Bulletin of the Nara National Museum"Rokuon Zasshu"

University of Würzburg

The lute (Japanese, biwa, Chinese, pipa) was one of the most popular musical instruments in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Some outstanding examples are still housed in the Shôsô-in Repository in Nara.

Music historians have generally believed that there were three or four types of lute played in the Tang dynasty. However, a thorough reexamination of the most representative contemporary texts-including Tongdian, compiled by Du You (735-812)-suggests that there were actually five types:

  1. qinhanzi (J., shinkanshi), a four-stringed lute with a round body, straight neck, and twelve frets
  2. quxiang (J., kyokko), a four-stringed lute with pear-shaped body, bent neck, four frets, and two soundholes
  3. qinhan (J., shinkan), a four-stringed lute with a pear shaped body, straight neck, four frets, and no soundholes
  4. wuxian (J., gogen), a five-stringed lute with a pear-shaped body, straight neck, four frets, and one small fret
  5. ruanxian (J., genkan), a four-stringed lute with a round body, straight neck (longer than that of the qinhanzi), and thirteen frets

Among these, the qinhan has been overlooked by modern scholars, despite its detailed description in the short text Yinlutu, which was quoted by the Song-dynasty encyclopedia Taiping yulan in the entry for "wuxian." However, judging from the irregularities of the "qinhan pipa" entry in the Yuan dynasty text Wenxian tongkao, this type of lute seems to have gone out of use by the Yuan dynasty, if not earlier, at which time details of the instrument were forgotten. This may explain in the absence of the qinhan from modern scholarship.

Though no extant example of the qinhan pipa has ever been found, this article proposes that an illustration of a lute appearing on the plectrum guard of a lute in the Shôsô-in actually depicts this extinct instrument. In addition, based on a close examination of Tongdian, Xintangshu, and other texts, it argues that the lute known as qiuci pipa (or hu pipa)-which played an important role in Chinese music during the Sui dynasty and has been associated with the wuxian-actually corresponds with the quxiang pipa.

Bulletin of the Nara National Museum Vol. 2, 3, March 2001

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