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Wanqin (弯琴): A Mysterious Instrument of Tang Dynasty

Last Updated on 2023/11/26

Curves of History: The Bent Qin’s Place in China’s Musical Legacy.

The Wanqin (弯琴), an enigmatic Chinese musical instrument, has intrigued historians and musicologists for years. Its name translates to “bent zither” in English, and it bears a striking resemblance to a dragon boat. It is akin to Myanmar’s saung-gauk, but with notable differences.

Historical Depictions

The earliest depiction of the Wanqin can be traced back to the Mogao Caves, specifically to cave 161, dating to the late Tang Dynasty. In these ancient murals, the Wanqin is portrayed as a unique, bent instrument, resembling a pipa (a traditional Chinese string instrument) but with only a single string.

The peculiar design of the Wanqin, with just one string, poses a significant puzzle. A single-string instrument could theoretically produce only one note, which seems impractical for a musical instrument. This anomaly led to much speculation among scholars and historians.

Speculations and Theories

One prominent Japanese musicologist, Mr. Kenzō Hayashi, explored this mystery in his work “Study of East Asian Musical Instruments.” (东亚乐器考). He hypothesized that the Wanqin might have been used exclusively in court music for a brief period before disappearing from popular use. This theory suggests that Tang Dynasty painters may have used their imagination to depict this instrument, thus creating a representation more artistic than practical.

Cultural Significance and Modern Interpretations

Despite its impracticality for performance, modern craftsmen have recreated the Wanqin, bringing the ancient imagination to life. These replicas serve as a poignant reminder of the distance between the ethereal world of celestial music depicted in Buddhist art and the harmonious world of ritual music in reality.

The Wanqin, with its mysterious origin and unique design, continues to captivate those interested in ancient Chinese culture and music. It stands as a testament to the rich and diverse history of musical instruments in China, bridging the gap between historical imagination and modern reconstruction.


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