Rich connotations of qin, se in ancient poetry

By WANG YINGJIN / 02-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The se (above) and the ten-string qin zithers (below) were unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Both were made of wood coated in lacquer. The strings no longer exist. Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

Qin [generally known as guqin, a plucked Chinese musical instrument dating back 2,700 years] and se [an ancient Chinese plucked zither that gradually faded out of use after the Tang Dynasty (618–907)] zithers are two ancient musical instruments with long histories and rich connotations. 

Qin generally has five, seven, or ten strings, while se usually has 25 or 50 strings. Both serve as the musical carrier of ritual and symbolize the literati’s taste. Qin and se appear many times in China’s earliest collection of poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE, Shijing [Book of Songs], as a symbol of romance and happy marriage, as a musical carrier to enhance the relationship between monarch and ministers, or used in sacrificial ceremonies to express the incorporation of humanity and rites under the ritual and music system.

Romance and marriage

The sound of qin is clear and melodious, while that of se is low and modest. The two were quite popular in the pre-Qin period, and were often played together, making a complementary and versatile match. People of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) had specific instructions on how to match the qin and se zithers in concert in the classic Liji [Book of Rites]: “The great lute [qin] and great cithern [se]; the medium lute and little cithern” (trans. James Legge). Since the clear sound of qin pairs well with se’s low tone, which is in line with the ancient yin-yang philosophy, the symbolic meaning of love and marriage was derived from this pair of zithers.

“Guan Ju,” the first poem of Shijing, portrays a way to please the beloved woman with qin and se duets: “In patches grows the water mallow;/ To left and right one must gather it./ Shy is this noble lady;/ With great zither [qin] and little [se] we hearten her” (trans. Arthur Waley). In another poem “Cock Crows,” the verses such as “And I will hope to grow old with you./ Your lute [qin and se] in your hands,/ Will emits its quiet pleasant tones” (trans. James Legge) express lovers’ longing for a happy married life with the imagery of one playing qin and another accompanying it with se. 

For the Zhou people, marriage was not only the harmony of a newlywed couple, but also the union of two clans. “Loving union with wife and children,/ Is like the music of lutes;/ But it is the accord of brothers,/ Which makes the harmony and happiness lasting” (trans. James Legge). These verses from the poem “Chang Di” praise the harmonious and intimate family relationship, including the love in marriage and the ties of brotherhood. 

Political elements

In Shijing, qin and se are widely used in ritual ceremonies. When the Zhou rulers entertained zhuhou [rulers of hereditary fiefs], the performance of qin and se symbolized the harmonious relationship between the Zhou ruler and his zhuhou. The poem “Sounds of Deer” illustrates how the Zhou ruler banqueted his ministers: “With pleased sounds the deer call to one another,/ Eating the salsola of the fields./ I have here admirable guests;/ For whom are struck the lutes, large and small./ The lutes, large and small [qin and se], are struck,/ And our harmonious joy is long-continued./ I have good wine,/ To feast and make glad the hearts of my admirable guests” (trans. James Legge). Banquets, rites and music could help improve the relationship between monarch and ministers, and at the same time achieve the purpose of maintaining the social order. It not only corresponds to the culture of rites and music, but also reflects the poetry-education concept known as “Wenrou-Dunhou” [“Mild, Gentle, Sincere, and Broad-Minded,” a term refers to the mild and broad-minded manner with which the Shijing edifies people].

According to Qin Cao [lit. on playing the guqin], written by Cai Yong [a Chinese calligrapher, musician, and politician of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220)], the legendary figures of China’s pre-history, Fuxi, was involved in the creation of qin. The entire length of the qin he made was 3 chi, 6 cun and 6 fen [in Chinese measurements], representing the 360 days of the year. The qin was about 6 cun wide, symbolizing “Liu He” [representing east, west, south, north, up and down, a symbol of the universe]. The body of the qin was wide at one end and narrow at the other, symbolizing the superiors and inferiors. Its surface board was round to represent Heaven and the bottom board flat to represent the earth [Ancient Chinese believed that heaven was like a dome covering the square earth]. The ten-string qin unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (c. 475–433 BCE) [in present-day Hubei Province] has a wide forehead and a narrow back, making it a perfect instance of Cai’s record. 

The Zhou people linked the music and ritual system with politics. Se was an important musical instrument in ritual ceremonies. Performance of qin and se was common in sacrificial ceremonies at that time. The poem “Fu Tian” presents the scene of agricultural sacrifices in the Zhou Dynasty: “With lutes [qin and se], and with drums beating,/ We will invoke the Father of husbandry,/ And pray for sweet rain,/ To increase the produce of our millets,/ And to bless my men and their wives” (trans. James Legge). 

The ancients believed that music was a bridge between Heaven and Earth, and a good way to consolidate political rule and maintain social order. This belief is depicted in the Liji: “In music of the grandest style there is the same harmony that prevails between heaven and earth; in ceremonies of the grandest form there is the same graduation that exists between heaven and earth. Through the harmony, things do not fail (to fulfill their ends); through the graduation we have the sacrifices to heaven and those to earth. In the visible sphere there are ceremonies and music; in the invisible, the spiritual agencies. These things being so, in all within the four seas (indicating the country), there must be mutual respect and love” (trans. James Legge).

Association with ‘junzi’

Qin and se are zithers endowed with the character of junzi [usually translated as gentleman, refers to virtuous man in Chinese culture], and they are considered the “gentlemen” of musical instruments. A gentleman plays qin and se not only for music, but also to achieve self-cultivation. The Zhou people believed that rites and music had the function of moral education, and regarded them as a compulsory course for a gentleman. Many believed that the Book of Songs was compiled by Confucius, and therefore qin and se were closely related to him. The Analects records that Confucius once said: “It is by the Odes [poetry] that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety [li, or rites] that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received” (trans. James Legge). He believed that poetry, rites, and music were the three elements for a gentleman’s moral cultivation. Qin, se and other musical instruments have the function of self-cultivation and moral education.

In the literary works of later generations, the metaphor of qin and se expands further from the perspective of humanity, and its meaning has been diversified. On the one hand, qin and se are still invoked as representations of love and friendship. In a love poem dedicated to his wife, the Tang poet Li Ying used “a pair of Mandarin ducks” and “qin and se duets” to express his longing to grow old with his wife. Cao Zhi (192–232), a prince of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period of China, mourned for his deceased friend with the imagery of qin and se in one of his poems. On the other hand, qin and se are endowed with richer meanings. Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Han Dynasty, used the tuning of qin and se as a metaphor that political policies should be adjusted in due course. Hence, the implication of political change was derived from the tuning of qin and se.

The perfect match of qin and se expresses the blend of humanity and rites during the Zhou era, reflecting the ancients’ inner world under the ritual and music system. The literary works of later generations continued the cultural connotations of qin and se in the Book of Songs. The cultural imagery of qin and se gradually matures.

Wang Yingjin is from the Literature College of Heilongjiang University.