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Kong Hou: The Evolution of China’s Forgotten Harp

Last Updated on 2023/11/23

“From Han Dynasty to Modern Day: The Resurgence of the Kong Hou.

The Kong Hou (箜篌), pronounced as “kōng hóu” in Pinyin, is a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, notable for its unique design and rich history. It was first created during the Han Dynasty, around 111 BC, under the orders of Emperor Han Wudi, who directed the musician Hou Diao to develop this instrument. The name “Kong Hou” is derived from the maker’s surname, Hou, and the sound it produces, which was described as “kang kang”.

There are two primary types of Kong Hou: the horizontal and the vertical versions. The horizontal Kong Hou, similar to the Korean Hyangbipa, was played in a manner akin to lying down, and it emerged during the Han Dynasty. This version is also referred to as the Kong Hou Hyangbipa.

Painted stone reliefs from the Five Dynasties of China, unearthed in Quyang County, Baoding City (now in the Hebei Museum)
Painted stone reliefs from the Five Dynasties of China, unearthed in Quyang County, Baoding City (now in the Hebei Museum), source

The vertical Kong Hou, also known as the Hu Kong Hou, is believed to have been introduced from the Western Regions during the reign of Emperor Han Lingdi. Standing about three feet tall and resembling a half-side of a wooden comb, the number of strings on the Kong Hou varied with the instrument’s size, ranging from five to twenty-five strings. Over the centuries, especially during the Sui, Tang, and Ming dynasties, the vertical Kong Hou evolved, integrating with local musical traditions and leading to the creation of new styles like the Tang Kong Hou and Ming Kong Hou.

In Buddhist murals found in the Kizil Caves, the vertical Kong Hou is often depicted alongside the straight-necked pipa in scenes depicting the Buddha’s teachings, Nirvana, and celestial musicians. Post-Tang Dynasty, the term Kong Hou specifically referred to the vertical version. The strings of the Kong Hou were typically attached to an open frame and played with the fingers. Along with the pipa, Wuxian (a five-stringed instrument), and the guzheng, the Kong Hou was a significant part of the Sui and Tang Dynasty’s secular silk-string music.

In Japan, remnants of a lacquered Tang Dynasty vertical Kong Hou are preserved in the Shosoin Repository in Nara Prefecture. These remnants, including parts like the neck, foot, and soundboard, suggest that the instrument’s soundbox was located on a curved wooden upper part, with a crossbar below for the strings.

Despite its prominence, the Kong Hou gradually fell out of favor after the Tang Dynasty, eventually fading into obscurity during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Efforts to revive the Kong Hou began in the 1930s, and in 1959, the Beijing Musical Instrument Research Institute undertook the task of recreating the Ming Dynasty version of the Kong Hou.

A significant development occurred in 1980, with the invention of the modern Kong Hou in China. This new version combines elements from Western harps, the Chinese guzheng, pipa, and guqin. It features double rows of strings, a pear-shaped resonating box similar to the pipa, and bridges characteristic of the guzheng and other traditional Chinese instruments. The size and shape of the modern Kong Hou resemble those of a vertical harp, and its playing techniques incorporate those of the harp, guqin, guzheng, and pipa, allowing for a range of expressions including bending, pressing, vibrato, sliding, harmonics, and trills.

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