During its long history in China, the qin has been performed as a solo instrument, and used as part of an ensemble for state ritual music and as an accompaniment for the singing of refined poetry. The latter part of the Han dynasty (206 B. C. to 220 A. D.) witnessed its gradual rise in importance as a solo instrument, indicated by an increasing number of compositions that explored technical brilliancy as an artistic expression, and the appearance of virtuoso performers such as Cai Yong (132-192) and Xi Kang (223-263). In whatever context it was performed, the qin and its music have, since antiquity, been associated intimately and exclusively with China's small and elite class of the educated and privileged.
Because of its close association with the literati, a large amount of writing throughout Chinese history bears on the instrument, its music, its technique of performance, and its lore and philosophy. Some of the better known writings include the philosophical essay Qinfu (Poetical Essay on Lute) by Xi Kang, translated into English by Robert Van Gulik. Among the most important written sources are more than one hundred collections of musical notation, the oldest extant one dating to early 15th century, that preserve an extensive repertory of over three thousand items. These collections are labeled by Western scholars as "handbooks" because many of them also contain essays on the philosophy, aesthetics, and theories of qin music, and practical instructions on performance: ranging from the construction and repair of the instrument, tuning of the strings, to detailed explanations on the notational system and playing technique.
This body of written material is not only important to our knowledge of the musical tradition historically, philosophically, and theoretically, but also as a valuable and unique source for our understanding of Chinese culture in general. One such handbook, the Mei'an Qinpu (The Plum Room Qin Handbook, 1931), has been translated into English and published in the West by Fredric Lieberman.
An important ramification of the association of qin music with the literati is the emphasis the musician places on the literary content of a composition in his appreciation of qin. As Robert van Gulik writes, "special care is given [in the handbooks] to describing the mood the composer was in when he created his music, and what thought he wished to express in his compositions. It is the highest aim of the player in his execution of the tune to reproduce faithfully the mood of the composer"(Gulik 1969, 88). The literary content of a composition, which inspires the "mood," is closely related to China's history and philosophy, and is prescribed by a programmatic title of the composition, and, in most handbooks, also by a literary preface that accompanies the musical notation. The primary aim of a performance is to understand the literary content and evoke the prescribed mood in performance; the music sound itself is but a vehicle by which to arrive at that aim.
When the qin was introduced into Japan during the Heian period, the philosophy and performance practice came along with the instrument, playing technique and repertory. However, in the long medieval period, when Japan was engulfed in a series of civil wars, there are far fewer references in the writings of the time to the qin and, indeed to music in general, although it certainly seems that there were those who continued to master this now venerable instrument and pass on their skill through teaching pupils from one generation to the next.