Savart Journal

science and technology of stringed musical instruments

Three millennia of tonewood knowledge in Chinese guqin tradition: science, culture, value, and relevance for Western lutherie

Wenjie Cai, Hwan Ching Tai


The qin, also called guqin, is the most highly valued musical instrument in the culture of Chinese literati. Chinese people have been making guqin for over three thousand years, accumulating much lutherie knowledge under this uninterrupted tradition. In addition to being rare antiques and symbolic cultural objects, it is also widely believed that the sound of Chinese guqin improves gradually with age, maturing over hundreds of years. As such, the status and value of antique guqin in Chinese culture are comparable to those of antique Italian violins in Western culture. For guqin, the supposed acoustic improvement is generally attributed to the effects of wood aging. Ancient Chinese scholars have long discussed how and why aging improves the tone. When aged tonewood was not available, they resorted to various artificial means to accelerate wood aging, including chemical treatments. The cumulative experience of Chinese guqin makers represent a valuable source of tonewood knowledge, because they give us important clues on how to investigate long-term wood changes using modern research tools. In this review, we translated and annotated tonewood knowledge in ancient Chinese books, comparing them with conventional tonewood knowledge in Europe and recent scientific research. This retrospective analysis hopes to highlight the practical value of Chinese lutherie knowledge for 21st-century instrument makers.

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Article published Oct 7, 2018.
This article has been accessed 1656 times since publication.


The Savart Journal is published in collaboration with the Guild of American Luthiers.

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Wenjie Cai
School of Humanities and Law, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, Fuzhou, China. Graduate Institute of Creative Industries, College of Management, Shih Chien University, Taipei, Taiwan.

Wenjie Cai is a lecturer of media studies at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University (China), and a PhD candidate at Graduate Institute of Creative Industries, Shih Chien University (Taiwan). She received her bachelor degree in network economics at Xiamen University (China) and master degree in digital media at Valpraiso University (USA). Her research interests include art and antique markets, entrepreneurship in creative industries, and digital media entrepreneurship.

Hwan-Ching Tai
Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan

Hwan-Ching Tai is an associate professor of chemistry at National Taiwan University (Taiwan). He received his bachelor degree in chemistry at National Taiwan University, and PhD degree in chemistry at California Institute of Technology (USA). He conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School (USA). His research interests include chemical biology, Alzheimer's disease, mass spectrometry, and the material/acoustic properties of antique string instruments.