A proud lineage

Professor Ingrid Furniss lecturing about the Ruan Xian. [Photo by Ryan Burke ‘16]

Professor Ingrid Furniss lecturing about the Ruan Xian. [Photo by Ryan Burke ‘16]

James Bickford

Faculty lecture highlights a legendary Chinese instrument

Associate Professor of Art Ingrid Furniss gave the fall semester’s Jones Faculty Lecture on Wednesday on the mysterious Ruan Xian lute, a “barbarian” instrument that became a marker of Chinese high society.

The most commonly known lute in Chinese music is the pear-shaped Pipa, which traditionally was a signifier of wealth and education in imperial China.

But before the Pipa came to prominence, other instruments were popular in the aristocracy, and none more mysterious than the round-bodied foreign lute the “Ruan Xian.” As Furniss delved deeper into the history of this instrument, she found a surprisingly deep history of counterculture and xenophobia surrounding it.

According to Furniss, the round-body lute was most likely introduced to China by either the Sogdians, a nomadic people in Uzbekistan, or more likely the Yuezhi, a “barbarian” group that was at one point allied with China against other “barbarians.”

However, scholars in the third century CE contested that it was originally a Chinese invention, stating that it had either been commissioned by one of the Han emperors or invented by the people who built the Great Wall. Furniss argued that the reason these scholars felt the need to create “a Chinese lineage” for the “barbarian instrument” was that it was becoming a very popular instrument amongst elites.

The Ruan Xian was first popularized in China by a man named Ruan Xian, for whom the lute is named. Furniss spoke at length about Xian and his associates, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.

“They were essentially a counterculture movement,” she said, protesting “traditional Confucian values.”

“They resigned their positions and went to live with nature…and enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of their lives,” Furniss said, “…they were very respected [for that].”

As part of his countercultural movement, Ruan Xian played the foreign round-body lute instead of traditional Chinese instruments. Xian was well known, at the time, for his appreciation of non-Chinese culture.

“[Xian’s] primary wife was a ‘barbarian’…” Furniss said, “…that may have been a part of [his counterculture].”

As Xian’s popularity grew after his death, many scholars, looking to imitate him, viewed the “Ruan Xian lute” as an instrument of “high culture,” however they needed to create a native Chinese lineage to satisfy the xenophobia of the upper class, said Furniss.

As the former barbarian and countercultural instrument became a part of Chinese scholarly orthodoxy, it became primarily a male instrument, with nearly every depiction of a musician being a man.

“There are some examples in which women are performing with the instrument,” Furniss said, “but it was very unusual, judging from paintings…women, courtesans generally played the pipa.”

Although by the end of the Ming dynasty the instrument had fallen out of fashion, it has recently seen a resurgence, but not in it’s original form. Currently employed in orchestral fashion, gone are the days of lone scholars in bamboo groves plucking away at the Ruan Xian.

“I couldn’t show you [Ruan Xian] music even if I wanted to,” Furniss said. “It is lost to history.”