Xilutang Qintong: Published 1525, not 1549

Tang Gao (1469-1526)'s preface to the Xilutang Qintong. The date written (1st line from the right, bottom left page) is the point of concern.

Tang Gao (1469-1526)’s preface to the Xilutang Qintong. The date written (1st line from the right, bottom left page) is the point of concern.

Translator’s Foreword: John Thompson  has stated skepticism over the dating of the Xilutang Qintong (lit. “Qin anthology of the Hall in the Western Foothills”) over the Facebook Guqin International Group since 2009. The 1549 date was widely accepted in reference to master Zha Fuxi’s preface in the Qinqu Jicheng – an identification and compendium project back in the 1970’s for all surviving qin manuscripts and was not completed until its third reiteration and edition in 2010. By arguing that the book was completed in the early Jiajing years rather than its middle overturns several assumptions that other manuscripts, namely the Taiyin Daquan and Fengxuan Xuanpin, were the original sources of numerous melodies and essays found in the Xilutang. Beyond the guqin world, this would also provide valued raw evidence in high Ming material culture, particularly in witnessing and tracing a genealogy at the height of the Daoist paraphernalia fad in the Zhengde to Jiajing era (approx. 1500-1560’s), as proven in the particular preference of Daoist-related melodies and essays referencing Daoist mysticism concepts.

Original title:

Research and Analysis of the Written Time of Xilutang Qintong by Wang Zhi of the Ming Dynasty

TANG, Chen*. Musicology in China, 2014:3, pp. 52-54.
* 唐宸 (1988~), PhD student in Zhejiang University, Research Institute for Ancient Books. (Hangzhou, Zhejiang Prov., China. 310028)

Original Abstract: 本文通过考证,认为《西麓堂琴统》成书时间为嘉靖四年乙酉(1525),而非目前学术界所认为的嘉靖二十八年己酉(1549)。大量赖此书传世的琴曲,不仅存世时间均得提前,文本演变也应重新比较,明代古琴学史的发展承继关系也须重新梳理。

Abstract (Translated): This essay proves that the Xilutang Qintong was published in Jiajing 4 (1525), Yi-you 乙酉 on the sexagenarian cycle, and not the commonly recognized Jiajing 28 (1549) year of Ji-you 己酉. A vast range of surviving repertoire relying on the record in this work not only will have to push back to an earlier date, but also rewrite the comparative narrative that ultimately reorganizes the history of Ming-era guqin development and tradition.

Keywords: Birth-death textual research; publication date textual research; guqin (history); Qinqu Jicheng
中图分类号 CLC Number:J609.2   文献标识码 Source type:A   文章编号 Article Registration:1003-0042(2014)03-0052-03 More

Qin-strumming Etiquette, from Xilutang Qintong

Fuqin Jue 《撫琴訣》
(Rules of Qin-Strumming)

By Wang Zhi, in Xilutang Qintong (1549), Folio IV;
Translated by Juni Yeung

Original Source of Fuqin Jue from Xilutang Qintong, Folio IV.


When playing the qin, regardless of whether there are people nearby, one must play as if facing your elders. Placing the qin to the front of you, the body must be upright, your energies and spirits at peace and settled.

Collect your heart and cut off all worries, focus on your emotions and intentions.

Fingers do not give false strikes, and strings do not give false rings.

One does not look at the right hand, but only listen to its sounds.

The eyes do not look elsewhere, nor the ears listen to anything else.

When the heart does not think other thoughts, that is when one achieves the meaning of the qin. It is essential to recognize the sentencing and phrasing of rhythm, while there mustn’t be too many pauses or stops. Li Mian [Tang era, 717-788CE] noted, “Yin [vibratos] and stops are well-measured, while slowness and speed are orderly. Hurriedly, but not messy. Leisurely, but not stopping. Neither hurriedly or leisurely, like drifting clouds and flowing water. This is the crucial essence.”

Use of fingers must include both flesh and nail, in order to give a crisp sound. Too much nail and the sound is scorched. Too much flesh and the tone is convoluted. Both left and right hands cannot over-exaggerate.

There are three types of sound on the qin: First is san (open), second is an (pressed), third is fan (harmonics). Each pluck is like breaking the strings but the fingers pluck shallowly. Pressing the strings into the wood are to be firm but strength cannot be seen. Fan sounds are to be played near the bridge, lightly touching the string where the hui marker is with a brief point [of the fingertip], and its sound shall be clear and rounded.

If the body wavers and the neck twists often, pandering left and right, looking up and down, or if the facial expressions change, it is as if one is ashamed.

Or, if one’s eyesight scurries about, panting in with heavy breath, without regulation in advances and retreats, with a lax spirit or form, it will reflect itself in form of sound. Although the fingerings are right, the resonances of the sound will be messy and it cannot conform to the Five [proper] Sounds.

Not tuning the strings properly, playing heavily when it should be played lightly, or playing quick when it should be slow – all of these are major diseases [faults] to playing.

The rule of playing the qin, is to be simple and clean. It is not in asking for one as a person to be calm, but in one’s hands. The throbbing of the fingers is called being raucous, while being concise, lightly-treading on a steady pace is called being calm.

It is unnecessary to wobble the [left] finger outside of the sound. Let the proper sound be harmonious and smooth, and that will be good.

For the Junzi [Superior Person] of antiquity creates [regulates] to the causes of matters, he attenuates himself to pleasuring the mind, or describes his heart with irony, or expresses his lone resentment to transmit his ambitions. Hence it [i.e. the music] is able to focus the essence of sincerity, and move the spirits and gods.

One may only know three or five etudes, but refine it to the limits of excellence. However students of our day, perceive ability by sheer quantity. Hence the idiom “Sheer quantity leads to lack of quality. Quality leads to less quantity.” May the Junzi who understands true sound [i.e. friends] pay attention to this.

Here we have the rules of playing qin. What is difficult to procure are the scores to the music, for they must be requested to be passed down from the masters. Furthermore, fingerings and rhythm cannot be exhaustively detailed in the work of writing, so when facing a manuscript to play, we often only get its sound, but its profound intricacies in tempo and rhythm are forgone. This is like having rough measuring tools – you have the drawn shapes, but it lacks the precision that fine tools give.

In more prosaic terms, any given piece can be roughly divided into three sections: First slow, then tense, and finally slack. From slow to tense to stop forms the motif to a piece of music.

Often times there are indications of “do two times from mark.” (從勾二作) Play through it plainly the first time, to finish off the motif from the last sentence. Pause, and in the second play-through, play it strongly. From playing strong and then easing gradually and finishing with a powerful strike-in, forms the continuation to the sounds afterward. One must make the front and back relate with each other, clearly differentiating the beginning from the end.

Another example is the “Perform three times with spaced gou.” (三作間勾, i.e. Da-jiangou) First play the two sounds, pause, then respond to the previous section with four sounds, and finish off with one powerful strike-in.

A nine-tone long chain (chang-suo, ) involves playing two sounds, pause, and finish off with seven strong notes. This induces rise and fall at the front and back, connecting the motifs by arteries and veins, leaving its resonance drifting as if fading but still slowly progressing, and then a jolt at the end.

From slow to tense, and from tense to leisurely, if control of fastness and slowness is appropriate, and yin [vibratos] and stops do not lose their degree, then naturally the strings will resonate with clear rings. Sounds should preferably be clear, aim for simple and calm, and must not be messy. This is how an elegant, antiquated motif of profound emptiness is.

And this is why the intricacies are so hard to attain for manuscripts then and now. So for those self-studying the qin, and have yet to receive transmission from a master, it is best to focus your mind and dedication and ponder on these words. Follow the fingerings according to the manuscript to the hands, meticulously and slowly, accumulate one sound onto the next, section unto section. After days and months of practice, the heart and intention will connect, and the hands will automatically do its job. Then, you will naturally attain mastery as the ancients have.

As proverb has it: “When practice is perfected, it is the same.” [Doctrine of the Mean, 20]  The act of strumming the qin is precious in its accumulated progress, as prolonged experience leads to expertise. If one is eager and greedy for more, wanting for speed leads to one unable to arrive at the destination and all is then for naught, which must be avoided. I shall leave the essay on this note for students of the future to read, to dispel their anxious doubts. More


June 2023