Melodies from the depths of history: Musical heritages from ancient China

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220)

Updated: Feb 9, 2023 Print
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The Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) marked the heyday of the development of the manufacturing of the guqin zither, a Chinese plucked instrument, and its music. The example unearthed from the Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tomb in Changsha, Hunan province, proves that the instrument had developed into the form known today during that period. It shows seven strings and 13 markers indicating the pressing positions of overtone series. It was a popular instrument among the scholar-officials of that time, and flourished as skills and repertoire grew.

The guqin from the Mawangdui Han Dynasty tomb

The guqin from the Mawangdui Han Dynasty tomb in the collection of the Hunan Museum [Photo/Official Website of Hunan Museum]

Unearthed from the tomb of Li Xi, a marquis of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), this seven-stringed instrument could play both solos and accompaniment. It is the first Han Dynasty guqin specimen discovered in China and has a slightly different structure from today’s guqin, as it has a half sound box. There are seven string marks on the surface of the instrument, and the more severely worn part is at the place where the strings are played, indicating that this was a practical instrument played by the tomb owner for a long time during his lifetime.

The 25-stringed se from the Mawangdui Han Dynasty tomb

This 25-stringed se was also unearthed from the Mawangdui Han Dynasty tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. [Photo/Official Website of Hunan Museum]

Another precious relic unearthed from Mawangdui, this 25-stringed se (an ancient plucked Chinese zither) was wrapped in silk covers when discovered. There are movable bridges supporting the strings and resonance windows at both ends of the bottom. This se, one of the most complete from the Qin and Han dynasties discovered so far, offers very valuable materials for studying the history of ancient music.

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