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Molded Tile of a Woman Playing a Qin
Item No. 999996

Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), N/A, China
11" x 9" x 2"
( 27.94 x 22.86 x 5.08 cm)
(H x W x D)

This molded foliate tile presents a scene of a woman seated on a draped backless chair or bench with her feet resting on a two-tiered footed stool, while a qin rests diagonally across her legs. She is dressed in a robe that is crossed high at the neck and which is fastened below her chest with a belt under which drapery falls in long vertical lines between her legs to her ankles. She wears an outer garment over her arms and shoulders; her legs are bent at the knees and slightly splayed outwards; her feet rest flatly and solidly on the stool; and her hands are placed near the knees on the qin as she plays music by plucking the strings.

The musician, whose hair is up in a bun, sits in front of vertical stationary screen (pifeng), which was “as fundamental as any other piece of furniture in a Chinese household.” (Berliner, p.90) Literally meaning to shield from the wind, screens were “not merely background decorations, but essential props for deflecting the wind, creating privacy, maintaining geomantic harmony as prescribed by the Chinese science of fengshui, and expressing status.” Screens shielded servants or the women of the house who are seen in many paintings and are described in Ming fiction as peeking out from behind a screen to observe the activities of others or listen to the conversations of the men of the household. Indeed, that is what we can guess is happening with the figure to our left who is peering out at the scene. Stationary screens were usually placed inside major entrances to important buildings or rooms not only to act as a privacy buffer as mentioned before but also they deflected “negative spirits (qi) which the Chinese believed traveled in straight lines. A second use was more honorific, functioning as a backdrop to important individuals whose chairs or thrones were placed in front of these screens as indications of their high social status. As formal pieces of furniture used in public spaces, the best of these screens were clearly made to impress the observer and reflect the hierarchical values of traditional China.” (Jacobson, p. 152)

So, the screen focuses the viewer’s and the listener’s attention on the musician, but that is not its only function. It is also used in the construction of the imaginary “deep space” of the scene by the artist as a space-creating prop in combination with other such props to organize the composition and create the illusion of a room full of people, objects and space in a tile that is slightly less than 1 ½” in depth. For instance, the stool upon which the musician’s feet are placed begins inside the boundary of the edge of the tile, but the upper horizontal sections of the stool moves out from the edge of the tile toward the viewer. Likewise, although the musician seems to be sitting on top of the bench and her legs are on top of the stool, her legs and knees, the qin, and her chest and head jut out into our space. This and the placement of the qin at an angle seem to make it recede into the room and also create the illusion of deep space. Moreover, the screen is placed behind the musician, and the person on the left made smaller for good effect seems to be peeking out from behind the screen. To our right is another observer who seems to be at the depth of the screen, behind the musician and the qin, whose receding angle leads back directly to her and, thus, especially since she is also made so much smaller than the musician, more illusion of space is created by the artist.

The guqin, literally "ancient stringed instrument," is the modern name for a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family. It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favored by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement, as highlighted by the quote "a gentleman does not part with his qin or se without good reason,"[1] as well as being associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as "the father of Chinese music" or "the instrument of the sages". Traditionally the instrument was called simply qin. (

A very quiet instrument with a range of about four octaves, the qin's open strings are tuned in the bass register. Its lowest pitch is about two octaves below middle C, or the lowest note on the cello. Sounds are produced by plucking open strings, stopped strings, and harmonics. The use of glissando—sliding tones—gives it a sound reminiscent of a pizzicato cello, fretless double bass or a slide guitar. The qin is also capable of a lot of harmonics, of which 91 are most commonly used and indicated by the dotted positions. By tradition the qin originally had five strings, but ancient qin-like instruments with 10 or more strings have been found. The modern form has been standardized to seven strings for about two millennia. (


Nancy Berliner, “Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries,” Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1996.

Robert D. Jacobson, “Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Art,” Minneapolis, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, 1999.

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