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Music from the Time of Marco Polo
- The first full program     2007 program     2008 program     2009
馬可波羅時代音樂 1
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Marco Polo?2
According to his Travels,
3 Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited Hangzhou some time after 1276, when the Mongols under Bayan had captured it on behalf of Kublai Khan.4 Hangzhou, a city at the end of a large bay about 100 miles southwest of modern Shanghai, had been the capital of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1280); it was then most likely the largest and richest city in the world.5

Guqin Music from the Time of Marco Polo, which can be performed as a separate program, focuses on music Marco Polo could have heard in Hangzhou at the end of the Song dynasty.6 The present page mostly concerns this aspect of the program. Hangzhou at that time was the best known center for activities related to the guqin ("old qin") silk string zither. My qin repertoire includes a considerable amount of music connected to the Hangzhou of that time, specifically, music I have carefully reconstructed from scores (qin tablature) that were quite likely then available in Hangzhou.

The Hangzhou environment during the late Song dynasty seems to have encouraged both preservationist and creative activities:7 at that time a major effort was made here to collect earlier tablature;8 in addition, several famous qin masters living there at the time created works that survive in handbooks printed during the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644).9 Some qin music can be found in books actually published at that time, but most of it is preserved only in later handbooks.10

The full program features the early Western music group FA Schola.11 It includes music Marco Polo could have heard after he returned to Italy around the year 1300.12 Either of these two programs can serve as a general introduction to qin music. It can also provide context for specific issues, such as historically informed qin performance.13

Guqin content

Qin melodies that can be played in a performance on the Marco Polo theme include the following.

  1. Any melodies actually preserved in Song and Yuan dynasty publications.
    My recordings of all of these, from a variety of sources, are now linked under
    Hear Qin. Unfortunately, these are all rather short, mostly modal preludes. The exception, the Tang dynasty You Lan, was preserved in Japan. You Lan could be included in this program to show that during the Song dynasty the qin already had a long and rich tradition of sophisticated music creations, but there is no evidence that this version of You Lan was being played in either China or Japan at that time.

  2. Any melodies in Shen Qi Mi Pu, Folio I.
    Many of these melodies, which Zhu Quan suggested are the oldest, were quite likely included in the famous Zixiadong Pu qin handbook dating from the 13th century. In any case, though taken from earlier sources, some of those melodies would still have been played at the end of the 13th century. Although Zixiadong Pu apparently existed only in hand-copies, there is evidence that full or partial copies were in the Ming dynaty imperial collection. Other early Ming dynasty handbooks may also include music copied from this source.

  3. Melodies in Shen Qi Mi Pu, Folio II and Folio III attributed to qin masters in 13th century Hangzhou
    These include melodies attributed to the following.

    Guo Chuwang:   Fan Canglang and Xiao Xiang Shui Yun.
    Mao Minzhong: Liezi Yu Feng, Shan Ju Yin, Yu Hui Tushan, Qiao Ge, and Zhuangzhou Meng Die
    Liu Zhifang:       Wang Ji
    Xu Tianmin:       Zepan Yin

  4. Other melodies in Shen Qi Mi Pu, Folios II and III, and in later handbooks with good claim to tablature from this period.
    The arguments for including these are varied and individual. In particular they include melodies from certain handbooks that clearly include copies of earlier tablature, such as
    Xilutang Qintong (1525) and Fengxuan Xuanpin (1539 14). Note in particular:

    Chu Ge (1425), on old lists, with old style and fingering
    Pei Lan (1539), attributed to Mao Minzhong, but not until 1589
    Cangwu Yuan (1525), connected to Zixiadong Pu
    Yu Ge (1525), attributed to Mao Minzhong
    Lienü Yin (1525), which has long sections quoted from the Song dynasty prelude Jiao Diao.

It should be emphasized that Marco Polo's own writings make no mention of the qin, nor apparently do they make any mention at all of Chinese music. Here his name is used to refer to this particular time in history, when there is much evidence to suggest at least a few Western individuals traveled to China. Unfortunately, any evidence for their subsequent return to Europe has proven to be most elusive.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. There is more than one way of writing the name "Marco Polo" in Chinese. 4550.122 says "馬可波羅一譯馬哥孛羅". In modern Chinese "馬可波羅" is pronounced "Ma ke Bo lo"; "馬哥孛羅" is pronounced "Ma ge Bo lo". It is also common when transliterating foreign names to separate them, thus 馬可•波羅, etc. Since apparently there is no record of Marco Polo having been mentioned in pre-modern Chinese documents, there is no officially correct way of writing his name in Chinese.

2. There are apparently no surviving contemporary images of Marco Polo. The famous portrait above was "copied with permission from a painting...in the Gallery of Monsignore Badia in Rome". (See The Travels of Marco Polo, the complete Yule-Cordier edition, Vol. II, frontispiece; Dover Publications, New York, 1992 [original edition 1903/1920]).

3. The account of Hangzhou, here called Kinsay, is in The Travels of Marco Polo (see above), Vol. II, pp. 185 - 200. Many people doubt that Marco Polo actually went to China. One of the reasons is that he makes no mention of the scholars who formed China's elite. One counter to the general problem of omissions and inaccuracies in the account is to point out that The Travels of Marco Polo was based on what he related in a Genoese prison to a fellow-prisoner named Rusticello, who was a story-teller. In the process of taking what Marco Polo actually said and making it into what was intended to be a popular story, Rusticello could have made many changes.

4. Kublai Khan (Khubilai Khan, 1215 - 1294)
Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, became the first Yuan emperor, taking the reign title 元世祖 Yuan Shizu in 1260, though his official reign of all China is said to have begun in 1280. According to Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan, His Life and Times (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988), Khubilai had a generally benign attitude towards Chinese arts. His promotion of vernacular over classical Chinese perhaps contributed to the flowering of Chinese opera during the Yuan dynasty. He had an interest in painting, but there are no records suggesting he ever heard the qin (having missed the opportunity mentioned in one of the stories concerning the qin melody Yu Hui Tushan).

5. Hangzhou 杭州
Marco Polo's account refers to Hangzhou as Kinsay (elsewhere Quinsay). One explanation of this word is that it came from a Chinese expression for "capital city", 京師 jingshi, which at the time would have been pronounced something like kingsai. More common is the explanation that Kinsay comes from 行在 Xingzai, "temporary imperial lodging", at that time a euphemistic name for Hangzhou suggesting that soon the emperor would return north to rule all of China. For an account of late 13th century Hangzhou see Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250 - 1276. English translation of the original French is by H. M. Wright, London, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1962. Paperback edition Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1970.

6. (Guqin) Music from the time of Marco Polo (solo program)
Another title for this solo program could be Qin Music from 13th Century Hangzhou. The first such program took place in July 2003. Here is a typical list of melodies for such a program, from 22 February 2007:

  1. Chu Ge
  2. Xiao Xiang Shui Yun
  3. Qiao Ge
  4. Liezi Yu Feng
  5. Lienü Yin
  6. Meihua Sannong

7. For qin music in 13th century Hangzhou see the account in Xu Jian, Outline History, Chapter VI.A.3.

8. See especially the accounts concerning Yang Zuan and the Zixiadong Qinpu.

9. See the list of melodies attributed to the most famous of these players.

10. The claim that these scores actually existed in Hangzhou at the end of the Song dynasty is based partly on contemporary records, in part on Zhu Quan's general and specific prefaces in Shen Qi Mi Pu.

11. Performances of the full program: early Western alongside early Chinese music
The early Western music group featured on this program, Fa Schola, is from Estonia; they play the sort of music Marco Polo could have heard back in Italy. Our first combined performances took place in October 2005. Since then the program has expanded and developed. Here is an outline of our performances (current form):

  1. Tartu Early Music Festival, October 2005.
  2. Chinese New Year performances several places in Estonia during February 2007 (revised program).
  3. New York area, December 2007.
  4. Chinese New Year performances several places in Estonia, February 2008 (again revised)
  5. Beijing and Hangzhou, May 2008.

12. Repertoire and sources for the European Music
Since Marco Polo's home town, Venice, was at that time an international city, one arguably could include any sort of European music of that period. As with the early qin music, most of this early Western music was written down long after it was first played. This program uses some of the major sources for 14th century Italian music (q.v.).

13. Historically Informed Performance, China and Europe
Historically Informed Performance (HIP) is particularly interesting when comparisons can be made between early guqin music and early Western music. If an academic component is desired, the early Western musicians and I can compare notes on materials used for both historically informed qin performance and historically informed Western performance.

14. Music from later sources, such as Fengxuan Xuanpin
My commentary on Fengxuan Xuanpin includes some relevant statistics on the sources of its tablature. Many but not all of its melodies were copied exactly from earlier handbooks. But what is the source of those melodies whose tablature is different from that of earlier surviving handbooks, or those melodies for which there is no earlier tablature? And which tablature was copied from earlier tablature that has not survived? At present there are no clear answers to such questions.

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