The Chinese Harp

The Chinese Harp, or Konghou

Compiled by Joyce Rice with information from Joy Yu Hoffman and Pingqiu Yue.

The traditional KongHou is an ancient instrument with a history tracing back to several hundred years B.C., and is a precious artifact in the cultural treasury of traditional Chinese music. It is said that an emperor of long ago ordered a craftsman named Kan Hou to make an instrument, so the craftsman called the instrument Kanhou, after himself. Over time the name evolved to Konghou.

Historical records and documents, for example the Fresco of Dun Huang in the Xi’an province of China, indicate that there were at least three categories of Konghou played in ancient China:

The Wuo Konghou, a horizontal or flat instrument, since it was set flat in front of the performer. The strings were made of silk tied to the surface of the soundboard, and each string rested on multiple frets. The strings were plucked with a wooden pick in one hand and pressed with the other. It was created in China around 600 BC.

The Shoo Konghou, a vertical or upright konghou that originally came from Europe, where it was called a harp, and West Asia along the Silk Road during the Xi Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD). It was bow-shaped with 7, 15, 22 or 23 strings. It was played with two hands, but with the thumbs and index fingers only.

The Fong Shou Konghou, so-called because of the decoration on the neck. Fong Shou means the head of the Phoenix Bird. This konghou went from India to China around the 4th century AD, also along the Silk Road., and was called the Vina in India. Some of its strings were attached to the neck by pins, while others were merely tied to it. The sound box was shaped like a boat.

Wuo Konghou

Shoo Konghou Fong Shou Konghou. (Photos used with permission of Joy Yu Hoffman)

When the Han Dynasty was in its prime, Konghou was played with orchestras for the royal court and folk dances. It continued in popularity both as a solo and accompanying instrument up to the Tang Dynasty (about the 8th century), when Chinese literature and art, and the Konghou, reached their peak.

Li He, a famous poet at this time, wrote a poem when he heard the Konghou performance of Li Ping, an outstanding royal Konghou player. Here is a brief translation of his poem:

"On a pleasant autumn day, a Konghou made from Wutong trees is played. Hearing this beautiful sound, clouds in the sky stop at once to listen to the artist playing in the Palace. The music is so wonderful. Sometimes many strings are plucked together, creating a sound like jade broken in a landslide of Kunlun Mountain. When only one string is plucked, the sound is like the cry of a phoenix. The sadness expressed is like a weeping lotus with many tears on her face. The happiness is like an orchid that swings with the wind. People listening to this music are so impressed that they forget the chill of the autumn. When the sound of music reaches the heaven, the goddess who is gathering colorful stones to repair the sky forgets her duty. The stones shatter and the heaven pours out a cloudburst. The rabbit in the moon leans against the cassia bark tree, listening to the music even though soaked by the rain.”

Unfortunately, almost no music is preserved from that period. We can only imagine the enchantment of Li Ping's Konghou performance from the poem.

By the 17h century, the Konghou had been lost. Pingqiu Yue speculates: “One possible reason could be that as the culture and economy became more and more developed through the years, people were no longer satisfied with simple melodies without modulation. As other more complicated instruments appeared, Konghou gradually disappeared into history.”

In the 20th century, a new demand arose for a national instrument rooted in ancient times, yet still contemporary. In 1964, Konghou was revived in Shenyang, China, and during the 1980s several musical instrument factories in China began to design and produce a new type of Konghou combining the Guzhang (koto, like a movable-bridge zither), Pipa (lute) and Qin (mandolin), and utilizing the modern technology of the pedal harp.

 

       

Joy Hoffman’s harp photographed at a harp conference. (Photos courtesy of Joyce Rice)

It is based on the principle of double-row connected strings, using the modulation installation of the western harp as a reference. Modern Konghou is unique among Chinese folk instruments, for the double action pedals make it possible to play a 12-tone scale, while most others can only do a pentatonic scale. It can be played with traditional Chinese technique called ‘Yin, An, Swing” that came mainly from Guzheng and Pipa, to decorate and prolong the melody.

The modern Konghou, which both Joy Hoffman and Pingqiu Yue play, was designed and built by Zhou Guang Yuen, a professor at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music. Each of the double rows has 36 strings, or 72 in all. Each string has a bridge that is set in the middle of the sound board. The strings on both sides cross the bridges and are tied to the back of the sound box.

       

Strings crossing the bridges

        The soundboard (Photos courtesy of Joyce Rice)

The sound-board is made of parasol or wu tong wood. The sound box is 1.75 to 3.5 inches thick and is designed vertically.

The tuning system on both sides is the same. The two strings on each side of the same note are tied onto two ends of an adjustable pin two to three inches long on the back of the instrument. The pin moves inside a hole and is extremely sensitive.

The strings are made under tension of silk twisted over steel. When a player plays a string on one side and presses the string of the same pitch on the other side, multiple ornamentations and vibratos are produced. (For a sample, go to Joy Hoffman’s website at www.joyuharp.com, click on Listen, then on "Lan Hua Hua".)

The modern Konghou with its double row of strings, adjustable soundbox and multiple bridges is designed for one purpose: to retain and develop the traditional style of Chinese music with its own character and expression. With young Konghou players maturing, Pingqiu Yue believes that their performance should catch up with and surpass the beautiful charm of the famous player Li Ping in the Tang Dynasty, and will be more brilliant on the world stage before long.

For more details, recordings and beautiful illustrations, go to Joy Hoffman’s website at www.joyuharp.com.

For a personal report (in Hebrew and English) on a Chinese maker of modern pedal harps, go here.

See videos of Joy Hoffman playing the Konghou. (especially Drunken Dancing Dream and Take 5.)

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