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Unveiling the Mystique: A Journey through the Origin and History of the Guqin


The guqin symbolizes elegance and tranquility and holds a profound place in Chinese culture and history. Often referred to as the "instrument of the sages," its origins are shrouded in legend and its evolution tells a captivating tale of cultural exchange and artistic refinement. Join us on a journey through time as we unravel the mysteries surrounding the guqin's origin and explore its rich history.

Historical Evolution:

Over the centuries, the guqin underwent significant evolution, both in its design and cultural significance. During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), the guqin became an integral part of scholarly and aristocratic life, associated with refinement and intellectual pursuits. It was during this period that the instrument gained its reputation as a tool for meditation and self-cultivation, a belief that persists to this day.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) marked a golden age for the guqin, with the instrument reaching new heights of popularity among the literati and elite. Poets, scholars, and artists alike found inspiration in its ethereal melodies, with many composing poems and paintings dedicated to its beauty.

Cultural Exchange:

The guqin's influence extended beyond the borders of China, spreading to neighboring countries such as Korea and Japan. In Korea, the instrument is known as the "gun," In Japan, it is called the "koto." Despite variations in name and design, the fundamental principles of the instrument remain unchanged, a testament to its enduring legacy.

Revival and Preservation:

Despite its rich history, the guqin faced near extinction during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976). However, thanks to the efforts of dedicated musicians and scholars, the instrument experienced a revival in the late 20th century. Today, there is a growing interest in guqin music both in China and around the world, with enthusiasts seeking to preserve and promote this ancient art form for future generations.

Mystic and Legend

Legend has it that the Qin the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-history — Fuxi, Shennong, and Yellow Emperor — were involved in its creation. Nearly all Qin books and tablature collections published before the twentieth century state this as the actual origins of the Qin, although this is now viewed as mythology. 

It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and examples have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. Non-fretted zithers unearthed in tombs from the South show similar instruments that gradually became longer and had fewer strings, but they are not named in the tombs. Chinese tradition says the Qin originally had five strings, but then two were added about 1,000 BCE, making seven. Some suggest that larger zithers with many strings gradually got smaller with fewer and fewer strings to reach seven.

Historical Roots

Deemed as instrumental in cultivating individual character and maintaining social order, music was of paramount importance in ancient China, and guqin was a key musical instrument in Chinese culture. The sound of the guqin is deep and tranquil, helping to foster character, uphold morality, and enrich learning. Besides, because the guqin’s sound is mellow, it is usually played by one player in solitude or for a few intimate friends, to express one’s innermost and profound emotions. When played with lighted incense perfuming the air, guqin music creates an air of serenity and self-contemplation as the player plucks and dampens the strings (made of silk in ancient times and steel nowadays).

Rock carving of a bodhisattva playing a guqin, found in Shanxi, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). Now displayed in the Guimet Museum, Paris.

As one of the top four classical arts in ancient China, including guqin, chess, calligraphy, and painting, guqin has been historically seen as one of the most important symbols of traditional Chinese culture. It was originally played in the imperial palace, but then gradually common people began to learn how to play it, particularly the literate class. This is evidenced by the fact that it was a beloved instrument of Confucius and many other sages throughout Chinese history. There have been several anecdotes and stories involving guqin, such as the story mentioned above of Boya and Ziqi, stressing the value of people’s connection and mutual understanding. Another famous ancient story involving a guqin was the trick of an empty city. This story tells how Zhuge Liang (181-234), a well-known military adviser during the Three Kingdoms Period, saved a city by simply calmly playing a guqin above the city gate in front of an army of invading soldiers.

A ceramic figurine of a guqin player, from the Pengshan Tomb of Sichuan, dated Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD)


The Chinese musicologist Yang Yinliu divided the history of the guqin into three periods: the first was the pre-Qin period, the second from the Qin Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, and the third from the end of Tang to the 20th century. It is believed that during the first period, the Qin became popular as part of the court orchestra and as an instrument of the elite.

In the second period, guqin music was influenced by Confucian ideology and Daoist philosophy, Central Asian music was imported into the imperial court, as well as entertainment music of the Sui and Tang Dynasties. During this period attempts were made to codify playing techniques and notation. Based on the detailed description in the essay "Qin Cao"  by Cai Yong (132–192), the standard form of the Qin was most likely set around the late Han Dynasty. The earliest surviving Qin in this modern form, preserved in both China and Japan, has been reliably dated to the Tang Dynasty. Many are still playable, the most famous perhaps being the one named "Jiuxiao Huanpei" attributed to the famous late Tang Dynasty Qin maker Lei Wei. It is kept in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

The earliest known piece of notated guqin music, Jieshi Diao Youlan, dates from this period. In the third period, guqin compositions increased, and the playing techniques were refined. The Song Dynasty is considered the golden period of guqin music, with numerous poems and essays on guqin written by the literati, and many well-known pieces can be dated to this period. Treaties and handbooks were also written, documenting its music and playing techniques, and aesthetic consideration also became the most important aspect of guqin playing in this period.

Modern times

In 1977, a recording of "Liu Shui" 【流水】 (Flowing Water, as performed by Guan Pinghu, one of the best Qin players of the 20th century) was chosen to be included in the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated LP recording containing music from around the world, which was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. It is the longest excerpt included on the disc. In 2003, guqin music was proclaimed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO

Guqin Instrument Cost

The cost of a reasonable guqin instrument for beginners starts from 10 - 30,000+ yuan USD 1,500.00+

A high-quality guqin will cost around 1-10 million yuan, USD 500,000 - 1.5M+ these are considered by many to be works of art and used by players and collectors for medium to long-term investments.

Purchasing a guqin can be an exciting endeavor, offering you the opportunity to connect with this ancient instrument and delve deeper into its rich tradition. Here are some steps and considerations to keep in mind when buying a guqin:

Research and Education: Before diving into the purchasing process, take some time to learn about the different types of guqin, their features, and their cultural significance. Familiarize yourself with the various styles, materials, and craftsmanship involved in making a guqin.

Set a Budget: Guqins can vary widely in price depending on factors such as craftsmanship, materials, and brand reputation. Determine your budget range to guide your search and ensure that you find a guqin that meets your needs and preferences without overspending.

Find Reputable Sellers: Look for reputable sellers or dealers who specialize in traditional Chinese musical instruments. Online marketplaces, specialty music stores, or cultural heritage centers may offer guqins for sale. It's essential to purchase from trusted sources to ensure the quality and authenticity of the instrument.

Consider Quality and Authenticity: When selecting a guqin, prioritize quality and authenticity. Inspect the instrument carefully for craftsmanship, materials, and overall condition. Authentic guqins are typically handmade by skilled artisans using traditional methods and materials such as Chinese catalpa wood or other hardwoods.

Try Before You Buy (if possible): If feasible, try out different guqins before purchasing to get a sense of their sound, playability, and comfort. This may involve visiting a music store or attending a guqin performance or workshop where you can interact with the instrument firsthand.

Ask Questions: Don't hesitate to ask questions about the guqin's history, craftsmanship, and maintenance requirements. A reputable seller should be knowledgeable and willing to provide information to help you make an informed decision.

Consider Accessories and Support: In addition to the guqin itself, consider any accessories or support materials you may need, such as strings, tuning tools, instructional books or videos, and carrying cases. These items can enhance your experience and help you care for your guqin properly.

Shipping and Delivery: If purchasing online or from a distant seller, inquire about shipping options, delivery times, and any associated costs. Ensure that the guqin will be packaged securely to prevent damage during transit.

By following these steps and considerations, you can embark on your journey to purchase a guqin with confidence, knowing that you're acquiring a beautiful and authentic instrument that embodies centuries of tradition and culture. Enjoy the process of exploring the world of guqin music and the timeless beauty it has to offer.

Yunju Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Fangshan District, 70 kilometers southwest of Beijing, and contains the world's largest collection of stone Buddhist sutra steles.

Within the serene halls of the Yun Ju Temple, a profound exchange unfolds between Wang Xue Zhang (Ning) and the Abbot, enveloped in the sacred atmosphere of the temple's tranquility. As Ning stands poised, her presence exuding a sense of reverence and wisdom, the Abbot sits in his private dwelling, surrounded by the

whispers of incense and the stillness of his sacred space.

With graceful gestures and a serene demeanor, Ning guides the Abbot through the intricacies of a historic music piece, her words weaving a tapestry of ancient wisdom and tradition. Each note she describes carries with it the echoes of generations past, a testament to the enduring legacy of Chinese musical heritage.

The Abbot listens intently, his eyes reflecting a deep sense of reverence and concentration. As Ning elucidates the subtle nuances of the composition, he studies the finger notation with meticulous care, as if deciphering the secrets of the universe encoded within its delicate patterns.

In this sacred exchange of knowledge and understanding, time seems to stand still, the only sounds echoing through the hallowed halls of the temple being the soft rustle of paper and the gentle strumming of the guqin. Together, Ning and the Abbot embark on a journey of discovery, delving into the rich tapestry of Chinese musical heritage with each passing moment.

With Ning's guidance, the Abbot's understanding deepens, his fingers poised to recreate the ancient melodies with precision and grace. As he unlocks the hidden meanings encoded within the music, layers of symbolism and emotion resonate with his spiritual journey, enriching his understanding of the guqin's timeless legacy.

As the lesson draws to a close, a sense of quiet satisfaction fills the air, a testament to the profound connection forged between teacher and student. With a nod of gratitude, the Abbot acknowledges Ning's wisdom and expertise, knowing that her guidance has enriched his understanding of the guqin and its profound significance.

In this sacred space, amidst the whispers of incense and the gentle strains of music, Ning and the Abbot share a bond that transcends words—a bond forged by a shared love for the guqin and a deep reverence for the traditions of the old. As they part ways, their hearts are filled with gratitude for the timeless beauty and wisdom that the guqin continues to impart, echoing through the ages in the tranquil halls of the Yun Ju Temple.

Additionally, for those seeking personalized guidance and expert assistance in selecting a guqin, consider purchasing from a respected master like Wang Xue Zhang. With over 50 years of experience in playing and mentoring the guqin, Master Wang exemplifies the tradition and excellence associated with this ancient instrument. Her expertise ensures that buyers receive instruments of the highest quality, tailored to their preferences and musical aspirations. You can find more information about Master Wang Xue Zhang and her offerings here.

In Wang Xue Zhang's studio, a hanging guqin commands attention, embodying the timeless beauty of this ancient instrument. Here, amidst the soft glow of ambient light and the faint scent of sandalwood lingering in the air, the guqin rests gracefully, suspended in midair like a work of art awaiting its admirers. Undergoing meticulous testing and trial for discerning clients. Its presence exudes an aura of elegance and refinement, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in its harmonious melodies and exquisite craftsmanship.

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