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Xiqin: Tracing Its Roots from Tang to Modern Times

Last Updated on 2023/12/05

Xiqin (奚琴) – An Ancient Prototype of the Huqin Family

Xiqin (奚琴), also known as Kèqín (稽琴), is an ancient Chinese musical instrument that traces its origins back to the Tang Dynasty. It represents an early prototype of the huqin family, a group of traditional Chinese bowed string instruments. Renowned for its long history and simplistic design, the xiqin is capable of playing a wide range of music with expressive and nuanced sound, adeptly conveying a spectrum of emotions such as happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy. Its ability to produce glissando effects closely mimics the inflections of the human voice, making it a versatile instrument for solo performances, ensembles, or accompanying songs and dances.

Historical Development

During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the xiqin underwent a significant transition from being a plucked to a bowed string instrument. This period marks its evolution in playing techniques and structural design.

Notably, Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修), a prominent scholar of the Northern Song Dynasty, described the xiqin in his poetry. He mentioned its origin from the Hu people’s music and depicted it as a two-stringed plucked instrument, shedding light on its dual nature during this era.

Song Dynasty Transformations

In the Song Dynasty, the xiqin, also referred to as Kèqín, continued to evolve. The 《Shiwu Jiyuan》(事物纪原), compiled by Gao Cheng in 1080 AD, describes the instrument as resembling the ancient Pi Pa (琵琶) but distinct in its construction and playing method.

The 《Shilin Guangji》(事林广记), another significant source from the Song Dynasty, provides a different perspective, indicating the instrument’s shift towards a bowed format. This period marked a transitional phase in the xiqin’s development, where both plucked and bowed playing methods coexisted.

Later Developments

By the late Song Dynasty, instruments using horsehair bows for string vibration started to emerge in the northern frontiers of China. Frescoes in the Yulin Caves of Shaanxi and engravings in the Yanshan Temple of Shanxi province depict early examples of such bowed instruments, indicating a gradual shift in the xiqin’s design and usage.

During the Southern Song Dynasty, the xiqin and similar bowed instruments gained prominence. This period also saw the emergence of silk strings, known as “Hangzhou strings,” which contributed to the instrument’s evolving sound and technique.

Ming Dynasty Advancements

In the Ming Dynasty, the xiqin and related instruments underwent further refinement, coinciding with the rise of drama and folk arts. Artworks from this era, such as the 《Lin Tang Qiu Yan Tu》(麟堂秋宴图), depict ensemble settings involving the xiqin, showcasing advancements in its design and playing technique.

Classification and Regional Variants

Fujian Xiqin is a notable regional variant, primarily found in traditional Fujianese music forms like Nanyin, Puxian opera, and Xiangu opera. Characterized by a unique construction, its soundbox is carved from a single wood block, and its tuning pegs are distinctively positioned.

Craftsmanship and Modern Adaptations

The craftsmanship of the xiqin is meticulous, with historical makers using specific woods and materials for optimal sound quality. Over generations, changes were made in materials and playing techniques, including the adoption of the violin’s bowing method, to enhance its musical expressiveness.

Modern xiqins are typically longer and incorporate various woods for the neck and soundbox. The bow, still made with horsehair, and the design of the tuning pegs and string materials, have evolved, reflecting both traditional and contemporary influences.

Source: Baike Baidu

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