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Ancient Instrument Going for a Song

Following the successful auction of two ancient qins in the last two years, another of the plucked instrument used to play old melodies is to go on the block this Saturday at a major auction in Beijing.

The instrument is about 500 years old and has been widely known as "Hanquan Shushi," which translate roughly as "Cool spring water running over stones."

The qin will go on offer under the expert eye of China Rongbao Auction House, an affiliate of the 260-year-old art dealers, Rongbaozhai, and will be among some 1,400 antiques and art works up for grabs at the Asia Hotel, in Dongsi Shitiao, Beijing. A public viewing of the lots will be held this Thursday and Friday.

The qin is a seven-stringed zither, and is arguably the oldest Chinese plucked instrument. The playing of the instrument is counted among the traditional so-called "Four Skills" required to be called a scholar, the other talents being chess, calligraphy and painting.

"The 'Cool spring' qin is famous because it was reputedly made and owned by Yang Jisheng (1516-55), a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) official who was never intimidated by authority, and risked his life to speak the truth," says Yang Qing, a master of qin and general secretary of the China Qin Association.

Yang Jisheng was beheaded in Beijing in 1555 for criticizing the leading political figure of his day, Yan Song (1481-1568).

But when Yan fell from power after being accused of various "gross" crimes including corruption seven years later, Yang subsequently became a posthumous hero, viewed widely as a Confucian martyr. Over the ensuing 450 years, his image has been used by emperors, members of the literati elite, and his own descendants to promote loyalty and courage.

"Yang Gong Ci," his memorial temples, were built throughout the country, especially at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by the Hans, who refused to obey the ruling Manchus in those days.

Yang was also known as writer of the heroic couplet, "Tie Jian Dan Dao Yi, La Shou Zhu Wen Zhang," meaning "Shouldering morals and responsibilities with iron shoulders, and writing with the ruthless pen."

Yang's image, articles and reform strategies have also been a focus of Chinese studies in modern times.

The "Cool spring" qin measures 121 centimeters long, 17.5 centimeters wide at the head and 14.5 centimeters at the end. Its design is typical of the slimmer sized instruments preferred by the Ming Dynasty over the larger models likened the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), another noted period of qin production.

Inside the instrument, six carved Chinese characters read: "In the sixth year of the Jiajing administration of the Ming Dynasty." Historians claim this reveals it was made in 1527.

Another inscription at the bottom of the instrument reveals that one of its owners was possibly famous artist Zheng Xie (1716-98), who was also known as Zheng Banqiao.

The 16-character inscription praised the sound of the qin as to "exceed smoke and colorful clouds in grace and variety."

Beside the inscription was a seal reading: "Seal of Zheng Xie."

The "Cool spring" was given an estimated auction value of between 600,000 and one million yuan (US$72,000-120,000).

It is the fourth of the famous, ancient qins to go under auction in the last five years. The current record price for a qin was paid for the 1,000-year-old "Dasheng Yiyin" (Music Left by the Saint) - part of the well-known Lisongju Collection of renowned scholar and researcher Wang Shixiang and his late wife Yuan Quanyou, a scholar and artist in her own right.

It fetched 8.91 million yuan (US$1,073,000) last November.

The 1,000-year-old "Jiuxiao Huanpei" (Heavenly Jade) was sold for 3.46 million yuan (US$417,000)last July.

"A classical qin, which embodies such traditional Chinese art forms as poetry, calligraphy, painting, seal carving and lacquer, is the product of a history of more than 3,000 years of development," says Wang Wei, a spokesperson for Rongbao Auction House.

(China Daily September 14, 2004)

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