Plucking Instruments - Sè



In the foregoing when we discuss Qin, we quoted a line from The Book of Songs, “to welcome Earth Deity, Qin and Se are played and drums struck”. This is the earliest record of Se, which means Se has at least 3,000 years of history. It is said that Confucius was extremely good at playing Se and he formed his own school of Se playing.

Pictures of Instrument in Rites of Zhousays that the Se used for Dynastic Hymns” (“Yǎ” in Chinese), which is one of the three parts in The Book of Songshad 23 strings and those for “Sacrificial Songs” (“Sòng” in Chinese), another part in The Book of Songshas 25 strings. Notes on Suburban Sacrificial Ceremony in the History of Han Dynastiestells us that once Emperor Taidi was listening to a 50-string Se, the music was so sad, for a long time the emperor could not recover from being heartbroken, he then splitted the instrument into two, each part had 25 strings.

In 1973, a big number of bamboo canisters and pottery musician figures were excavated from No. 1 tomb at Mawangdui of Changsha. From these figures we can see Se was widely used with “Yū” (a kind of pipe instrument) to accompany singing and dancing. It was also one of the main instruments in ritual ceremonies.

竽瑟乐俑During the Three-Kingdom Period and a few dynasties later, Se was also used to accompany “Concerting Songs”. During Sui and Tang Dynasties, it was used to accompany “Wu” (local folk) songs. The fact that famous Tang poets like Li Bai, Du Mu and Li Shangyin mentioned Se quite often in their poetry shows how widely Se was used at that time, yet, after Tang, the use of Se was gradually reduced.

It should be mentioned that in the 30s of the 20th century, one traditional music orchestra made one Se of 50 strings and one of 100 strings.


Structure of Sè

Se had been curved out of a whole piece of wood in the ancient times. Strings were made of silk, under each string, there was a prop, which could be moved to the left or right, to determine the length of the string or to set the tune.

Ever since the 30s of the 20th century, almost 20 Se have been discovered from tombs at Changsha, Xinyang, Jiangling and other places; they all look very much the same. Strings were divided into three groups, the middle one has 7 strings, and outer and inner groups have 9 strings. Judging from the one excavated from the No. 1 Han Dynasty tomb at Mawangdui, strings have two different degrees of thickness, the diameter of the outer group of 9 strings reduces from 1.2 mm to 0.6 mm from outer inwards; the diameter of the middle group of 7 strings and the inner groups of 9 strings reduces from 1.9 mm to 0.5 mm from inner outwards. This Se (as shown below) is now being collected by Hunan Provincial Museum.

  The tune of Se is set by

  the pentatonic scale; you can get a diatonic scale by raising up a halftone on the strings.

In 1979, an old Se was excavated from the Yi Tomb of the Marquis of the Zeng State, it was made in the vassal state during the Warring States Period (Prior to 433B.C.) Its tail is carved like a dragon, and both sides of the sound box are painted with the images of phoenix. It is the oldest existing Se of China and is now kept at Hubei Provincial Museum.

There are bigger and smaller Se(s) among the existing Se in China. The bigger ones are 180-190 cm in length and have 25 strings while the smaller ones are 120 cm in length and have 16 strings. One exquisite Se now being kept at China Music Institute in Beijing, was made in the Qing Dynasty is 209 cm long.




Famous Se Music Piece


Fish Under Pale Moon Light, which is the only available Se playing piece.