The yueqin (or yueh-ch'in) is a plucked box-lute chordophone of the Han Chinese. Known to the English-speaking world as the 'moon lute,' its name derives from the characters for ‘moon’ (‘yue’) and ‘stringed instrument’ (‘qin’). It is perhaps best known for its role in Beijing Opera music, but it is also an auxiliary instrument in several regional instrumental and opera ensembles both in northern and southern China. Prior to 1926, the yueqin was a prominent instrument in Cantonese instrumental ensembles, but it has since fallen out of its prominent position. It does not seem to be an instrument of choice in the conservatory- and concert hall-based modern Chinese music movement. The yueqin pictured here was made by the 'Peacock' factory, possibly for sale to tourists rather than serious performers of Chinese music. It is, however, a functional musical instrument.
The yueqin is a composite lute made by joining together a flat circular resonator and a short neck/pegbox. The circular hoop of wood that constitutes the sidewall of the resonator is slightly less than two inches deep and its soundboard and back are two thinly-shaven, glued-on wooden boards. Near the bottom of the soundboard there is a firmly attached string fastener that doubles as a bridge. The fretted fingerboard is only four inches long and terminates with a wood nut. The pegbox, carved from the same piece of wood as the neck, has two large friction pegs penetrating it from each side. It is capped with a simple ornamental piece of wood. Distributed over the fingerboard and the top half of the soundboard is nine raised frets; three of these are glued to the fingerboard, and the six frets on the soundboard are each divided into two columns. One end of each of the instrument’s four nylon (traditionally silk) strings is looped around a tuning peg, the other end is secured to the wooden bridge/string fastener on the soundboard.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The player rests the edge of the resonator in his or her lap with the neck tilted to the left at approximately a 45-degree angle to vertical, the soundboard facing outwards. The strings are arranged in two double courses and within each course the two strings are tuned a fifth apart. Liang (p. 273) gives the tuning, from lowest to highest string, as: G3 and D4 for the lower course, and G4 and D5 for the upper one. He gives the range of the instrument as G3 to C7, but perhaps this is for an instrument with more frets than the one pictured here. The player plucks the strings either with the fingernails of the right hand or a plectrum held in that hand, and depresses the strings against the frets with the fingers of the left hand. Literature on this instrument is unclear as to whether both the strings in a double course are plucked together or individually. If the former, this would mean that the melodies played on it, for instance when used to accompany singers in Beijing opera, are sounded in parallel fifths.
Origins/History/EvolutionSources generally agree that the yueqin evolved from the ruan, a long-necked plucked lute whose history goes back the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE to 220 CE), but do not specify when and where this evolution occurred.
Huang, Jinpei. 2002. "Ensemble: Guangdong Yinyue." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 217-221.
Liang, Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.
Thrasher, Alan R. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.________. 1984. “Yueqin [yueh-ch’in].” NGDMI v.3: 887.