Qincao 琴操 "Guide to the Zither" is the oldest surviving book of zither (qin 琴) tunes. It was written during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) by Cai Yong 蔡邕 (132-192). The text describes the author, content and background of 47 tunes, and for some of the songs also related stories. Only for a smaller part of the songs, the text has survived.
The songs belong to four different types, namely "songs" (geshi 歌詩, 5 tunes), "drills" or "studies" (cao 操, 12 tunes), "guidances" (yin 引, 9 tunes), and "miscellaneous songs from Hejian" (Hejian zage 河間雜歌, 21 tunes). Of a small amount of songs, the title is mentioned, but no further information is given.
|昔伏羲氏作琴，所以禦邪僻，防心淫，以脩身理性，反其天真也。||In the past, Fu Xi made the zither, so as to check the evil and prevent the heart from lust; to cultivate the body and regulate the character; and thus to bring back man to Heavenly-natural sincerity.|
|琴長三尺六寸六分，象三百六十日也；廣六寸，象六合也。文上曰池，下曰巖。池，水也，言其平。下曰濱，濱，賓也，言其服也。前廣後狹，象尊卑也。上圓下方，法天地也。||The zither has a length of 3 feet and 6.6 inches, to mirror the 366 days of the year; it has a width of 6 inches, to mirror the six combinations [of the world's dimension]. The patterns (structure?) above are called "pond", and those below, "rocks". "Pond" means, water, or even, flat. The lower [patterns?] are called "river bank" (bin), meaning "guest" (bin), or the part which is allegiant. [The instrument] is wider in the front as in the back, reflecting higher and lower social positions; taking [round] Heaven and [square] Earth as a model it is rounder at the top and square at the bottom.|
|五弦宮也，象五行也。大弦者，君也，寬和而溫。小弦者，臣也，清廉而不亂。||The five stings [based] on the note gong reflect the Five Processes. The largest string represents the lord; it is wide, balanced and has a warm [sound]; the small[er/est] strings represent the ministers; they are pure, immaculate and without disturbing [noise].|
|文王武王加二弦，合君臣恩也。宮為君，商為臣，角為民，徵為事，羽為物。||The kings Wen and Wu added two strings to express the grace of the lord towards his ministers. The tone gong symbolizes the lord, shang his ministers, jue the people, zhi affairs, and yu objects.|
|古琴曲有歌詩五曲，一曰鹿鳴，二曰伐檀，三曰騶虞，四曰鵲巢，五曰白駒。||There are five airs for songs for the ancient zither: "Roaring deer", "Cutting the hardwood", "The magic tiger", "Nest of the magpie", and "White colt".|
|又有一十二操，一曰將歸操，二曰猗蘭操，三曰龜山操，四曰越裳操，五曰拘幽操，六曰岐山操，七曰履霜操，八曰雉朝飛操，九曰別鶴操，十曰殘形操，十一曰水仙操，十二曰懷陵操。||There are also twelve steerings, namely "I will return", "Lovely orchid", "Tortoise hill", "The [southern land] of Yueshang", "Imprisoned in the dark", "Mt. Qishan", "Treading on frost", "Pheasants flying up in the morning", "Learn from the crane", "Incomplete shape", "Water fairy", and "The hill of memory" (?).|
|又有九引，一曰列女引，二曰伯姬引，三曰貞女引，四曰思歸引，五曰辟歷引，六曰走馬引，七曰箜篌引，八曰琴引，九曰楚引。||There are also nine conductions, namely "The outstanding females", "Consort Bo", "The chaste woman", "Longing for return", "Thunderclap", "The running horse", "The harp", the "Conduction of the zither", and the "Conduction of Chu".|
|又有河間雜歌二十一章。||There are also 21 stanzas for various songs from the region of Hejian.|
Translation: Ulrich Theobald
The Qincao is transmitted in three different versions. The first is a compilation of fragments collected by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) master Wang Mo 王謨 (c. 1731-1817), to be found in his series Han-Wei yishu chao 漢魏遺書鈔, and the second a collection with an anonymous preface from 1798, and a third one with a preface written by Zhang Dunhe 張敦仁 (1754-1834) and dated 1800. The last two versions are not divided into juan (fascicles), and quote from ancient books that include fragments of the Qincao, like the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) encyclopaedia Chuxueji 初學記.
The Qincao is also to be found in the series Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, where the text is divided into 2 juan. The wording of the second part of this edition differs somewhat form that of the other editions.
Texts with the same title were written by Huan Tan 桓譚 (23 BCE-56 CE), Kong Yan (268-320), and Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824).