Author's note: Guqin literally means ancient string instrument. It is basically a musical instrument of the zither family (multiple strings stretched across a flat body). It typically has seven strings but there is a more ancient version with five string only. Apparently, its shape is modelled along the body of a phoenix and it is a complex instrument to make since it contains multiple parts that have to be fashioned in a certain way. All of these apparently also have various significance reflecting Chinese culture (too much for me to list here before this sub gets bogged down in technicalities. But if anyone's interested, I will reply in comments). There is no clear ordering for which of these instruments are superior compared to others. The ordering is in chronological order of construction period/when records of them first appeared. Just in case someone is interested, this link provides a timeline illustrating the transition between different dynasties and periods in ancient China.

The 10 Greatest guqin

Pictures of all these instruments can be seen in this link

1. Horn-bell (Hao Zhong)

Appearance & Characteristics:

The timbre from this instrument is very grand, like the long note from a horn or the ringing of a temple bell (that is usually as tall and wide as one man), such that music produced from it would vibrate strongly in audiences' ears.


Made in the Zhou dynasty, *Bo Ya (a skilled player of the guqin who was renowned because the story about him and his friend created the Chinese term for a friend who has a keen appreciation for one's talents zhi yin which literally means 'know music/sound') had once owned it. It subsequently fell into the hands of Qi Yuan Gong, the virtuous Lord of the Qi Kingdom during the period of the Spring and Autumn Warring States. He was a man who had great musical talents and had quite a collection of high quality guqins. Among these, he especially treasured Horn-bell. He had once asked his retainers to knock on the horns of oxen and sing accompaniments while he used the Horn-bell to perform. It was said that the effect was very poignant and the servants who were serving on the side all ended up in tears.

2. Pillar Circler (Rao Liang)

Appearance & Characteristics:

Its name came from a story published in a famous ancient text: a renowned female singer from the Han region in the Zhou dynasty who was travelling to the Qi kingdom but ran out of money half way and so had to resort to singing on the street to beg for money. Her melancholy sword circled in the air like the call of a swallow. Moreover, it was said that her voice still circled and reverberated among the pillars within houses three days after she had left. Thus, this instrument had a strong echo.


When this instrument was actually constructed is unknown. However, legend says that it was brought to the Lord of the Chu kingdom (known as Chu Zhuang Wang, that's not his actual name but a title, Wang is the Chinese character for a feudal lord) as a tribute by a person named Hua Yuan. It was said that Chu Zhuang Wang received the Pillar Circler, he was totally immersed in the beautiful music it produced. There was once when he didn't go to court for seven consecutive days and forgot all about the affairs of the kingdom. His wife got really worried and said to him, 'Lord, you are too immersed in music! In the past, Lord Xia Jie loved to hear Mei Xi playing the Se (another string instrument that have 50, 25 or 23 strings). Similarly, Lord Zhou lost the kingdom to decadent music. Now, Lord you are so immersed in the music produced by the Pillar Circler so as to not go to court for seven days. Do you also want to forfeit your kingdom and your life?' That made Chu Zhuang Wang think. In the end, he decide to heed his wife's advice. So he ordered the Pillar Circler to be broken up by iron hammers and this highly sought after instrument became history.

3. Green Silk/Elegance (Luu Qi)

Appearance & Characteristics :

There is carved onto this instrument four Chinese characters that mean the 'essence of Tong and Zi' that imply that this instrument combines the best properties of an instrument made from the Tong (probably Chinese parasol) and Zi (catalpa ovata) trees.


Gifted to the famous scholar Sima Xiang Ru of the Han dynasty by the noble Liang Wang (Lord of the Liang region) for composing a beautiful verse for him titled the Jade-like Verse ( Ru Yu Fu). In particular, Xiang Ru was already a skilled player. With the Green Silk in his possession, both himself and the instrument reached their height of fame, so much that the name Green Silk became used as a generic term to refer to an instrument of high quality/a renowned instrument.

Moreover, this instrument also played an important role in the love story of Xiang Ru and his wife Wen Jun, which was not just romantic but famous because it had a *‘happy ending'. The basic story goes as follows: Xiang Ru was a very talented scholar that was quite well known but poor. One day when he was invited to the house of a rich merchant who was appreciative of his talents. There was a party going on and he was asked to perform with the Green Silk Knowing that the merchant's daughter, who had quite a reputation for being talented at both literature and music and also happened to admire himself, Xiang Ru took the opportunity to declare his love for her through performing the love song Feng Qiu Huang (Male Phoenix courting Female Phoenix). The result was that Wen Jun eloped with him and they eventually became a happy married couple.

Note: Recently, I've found that there's more to the love story and it isn't as happy an ending. Specifically, after becoming a court official, Xiang Ru had apparently thought of dumping Wen Jun and/or taking a concubine. While this did not eventually come to happen and the two of them stuck together to the end, I think most who found out about this latter development would feel somewhat cheated of this actual ending.

4. Scorched Tail (Jiao Wei)

Appearance & Characteristics :

Made from a scorched block of wood from a Chinese parasol tree, its name is derived from the fact that the tail of this instrument shows visible scorch marks.

Lore: Crafted by the scholar and musician Cai Yong of the late Han/Three Kingdoms era from a block of scorched wood he discovered during his wanderings/fleeing across the land to avoid military unrest. Specifically, he found that the block of wood has a unique sound and carefully crafted a guqin out of this piece of wood. Much to his expectations, the instrument that came about had an extradordinary ‘voice'.

Three hundred years later, the Emperor of a short-lived dynasty who held this instrument in his hands asked a famous musician of that time to perform for him using the Scorched Tail. After playing for five days, this musician composed a song titled the Song of Vexation on the spot and presented it to the Emperor as a gift.

5. Spring Thunder (Chun Lei)

Appearance & Characteristics :

The name of this instrument is carved onto its back in green. On the two sides of the big *voice box on its back, there are inscriptions of two separate sayings that praise its sound. Sounds produced from this instrument is deep and clear at the same time. It is crafted in the Tang dynasty by a famous craftsman of such instruments.

*Note: there are two voice boxes on a guqin, one big and one small. The big one is known as long chi or dragon pond. The smaller one is called feng zhao or phoenix lake)

6. Jade Penchant of the Highest Heavens (Jiu Xiao Huan Pei)

Appearance & Characteristics :

The entire body of this instrument is predominantly covered by a pattern similar to that on the torso of a snake and occasionally by the type of broken lines that appear among cow fur. Its back is covered by broken lines that are protruding upwards like sword blades. Consequently, every few years, the musician who owned this instrument must sand down such protrusions so that it would not affect the quality of the sound that this instrument produces. The engravings found inside this instrument point to its being made around the middle of the Tang dynasty.

7. The Saints' Legacy (Da Sheng Yi Yin)

Appearance & Characteristics :

Another Tang masterpiece, the name of this instrument is engraved onto the top of the 'dragon pond' voice box on its back while below is stamped the word for 'include'. On two sides of the 'dragon pond', sixteen words that made up four phrases are engraved onto this instrument and filled up with golden paint. The rough translation of these phrases is 'Huge riverbed greeting autumn, the cold river printing out the moon. Everything is unhurried, the lonely Chinese parasol split apart in melancholy.'

8. The Sole Tranquillity (Du You, pronounced Du Yo)

Appearance & Characteristics :

The top of this instrument is painted in alternate strips of black and red, with crisscrossed patterns of the plum blossom and snakeskin. The back of it is covered by broken lines among cow fur. The name of this instrument is carved onto the top of the ‘dragon pond' voice box while inside the voice box are carved four Chinese characters referring to a specific year in late Tang (the first year of a particular Emperor's reign).

9. Legacy of Antiquity (Tai Gu Yi Yin)

Appearance & Characteristics :

Covered by broken lines like flowing water, with its name carved on the back above the ‘dragon pond'.

10. Rushing Thunder (Ben Lei)

Appearance & Characteristics :

Covered all over by snakeskin patterns, with its name carved on the back above the ‘dragon pond'. Moreover, to either side, there are sets of poems engraved by previous owners. One set says, 'Many times I travel in the four directions, renowned guqins can be encountered but not obtained. Unexpectedly I have a pleasant encounter with the Rushing Thunder, my wish of many times is finally met.' The other set says, 'I have encountered so many puzzles and terrors that there is no longer anything worth sighing, whenever I play the Rushing Thunder my excitement is stoked. Companions for thirty years, I can't part with it for the purpose of developing my character.'

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? Community Contributions (1)-1

I'm enjoying the Chinese entries quite a bit, including this one I don't mind if some entries are lightly described, but I would like to see the Chinese names written out phonetically in English.