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Se Zither: A Portal to China’s Musical Past

Last Updated on 2023/11/25

Harmony of History: Understanding the Se, China’s Classic Zither.

The Se (瑟) is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument, resembling a Zheng but slightly wider. It is tuned according to the pentatonic scale and often serves as an accompaniment to the Guqin, another classic Chinese instrument. Together, they are frequently referred to as “Qin and Se” (琴瑟).

Historical Significance

The earliest mention of the Se is found in the ancient text “Book of Songs” (《诗经》). For instance, the section “Little Ya” (《詩經·小雅》) mentions the Se in verses like “I have fine guests, drumming on the Se and blowing the Sheng” and “With the Qin and Se at hand, all is calm and good.” During the Moutai Meeting, King Zhao of Qin demanded King Huiwen of Zhao play the Se as a means to humiliate him. This incident signifies the historical prominence of the Se.

Excavations have unearthed Se instruments from various eras, including twelve Se from the Marquis Yi of Zeng’s tomb dating back to the Warring States period, and Se from Han Dynasty tombs at Mawangdui. The Se was a primary instrument in Han and Wei Dynasty music, notably in the Xianghe songs and Qing Shang music.

Additionally, the “Rites of Zhou” (《周礼》) records different types of Se, including the “Ya Se” with 23 strings, the “Song Se” with 25 strings, the “Precious Se” (寶瑟) adorned with jewels, and the “Brocaded Se” (錦瑟) with ornate patterns. Although traditionally the Se had 25 strings, variations with fewer strings have been found in archaeological discoveries.

Post-Tang Dynasty, the Se became a staple in court music. Xiong Penglai’s “Se Score” (《瑟譜》) during the Yuan Dynasty and Zhu Zaiyu’s extensive Se scores in the “Complete Book of Music Theory” (《樂律全書》) illustrate its esteemed status. In the Qing and Republican periods, a plethora of scores for both the Qin and Se circulated widely.


The Se has a flat, elongated, rectangular body with a slightly convex surface. Typically made from a single piece of wood, it includes a soundboard and a base, sometimes with sound holes on the sides and bottom. The instrument’s headstock, known as “Yue Shan,” supports the strings, while the tail end has three shorter Yue Shan and four pegs to secure them. A standard Se features 25 silk strings, arranged parallel to the body, each with a movable bridge for tuning.

The length of a Se varies from 120 to 170 centimeters (47 to 67 inches), with different types like “Ya Se” (elegant Se) with 23 strings, “Song Se” (celebratory Se) with 25 strings, “Da Se” (large Se) with 27 strings, and “Xiao Se” (small Se) with 15 strings. Ancient legends speak of a 50-string Se, as mentioned in the “Han Shu.” In the 1930s, Zheng Jinyu innovatively created a 50-string Poxie Se and a 100-string Da Se.

The sound of the Se is rich and full, with crisp high notes, bright mid-tones, and deep bass. Its five-tone pentatonic scale covers five octaves. It can be played solo, in ensemble, or as accompaniment, often paired with the Guqin or Sheng. The performer traditionally places the Se horizontally in front of them, playing with both hands in alternation.

Musical Scores

The Se’s repertoire is rich and diverse. The Song Dynasty’s Chen Yang mentioned Se performance in his “Music Book” (《樂書》). Yuan Dynasty’s Xiong Penglai wrote a six-volume work documenting the 25-string Se’s construction, techniques, and scores. The Ming Dynasty’s Zhu Zaiyu authored a ten-volume “Se Score,” and during the Qing Dynasty, Hu Shian, Duan Zaiwen, and Zhu Tang compiled Se scores. In the Republic era, Yang Zongji published “Qin and Se Combined Scores” (《琴瑟合譜》).

Cultural Significance

The Se holds a significant place in Chinese culture, often mentioned alongside the Guqin in ancient texts like the “Book of Songs” and “The Book of Rites” (《禮記》). It has inspired idioms such as “gluing the column of the Se” (胶柱鼓瑟) and “harmony of the Qin and Se” (琴瑟之好), reflecting its enduring cultural impact.

Topics: History of the Chinese Se zither, cultural significance of traditional Chinese instruments, ancient Chinese stringed instruments, role of Se in Chinese music, preservation of Chinese musical heritage, Se instrument in historical texts, evolution of Chinese string instruments

Featured image: Wikipedia

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