Origin of ancient court instruments of the Kofun Period

Haniwa (clay terracotta replicas of) musical instruments have been recovered from ancient tumuli of the Kofun. It is likely that the musical assemblage seen in the tumuli either has common roots with, or are derived from those found on the mainland Chinese continent with common roots, and may have been sourced from contemporaneous the Korean kingdoms.

The close connections may be evinced from a reading of the following excerpt The Musical Notations of Korea and Japan by Lee Ji-sun, from Chap VII, p. 173 C M Y K, “The History of Ancient Japanese Musical Notations”
“From an early age, the geographical conditions of Japan allowed for the introduction of various cultures and goods from China, Korea and its western neighbors. Part of this phenomenon was music, a wide range of foreign music and instruments was introduced to Japan. The Nihon Shoki, a Japanese history book, contains records about musical exchanges between Korea and Japan, such as when the Silla Kingdom sent delegations for the funeral of a Japanese emperor in the middle of the 5th century CE, when a group of musicians-inresidence who had been sent from Baekje Kingdom was replaced with a new group in the 6th century, and when the music of the three Korean kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla) were performed in the Japanese imperial court in the 7th century. Known as komagaku, the music of the Korean kingdoms has been passed down to this day, forming an important part of Japanese court music. Musicians, instruments, and manuscripts will naturally follow when music is introduced to other countries. A gayageum, a 12-stringed zither played in the music of Silla, has been preserved with the label “shiragikoto”in the Sho – soin1 imperial repository in Japan. Instruments offered by an envoy from Joseon have also been preserved. There is a record that an envoy presented ten instruments on his visit to Nikko in 1655, and of them, a chuk, an eo, a so, and a seul have remained in the treasure house of Rinnoji Temple. No solid records have been discovered as to whether Korean scores were introduced to Japan, let alone used. It is reasonable to assume, however, that they were used to transmit Korean music. Though extant Japanese music manuscripts bear no direct relation to ancient Korean manuscripts, Chinese notational systems introduced to the two countries may shed light on a possible relationship. Furthermore, there are some manuscripts that were written separately in the two countries but share similar features, and others that are completely different, which may illustrate both common and unique features of the manuscripts of the two countries. In this chapter, I will examine the relationships between the notations of Korea and Japan by examining the history of ancient Japanese notations, from court music to various genres of popular music, and comparing them to their Korean counterparts.
A variety of musics came to be performed in the Japanese imperial court, from Korean music in the 5th century C. E. to those of China and its western neighbors. The repertoire of Japanese court music was established in the beginning of the Heian period (794-1192 CE) and has been passed down with the name of gagaku. This period was the heyday of Japanese imperial culture, and the music of gagaku also flourished. The music was performed not only for court events and festivities, but also for social gatherings of the imperial family and the aristocracy, who played a leading role in the publishing of a number of manuscripts. …
All of the above observations demonstrate that, although the Chinese had some influence on Korean and Japanese notations, a number of notational systems of Korea and Japan were created in their own cultures. Most government-published manuscripts of Korea added Yuljabo, Oeumyakbo, and Gungsangjabo to Jeongganbo, while popular music chiefly adopted Hapjabo and the mnemonic system. In particular, Oeumyakbo, a unique Korean form of notation, is not found in China or Japan. In Japan, notation with instructions for performing techniques was far more common, both in court music and in popular music, than notation identifying pitches.
In Korea, Jeongganbo and Yuljabo are still commonly used, making it easy for performers to understand music, whereas in Japan, different notational systems have developed for different genres, so it is difficult to interpret them unless one is well acquainted with those genres of music. Also, unlike in Korea, strict mensural notation has never been actively used in Japan, which may be ascribed to the fact that in that country, vocal music is more developed than instrumental music and that free rhythm is widely practiced.”
As for ultimate origin of the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum, a number of theories exist.
The assemblage of musical instruments found in the Japanese tumuli, despite having been sourced from the Korean kingdoms, resembles that of the Qin dynasty and the koto is said to be closely related to either the earlier zhu or the se prototypes of the guzheng instruments of the Chinese Qin.
A possible origin of the koto / gayageum in the se instrument
The se was one of the most important stringed instruments to be created in China, besides the guqin. The se was a highly popular instrument during the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn period. The se was an instrument associated with the nobility. As early as the Zhou Dynasty, the se was used to play ritual music for the performance of sacrificial offerings. In Hubei, the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (in the late 400’s BCE) was a treasure trove of ancient Chinese instruments, including a complete set of bronze bells, seguqin (plucked zither), stone chimes, and a drum.
This assemblage is similar to the haniwa musical assemblage found in the Japanese tumuli of the Kofun period, pictured below. Bronze bells (pellet or jingle bells) can be seen attached to costumes of haniwa clay figurines, and some of the statues seem to be of singers. One haniwa depicts a musician playing a barrel drum with a stick, while the other figure (scroll to the top to see) is seated with a five-stringed board zither across his lap.


Surviving specimens of the se have been excavated from places such as the Hubei and Hunan provinces, and the Jiangnan region of China, as well as in Shandong, and Liaoning. These are all areas whose human populations have close genetic affinity with Japan during both the Yayoi and the Kofun periods of Japan.  In Korea, a similar instrument called seul, derived from the se, is still used in the Confucian ritual music of South Korea, which is performed twice per year at the Munmyo Shrine in Seoul.
According to one legend, Fuxi created the se.  It is also believed that by the time of the Xia Dynasty the se had already come into being. If so, the instrument may have a Silk Road and nomadic tribal provenance. The ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian had claimed that one of the Xia Dynasty emperors was Xiongnu.
The zheng’s emergence from the se
According to one theory, the word for music, yue (), is composed of the characters si for silk () and mu for wood (), and that is in fact a pictograph representation of the instrument. By the Warring States Period ca 475 BC, the early types of guzheng had emerged, developed from the se. Thus, it is thought that the guzheng is essentially a smaller and simplified version of the se (with less strings).
Another theory gives the origin of the zheng as an instrument split from the se, and legend holds that one time Huangdi (Yellow Emperor, 2878 – 2768 BC) was entertained with music played on the se by his courtesans. As the Yellow Emperor listened he became more and more saddened by the music. He finally couldn’t bear to hear it anymore and ordered the instrument destroyed. The se was split in halves, each with 25 strings. Then during the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC), two uncultured brothers fought over a se. They ended up splitting the instrument again. This gave rise to the zheng, with 12 strings.
An origin of the guzheng, koto and gayageum in the zhu
The early types of guzheng emerged during the Warring States period (475 to 221 BCE) becoming prominent during the Qin period (221 to 206 BCE), and by the Tang Dynasty (618 CE to 907 CE), the guzheng was arguably the most commonly played instrument in China.
According to the resource “All about guzheng“:
“Zhu was an ancient percussion instrument made of bamboo and had 5 strings. There was historical account in the Eastern (Later) Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD) that zheng was also made of bamboo and had 5 strings. Both instruments were cylindrical in shape with a narrow neck. Because of these similarities, some people theorize that zheng was adapted from zhu when the playing technique progressed from striking to plucking….
The likely scenario is that zheng started out as a bamboo instrument with 5 or less strings and became popular during the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). This theory appears plausible because the Chinese ideogram for “zheng” uses bamboo as its radical, and using the material it was made of as the radical was a common way of creating ideograms for Chinese musical instruments. Later on in the Qin Dynasty, it adopted the superior design of the se and increased to 12 strings to expand its tonal range and used a wooden box to achieve better resonance.”
According to a related theory, the zheng was created by Meng Tian – a history book in the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 AD) stated that “zheng, 13 strings, so called sound of Qin, invented by Meng Tian”.  Meng Tian was a general-cum-engineer in the Qin Dynasty who was ordered in 215 BC, by Qin Shi Huang  to set out against the Xiongnu tribes in the Ordos region, and establish a frontier region at the Ordos Loop. Given that Chinese walls were built to encroach upon large stretches of a grassland steppe-border lands of the peoples called “hu” by the Chinese, the border regions were active scenes of longstanding interaction between agrarian peoples and steppe pastoral nomads(the interactions were described by R.B. Marks as having a symbiotic relationship), and that China was used to incorporating surrendered Xiongnu and other nomads in its military, and its traditional policy of recruiting barbarian generals, and tribal horsemen into its military and “using barbarians to attack barbarians”(yi yidi gong yidi 以夷狄攻夷狄),  Meng Tian (given his Mongol-Manchurian-sounding name), having been instrumental in the Qin Chinese state pushing into the Ordos steppe to try to control or eliminate the nomadic forces, may, himself have been a sinicized or descended from one of the barbarians living among the admixed Han-Xiongnu lands. In this case, the zhu may have had a more northerly source as a nomadic instrument from the Silk Road.
Zhu was an ancient percussion instrument made of bamboo and had 5 strings. There was historical account in the Eastern (Later) Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD) that zheng was also made of bamboo and had five strings. Because of these similarities, it was thought that the zheng was adapted from zhu when the playing technique progressed from striking to plucking. Musicological studies in the late 20th century indicate that early bamboo tube zithers of the Silk Road ( Central Asian (southern Siberian) jadagan (Khakassia) – chadagan (Tuva) – yatga(Mongolian) instruments) might have been one of the prototypes of the guzheng, koto, gayageum, and the đàn tranh.



The archaeological find of the Japanese haniwa five-stringed koto-zither is of special significance because it has far fewer strings than the Sillan 12 stringed gayageum, and therefore appears closer to the five-stringed zhu as a prototype. The Kofun koto is thought to be earliest concrete representation of the wagon, or Yamato-goto, a six-stringed zither with movable bridges found in Japanese Shinto music. It is thus possibly the earliest ancient prototype for the Japanese koto.

The haniwa tomb pottery of Kofun period is a technology that originates with the peoples of the ancient kingdom of Kaya. Both genetic and archaeological links between Kofun period Japan and the Kaya region have been established. The koto-like zither depicted on the 6th century haniwa given its similarity to, likely had its prototype in the Korean kayagum or common source. According to Samguksagi, a history of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the kayagum is supposed to have been developed around the 6th century in the Gaya confederacy by King Gasil (also known as Haji of Daegaya) after he observed an old Chinese instrument (a guzheng?). He then ordered a musician named Ureuk to compose music that could be played on the instrument. The kayagum was then further improved by Wu Ruk during the reign of Jinheung in the Silla Dynasty. The ancient kayagum King Gashil was called by several names, including beopgeum, pungnyu. It closely resembles the Japanese koto. (To listen to music being played with this instrument, click on this Youtube link.
With the haniwa koto as evidence, it is probable that the koto may have been introduced much earlier as an instrument for ritual use such as during funeral ceremonies or to summon the spirits in early Shinto-like rituals. There still exists a two-stringed zither called the yakumo-goto which is still played in ensembles in Shinto ceremonies(and a more recent adaptation called the Azuma nigenkin.
The zheng is not to be confused with the qin. The earliest surviving qin in this modern form, preserved in both China and Japan, have been reliably dated to the Tang Dynasty. Chinese tradition also says the qin originally had five strings, but then two were added about 1,000 BCE, making seven. Central Asian music was known to have been imported into the imperial court, therefore, the history and provenance of the guzeng and guqin may have been the same – via Central Asia. In ancient times, Dun-huang was ruled by a tribal confederation called the Yueh-chih and then by the Xiongnu, known to Europeans as the Huns.  Dun-huang was brought under Chinese rule by the Han dynasty but from early on, Dun-huang was an important center for trade between East and West. In the first through third centuries, Dun-huang was a route of the transmission of Buddhism as well as of cultural items and material goods from India, and other Silk Road cities. Musical assemblages were likely transmitted through this route, as they were an integral part of Buddhism, and Buddhist ideas of celestial beings, and beings worshipping the Buddha in song and dance (see Dunhuang art: Through the eyes of Duan Wenjie at p 153).
A ceramic figurine of a guqin player, from the Pengshan Tomb of Sichuan, dated Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD)

A ceramic figurine of a guqin player, from the Pengshan Tomb of Sichuan, dated Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), Nanjing Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The depictions of instrumental bands of the Tang dynasty seem to be preoccupied with musical bands of Central Asian turkic origin, such as this one, Camel artifact carrying group of musicians

Source readings and references:
Guzheng (Wikipedia)
Kusano Taeko. “Classification and Playing Technique: A Study of Zithers in Asia”, in Asian Musics in an Asian Perspective. editors, Koizumi Fumio, Tokumaru Yoshihiko, Yamaguchi Osamu ; assistant editor, Richard Emmert. Tokyo : Heibonsha, c1977, page 13
Great walls and linear barriers by Peter Spring (see chap 17)
China: Its Environment and History by Robert B. Marks, p 74 
Unique musical instruments reproduce ancient Dunhuang music (Xinhua News Agency December 24, 2002)
“… among the 492 Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, 240 caves feature singing and dancing, in which over 4,000 musical instruments, 3,000 players and over 500 various bands were painted.”
Chinese sculpture by Angela Falco Howard, writes of camel carrying musicians on a stage, and a “Hu” dancer. The musical bands are all foreign to China, and often called “Hu” by the Chinese. See also The arts of China  p 139 and Chinese artifact Camel carrying group of musicians

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