The arched harp in China

The first historical record of the presence of Buddhism in China comes from the Later Han Book. It mentions Yuezhi envoys, Buddhists, taking a pupil to the capital in the year 2 BCE. The same source mentions the interest of Emperor Mingdi (58-75 CE) in Buddhism. He would have dreamed of a golden man with a haloed head. An adviser told him that his dream corresponded to the description of a western god named Buddha. Mingdi sent envoys to Tiānzhú, in northwestern India, to bring back effigies of him. The opening of the Silk Road was then decisive because it promoted trade with Central Asia. On this route are the Mogao Caves, also known as the Dunhuang Caves. Hundreds of paintings bear witness to musical instruments with multiple influences. For centuries Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs, and more broadly Chinese, Indian, Greek and Islamic cultures crossed paths. The creation of these caves would have lasted from the fourth to the fourteenth century and particularly during the Tang dynasty, from the seventh to the tenth century. The style of the paintings changes according to the period, going from a style strongly influenced by India to the purely Chinese period, characterized by round faces and slightly disproportionate bodies.

Among the 800 caves, 492 have a Buddhist shrine. 240 of them show songs, dances and 4000 musical instruments of 44 different types; 3400 players and more than 500 different groups have been painted.

Stringed instruments were not the norm in China until the Silk Road opened a window to the west with an abundant supply of stringed instruments. Buddhist travelers not only brought their faith to China but also brought light instruments for their rituals.

Most of the sites along the Silk Road represent only angular harps, attesting to influences from Iran or regions further west. In some sites, there are also arched harps marking the important influence of India.

But the influence of Buddhism declined sharply after the first millennium of our era, bringing with it the disappearance of the arched harps.


The arched harps within the Mogao caves

The paintings within Mogao caves show four types of harps - angular, arched, vajra and "harp of the steppes". The neck of the harp in the cave 327 is surmounted by a bird's head. The number of strings remains undetermined but it is clear that they are attached to the neck by tying, like the Indian harps of the Shunga and Gupta dynasties and also the Burmese saùng gauk. This lacing device also existed on pre-Angkorian and Angkorian harps.

This character is represented in the manner of the apsaras, but in a Chinese style.



Contrary to the previous character, this female harpist remains very Indian in her style. She holds her instrument rather than plays it. The instrument has four strings. If this number has any reality, it could be an instrument whose role is simply to accompany the song but not to produce a melody, like the bin-baja of the Pardhan of Madhya Pradesh.