Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Chinese Culture in Japan: The Qin and The Literati

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During much of her history, Japan was in the larger cultural orbit of China and Chinese culture; indeed, in the arts at least, China remained the model, particularly in poetry and painting, from about the fifth century down until the middle of the 19th century. The opening of Japan to the Europe and the United States soon caused a new and powerful interest in Western culture which eventually replaced the appeal of the Chinese tradition. Until that time, however, classical Chinese remained the language of educated people, at least for literary purposes, in somewhat the same fashion that Latin was the language studied by educated people in Europe at the same period. Anthologies of Chinese poetry were widely read and memorized, and such great poets as Du Fu and Su Dongbo were as much revered as any writers in the Japanese pantheon; indeed, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), whose haiku and travel diaries remain among the most moving and significant works composed in the Tokugawa period, was deeply influenced by classical Chinese poetry and often reworked passages from these poems into his own writings.

One important factor that helped to foster the development of a uniquely Japanese culture involved the persistent realities of geography. Countries such as Korea and Vietnam, also in the Chinese cultural orbit, borrowed musical, artistic, and literary forms and ideals extensively, and more or less on a continuous basis, from China. Japan, separated by treacherous seas and difficult travel conditions, had far more sporadic contacts with China, occasionally intense, sometimes virtually non-existent, for much of her history. Thus, Japan's culture managed to develop often quite independently from that of China. While remaining a reference point, China was never to play the kind of consistent and dominant role seen in counties and areas in her inner orbit.

One period when intense interest in Chinese culture helped define the Japanese arts was in the Heian period (791-1185CE), when the Japanese court admired and emulated the Chinese arts to a high degree. In the fiction of the period, for example, the qin appears as a musical instrument of high distinction in such works as The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu, a work dating from around 1002, and in Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book (Makura Sōshi) written in roughly the same period. The musical works played on the qin, usually of Chinese origin, were highly regarded for their emotional depth and evocative nature, somewhat in the same fashion that European classical music has long held high prestige in the United States, as a sign in performer and listener alike of taste, education, and artistic sensibility. This is not surprising because in China, the qin was intimately and exclusively associated with the refinement and sophistication of the literati.

The qin, or seven-string zither, is widely acknowledged to be the most important musical instrument in China. This claim has many reasons: its long and continuous history, its unique performance practice and social status, its rich lore and ideology that are preserved in both oral literature and an enormous amount of written and pictorial sources, its vast repertory recorded in a special notational system, and its aesthetics.

Archeological and literary evidence testifies that the qin existed, with a construction similar to the one found today, at least two thousand years ago. While many instruments in the world are as old, few can claim the unbroken continuity of the qin tradition, a continuity which underscores its generally conservative nature. The tradition has retained much that is archaic, including its performance practice, social context, repertory, and notational system.

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