Guqin music expresses the soul of the Chinese nation.

Portrait of a Female Musician

A Chan (Yazhen) Studio
Albumen silver print
11.5 x 6.5 cm
From the Loewentheil Collection



11.5 x 6.5 厘米

An Early Photograph including a Guqin

This rare A Chan (Yazhen) Studio photograph is one of the earliest known photographs including a guqin or qin. The instrument, the most prestigious in China, was invented more than three thousand years ago. Guqin playing developed as an elite art form practiced by scholars and noblemen. It is one of the four classic Chinese arts along with painting, an ancient form of chess, and calligraphy.  The guqin is famous for being the preferred instrument of literati and sages. A Chan (Yazhen) Studio’s 1870s photographic portrait depicts a woman with a guqin, an instrument critical to Chinese intellectual history.


A Female Musician

A Chan (Yazhen) Studio posed the elegant woman directly in front of the camera. Rather than looking down towards the musical instrument, the woman’s eyes engage the viewer as she holds her pose. In accordance with tradition an incense burner is positioned on the table in front of her. The Chinese photography studio, fully cognizant of the significance of the art form, has composed a timeless photograph of the ancient instrument and the beauty of its player.

The woman’s hand gestures suggest that she was a skilled practitioner of the instrument. Her hand positions are accurate, and her left hand is pressing the strings rather than plucking them. The constraints of early photography prevented the woman from playing the instrument while posing. Long exposure times required by the wet plate collodion process would cause motion to appear as a blur in the negative. It is very likely that the photographer instructed the guqin player to exaggerate her finger positions to emphasize her gestures and give the illusion that she was playing the instrument.

Imperial-era literature strongly suggests that guqin playing was a male dominated tradition, but paintings dating back to the Tang dynasty depict female players. The female guqin players in early paintings are identified as court ladies or ladies of refinement. Contemporary scholars believe that it is a mistaken stereotype to consider guqin playing a strictly male tradition. In order to understand the prevalence and role of female guqin players, scholars are working on closer studies of women in Ming and Qing Dynasty qin schools and societies. Today there are many more female than male qin players, and all people of all walks of life play the instrument.

  • John Thomson. Musician. c. 1868. From the Loewentheil Photography of China Collection.
  • On-Qua. Female Chinese Musician. c. 1870. From the Loewentheil Photography of China Collection.
  • John Thomson. Musicians. c. 1868. From the Loewentheil Photography of China Collection.
  • William Saunders. Musicians. c. 1870. From the Loewentheil Photography of China Collection.

Musicians in late Qing Dynasty Photography

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Evening Cry of the Crow 乌夜啼
Performed by Mingmei Yip 叶明媚

The Guqin

The guqin is a seven stringed instrument endowed with metaphysical and cosmological significance. The instrument, beloved by sages including Confucius, is said to have the power to communicate the deepest human feelings. Writers dating back to the Han Dynasty claim that the guqin aids in cultivating character, understanding morality, and enhancing life and learning.

Each component of the guqin relates to cosmology and is identified by a zoomorphic or anthropomorphic name. The upper round board symbolizes heaven. The  flat bottom board represents earth. The strings are traditionally made of twisted silk and vary in thickness. Traditionally the guqin had five strings which symbolize the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.

Guqin playing, is much more than an auditory experience, it has an olfactory component as well. The players customarily perfumed the air by burning incense. The incense burner in A Chan (Yazhen) Studio’s portrait is placed in its usual position in front of the musician.

It is traditionally said that twenty years of training are necessary to gain proficiency on the qin. Guqin players once had a repertoire of several thousand compositions. Presently, fewer than one hundred works are still performed. Today there are fewer than one thousand well-trained guqin players and no more than fifty surviving masters. The guqin and guqin music, recognized as inseparable from Chinese intellectual history, have been added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The art form had been on the verge of extinction, but in recent times there has been a revival of guqin culture. Contemporary musicians are attracting the interest of young people in the ancient Chinese art form.

A poem written by Bai Juyi (772-846), titled 对琴待月 Waiting for the Moon with My Guqin:


In a freshly clear night in the bamboo courtyard,
I'm awake, by a window with pine trees outside.
With my longtime companion, the zither qin,
I appointed a date to rendezvous with the moon.
The jade tuning pegs have been awaiting in the wind for long.
The rippling golden moonlight, however, holds off coming out of the mist.
The elegant tones are waiting for the sky to be cloudless,
and only my inner heart knows about this.


Palace Ladies Tuning a Zither

Unidentified artist, traditionally attributed to Zhou Fang
ca. 730-800
Handscroll, ink and color on paper
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington


Rare Photographs by Late Qing Dynasty Chinese Masters