The guqin has a written history of 3,000 years. During China’s Zhou Dynasty (BC.1046-256) guqin was an instrument played in ritual music ensembles. During the Han Dynasty (BC. 206-221 AD) guqin evolved into a solo instrument tradition as it became a private instrument of the Confucian scholar, who played it for self-cultivation in relation to Confucian and Daoist values. Confucius, who lived at the end of the Zhou Dynasty, is said to have played guqin and written for the instrument. Although no document connects him to the piece You Lan (Elegant Orchid), legend says that he wrote this piece for guqin as a result of seeing a beautiful orchid growing in the mud and feeling that he was the orchid with ideas of virtue in morals in a world that was full of war (which was true of his era). The instrument remained a solo tradition up to the present day. The only other instrument that is performed with guqin is the end-blown bamboo flute xiao. Most guqin players also play xiao and vice versa. In order to play together both guqin and xiao player should know how to play the other’s instrument.
While the guqin dates back over 3,000 years, most all of the music played today comes from guqin scores from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and after. There are many hundreds of guqin pieces but only a collection of 150 or so are performed today. All guqin traditional music is notated using a character-symbol language called jianzipu (meaning ‘short-hand’ notation.) Left and right hand techniques are recorded in the notation but no rhythm. This was acquired during lessons orally with a teacher. The notation was considered flexible, not for improvisation, but because guqin players from one generation to the next would reshape a traditional piece in their own way and notate their version in a handbook. Over time this produced as many as 45 different versions of the same score.