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明 傳文徵明題 《春風》 仲尼式 古琴

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze


The qin (pronounced “chin”), commonly translated as “zither” or “lute,” was a ubiquitous presence in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China, seen in both small social gatherings and individual forays into the countryside. The instrument was especially associated with the recluse or gentleman living in retirement, who would play the qin to align himself spiritually in time and space or to express an emotional response to personal circumstance.

Qin culture reached its apogee during the Ming dynasty, and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Suzhou was one of its leading centers. Paintings from the period often show a casually dressed, retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant who carries the man’s qin carefully wrapped in cloth. The implication of the image is that the gentleman will soon stop to play the instrument when inspired by the natural scene around him—under a tree or by a rock, at an overlook or in a small pavilion, or perhaps in the nearby retreat of a likeminded friend.

“Spring Breeze”

According to tradition, Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE) excelled at playing the qin. The philosopher’s given name, Zhongni, is used to describe the particular shape of the instrument seen here. This association, along with references to the qin in well-known poems and texts, lent the instrument a special, almost hallowed status. Favorite qins were sometimes given poetic names; here, the underside is inscribed with two large characters in running script reading “Spring Breeze.”

Beside the instrument’s name is a forged signature of the prominent Suzhou artist Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), which undoubtedly was added to further enhance the object’s prestige. Despite being fake, the signature illustrates the close ties between the qin and elite Suzhou culture of the time.

明 傳文徵明題 《春風》 仲尼式 古琴
Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze

Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)
China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644
Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings
Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip
Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

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