Endowed with cosmological and metaphysical significance and empowered to communicate the deepest feelings, the qin, a type of zither, beloved of sages and of Confucius, is the most prestigious of China’s instruments. Chinese lore holds that the qin was created during the late third millennium B.C. by mythical sages Fuxi or Shennong. Ideographs on oracle bones depict a qin during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.), while Zhou-dynasty (1046–256 B.C.) documents refer to it frequently as an ensemble instrument and record its use with another larger zither called the se.
Early qins are structurally different than the instrument used today. Qins found in excavations dating to the fifth century B.C. are shorter and hold ten strings, indicating that the music was probably also unlike today’s repertoire. During the Western Jin dynasty (265–316), the instrument became that form which we know today, with seven twisted silk strings of various thicknesses.
Qin playing has traditionally been elevated to a high spiritual and intellectual level. Writers of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) claimed that playing the qin helped to cultivate character, understand morality, supplicate gods and demons, enhance life, and enrich learning, beliefs that are still held today. Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) literati who claimed the right to play the qin suggested that it be played outdoors in a mountain setting, a garden, or a small pavilion or near an old pine tree (symbol of longevity) while burning incense perfumed the air. A serene moonlit night was considered an appropriate performance time, and since the performance was highly personal, one would play the instrument for oneself or on special occasions for a close friend. Gentlemen (junzi) played the qin for self-cultivation.
Each part of the instrument is identified by an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic name, and cosmology is ever present: for example, the upper board of wutong wood symbolizes heaven, the bottom board of zi wood symbolizes earth. The qin, one of many East Asian zithers, has no bridges to support the strings, which are raised above the soundboard by nuts at either end of the upper board. Like the pipa, the qin is generally played solo. Qins over a hundred years old are considered best, the age determined by the pattern of cracks (duanwen) in the lacquer that covers the instrument’s body. The thirteen mother-of-pearl studs (hui) running the length of one side indicate finger positions for harmonics and stopped notes, a Han-dynasty innovation. The Han dynasty also witnessed the appearance of qin treatises documenting Confucian playing principles (the instrument was played by Confucius) and listing titles and stories of many pieces.