VOLUME 2, No.4 JOURNAL November 2001
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The Archeology of the Qin

Bo Lawergren: :
The Archeology of the Qin 從考古學看中國古代絃樂器

The second talk was given by Bo Lawergren, who outlined data stemming from recent discoveries of the earliest known qin. He first described a qin discovered in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾侯乙, which is datable by internal evidence to 433 BCE. This is the earliest qin discovered to date; so early is it, however, that its structural relationships to the classical qin are less than obvious (the classical qin refers here to qin design as it has existed since about the fifth century). It is, for example, much shorter and boxier than the classical qin, and it has a neck that lends it the appearance more of a clumsy guitar than of a zither.

Bo, however, pointed out several features that imply continuity with modem instruments. First, the Marquis Yi's qin is tuned by turning pegs on the underside of the body. This contrasts with the tuning of other instruments in the zither family such as the zheng, which establishes crude tuning based on tension achieved in the initial stretching of the strings and then relies on a small, moveable bridge under each string to refine string tension to precise pitches. Thus, both early and classical qin are tuned by turning pegs under the body of the instrument. Unlike the modem qin, however, early models had tuning keys, often made of bronze. They were necessary because the spacing between tuning pegs was smaller than on modem qins, whose pins are turned by hand.

A second point of similarity between ancient and classical qins is that both have strings of variable diameter. String diameter and tension refine the musical results of the qin even as they complicate its design and tuning. Bo cited an old adage that tuning a qin is like ruling a state: if the thick string is too tight, the thin one will break. That is, one must regulate a nation in a way that will accommodate the needs, temperaments, customs, and opinions of all its people. With the qin, too much tension on the lower strings will cause the high strings to break if they are tuned accordingly, while insufficient tension on the high strings will cause the bass strings to lose resonance and . volume. One must achieve a middle range of tension that suits all the strings.

A third point in common is that both classical and ancient instruments have sound holes in their undersides. This is a unique characteristic of Chinese zithers and implies continuity over time. The ancient qin has an unusual feature in this respect: a removable bottom plate whose function remains unknown.

A final point in common between early and classical qins is the capacity to allow pitch changes by pressing the string to the sound board with the fingers and sliding thumb. These techniques are used routinely on the classical qin, but the strings on the Marquis Yi's qin are too high off the soundboard to allow them to be pressed to the wood, which throws the relationship of this qin to the classical version in doubt. There is, however, an intermediate qin of circa 150 BCE that fills the gap. This qin has many points of physical resemblance to the Marquis' qin in overall body design, assuring us that these two early instruments are of the same family. At the same time, it shows a change: its strings are stretched much closer to the soundboard, meaning that it shares with the classical qin the potential for depressing strings to the soundboard. Bo concludes from this evidence that it is likely that the technique of changing pitch by pressing strings to the soundboard developed sometime between the fifth and second centuries BCE.

The tuning keys of ancient qins are useful in tracing the geographical distribution of the instrument and determining its cultural roots. Far more tuning keys than instruments have survived, for while the wood of most instruments has rotted away, many bronze keys have survived. Their use was unknown to early modern archeologists and collectors, but the beauty of their animal bosses turned them into collectibles. Most early keys featured handles of various stylized animals, often in pairs. These included monkeys, birds, snakes, bears, goats, man-goats, felines. The style of the keys' zoomorphic bosses appear to have been derived from the Ordos bronzes of northern China and Inner Mongolia. This allows tuning keys and their qins to be dated to the fast millennium (BCE).

Bo noted that the three earliest extant qin-zitheis (of 433, second to third century, and circa 150 BCE) are similar to one another, but they grow longer over time, approaching the length of the classical qin, and their necks, becoming less distinguishable from the body, increasingly resemble the unified structure of the classical qin. The number of their strings decreases from ten strings to possibly nine to the seven strings for which the classical qin is configured. Strings were of silk, something already documented in the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE). Although the qin was originally a northern instrument, ironically, the three earliest extant examples survived in the south, preserved by soil and water conditions. The tombs in which they were placed were sealed with limestone and eventually filled with groundwater, producing a deoxygenated environment hostile to destructive bacteria.

Bo commented briefly on various aspects of instruments contemporary with the early qin. The most famous of these is the huge bell chime, a set of 64 tuned bells in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. It had a scale of five octaves, a portion of which was triplicated. Bo noted that while the bells are famous for their two- note tuning (depending on where the bell was struck), they were not tuned accurately, their pitches only approximate.

The se 瑟 was a large, wide zither with 25 strings, massive compared to the qin, especially to the early qin. Its strings were arranged in three groups, a central group flanked by two outer groups. The inner strings contained the lower notes and, as in the bell sets, these were not duplicated. But the outer strings were made to duplicate one another, each providing the middle and upper regions of the se's scale range. In its duplication and triplication, the se resembles the bell set. Moreover, the large number of se-zithers (12 instruments) in the tomb of the Marquis Yi can be seen as an attempt to match the size of the 65-set bell chime. Unlike the qin, the se was to remain an ancient instrument. Once popular and closely tied to ritual ceremonies, it did not survive into modem times.

The zhu is another string instrument of antiquity of which only three specimens survive, including one with five strings from the tomb of Marquis Yi (433 BCE). It was held by the neck, with the body projecting away from the player. It was played with a stick held in the right hand, with pitch controlled by the left hand pressing the strings. There is some debate over whether the stick served as a bow or a rod, that is, whether the strings were bowed or struck. Bo inclines to the idea that the strings were struck. Ancient sources, for example, speak of "plucking" the qin, "strumming" the se, and "striking" the zhu. The instrument, now defunct, had a prominent role in Chinese political history. It was played by Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, as well as the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, who was so enamored of the instrument that he invited a famous zAw-player to his court. But much to his dismay, the player tried to assassinate him by swinging a lead-laden zhu at the imperial head.

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