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Top Ten Famous Ancient Chinese Guqin Music Pieces

Guqin Listening – Tang Yin, Ming Dynasty (明 唐寅 聽琴圖)

Thanks to its 4000 year history interwoven with Chinese philosophies, religions, arts and culture, volumes of guqin songs and melodies have been written since time immemorial, many of which survived the passage of time and still exist today. Granted, without the benefits of hard disks and cloud storage, most of the original compositions have been lost. Many of the melodies which still exist today are likely composed by posterity, either based on surviving notes fragments or the spirit behind the pieces according to folklore and historical records. Other reincarnated melodies simply took on the same titles of the originals in order to gain wider acceptance.

Nonetheless, these pieces are still extremely valuable, since they still portray the spirits of the melodies, if not the notes thereof. As such, they offer another peek from a different perspective into the contemporary lives and thinking of the time. One other fascinating attribute of these guqin melodies is that nearly all of them come each with a rich and well known historical story behind them, resulting in the study of the melodies enriching one’s understanding of their relevant history, and vice versa.

Below is our list of the ten most famous guqin pieces and their brief descriptions. No doubt the selections are subjective, and do not diminish the value of those equally famous melodies which otherwise do not make the cut. Readers are encouraged to follow the links of the individual titles to read about the fascinating stories behind them.

#1 瀟湘水雲 Mist and Clouds Over the Xiang River

Composed during the Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 AD), Mist and Clouds Over the Xiang River paints the natural beauty of the area near the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, a serene setting of calm waters cradled by the surrounding mountains often shrouded by clouds and mist.


#2 廣陵散 Guangling San

Guangling San (Guangling Melody) is a masterpiece which appeared in the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BC). Disappeared for some time, it eventually re-appeared, thanks to Guan Pinghu, another famous guqin composer. This melody is based on a story of the son of a swordsmith who assassinated the king to avenge his father. A musical journey through his emotional wild ride from hate to rage, this rare piece stands in sharp contrast from the majority of guqin music which are calm and serene.


#3 漁樵問答 Dialogue Between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter

First appeared during the Ming Dynasty (1386 – 1644 AD), this piece captures the casual conversation between a fisherman and a woodcutter – down to earth and unpolished, reflecting the feeling of the composer who grew weary of public life complicated by politics and yearned for the return to a simple existence.

#4 梅花三弄 Three Stanzas on Plum Blossoms

Three Stanzas on Plum Blossoms came out during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 – 420 AD) as a flute melody and later adopted for the guqin. Plum blossoms have long been held in high regard by Chinese for their proud and unyielding character in the face of adversity. This melody praises the emergence of the blossoms in defiance of the bitter cold winter and as heralds of spring. The plum blossoms are also a metaphor and embodiment of those with high moral integrity and who persevere through hardship.


#5 流水 Flowing Waters

Together with High Mountains (高山), Flowing Waters is a vivid depiction of flowing waters making their way down the high mountains. Both pieces were based on a legendary story between a famous guqin player during the Spring and Autum Period (770 – 476 BC) and a woodcutter. The two built their legendary friendship upon the wood cutter’s genuine admiration for the musician’s masterpieces and the musician’s mutual appreciation for someone who understands his inner feelings expressed in his music.

Click here to read about their touching story.


#6 憶故人 Remembering an Old Friend

Believed to be composed during the Later Han Dynasty (Five Dynasties period, 947 – 951 AD), this piece describes the sadness of separation from a long lost friend.

#7 平沙落雁 Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank

Surfacing during a tumultuous time in Chinese history – a decade or so before the collapse of the Ming Dynasty (1386 – 1644 AD), Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank is a soothing serenade of nature.

#8 關山月 Moon over the Frontier Mountain

Officially collected and catalogued in 112 AD during the Han Dynasty, the melody was adopted for the guqin with lyrics from a poem of Li Bai, the most famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The song laments the pain of soldiers sent to battle at the desolate edges of the empire, with little hope of ever returning home to their loved ones.


#9 陽關三疊 Farewell to a Friend Traveling to Yang Pass

Composed during the Tang Dynasty, this is a guqin song with lyrics based on a poem of famous poet Wang Wei at the time. The song describes the settings where one bids farewell to a friend who is embarking on a journey to the outer reaches of the Tang Empire, one which is unlikely to conclude with the two ever meeting again.

10# 酒狂 Drunken Joy

Drunken Joy is believed to be composed by a famous musician during the Three Kingdoms (222 – 263 AD) and Wei/Jin Periods. An aspiring politician of the royal courts who had dreams of serving the masses, he was subsequently disillusioned by the corruption and infighting there. Leaving politics, he retreated into the deep woods where he was completely surrounded by nature and spent his days playing music and composing poems, often while intoxicated.