the dews drops
surpasses endless encounters on earth.

Love is tender as water
Our wedding day is a distant dream
Dejected, I watch the magpies return.

If love between two people is to last,
Must they see each other day and night?
If love between two people is to last
Must they see each other day and night?



Cry of the Ospreys
Lyrics: Book of Songs (11-7 B.C.E.)
Translation: Paul R. Goldin
Music: Mingmei Yip

Cry of the Osprey is the first poem in the Book of Songs. It is a love song about the longing of a man for a beautiful lady.

Guan, guan, cry the ospreys on the isle in the river.
The reclusive, modest girl
Is a good mate for the noble man.
Long and short is the duckweed
To the left and to the right we look for it.
The reclusive, modest girl__
Waking and sleeping he seeks her.
He seeks her and does not obtain her.
Waking and sleeping he pines and yearns for her.
Oh, anxious! Oh, anxious!
He tosses and twists and turns onto his side.

Long and short is the duckweed.
To the left and to the right we gather it.
The reclusive, modest girl__
Among cithers and lutes, he shows her his friendship.
Long and short is the duckweed.
To the left and to the right we pick it.
The reclusive, modest girl,
As a bell to a drum, he delights in her.

-- Mingmei Yip


關關雎鳩 在河之洲
窈窕淑女 君子好逑
參差荇菜 左右流之
窈窕淑女 寤寐求之
求之不得 寤寐思服
悠哉悠哉 輾轉反側
參差荇菜 左右采之
窈窕淑女 琴瑟友之
參差荇菜 左右芼之
窈窕淑女 鐘鼓樂之

Stephen Dydo was playing the electric qin he made.
Jade Tower in Spring Morning (first appearance, 1931) and Tears for Yan Hui (first appearance, 1937) are both quite modern, by the standards of the repertory; they are also quite short. Jade Tower in Spring Morning is a depiction of the beginning of a spring day, coming out of a dream-like state and lazily stretching. Tears for Yan Hui refers to Confucius’ feelings on the death of his favorite disciple.

Spring Water on Rocks is considerably older. The version played this afternoon is from Qinxue Rumen of 1864, but its earliest known appearance is 1547, when it was probably already quite old. Its associations are not only the water flowing from a spring onto rocks, but also all of the pastoral splendors of the mountain stream.

-- Stephen Dydo

World Journal Chinese Newspaper Report on Monday, June 5th 2006.
Press Release
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