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Confucian Qin Themes 1
"Confucian melodies?"   Confucius   Confucian learning images
Confucius teaching students at the Apricot Tree Forum 2    

Guqin melodies with Confucian themes include those connected to stories about Confucius and to those that specifically endorse Confucian principles. Other melodies to consider for inclusion are those that use lyrics from the Book of Songs, supposedly edited by Confucius;3 those that concern the virtues of ancient rulers; and those that have a connection to the region of Confucius' home town, Qu Fu in Shandong province. The list here is not exhausitive; in particular, my personal focus being the Ming dynasty, it does not include several further melodies that seem to have originated during the Qing period.4

Melodies for Confucian academies? 5

There seems to be little or no information about what music might have been played at Confucian academies during the imperial period. In fact, it is difficult to say what is distinctive about music with a Confucian theme, just as there is with trying to identify musical characteristics of melodies with a Daoist theme. Perhaps more distinctive are differences based on which of the following three categories the melodies belong to: those set to Confucian texts, which may or may not have been sung; those set to Confucian-related lyrics that at onetime almost certainly were sung; and melodies with Confucian themes but no known lyrics. What follows here is a list based on an attempt to imagine what melodies might have been most suitable for study in an imperial Confucian academy.

Perhaps most unique amongst these three are the melodies with text settings focused on Confucian learning. So first on the list are melodies that have lyrics or texts that present the sort of ideas to which students might have been exposed at traditional academies, which during the imperial period largely focused on Confucian principles.

The first illustration, above right, suggests that Confucius played qin as he taught.

The second illustration, below right, purports to show a legendary sage teaching the rules of music using a qin, but here it is used to suggest the possibility that such ideas inspired some later teachers of Confucian learning also to play qin as part of their instructing. Although this has seldom been explored, it does seem possible, if not likely, that if this did occur, melodies with text settings, such as the following, would certainly have been suitable.

         I. Qin Melodies for Confucian Learning (儒學琴曲 Ruxue Qinqu)6 Teaching with qin: An imaginary Confucian School?)    

  1. Cry of the Ospreys (關雎 Guan Ju, 1491; listen with lyrics)
    First listen to the qin setting in the Book of Songs, then to the 1491 version setting for qin a Confucian interpretation: with wife and husband in harmony so is the world.

  2. (Wen Wang) Thinks of Shun ([文王]思舜 [Wen Wang] Si Shun, 1491; listen with lyrics)
    also called Wen Wang's Melody (文王操 Wen Wang Cao)
    The Annals of History (史記 Shi Ji) writes that Confucius learned Wen Wang Cao from 師襄 Shi Xiang (illustration).

  3. Proximate Sage Melody (亞聖操 Yasheng Cao, 1511; listen with lyrics)
    The lyrics of this piece invoke Yan Hui, the favorite student of Confucius. "Yasheng" suggests "second only to Confucius himself", and Yan Hui was one of a few people so named.

  4. Song of Auspicious Clouds (卿雲歌 Qing Yun Ge, 1525; listen with lyrics)
    The lyrics of this melody are said to have been sung by Emperor Shun when he announced that, rather than appointing his own son to succeed him, he was appointing the most worthy person, Yu. Because of this sentiment these lyrics were used in 1913 for the first national anthem of the Republic of China.

  5. Moufu Admonishes his Lord (謀父匡君 Moufu Kuang Jun; lyrics)
    This melody, also called Qizhao Shi (Good Advice Poem, from the Zuo Zhuan; Watson, p.167) concerns 祭公謀父 Duke Moufu of Zhai (on Yellow River north of Zhengzhou, Henan) giving good Confucian advice to an early Zhou king. Each section begins with his lyrics.

  6. 18 Scholars Ascend Yingzhou (十八學士登瀛州 Shiba Xueshi Deng Yingzhou, 1530; lyrics)
    The lyrics concern the role of the Hanlin Academy; a related instrumental melody is "Ying Zhou"

  7. Hymn of Grand Moral Virtue (盛德頌 Sheng De Song, 1530; listen with lyrics)
    The lyrics here quote or paraphrase many Confucian principles

  8. The Great Ming United (大明一統 Da Ming Yi Tong, 1539; listen with lyrics)
    The lyrics and music of this melody form what sounds like an anthem glorifying the Ming dynasty.

  9. Bright Virtue Prelude (明德引 Mingde Yin with
    Sacred Confucian Canon (孔聖經 Kongsheng Jing, 1591; listen with lyrics)
    Musical setting of The Great Learning and a commentary by Zhu Xi; used for Confucian ceremonies?

  10. Three Talents Intonation (三才引 San Cai Yin, 1676)
    This setting, surviving only from
    Japan, has text from the Doctrine of the Mean, Chapter 26.

  11. Hail Greatness Intonation (大哉引 Da Zai Yin, 1676)
    Surviving only from
    Japan, it sets for qin more text from the Doctrine of the Mean, Chapter 27.

    II. Poem settings

  12. Song of Southern Breezes (南風歌 Nan Feng Ge, 1511; listen with lyrics)
    Lyrics from Yuefu Shiji, by tradition attributed to Emperor Shun, celebrate his rightful place as emperor; see also the Song of Auspicious Clouds, above.

  13. Thinking of Parents (思親操 Si Qin Cao, 1511; listen with lyrics)
    Lyrics from Yuefu Shiji, also by tradition attributed to Emperor Shun (both melodies use only five strings), celebrate his following the cardinal Confucian virtue of honoring his parents.

  14. About to Return Melody (將歸操 Jiang Gui Cao, 1511)
    Confucius, on his way to Jin, hears an advisor there has been executed, so he returns home. (Illustration)

  15. Turtle Mountain Melody (龜山操 Guishan Cao, 1511)
    Confucius leaves the city and thinks of this mountain because the duke of Lu has accepted a gift of dancing girls from Qi, and is ignoring his official duties. (Illustration)

  16. Deer Call (鹿鳴 Lu Ming, 1618; listen with lyrics)
    A song setting for a Shi Jing banquet melody, sometimes played by court orchestras; a later version for qin is popularly played today, but this is the earliest surviving version

  17. Stray Thoughts (偶成 Ou Cheng, 1676; listen with lyrics)
    Surviving only from Japan, this sets a poem by the Song dynasty neo-Confucian philospher (and teacher) Cheng Hao (who is also connected to Jing Guan Yin).

    III. Instrumental pieces

  18. Captured Unicorn (獲麟 Huo Lin, 1425)
    A unicorn is captured at Da Ye, near Qufu. This is thought to be a lucky omen, indicating a good prince is at hand, but Confucius reveals that in fact it was unlucky, because no such prince is at hand. (Illustration)

  19. Flourishing Orchid (猗蘭 Yi Lan, 1425)
    Confucius, after being rejected at many courts, returns home to Lu. He finds a lovely orchid alone in a field, and compares it with himself. (Illustration)

  20. Song of Southern Breezes (南薰歌 Nanxun Ge, 1491)
    Nanfeng Ge, in Kongzi Jiayu,7 says,

    The breezes coming from the south are mild;
    They can solve my people's worries.
    The breezes coming from the south are timely;
    They can bring abundance to my people's property.

  21. Apricot Tree Forum (杏壇 Xing Tan, 1425)
    Gingko Tree Forum? Xing Tan is said to be the place in Qu Fu where Confucius taught his students. (Lyrics Section 10); further illustrations)

  22. Fragrant Orchids (佩蘭 Pei Lan, 1539)
    According to Confucius Household Sayings, Confucius said that when you first go into a room you notice whether the smell is good or bad, but after a while you get used to it; so a good person should always find good surroundings. An orchid worn at the belt symbolizes this. (There is also a Chu Ci reference.)

  23. Evening Talk by a Snowy Window (雪窗夜話 Xue Chuang Ye Hua, 1525)
    I play the purely instrumental version, which is mostly about snow itself, but the sung version (1539) has a Confucian text;

  24. Secluded Orchid (幽蘭 You Lan, 1525)
    Same theme as 猗蘭 Yi Lan, but unrelated melodies (see also next)

  25. Secluded Orchid (碣石調幽蘭 You Lan, 6th-7th c.)
    Earliest surviving qin melody; same theme as #2 Yi Lan, but unrelated melodies (see also previous).

  26. Contemplative Intonation (靜觀吟 Jing Guan Yin, 1579)
    Tentatively associated with a Song dynasty Confucian, it suggests, "All things in a contemplative manner attain what they need".

To my knowledge no studies have been done as to whether these melodies have musical characteristics that distinguish them from other melodies (further comment).

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Confucian qin themes ("Confucian melodies"?)
The melodies here are selected purely on a thematic basis, not on a musical or structural basis (regarding which see Modality in early Ming qin tablature). Musical and structual considerations include:

As suggested above, this topic does not yet seem to have been fully resarched. If such unique musical characteristics can be found, then perhaps one can speak more confidently of certain qin melodies being "Confucian melodies" rather than "melodies on Confucian themes".

2. Images of Confucius A common motif shows Confucius with qin  
There have been many popular illustrations showing Confucius playing qin. The image at right is a rubbing said to be from an old Chinese temple. The image above, showing Confucius playing qin while teaching student, is by 白雲立 Bai Yunli. For further images of Confucius see also:

Xing Tan art
Huo Lin (Captured Unicorn)
Yi Lan (Flourishing Orchid)
(Wen Wang) Si Shun ([Wen Wang] Thinks of Shun)
Jiang Gui Cao (About to Return Melody)
Guishan Cao (Turtle Mountain Melody)

Many such images can be found as woodblock prints in 孔子聖蹟圖 Traces of the Sage Confucius; only the ones above by Bai Yunli are copyrighted here. On the internet there are many other images of Confucius playing the qin.

3. Qin songs that use lyrics from the Book of Songs (詩經 Shi Jing)
These include:

Here it is perhaps significant that these 12 are among the very few surviving pre-modern qin song settings that do not pair the tablature and lyrics using the very word-intensive traditional pairing method: here there are quite a few extra strokes/notes per syllable. Having more notes per syllable should make it easier to make these song settings interesting. Was it difficult to get published songs that did not follow traditional rules? Was it possible to publish these songs because they had a supposed precedent in the Tang dynasty?

Thus one might argue that there were certainly more settings done of Shi Jing songs, but they were never published - perhaps never could be.

The melodies listed here were all pubished during the Ming dynasty; no link to the title means my reconstruction has not been finalized. Not included are several further melodies that seem to have originated during the Qing dynasty.4

4. Later melodies on the theme of Confucius
Melodies with a Confucian theme that I have not yet tried to reconstruct were mostly published beginning in the Qing dynasty. Some are virtually unknown, such as

  1. 孔子弔季札 Kongzi Diao Ji Zha (Confucius Mourns Ji Zha, a prince who had virtuously declined to succeed his father), or
  2. 望雲思親 Wang Yun Si Qin (Looking at the Moon and Thinking of One's Parents, which concerns Confucian values [and is attributed to "Judge Dee"]).

Other Qing dynasty qin melodies on a Confucian theme are quite well-known; perhaps the two best known of these are listed in the Zha Guide as,

  1. 韋編 Wei Bian (Leather Bindings [of his copy of the Yi Jing])
  2. 讀易 Du Yi (Reading the Yi [Jing])

These latter two relate stories that have a connection ("孔子讀易 Confucius Read the Yi Jing" so much that the "韋編 Leather Bindings [of his copy] 三絕 wore out three times"). However, because these both come after the Ming dynasty I have not yet studied them carefully, so they do not yet have separate entries. Nevertheless, both pieces (and their variants) are discussed further here. My tentative conclusion, in sum, is that although the stories of the Wei Bian and Du Yi seem to be similar, the two Wei Bian melodies are musically unrelated to each other, and neither one seems to be musically related to any of the Du Yi melodies. However, this is a preliminary opinion based on examining the tablatures, not actually playing or hearing all the meloides. Perhaps further study might show that there are indeed musical relationships between them.

  1. Leather Bindings (韋編 Wei Bian)
    Although the available existing tablature for a melody of this title, dated 1738, details a melody quite different from the one called Leather Bindings Broken Thrice (韋編三絕 Wei Bian San Jue/Weibian Sanjue) that can be heard in a modern recording, both of these Wei Bian melodies tell the same story. Literary references include:

    Zha Guide lists Wei Bian as surviving only in the hand-copied 琴書千古 Qinshu Qian'gu (1738; XV/444), where it has 7 sections, its mode is not indicated, and it has no commentary or lyrics. Zha's statement, p. 39, that the melody is "明代民間 from the people of the Ming dynasty" should be seen basically as a political statement, not historical. To my knowledge this melody has not yet been reconstructed.

    Zha Guide does not mention Leather Bindings Broken Thrice (韋編三絕 Weibian Sanjue). The melody of this name has been transcribed in Guqin Quji, Vol. 1, pp. 265-7, where it is divided into three sections. Commentary with the earliest known recording, by Yue Ying, included in CD #6 of the China Records 8-CD set of recordings from the 1950s, identifies the melody only as from 抄本琴譜 hand copied tablature, but a comment at the front of the tablature/transcription in Guqin Quji (p. 265) says its source is 賈闊峰傳譜 tablature transmitted by Jia Kuofeng, who was Yue Ying's teacher. The brief commentary on p. 10 of Guqin Quji says that the melody survived only though that hand-copy, no printed scores. It then suggests that this modern melody is related to that of the Wei Bian in the 1738 handbook and points to the story shared with Kongzi Du Yi. However, as mentioned above, my own tentative examination comparing the two Wei Bian tablatures did not reveal any musical relationship between them, nor any between either of them and any of the Du Yi melodies mentioned next.

  2. 讀易 Du Yi (Reading the Yi Jing)
    Zha's Guide lists five handbooks from 1739 (XVIII/187), giving as alternate title Confucius Reading the Yi Jing (孔子讀易 Kongzi Du Yi) and Reading the Yi Jing on an Autumn Evening (秋夜讀易 Qiu Ye Du Yi). The five handbooks with these titles are:

    1. 琴學練要 Qinxue Lianyao (1839; XVIII/187)
      Du Yi; 4+1 sections, titled; yu yin; afterword says

      (Paraphrase:) Friends liked to read aloud the Yi Jing on autumn evenings, and the sound inspired the writer to create this melody (see also du shu sheng).
    2. 蕉庵琴譜 Jiaoan Qinpu (1868; XXVI/84)
      Qiu Ye Du Yi; yu yin; 3 sections; no commentary; related but many differences

    3. 天文閣琴譜 Tianwen'ge Qinpu (1876; XXV/201); 6 sections; gong yin; zhi diao
      Kongzi Du Yi; said to be "閩派 Min pai" (Fujian school) but "from 孔山 Kongshan". No other commentary. Recordings of this by 曾成偉 Zeng Chengwei, which are very similar to this tablature, are said to be 蜀派 Sichuan school. Seems unrelated to the other versions.

    4. 琴學初津 Qinxue Chujin (1894; XXVIII/254)
      Qiu Ye Du Yi; 4+1 sections; huangjun jun, shang yin; musically quite similar to 1839; the afterword says:

      Not yet translated.
    5. 詩夢齋琴譜 Shimengzhai Qinpu (1914; not in QQJC)
      Du Yi; 3 sections; I have not yet seen the tablature.

      This is music by Li Xiangshi, should be played in the style of the Sichuan school, and especially at the beginning is quite pleasurable. (Comment by) Ye Shimeng.

    The introductions to Du Yi do not actually mention Confucius except where his name appears in the title (i.e., the Kongzi Du Yi from 1876). Nevertheless, from the titles it would seem that the theme of the Du Yi melodies might be similar to that of the Wei Bian melodies.

Again, although further study might show that there are indeed musical relationships between the Wei Bian melodies or between them and the Du Yi melodies, until that time one should be skeptical of the claims one can read that 韋編三絕初見於《琴書千古》(1738,抄本)Wei Bian San Jue can be traced back to 1738. In fact it has not even been traced back prior to Yue Ying and/or his teacher. It should be needless to add that, though this is criticism of the commentary, it is also in fact praise for the performer.

5. Melodies for Confucian academies?
Since ancient times there have been teachers and groups fostering Confucian learning. From the Han dynasty onwards there were government academies for this; during the Tang dynasty these were either supplemented with or replaced by private academies. For a basic background on this see, e.g., various Wikipedia articles such as those on Imperial Academies (太學 Taixue), Academies 暴匡人 (書院 Shu Yuan) and the Imperial College (國子監 Guozijian).

Although yet I have not uncovered specific evidence for qin melodies being played at such traditional academies, this is certainly a topic worthy of further examination. 明仇英《人物故事圖冊》之《竹院品古》。(故宮博物院藏)

6. Qin Melodies for Confucian Learning (儒學琴曲 Ruxue Qinqu) (Full illustration above; details)           
    Alternate title: Playing (qin) and singing without stopping (絃歌不輟 Xian Ge Bu Chuo)
This alternate title was developed in 2019 for my first program focused on melodies for Confucian learning. The program, premiering in China in November 2019, uses qin melodies with appropriate lyrics to evoke an image such as the one at right (full version above), where an audience can read or can have read Confucian texts that are being illustrated through qin music.

絃歌不輟 Xian Ge Bu Chuo is actually a phrase found in the book of Zhuangzi (ctext, with translation by Legge). The passage tells of Confucius playing a string instrument (usually interpreted as a qin) while traveling in Kuang, a district in the Song kingdom (apparently in what is today's Henan province). Suddenly a group of Song ruffians surround him and act in an apparently threatening manner. Nevertheless, Confucius does not stop. (Here the Chinese text says only "不惙", not specifying if this means he doesn't stop traveling or doesn't stop playing.) When asked about this by one of his disciples, Confucius says that he has offered his services to rulers but they have all rejected him. As a result he is now talking to, and/or playing for, anyone who will listen. Eventually the leader of the ruffians apologizes, saying that until they heard him (or heard him play his music) they thought he was someone who was their enemy. They then leave.

插圖:孔子聖蹟圖 Illustration from "Traces of the Sage Confucius" 匡人解圍 Surrounded by Kuang (expand)  
Illustration #62 from this book (expand from image at right) tells a similar story to that just described from Zhuangzi, but here Confucius is traveling in his oxcart and not playing music. The text on the illustration says,

As Confucius was going to Wei....

"絃歌不輟 Xian Ge Bu Chuo" is not specifically mentioned in this illustration, but the above explanation should make it clear that it can apply to a program on the theme of Confucian education, such as what is outlined below.

As a result of such stories the phrase "絃歌不輟 xian ge buchuo" has at times been used to suggest providing music and song for anyone who will listen (so as to educate them and/or raise their spirits): thus 不惙 means he didn't stop playing. This perhaps suggests an interpretation that Confucius would stop in public places and play for anyone who would listen.

This also brings to mind a quote from 論語,衛靈公 Book 15 Duke Ling of Wei in the Analects of Confucius, where it has, 子曰:「有教無類。」 Confucius said, When it comes to education there aren't different categories (of people)" (ctext). This is generally interpreted as meaning that everyone should be educated. It is thus in contrast to the attitudes one can find in qin literature saying you should not play qin for certain types of people (see, for example, in this list.)

  Commemorative seal (see at left; expand)  
絃歌不輟:2019 中國節目一部分
The 2019 China program focused on the following melodies (in roughly chronological order):

(At right are the four sides of a 紀念姓名章 commemorative seal [the bottom side, with my name, is not shown]. It was given to me the day after the Hangzhou performance outlined below, which took place on 10 November 2019. The seal carver was 叢一 Congyi [meaning "學習要專注 focused on learning"], a nickname of 黎驕 Li Jiao, a qin student of 陸海 Lu Hai.

仙翁操操縵引Xianweng Cao (Melody of the Transcendent Venerable One) and Caoman Yin (Strum Silk Prelude)
Warmup melodies honoring a Daoist who was also adviser to an Emperor
  1. 關雎曲一Guan Ju Qu (Melody of Cry of the Ospreys, Section 1 (of 10), 1511)
    The lyrics, the first poem in the 詩經 Shi Jing (pdf), are used in this program as a prelude for #2 (next).
  2. 關雎Guan Ju (Cry of the Ospreys, 1491)
    This long piece is paired with text (pdf) that gives a later Confucian interpretation to the Shi Jing lyrics.
  3. 杏壇Xing Tan, (Apricot Tree Forum, 1525)
    Gingko Tree Forum? Xing Tan is said to be the place in Qu Fu where Confucius taught his students. (Lyrics Section 10 [pdf]; further illustrations)
  4. 卿雲歌Qing Yun Ge (Song of Auspicious Clouds, 1525)
    Ancient lyrics (pdf) used for the first Chinese national anthem: with good government the country will prosper
  5. 瀛州Yingzhou, 1525)
    An instrumental melody ccnnected to a story celebrating scholars who advise the government
  6. 十八學士登瀛州Shiba Xueshi Deng Yingzhou (Eighteen Scholars Ascend Yingzhou, 1530)
    A related melody paired with lyrics (pdf) celebrating scholars featured in the previous melody
  7. 聖德頌Sheng De Song (Hymn of Grand Moral Virtue, 1530)
    Repeats and/or rephrases various ancient writings on moral virtue, also giving examples (pdf of original text)
  8. 大明一統Da Ming Yi Tong (Unity of the Great Ming, 1539)
    Music and lyrics (pdf) that glorify the Ming, ending with "皇帝萬歲萬萬歲 Long live the emperor"
  9. 鹿鳴Lu Ming (Deer Calls, 1618)
    Poem 161 of the 詩經 Shi Jing, a banquet song (pdf of lyrics)
  10. 文君操Wenjun Cao (Song of Wenjun, 1539)
    A love song (pdf} also known as A Phoenix Searches for his Mate (鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Wang): it is famously sung by a scholar who falls in love on his way to take the imperial examinations; the lady is presumably impressed by the Confucian path he has chosen as well as by the song he sings.

The complete version of this program includes melodies where the Confucian connection is not so direct, such as the first and last ones listed here.

And for contrast and as time permits, some non-Confucian themed melodies could also be included, such as Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream

7. Confucius' Household Sayings (孔子家語 Kongzi Jiayu)
See under Confucius: a collection of stories attributed to Confucius but most probably dating from the Han dynasty. Quoted variously on this site: see especially the six selections from four books.

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