Exploring 'On The Qin' by Tang Dynasty Chén Zhuó 讀唐代陳拙琴說

Translated by Peiyou Chang

When it comes to playing the qin, one should strive for harmony and pleasantness as achievements, with clarity and elegance as the foundation. The sound of the qin emerges from the wood, primarily produced by the vibrating strings.

Ji Kang said, "Lòu pī lì lǚ, piāo liáo piē liè." They are the so-called fingering techniques. The essence lies in the interplay of highs and lows, heaviness and lightness. It is crucial to understand the intentions of the ancient composers in order to capture the enchanting spirit of playing and improvisation.

As we let our fingers descend upon the strings and begin to play, we may encounter passages that are ancient and plain, others that are clear and exquisite, and still others that evoke intense sadness or lament. These variations are all extraordinary and should not bind us to a single playing method or mood.

Therefore, when playing a qin melody, it is important to achieve a balance of relaxation and tension within phrases and paragraphs. If relaxation is followed by tension, it creates an interesting arrangement. If relaxation comes after tension, it serves as a rhythmic pause.

Playing with force can evoke the sound of breaking a bamboo stalk, while a serene and gentle touch with slow plucking resembles a refreshing breeze. There may be moments of strong and intense playing abruptly ceasing with a firm press of the fingers, where the sound fades away but the meaning lingers.

Thus, playing a qin melody, it is important to observe carefully on phrasing, maintain an unhurried pace with pauses, taking what is given and finding meaning within. Like a solitary cloud in the vast void, unfurling and billowing with the wind, enduring without dispersing, this is the subtle artistry of playing a qin melody.

However, the essence of playing lies not in quantity but in precision, where the fingers and strings harmonize, acquired through practice and understood in the heart. Being skilled does not necessarily require knowing the reasons behind it. (The mastery of the skill becomes natural and intuitive.)

In the southern region, Mr. Li excels in composing melancholic tunes. People of that time referred to it as the "Li Melancholic Wind," which earned him a renowned name and demonstrated his excellence. This highlights the importance of understanding the deeper meaning behind music. Merely knowing how to produce sounds, without understanding the perception behind the sound, and plucking the strings without comprehending the true essence and significance of the music, what benefit can be gained from playing various pieces?!

Original Chinese text: (原文)

是以彈調引者,貴乎詳緩句讀, 取予中有意思。
南中李氏善作悲風曲, 時人號曰李悲風, 以此得名可謂精矣。


*Ji Kang (223–262) was one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, and in his Poetical Essay on the Qin [琴賦 ], he mentioned: lǒu pī lì lǚ, piāo liáo piē liè, Robert V Gulik translated as "the various touches of the finger technique are delicate, dancing like waves."

Who was Chen Zhuo 陳拙是何許人也

陳拙, 字大巧, 長安人也, 受南風, 遊春, 文王操, 鳳歸林, 於孫希裕, 傳秋思於張巒, 學止息於梅復元, 嘗更古譜, 錄南風, 文王操二弄, 曰:琴操雖多, 制從高士, 聖君所作, 二弄獨存, 竊慮其頓墜也. 有作正聲心址, 未見完本, 嘗云:彈操弄者, 前後緩急者, 妙曲之分布也, 或中急而後緩者, 節奏之停歇也, 疾打之聲, 齊於破竹, 緩挑之韻, 穆若生風, 亦有聲正厲而遽止, 響已絕而意存者. 前輩妙手, 每授一弄, 師有明約, 竭豆一升, 標為徧數, 其勤如此而後有德也, 拙為京兆戶曹."出於 [古吳汪孟舒先生琴學遺著]上册, 朱長文著, 汪孟舒校, 樂圃琴史校, 楊元錚整理.

Chén Zhuó, with the style name "Dà Qiǎo," was a native of Chang'an. He learned the pieces "Nán Fēng," "Yóu Chūn," "Wénwáng Cāo," and "Fèng Guī Lín" from Sūn Xīyù. Zhāng Luán passed on "Qiū Sī" to Chén Zhuó, and he learned "Zhǐ Xī" from Méi Fùyuán. Chén Zhuó once modified ancient qin scores, and transcribed the two pieces "Nán Fēng" and "Wénwáng Cāo," saying, "Although there are numerous qin pieces, those composed by eminent scholars and sages are rare. These two pieces are the only ones that have survived, and I fear they might eventually be lost. There are some pieces with the proper essence, but I have not come across complete versions."

Chén Zhuó once said, "When playing a qin melody, the arrangement of subtlety lies in the alternation between relaxation and tension. Sometimes, there is a sudden pause in the rhythm after a quick passage, while in slow plucking, there emerges a peaceful and gentle aura, akin to a soft breeze. There are also moments when the sound is powerful and intense, abruptly ceasing with a firm press of the fingers, yet the meaning lingers even after the sound has faded away."

The predecessors, masters of qin playing, have been very strict in their teachings, giving clear instructions and requiring students to play each piece to the full extent, exhausting a measuring cup of beans, setting it as the standard for diligent practice, and only then can one attain virtue. Chen Zhuo, served as Jingzhao Hucao.

The preceding text is from [The Posthumous works of Qin Studies by Wāng Mèngshū of Ancient Wú ], Volume 1, with annotations by Wāng Mèngshū based on the [Historical Annotations of the Qin] by Song dynasty scholar, Zhū Chǎngwén, compiled by Yáng Yuánzhèng.

Jīng Zhào Hù Cáo 京兆戶曹 The Hù Cáo "户曹" (or Sī Hù "司户") was responsible for managing official records and registers, including household registrations, land records, and tax assessments. In the context of the Tang and Song dynasties, the "京兆" referred to the capital city and its surrounding areas, which during that time were Nanjing and its environs. Therefore, the "京兆户曹" was in charge of managing the official records and registers for the capital city and its surrounding areas.

Punctuation '句讀' (jù dòu)

In ancient Chinese, punctuation is referred to as '句讀' (jù dòu), which happens to be an important aspect mentioned in Chen Zhuo's Qin Shuo. The end of a sentence is called 'Ju,' similar to the concept of a period in modern punctuation, while a pause is referred to as 'dou,' similar to a comma in contemporary usage.

Punctuation marks were actually present in ancient texts like the Mawangdui Silk Texts of the Tao Te Ching, which were buried around 168 BC. Zhāng Xuéchéng 章學誠, a scholar from the Qing dynasty (1616-1911), mentioned in his research notes, Bǐngchén Zhájì (《丙辰札记》), that methods of punctuation existed even before the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). This showcases the historical significance of the usage of punctuation in Chinese language and literature. However, it remains a question as to why many ancient classical texts did not use punctuation. I will talk about that later.

Notable phrases and metaphors in the text. 要句解說

Lǒu 摟: embrace; drag, pull;
Pī 𢱧: strike;
Lì 擽: tickle;
Lǚ 捋: to pluck, to rub;
Piāo 縹: fly in the air;
Liáo 繚: (纏繞、圍繞) suggests a sense of continuous and intricate movement or appearance, often with a subtle and elusive quality.
Piē 瞥: suddenly;
Liè 冽: cold and raw; pure, clear
The first 4 words are more like the plucking techniques. The next 2 words piāo liáo are similar to the sliding up and down and the transition movement of the pressing hand. Piē liè is similar to the technique lafu 剌伏, which creates a sudden cessation of sound by simultaneously stopping the vibration of multiple strings.

The phrase "highs and lows, heaviness and lightness" does not have a specific explanation from CZ. However, based on the previous phrase which discussed fingerings, I believe this phrase can refer to the hand gesture and movement that create dynamics. It is important to take into account the composer's intention.

古淡 gǔ dàn describes something that has an old-fashioned or vintage quality, often with a simple and understated aesthetic. It suggests a sense of timelessness and a lack of ostentation.
清美 qīng měi in English can be translated as "pure and beautiful" or "clear and exquisite." It represents a combination of clarity, simplicity, and elegance, often used to describe natural scenery, artistic expressions, or a refined aesthetic. It conveys a sense of pristine beauty and unadorned grace.
慷慨 kāng kǎi has the following meanings: impassioned, vehement, fervent. In Classical Chinese, it can also mean to sigh with regret, to lament, or to exclaim. In this context, I interpret the meaning of "to sigh with regret" or "to lament" to correspond to the sadness expressed in the previous sentence.

詳緩句讀 = 詳句緩讀 = to be detailed, observe carefully on phrasing and unhurried with pauses.

不知其所以然者則善矣 "Being skilled does not necessarily require knowing the reasons behind it" can be related to the saying of Zhuangzi's "外物篇" (Outer Chapters):得意而忘言 "The purpose of words is to convey meaning, yet when meaning is attained, the words are forgotten or become less significant." In both cases, there is an emphasis on the ultimate goal or outcome rather than getting caught up in the specific processes or details. When one becomes skilled in a certain endeavor, such as playing the qin or any other skill, the focus shifts from consciously thinking about the reasons or techniques to simply embodying the skill effortlessly. The mastery of the skill becomes natural and intuitive. Similarly, in the context of skill acquisition, once a person becomes highly skilled in a particular domain, the reasons or explanations behind their proficiency may no longer be at the forefront of their mind. The skill becomes an inherent part of their being, and the focus shifts to the expression and embodiment of that skill rather than the intellectualization of it.

When I was attempting to translate this phrase 苟知聲而不知音, I researched the distinction between the words 聲 (shēng) and 音 (yīn). According to a study conducted by the Institute of Linguistics at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, 聲 and 音 are considered "near synonyms" as both convey the meaning of sound. However, 聲 places greater emphasis on the production of sound, while 音 places greater emphasis on the perception of sound. The phrase 知聲而不知音 suggests that one may be skilled in producing sound but lack the ability to recognize and understand aspects such as pitch, quality, dynamics, and the emotional dimensions of the sound—the perception that lies behind it.

Why many ancient classical texts did not use punctuation 古文無句讀之因

Regarding punctuation, I'd like to discuss why many ancient classical texts did not use punctuation. The absence of punctuation in ancient classical texts and the absence of marks indicating rhythm and pitches in traditional qin notation share similarities. Both encourage careful study and interpretation, fostering a deeper understanding and creativity.


Lǐjì Xuéjì 禮記學記 (Record on the Subject of Education from the Book of Rites which is one of the Confucian classics), has a passage describing the educational process in ancient times, emphasizing the importance of a progressive learning approach. In the first year, the focus is on learning Lí Jīng Biàn Zhì 離經辨志, which Lí means phrasing. Jīng means Confucian classics. Biàn: To note clearly, to perceive. And Zhì: Ambition, aspiration; annals, historical record. Lí Jīng Biàn Zhì means reading and analyzing the sentence structure to understand historical records. Each year has a different learning approach.

At the end of this passage, the phrase É Zǐ Shí Shù Zhī '蛾子時術之' is mentioned. '蛾子' refers to a moth, and '蛾子時術之' can be interpreted as a metaphor for the learning process, resembling the transformation of a moth. Just as a caterpillar goes through multiple molting stages, gradually increases in size, spins a silk cocoon, and emerges as a moth by breaking through it. The learning process involves stages of growth, development, and transformation.

Recalling Chen Zhuo's Qin Shuo, where he emphasized the importance of carefully observing phrasing, maintaining an unhurried pace with pauses, and finding meaning within when playing a qin melody. It is similar to the intention behind learning to read Confucian classics. Both learning follow a deliberate process that discourages haste, as rushing often leads to failure. The absence of punctuation in classical texts presents an opportunity for students to develop their skills of observation, interpretation, and critical thinking, enabling them to study diligently and comprehensively until they achieve a deep and thorough understanding of the text.

The traditional guqin tablature does not indicate pitch and rhythm. Similar to the absence of punctuation in texts, this lack of specific markings in qin notation encourages careful study and interpretation. It brings the player to delve deeper into the essence of the music and explore various possibilities for expression, allowing for a more profound engagement with the music and fostering creativity in performance.

In June 25, 2023 I presented this study at the NY Qin Society virtual yaji. Prof. Mingmei Yip pointed out a quote from the preface of Shen Qi Mi Pu 神奇秘譜 regarding why ancient qin tablature didn't have marks on phrasing:
John Thompson's website has translation of the preface:
"As for the 16 pieces in the first folio,Taigu Shenpin, they are the most ancient pieces; so far no one has passed on the mystery (of how to play them), so they have no phrasing indicated. (Only) men of distinction can learn these by themselves. This is how the Dao of the qin has been passed on. If only the melody has been transmitted, don't add tablature; (if only the melody and its tablature have been transmitted), don't add punctuation. And so it was that Xi Kang ended his life without passing on (his music); Bo Ya broke the strings (of his qin) and didn't play anymore (after the death of Ziqi). These (stories) are intended to show that one should not carelessly transmit the qin by teaching it to unworthy people."

神奇秘譜序: ...予昔親受者三十四曲;俱有句點。其吟猱取聲之法、徽軫之正;無有吝諱,刊之以傳﹕後學觀是譜皆自得矣。非待師授而傳也。誠為萬金不傳之秘。止上卷「太古神品」一十六曲,乃太古之操;昔人不傳之秘,故無點句。達者自得之。是以琴道之來。傳曲不傳譜;傳譜不傳句。..."

我認為朱權其實是想要標句讀的. 除了廣陵散, 華胥引, 古風操, 高山, 流水, 玄默等第一冊後面的曲子外, 都有標句號. Zhū Quán was intended to mark the phrases for reading I think. Except for "Guǎnglíng Sàn" "Huáxū Yǐn," "Gǔfēng Cāo (Ancient Wind Tune)," "Gāoshān (High Mountains)," "liúshuǐ (Flowing Waters)," "Xuán Mò (Mystery and Silence)," and other pieces at the end of the first volume, all the other pieces are marked with phrase marks.

Conclusion of Chen Zhuo's Qin Shuo

Chen Zhuo believed that playing the qin requires precision and harmony between the fingers and strings. He emphasized the importance of a comprehensive and deep understanding of qin music. When playing or interpreting the music of ancient composers, it is crucial to consider the themes, intentions, thoughts, and purposes behind the music. Technical aspects alone should not overshadow the deeper meaning and intention. Chen Zhuo stresses embracing diverse expressions, achieving a balance of relaxation and tension, and allowing the music to flow naturally.

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