The theme of this composition by the renowned Wu School artist Tang Yin is that of a scholar playing the qin and a single entranced listener. Depictions like this conjure thoughts of China’s most famous pair, Boya and Zhong Ziqi of the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.). According to the legend Boya was an accomplished qin player. But it was not until he met the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi that he found a listener who truly understood his music. The two became fast friends, and when Zhong died, Boya broke his strings and refused to ever play again. The camaraderie of these two men is commemorated by the phrase zhi-yin, “to know music”, which is a metaphor for close friendship.
The manner in which Tang Yin depicted the figures and landscape compares very closely with his Talking with Hsi-chou in the National Palace Museum, Taipei and formerly in the collection of Emperor Qianlong. This composition of two friends conversing in a thatched hut is a mature work and was likely painted around 1519. Anne DeCoursey Clapp’s description of this painting also well describes Playing the Zither. “The pavilion is moved forward almost to the foreground, where it is anchored by clumps of rocks and trees. The architectural forms are drawn close around the portraits like picture frames, and the foreground trees, enlarged and energized, form a second, irregular frame enclosing the first. The ink tones are subdued to a silvery grey, with only enough dark accents to fix the whole image firmly in its frame. In this last phase, the components of the setting become servants of the figures, and are articulated only to draw attention to the figures, to display them, and to subdue the distraction of receding space.” (Anne DeCoursey Clapp, The Painting of T’ang Yin, Chicago, 1992, p. 87.)