Created more than 3,000 years ago, guqin is one of the oldest plucked instruments in the world. Previously called qixianqin (seven-stringed instrument) for its seven strings, it is currently referred to as the guqin or “ancient zither” for its long history. It is a musical treasure that exemplifies the unique beauty and appeal of traditional Chinese music. Guqin is a symbol of a person’s noble character and personality. People played the guqin to achieve the integration of music, character, and humanity.

Guqin is China’s earliest musical instrument. In ancient times, it functioned more as a ritual implement played at important state ceremonies rather than a musical instrument used for entertainment. Later it became immensely popular among China’s traditional literati who considered the playing and appreciation of the guqin an important indicator of a cultivated person’s character, culture, and personality. It ranked foremost among the four essential arts of the scholar, placed above chess, calligraphy, and painting.

The design of guqin illustrates the ancient Chinese concept of “unity of heaven and humankind.” Its length, usually 365 fen (ca. 48 inches), matches the 365 days of a year; its curved and slightly bowed front and flat back correspond to the ancient Chinese belief that the sky is round and the earth is square. The guqin’s form, consisting of a head, neck, shoulder, waist, and tail, resembles the human figure. Complex and sophisticated craftsmanship is required in the manufacture of guqin to protect it against cracking over time. Some extant guqin of the ancient period date as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), more than 1,000 years ago.

The four most famous guqin of ancient China are the “Haozhong” in the collection of Duke Huan of Qi, who lived during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), the “Raoliang,” owned by King Zhuang of Chu of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), the “Luqi,” plucked by Sima Xiangru of the Western Han (206 BCE–24 CE), and the “Jiaowei,” made by Cai Yong, a literati and musician of the Eastern Han (25–220). Each of these four famed zithers has an interesting backstory or anecdote. For example, it is said of the Jiaowei that when Cai Yong was passing through Wu county, he came across a large cauldron being heated over a pile of crackling firewood. Catching sight of a fine wooden parasol about to go up in flames, Cai rescued it and had it made into a guqin. Due to the burn marks on the bottom of Cai’s guqin, it was given the extraordinary name of Jiaowei, or “Scorched Tail.”

Stories about skilled guqin players often involve accounts about the composition of zither melodies. The Daoist text Liezi records the origins of the famous “High Mountains, Flowing Water” melody, which dates back more than 2,000 years to the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256 BCE). The story goes that in those ancient times, there lived Yu Boya, who was a master player of the guqin while his neighboring friend, Zhong Ziqi, was a master listener. If Boya played with the image of Mount Tai in his mind, Ziqi would hear his friend’s melody and exclaim, “How marvelous and towering like Mount Tai!” When Boya played with the image of flowing water in his mind, Ziqi would exclaim, “How vast are the rivers and streams!” Whenever Boya played music, Ziqi heard the tune and understood whatever was in his friend’s heart and mind. Upon the death of Ziqi, Boya smashed his instrument and never played again. The Chinese term zhiyin, literally “to know the tone,” refers to a bosom friend who knows what is in one’s heart without expressing it in words, and is derived from this story. Later, the classical tune was segmented into “High Mountains” and “Flowing Water,” and played as independent pieces.

Over 3,000 guqin tunes have been passed down from ancient times. Unlike Western scores indicating musical notes, these tunes are written as a tablature specifying finger positions and stroke sequence. Guqin players can produce the expected melody by just following the tablature. Although it is relatively easy to learn how to play guqin, it takes many years of practice fully to grasp the profound subtleties of the music.

Guqin was introduced into Korea around the year 600 during the Sui dynasty. During the Tang period, Japanese envoys who had traveled to China upon returning home brought with them guqin, tablatures, and writings about the guqin. Old guqin from the Tang dynasty are preserved in Japan’s Shosoin Repository in Nara and the Tokyo National Museum. A manuscript of one of China’s earliest guqin melodies, the seventh century Jieshi diao—Youlan (Solitary orchid in stone tablet mode), was found in the late Qing period (late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries) in Japan and brought back to China.

In 2003, China’s guqin was recognized as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.