On Double Faceboard in Qin Instruments of Upper-Antiquity and Tight Edge Binding

On Double Faceboard in Qin Instruments of Upper-Antiquity and Tight Edge Binding

By Tong Kin-Woon

Translated by Juni Lefeuille Yeung

* NOTE: “Upper Antiquity Qin Instruments” refers generally here as Tang to early Ming instruments.


1. Double Faceboard


            The body seven-stringed zither is typically composed of joining a surface board and backboard; the baina 百衲 Qin design, purportedly a method devised by Li Mian 李勉 of Tang Dynasty, is a process of cutting superior quality wood material into smaller pieces and glued onto a surfaceboard, hence creating two layers of board. True baina instruments are an extreme rarity, as most instruments claiming to be baina are actually carvings on the insides of the surfaceboard to appear like attached small pieces of wood (such as hexagonal or silver bullion-shaped patterns). These are false baina instruments, as the surfaceboard only comprise of one piece of wood. However, since even real baina instruments involve attaching the small wood patches directly onto the surfaceboard, hence becoming one entity wit it, real baina instruments are not of the scope discussed in this treatise.

            The “double surfaceboard” mentioned in this treatise refers to the double surfaceboard structure from the instrument’s shoulders to abdomen, abdominal cavity (Dragon’s Pool position), waist and tail cavity (Phoenix Swamp to end part) found in guqins in upper antiquity. Its features are: A large thin board of Paulownia (tong 桐) wood underneath the existing surfaceboard, and is of a legitimate surfaceboard design. This means it is not an elongated or circular nayin stuck onto the Dragon Pool or Phoenix Swamp, but these nayin pieces of wood perform similar functions to the double facecboard. The Tang instrument Xisheng 希聲 is of this design, using extended wood pieces as nayin.

            Another feature is the air layer within the double surfaceboard design to improve resonance, meaning the two layers of surfaceboards are not fixated with glue. (In other words, surfaceboards reinforced with thin wood pieces to thicken its profile is also not of this essay’s scope.)


            The Function of Double Surfaceboards

            Ever since I have began studying the guqin in 1968 I have appraised hundreds of old instruments, and upon memory, old qins with double surfaceboards were found quite numerously. However, I have not thought of a concept of a double surfaceboard before 1998, and whenever I noticed the internals falling apart entirely, or cracking causing a sub-layer to be formed, I have carelessly dismissed them as damage by cracking or bug corrosion. To this I can only sigh at my previous ignorance.

            Now that the truth be known about double surfaceboards, reminiscing old qins that I have examined before can draw on some observations: If the “air resonance cavity” is wide and large enough, it is generally of better tone quality: an aged looseness, or rounded looseness (but not old), with long and sustained resonance – anything but a strong, bland tone. But one thing to note is, if the air resonance cavity is too narrow (that being the two surfaceboards being glued or nailed too close together), it is unhelpful to tone quality. For example, the instrument Gaoshan Liushui 高山流水 in the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music (the one lent by master Zhao Jiazhen 趙家珍), as well the black Zhongni-style instrument Yunchuan 雲泉 in the collection of Liu Shanjiao 劉善教 of Zhenjiang both do not possess a loose timbre as the double surfaceboards are too close together.


Example of Double Surfaceboard instrument: Jihou Zhong 紀候鐘

            There was a guqin appreciation gala in Beijing in 1994, and during the several days I was able to see several tens of instruments preciously collected in the Palace Museum, Music Research Institute, and personal collections – truly a joyous event in my life. During an evening yaji in the study of old guqin player Xie Xiaoping 謝孝萍 I was able to try out his instrument Jihou Zhong, with an aged, loose, permeating, and rounded timbre to the finest degree. It was indeed one of the best instruments of some five-hundred old instruments I have examined before!

            When I saw that the Jihou Zhong had cracks showing an empty layer within the surfaceboard when looking through the Dragon Pool, I was unable to relate that to the concept of double-surfaceboard in the hurry, and thought it as crack damage from old age.

            The Jihou Zhong was acquired by Xie through a friend in 1942 with the surname Ji 紀, and originally had no name. In the large coloured album “Zhongguo Guqin Zhenshang 中國古琴珍賞” published by Beijing Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe in 1995, figure 13 displays this instrument, not having the name inscribed onto the instrument itself, and was called “Unnamed Tang Qin”, and categorized as Zhongni-style, made in Tang Kaiyuan 10 (723) by the Lei makers, double surfaceboard, collected by famous guqin player Xie…and so forth.

            This instrument’s cracking patterns appear as subtle scales, and master Xie’s anthology indicates that inscriptions were found inside its internal cavity. While it is difficult to know if it was truly a Tang instrument, due to its extraordinary tone quality, Mr. Zheng Minzhong 鄭珉中 of the Palace Museum has personally inscribed the name Jihou Zhong onto it, hence noting its precious value. Wu Zhao 吳釗, the guqin player in Beijing, noted, “When master Xie was repairing this instrument several decades ago, I have personally witnessed that its interior cavity contained a large second surfaceboard, and not attached small pieces of nayin.”

            This is what I would begin to confirm as the existence of double surfaceboards in qins of upper-antiquity. This instrument went to my friend Shen Xingshun 沈興順 in 1997, and the news shocked the guqin community in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, all claiming that its sound was unmatched in porosity, most certainly due to the double surfaceboard! This qin now belongs to Tong’s Xiawaiju (霞外居, The Study beyond the mists).

            Of my personal collection, Xisheng 希聲, Jihou Zhong 紀侯鐘, Chuzhong 楚鐘, and Huolei 壑雷 are of Tang-Song qins (of “Upper Antiquity”), and also all have double surfaceboards. Could this possibly be a mere coincidence?


            Other Double Surfaceboard Instruments

            The master of Yanqinzhai 硯琴齋主 Shen Xingshun has a collection of over a hundred old qins, and of which several Song instruments were of double surfaceboard design. In 1999 I traded two of my own instruments for one of those named Shangyong 霜鏞. This instrument is of a flat Song design, and shorter than standard profile by two or three inches. A small snake-belly cracking pattern weave tightly on its black lacquer, and its double surfaceboards are in perfect condition. There was no way to determine it as a double-layer from visual methods, but the boards bounce up and down upon pressing down into the sound holes.

            Shen also has a Song instrument with double surfaceboards named Haolei Qingshao 鶴淚清霄, now in possession by the Tainan National University of the Arts. This qin’s sound was aged and loose with permeating roundedness. (This instrument’s photo was listed in as figure 2 of the Guqin Huizhen 古琴薈珍, published by The University of Hong Kong Art Museum 1998, and in page 70 of Guqin Jishi Taolu 古琴紀事圖錄, published by The Municipal Chinese Orchestra of Taipei, 2000)

            A qin partner in Hong Kong by the surname Poon 潘 owns a Song qin named Daya 大雅, also of double surfaceboard design. Its sound was deep and old, and was enthralling to the player. This was also because of its dual surfaceboard design. (This instrument’s photo has been listed as figure 39 of Wu Zhao’s Zhongguo Guqin Zhencui中國古琴珍萃)

            The most loose and rounded sound I have heard on recording was, as master Wu Jinglüe claimed, “The best qin of Shanghai – Qiuyue” (滬上第一好琴秋月). Its owner Wu Jinxiang 吳金祥 is a fervent collector, and in the 1950’s Wu Jinglüe has asked Wu to borrow it for audio recording, completing the repertoire with the pieces The Mists of The Rivers Xiao and Xiang (Xiaoxiang Shuiyun 瀟湘水雲), Dialogue Between the Fisherman and Woodcutter (Yuqiao Wenda 漁樵問答), Remembering and Old Friend (Yi Guren 憶故人), Chant of Pu Monestary (Pu’an Zhou 普庵咒), Paulownia Leaves Dancing in the Autumn Wind (Wuyie Wuqiufeng 梧葉舞秋風) and more. I was able to have a glimpse of the instrument in the 1980’s thanks to the owner’s descendents, and I am delighted unto this day! From reminisces, the design was of upper-antiquity without say, and the name “Autumn Moon” (Qiuyue, 秋月) was carved upside down in seal script (meaning one must head the qin’s tail upwards to read it), and the symbol for autumn (Qiu 秋) was in old script (editor: “龝”). Most intriguing of all, there was a half-fragmented piece of surfaceboard loose inside the Phoenix Swamp, and I have thought of it as tattering from rotting wood. Now thinking back, it was a double surfaceboard.

            Professor Jao Chung-I (Rao Zongyi 饒宗頤, courtesy name Xuantang 選堂) has an instrument in his collection that has a rounded and arched bottom board, with its material and crack patterns much similar to the Tang-Song instrument Wanhuo Song 萬壑松. Palace Museum guqin appraiser Zheng Minzhong has commented to me, “This is one excellent Northern Song instrument!” I have borrowed it once to take photos when I was editing the Qin Fu 琴府 back in 1971, and from memory this instrument felt aged and with a broad and deep temper, but slightly void and shallow in its tone. What has caused it to sound so? Its reason probably was in its double surfaceboard – the additional board fell off from age, and traces of lacquer and glue can be found falling out from inside, most likely signs of an internal board falling apart. Of course, this could also be signs of a false nayin falling apart from age, but this is to be proven at another occasion.

            And recently, Mr. Zheng has told me of several matters:

1.      The Tang Dynasty qin Kumu Longyin 枯木龍吟, currently in the collection of the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. (an instrument of the same name exists in a late Tang instrument in the Beijing Music Research Institute) is of double-surfaceboard design. Its sound is lovably loose and aged.

2.      Gaoshan Liushui, a Ming dynasty instrument stored by the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, is of double-surfaceboard design. (Its faceboard is cedar [sanwu 杉木], and the distance between the two boards can fit but a single grain of rice, hence lacking in the aged sound quality)

3.      Zheng’s private collection includes a Ming Hongwu 9 (1430) qin named Yuanyin Gudan 元音古澹 that is of double-surfaceboard construction.

4.      Stored in The National Palace Museum of Taipei, the Tang instrument Chunlei 春雷 donated by Zhang Daqian 張大千 was originally of double-surfaceboard construction, but was removed in overhaul.

5.      The instrument Yunchuan 雲泉, collected by Liu Shanjiao of Zhenjiang was of double-surfaceboard construction.


Of these five instruments mentioned above I have all tested, but have not given notice on whether or not they were of double-surfaceboard construction. I shall reinvestigate should the opportunity arise again. Master Zheng added that “whenever qins of double-surfaceboard construction add on glued pieces of paulownia, its surfaceboard material is always cedar (sanwu). This method of attaching paulownia chips to cedar board was mentioned by famous Republican era player Yang Zongji 楊宗稷 (courtesy name Shibai 時百). Volume I of Yang’s Qinxue Congshu 琴學叢書 records, under the treatise on qin collections, “Qin construction since Fuxi has been using Paulownia”, and all know it as such since. When I wrote my earlier memoirs I also thought that cedar was unusable, but as I dissected and repaired tens of old qins, I discovered that three or four out of ten were made of the material; and the most famous of these instruments made by reputed masters all used cedar, while covering the sound holes with paulownia.

This cedar surfaceboard with additional stuck-on paulownia chips design could potentially refer to the paulownia double-surfaceboard or small false stuck-on nayin. If the additional piece of wood was sufficiently large, then it can form the double-surfaceboard.


Method of Adding the Board

Whenever the surfaceboard material is paulownia, the sound tends to be loose and rounded, but lack solid strength, hence adding old cedar board adds to the strength. When the board is cedar, the sound has strength but lacking in roundedness, and is fixed by adding paulwonia. By merging paulownia and cedar, the qualities of hard and soft woods balance each other out like the forces of Yin and Yang. Quoting Yang Shibai: ‘Cedar wood instruments of tine past have fixed paulownia in its [sound] pools’, and is of the same methodology. By ‘fixing’, it refers to ‘adding to’.

As for adding the technique to installing the double-surfaceboard, it is as follows: Shave out a thin board 1 centimetre thick, and fix it underneath the surfaceboard using lacquer glue and bamboo spikes, with attention to leaving a space 2~3 centimetres between for resonation. Do not attach too closely.


2. Tight-edge Binding


            Aside from the quality, thickness and material of the top and bottom boards, the thickness of the connecting edges are also a key determinant to the timbre. Fixing and building over 200 instruments new and old since 1970, experience tells that there is a great difference in timbre before gluing the top and bottom boards from after. Generally, the sound is loose and lively before the process, while tight and solid after, even to the degree of being monotonous and ‘dead’.

            This is from my humble experience, and I have not been able research it further. Recently, I have reinvestigated the issue, and discovered that the width of the qin’s edges pose a significant effect on the timbre of an instrument!

            From my training in archaeology, I often inspect the insides of an instrument with a small mirror for inscriptions. In recent years I have went further with inspecting the two sides, trying to discover what exactly and how the boards are merged together.

Tight-edge binding (right) and the later wider-edged binding (left).

Tight-edge binding (right) and the later wider-edged binding (left).



            I call the former method as “wide-edge qin binding method”, and the latter as “tight-edge qin binding method”.

            As for how an instrument with tight-edge binding can produce a good tone, these few considerations can be made:

1.      The surfaceboard is preferred to be thick (can produce tones with body) rather than thin (creating the resonance of an empty box). If the surfaceboard is thick and uses wide-edge binding, then the instrument body and its stiff gluing leaves the tone hard and monotonous, as it is difficult to vibrate.

2.      Tight-edge binding allows transmission of vibration through the two boards, while sealing the cavity effectively. Bamboo spikes can allow the two boards to be fixated in position, as well assisting in transmitting vibrations.


Principal Au, a qin friend in Hong Kong, has twenty-some instruments in his collection. Upon an evening of investigation, the truth became obvious to us both. The three instruments with superior timbre all used tight-edge binding, while the remaining seventeen instruments with stiffer timbre all used wide-edge binding! This was sufficient proof that tight-edge binding has its effects.

I wonder if this observation of qin board binding was appropriate?

There are two other examples of thick boards and thin edges, which shall be explained in addendum: When I was studying my doctorate degree in ethnomusicology in America from 1979 to 83, there was an Indian drum of not particularly large size, but its sound was immensely deep. This was because of a resonance board attached to the centre of the drum membrane, creating a situation of ‘thick sound-producing body floating on thin edges”, hence the drum need not be large and its tone deep and low. This was also sufficient to prove that ‘thick sound-producing body floating on thin edges’ was a technique universally recognized by instrument makers.

Western violins (as well as violas and cellos etc.) have a dug out shallow ridge on its top and bottom boards, and inlaid with a piece of dark wood as its edge. Upon consulting violists, they all claim that this set of lines were either for décor, or to protect the instrument body from collision damage causing cracks directly to the centre of the instrument’s boards.

In my humble opinion, I believe that aside from such possible functions, it should be that ancient makers have realized the theory of ‘thick sound-producing body floating on thin edges’ and have taken it to practicality by preparing such a ridge and inlaying it with dark wood strips.

I have no particular in-depth research in the Indian tabla or western viols, and the points above were observations by pure instinct. I hope that I would receive advice from masters of such eloquence.

(In celebration of the new millennium, The National Chinese Orchestra of Taipei has organized an exhibit of 100 Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing qins in the Chang Foundation Museum for six months, as well inviting nine qin players from Beijing and Chengdu, as well Hong Kong qin players Shen Xingshun, Tong Kin-woon, and others for numerous panel discussions. The pictures of the hundred instruments have been published into Guqin Jishi Tulu (古琴記事圖錄), and the read essays have been published into Shiji Guqin Xueshu Yantuhui Lunwenji (世紀古琴學術研討會論文集). This essay is one of the submissions in the volume, and has been reprinted here (in Tangshi Xiawaiju Guqin Zhencui) with several minor edits.)


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