In the Warring States period of pre-imperial China (475-221 B.C.E.), philosophers warned against the “lewd” and corrupting tunes of the states of Wei and Cheng. The indulgent nature of such music foresaw the demise of the states. Prince Wen of Wei, however, heard them differently. In the Record of Music (Yue Ji)1, he muses, “When in full ceremonial dress I must listen to the Ancient Music, I think I shall fall asleep, but when I listen to the songs of Cheng and Wei, I never get tired.”2
Ceremonial music (yayue) played a small role in court life; entertainment music, which drew on folk and popular music, dominated.3 “Improper” music is far more attractive than the tones of solemn rites. In their battle with the sorry moral state of the times, the literati (scholarly elite) tried to protect and cultivate “proper” music. One of their greatest weapons was qindao, the Way of the Qin: the guqin (qin), the instrument Confucius played, lead in this battle, fighting hardest during China’s “Golden Age,” the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).
Literati interest in the guqin distanced itself from the instrument’s actual music. One legendary qin player’s instrument had only one string. The ultimate sound is in fact the one that cannot be played. The infinite potential of musical expression is reduced to a mere hint in the sound of a plucked string; in that case, why bother to play at all? Most literati, especially in the Song, concerned themselves with the proper setting for qin playing, the proper physical and mental preparation, the portent of its minimalist sounds—everything about it except for the sounds themselves. Indeed, the literati from the Tang through the Qing Dynasties (1644-1911) often looked down upon qin musicians, individuals who devoted themselves to performance rather than to aesthetics and philosophy. This perhaps contributed to the programmatic nature of guqin pieces; each tells a story that is prefaced in scores and that dictates form. The guqin is largely a philosophical phenomenon, not a musical one.
The popularity of non-Chinese music from the Six Dynasties (220-589) through the Sui (581-618) and Tang Dynasties motivated the literati to emphasize nativism in qindao. In this era, Central Asian culture poured into China via the Silk Road. Central Asian modes and tunes became popular both in the court and on the street. The guqin served to counteract this heavy foreign influence with its mythologized Chineseness. Stories about famous guqin players, combined with a metaphysical aesthetic, created a potent antidote to the “demoralizing” tunes that even the revered Emperor Tang Xuanzong succumbed to.
I will first describe the nature of the guqin and its pre-imperial (classical) context. I will explore guqin ideology in classical and Han (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) dynastic texts. This will include a discussion of aesthetics and legends. I will then describe the changing musical environment from the fall of the Han through the Tang and how this might have reinvigorated elite attention to a native musical symbol. I will look at challenges to this ideology in the repertoire, focusing on the piece “Barbarian Reed Pipe” (Hujia).
Music Serves the State
In the Zuo Commentary (Zuo zhuan), Duke Cha visits the state of Lu and asks to hear its court performers. Music from many different states is played, and Duke Cha provides a judgment of the quality of each piece. Musical restraint indicates the moral and political health of a state, while musical extravagance portends the decline of the state from which the piece comes. The Duke does not mention anything concrete in his critiques, such as melody or lyrics. Clearly, though, musical trends indicate moral trends. Disaster comes to those who overstep musical boundaries. In later literature, an overly-curious king demands that a forbidden qin tune be played in his court, bringing years of famine to his kingdom.4
To classical and Han minds, “basic civilizing acts were moral acts . . . . Precision and propriety in the use of pitches and tone set the tone for harmonious society.”5 Accounting for general cultural diversity, the modes and tunings of the various Warring States surely varied. Perhaps the “incorrectness” of the tunings in Cheng contributed to its poor reputation.6 In Han China, the traditional pentatonic scale was only relative; tunings differed from orchestra to orchestra and sparked much debate among the elite. According to Han scholars, a “yellow bell pitch” of exact tuning provided the basis for the other pitches in the scale. Mankind had once known the yellow bell pitch, in the glorious era of Emperors Yao and Shun; since then, civilization had steadily declined, and scholars were left to search desperately for remnants of this past. Confucius “rectified” the music of Lu, which may or may not have caused the “sudden exodus of musicians” from the court.7 Confucius steered music towards the plodding rhythms and unison of antique Chinese music, shunning the unusual rhythmic gestures and improvised ornamentation which had become fashionable. After the reform, many official musicians either lost their jobs or resigned in protest.
From the Han onwards, huyue, foreign musics, exerted ever-increasing influence on Han court and popular music. The trend reached its peak during the Sui and Tang, when music from Central Asia and India poured into China. Many traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa8 and erhu9, came from Central Asia. Chinese tunes were adapted to Central Asian modes. Many Tang court pieces do not “sound Chinese,” having roots in Kuqan and Sogdian musics.10 Despite the assimilation of foreign music, scholars always sensed that native musical tradition was being usurped. Worse, popular music, full of irregular rhythms and improvisations, overwhelmed ceremonial music.
Most notated Chinese music dates back to the Tang; little or no record survives of Chinese and non-Han music from before the Tang, although the pieces notated may have been composed decades, even centuries, earlier. However, the living traditional music of Central Asia operates under a totally different system of tonality from its Chinese counterpart. For instance, Chinese music is usually pentatonic, while Central Asian and Middle Eastern musics employ maqam, modes that include quarter-tones and varying numbers of pitches. Confucian scholars feared music’s potential to overpower listeners, to “release uncontrolled and excessive emotions;” this fear was transmitted to the literati, although their fear was often a pretense.11
The guqin, often translated as “zither.” is a native Chinese instrument dating as far back as the 18th century B.C.E.12 Classical texts claim that either Fu Xi or the Yellow Emperor, legendary rulers from high antiquity, invented the qin, as well as the silk necessary to make its strings. It has a tapered body consisting of two wooden boards, with an opening on the underside for resonance. It has no bridges, but thirteen hui, similar to fretmarks, indicate where the musician should put pressure on the strings to change pitch. Depressing the string to varying degrees can also alter the timbre, a prized feature of the qin. There are some thirty different methods of plucking the strings, each with a slightly different sound. Handbooks illustrate the hand positions necessary for each tone, as well as its accompanying mood, with images of turtles crawling out of ponds onto banks, cranes preening, and bare trees whipped by winter wind. The right hand plucks while the left hand presses the hui to alter the harmonics. Although the qin is most easily played on a table, most depictions of qin players show the instrument set across their laps. This is certainly a romantic image, since the qin will not remain steady enough on the musician’s lap for the intricate fingering, indeed choreography, required for a superior performance.13
In the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1045 B.C.E.), the qin was an auxiliary member of the court ceremonial orchestra.14 A group of five or six qin would compete with the bells and flutes to be heard, as the sound of its silk strings does not carry far at all.15 This, along with its breathy timbre, probably contributed to its migration to the parlor. In the late Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 B.C.E.) the qin became a solo instrument. It also found its way into secular orchestras.16
In the Han, scholars saw the qin’s “civilizing” effect manifest in its mythological origins. Han scholars idealized the qin just as they did other artifacts of the past. If the musician plays correctly and the listener listens correctly, the two can commune with the spirits of the ancient sage-rulers.17 Reflections on pieces and performances from the Han to the Sui emphasize communication with the ancestors and proper realization of their emotion and intent as through the music.
Listening to the qin requires the same artistry as does playing it. The story of Bo Ya and Zhong Ziqi, as well-known to contemporary Chinese as Aesop’s fables, highlights the intimate communication made possible through qin music. No one could understand Boya’s qin playing. As he played on a river boat one day, Ziqi, a woodcutter, heard the very objects and scenes Boya played about. “When Boya was focused on Mount Tai, Ziqi said, Wonderful, as grand as Mount Tai. When Boya’s focus was flowing streams Ziqi said, Vast and swelling, like flowing streams.”18 When Ziqi passed away, Boya smashed his qin and never played again, for no one else could understand his music.19 A kindred spirit is called a zhiyin, someone who “knows the music.”
Qin manuals and handbooks reiterate that an accomplished qin player must first have a strong hold on its ideology, its “Way,” before he can truly grasp the music. Not only is musicianship secondary, but musicians who focus on performance are criticized for doing an injustice to the music.20 With the decline of the Han, the literati questioned the supremacy of the Confucian worldview and explored mysticism and naturalism, in the qin and in other arts.21 The literati allowed themselves to break with the past and cultivate a new aesthetic. At the same time, the nostalgia for antiquity only increased as qindao developed. While the Confucian scholars of the Han sought to maintain the spirit of Yao and Shun in their society, the post-Han elite sensed their isolation from the moral climate of the larger world. They preserved the tones of Emperor Shun for the elite of the future, with little apparent hope that their work would someday break forth and change society. By the time of qin player and philosopher Xi Kang (223-262), the literati had lost faith even in the genius listener; the ideal audience was no audience at all.
As one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Xi Kang epitomized, in the minds of many literati, the life of the recluse. (In actuality, the Seven Sages were very much involved in the political life of Luoyang, the capital of the short-lived Wei Dynasty (220-265 C.E.), and probably used the so-called Bamboo Grove as a suburban retreat.)22 He is the most famous of the group. In illustrations of the Sages, it is Xi Kang who plays the qin, while his poet-friend Yuan Qi listens.23 In his Rhapsody on the Qin (Qinfu), Xi Kang describes the process of making an instrument, beginning with the search for the right tree to cut, while laying bare the instrument’s fantastic emotional power. Qinfu is also a spiritual manifesto, in which Xi Kang declares his love of the qin and his conviction that it belongs to “Superior Men” alone.24 Music is almost always a communal undertaking. Yet to Xi Kang and his contemporaries, “nothing approaches music in a life of deep and solitary reclusion.”25 The classical philosopher Zhuangzi noted that words can obscure the very meaning they convey; so too does any other medium obscure its own import. It is better to sit alone in the mountains, qin resting on one’s lap, and let the breeze pluck the strings.
The principles of qindao deliberately exclude wide audiences. Qin music itself is restrained, causing the performer or listener to restrain his own sentiments and passions. Literati thus turned to the qin to temper their own desire for “improper” music. The qin could “cure” someone after enjoying the music of the pipa and guzheng played by courtesans, affirming that, despite their lapse, they knew which music was truly fit for their ears.26 Nonetheless, qin music is filled with narratives, natural imagery, and intense, ever-changing emotions. Restraint did not mean stoicism, but rather the avoidance of decoration and excess—the trappings of popular music.
Ruan Ji (210-263), another Sage of the Bamboo Grove and composer for guqin, wrote, “Birds and beasts know sound but do not know melodic lines, and the commoners know melodic lines but do not know music. It is only the gentleman who is able to know music.”27 He implies that folk and popular music are not music; they are grounded in humanity, full of frills that cloud the Way. Qin music, on the other hand, echoes the Way through its subtle, restrained tones. “The Way and Virtue are calm and placid, therefore the five tones have no flavor.”28 If a qin piece moves the listener, then it is mere entertainment or “melodic lines. Ironically, some of the most beloved qin pieces, including Hujia, express strong, complex emotions.
Entranced by Barbarian Pipes
Barbarian music (huyue) caught on with the Chinese public in the era of the North-South Division (420-589 C.E.). It found its way into the alleyways of cities, the homes of the elite, and into the royal household itself. While no notated music remains for the comparison of Chinese music before and after this Western wave, prose and poetic documents prove that a profound transformation of native music took place in the centuries between the fall of the Han and the demise of the Tang, that the Central Asian influence is characteristic of all medieval Chinese music.29 Dunhuang cave paintings depict the dozens of string, percussion, and woodwind instruments that came into China via the Silk Road. Buddhist prayer song also had a profound influence on Chinese melody.
The imperial court had kept foreign ensembles since the Zhou. Emperor Tang Xuanzong (685-762) integrated foreign musical practices into court performance, mandating that foreign instruments and modes become a part of its orchestral repertoire.30 Himself a gifted musician, Xuanzong established the shibuji, or “ten entertainment orchestras” of the court, an institution that grew organically from the original seven of the Sui court.31 Xuanzong’s orchestras included, in discrete ensembles, the folk music of the Han Chinese; of the Central-Asian city-states of Gaochang (modern Turfan), Kuqa, Shule, Kashgar, and Yanqi; of Kangguo (Uzbekistan), Tianzhu (India), and Gaoli (Korea). Xu Xuya contends that “because Emperor Xuanzong practiced what he preached (i.e. performed the music he was foisting upon his royal musicians), there emerged from the Tang court a trend of combining Han and foreign musics.”32
The outpouring of qin thought and musicianship at this time suggests the literati did not accept new musical trends with the same gusto as Tang Xuanzong. The qin experienced a renaissance during the Tang. Fingering technique became highly developed. The earliest extant notated pieces come from this era, as well as the jianzipu system of qin notation, in use to this day.33 Literati believed the qin surpassed the shallowness of popular culture, that it stood at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment. Despite the Daoist (and Buddhist) mysticism associated with many qin pieces, it seems Tang literati still had a sense that the qin played an important role in keeping the state in running order. Despite this flourishing, the guqin had no hold on the popular imagination, endangering the continuity of its existence. The poet Bai Juyi, in “Abandoning the Qin” (Fei qin),34 laments:
Perhaps the threat of its extinction pushed some literati to reexamine the qin; had no instrument stood poised to crowd it out of intellectual life, it may not have occurred to anyone to pull it out of its corner and dust it off. Yet even among the literati, the qin was misunderstood. It proved to be “more of a prestigious symbol than a practical hobby” for most literati.38 The “three friends”—qin, poetry, and wine—were diversions to most, art to only a few. And as a diversion, the qin could not always compete with the exotic, upbeat music played by beautiful courtesans.
Torn Between Two Homes
“Eighteen Blasts of the Barbarian Reed Pipe” (Hujia Shiba Pai), named for the eighteen sections of the poem on which some of its versions are based) was composed by Dong Tinglan (699-765), a brilliant qin musician and teacher who wrote several pieces in the exotic-sounding huangzhong (yellow bell) mode.39 (Qin handbooks include tuning for the five modes of the pentatonic scale, as well as waidiao, foreign modes.40) Dong’s performance of “Hujia” moved the poet Li Qi to write, “Hidden in seclusion, the changing tones suddenly float like wine.”41 Dong was a native of Longxi, in modern-day Gansu Province in China’s northwest. Gansu borders modern-day Xinjiang Province, the former domain of the Central Asian city-states. Although the literati usually snubbed musical professionalism, Dong Tinglan’s skill as a performer brought him from the hinterlands to Chang’an, the capital, and his compositions are as respected by modern qin artists as by his contemporaries.
Several pieces entitled “Hujia” have come down to us; they are musically related only by mode. Titles include “Big Hujia” (Da Hujia), “Little Hujia” (Xiao Hujia), and “Hujia Shiba Pai.” All recall the story of Cai Wenji (b. 177 C.E., also named Cai Yan), the daughter of a scholar who was kidnapped by the Xiongnu (Huns). Homesick and heartbroken, Cai lived with the Xiongnu for twelve years as the wife of Chief Liu Bao, with whom she bore two sons. Chancellor Cao Cao (155-220) eventually rescued Cai. The “eighteen blasts” represent the melancholy music of the Xiongnu in longing for Cai. Cai’s poem, “Hujia Shiba Pai,” is sometimes sung in unison with the qin melody. Unlike the bulk of qin music, “Hujia” is enjoyed by a wide audience, and is often performed on other instruments.
It is quite possible that the popularity of this cluster of pieces lies in its “exotic” sound. While qin notation does not indicate rhythm or meter, the pitch material itself contains references to foreign music. Conventional pieces do contain pitches outside of the pentatonic scale, but they are few and far between. Typical qin music includes “sliding” pitches, created by pressing the string close to the fingerboard and then relaxing that pressure. There are some qin pieces which include non-pentatonic pitches, but contemporary Chinese musicians often omit these because they do not sound “Chinese.”42 By contrast, the “Hujia” pieces are all written in the foreign gunan43 mode, which includes the minor seventh.44 Both “Da Hujia” and “Xiao Hujia” include a minor second gesture which repeats several times throughout the piece, usually after a statement of the main melody (representing a blast of the reedpipe). “Xiao Hujia” also includes a 1-2-4-5 gesture, a very non-Chinese progression.
At face value, Cai’s return to China supports a nativist sentiment in the music, a loyalty to her people and the Han empire. Yet “Hujia” also opens the qin repertory to more than just the noble tones of antiquity and the harmony of the universe. These three musical pieces express the sorrow of the Xiongnu after losing their beloved Cai Wenji. Cai’s story, as well as her poetry, also hint at her own confusion; she longs for home, yet is heartbroken at abandoning her Western family. In her eighteen-stanza poem, she traces her transformation over the years. In the translation of the first and last verses below, xi is a transliteration of a beat common in early poetry, like oh or la in a song; “silk and bamboo” is a metaphor for music, referring to the materials used to make instruments.
Cai hates her captors when they first take her hostage, but they literally become her flesh and blood. Cai is homesick for one home in the first blast, but for two in the last. She elegizes the communion of Hu and Han hearts through their music, but no one can hear this realization as Cao Cao brings her across the desert back to China. East and West are both home and prison, Han and Hu are both enemy and family. With this underlying text, Dong’s composition subtly violates qindao.
In its heyday, Imperial China’s strength was its ability to absorb outside cultural elements and sinicize them. Indeed, the foreign “barbarism” which qin ideology opposed gave birth to one of the most beloved qin works. If not for the flood of Central Asian music into Chang’an, the literati would have had no impetus to cultivate qin music and thought to the extent that they did, no reason to push its sophistication and expression to the edge. In 2003, the guqin was listed among the United Nation’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) qin webpage states, “The guqin’s traditional function as a means of cultivating moral and intellectual character has almost entirely disappeared. Consequently, this once-complex holistic tradition has been reduced to a professional performing art.”47 Today the same view of the Tang literati still prevails—“mere musicians” ignore the higher significations of the music by focusing on the technical production of the music. While qin ideology separates theory and practice, that does not mean that a powerful, well-executed performance by a committed musician cannot carry import. Dong himself was primarily known as a performer and teacher in his time. Regardless, to this day qindao overrides qin music itself; everything about the qin, from its aesthetics to its strings, is symbolic. The qin may very well survive in the post-modern era, but it will remain inaccessible to most audiences for Chinese music. If the qin is to truly flourish as a conduit of Chinese culture, its practitioners might do well to adapt qin pieces to reach wider audiences, and in this way acknowledge the musical depth of its heavenly tunes.
Bai Juyi. “Fei qin” [Abandoning the Qin]. In Quan Tang shi [Complete Tang Poetry], compiled by Peng Dingqiu et. al. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1999. 13 ce, 424 juan, 4656.
Cai Yan. “Hujia shiba pai” [Eighteen Blasts of the Barbarian Reed Pipe]. In Yuefu shi ji [Music Bureau Poetry Collection], compiled by Guo Maoqian, 660-64. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1998. 59 juan.
DeWoskin, Kenneth J. A Song for One or Two: Music and the Concept of Art in Early China. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1982.
Egan, Ronald. “Nature and Higher Ideals in Texts on Calligraphy, Music, and Painting.” In Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties, edited by Zongqi Cai, 277-309. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
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Gulik, Robert Hans van and Kang Ji. Hsi K’ang and His Poetical Essay on the Lute. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1969.
Jones, Stephen. “Source and Stream: Early Music and Living Traditions in China.” Early Music 24, no. 3 (1996): 374-88.
Kaufmann, Walter. Musical References in the Chinese Classics. Detroit, MI: Information Coordinators, 1976.
Picken, Lawrence ed. Music from the Tang Court. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Shyr Yin-kuan. “The Ten Orchestra Types of Tang—A Glossary.” Chinese Music 9, no. 4 (1986): 69-70; 10, no. 1 (1987): 7-8.
Thompson, John. “Dong Tinglan.” http://silkqin.com/09hist/qinshi/dongtinglan.htm.
_____. “Zhong Ziqi.” http://silkqin.com/09hist/qinshi/zhongziqi.htm. Accessed 2006.
Xu Xuya. “Huyue huyin jing fen bo—huyue dui Tang dai shehui xiang shu lun.” Xiyu yanjiu 1 (2004): 69-77.
Zheng Ruzhong. “Musical Instruments in the Wall Paintings of Dunhuang.” Chime 7(1993): 4-57.
UNESCO. “The Art of Guqin Music.” 2004. http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangibleheritage/masterpiece.php?id=65&lg=en. Accessed June 2007.
Yung, Bell. “Historical Interdependency of Music: A Case Study of the Chinese Seven String Zither.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40, no. 1 (1987): 82-91.
Research for this article was conducted at the Library of Congress and was facilitated by the staff of the Asian Reading Room.
33Jianzipu employs a set of about 200 modified Chinese characters which indicate the string to be plucked, how any hui should be depressed, and fingering technique. Meter, rhythm, and tempo are never indicated.