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Returning to the Sources
Earliest versions of guqin melodies actively surviving in the modern repertoire1
A modern version and its source 2   (enlarge)      

This program provides a unique introduction to the most popular melodies in the active guqin repertoire, allowing listeners to hear for themselves how these melodies sounded at the time of their earliest surviving publication. People already familiar with the modern guqin repertoire will quickly recognize these melodies, but also gain a better feeling for how the melodies have changed over the centuries.

In China from the Cultural Revolution into the 1990s the core of the modern guqin repertoire consisted of about 15 to 20 melodies.3 Since then the repertoire has expanded considerably, mainly through the revival of melodies that were still actively played by a few players, or through the reconstruction of melodies that had gone out of the repertoire.

In addition, most melodies in the active modern guqin repertoire, whether created during the 19th or 20th centuries or earlier, have changed since their first publication. In general, the earlier the original publication date the greater the changes.4

The present performance consists of the earliest known versions of melodies from that core repertoire, i.e., the earliest versions of all the melodies that I learned during 1974-6 when I studied in Taiwan with Sun Yü-Ch'in.5 After I moved to Hong Kong in 1976 my focus changed to reconstructing melodies from tablature published during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).6 Gradually I replaced the modern versions of these melodies with ones I reconstructed from tablature.

The following is an outline of a program consisting of the Ming versions of the following melodies:7

  1. Come Away Home (Gui Qu Lai Ci; I play the melodically related 1511 earliest)
  2. Peaceful Evening Prelude (Liangxiao Yin; I play melodically related 1614 earliest)
  3. Flowing Streams (Liu Shui; I play the melodically related 1425 earliest)
  4. Three Repetitions of "Plum Blossoms" (Meihua Sannong; I play the melodically related 1425 earliest)
  5. No Ulterior Motives regarding Seabirds (Oulu Wang Ji; I play the melodically related 1620 earliest, as well as the melodically unrelated 1425 No Ulterior Motives)
  6. Wild Geese Descend on a Sandbank (Pingsha Luo Yan; I play Yan Luo Pingsha, the melodically related 1634 earliest)
  7. Xiang River Lament (Xiang Jiang Yuan; I play the melodically related 1511 earliest, Lament of the Xiang River Concubines [Xiang Jiang Yuan])
  8. Leaves Dance in an Autumn Breeze (Wuye Wu Qiufeng; I play the earliest published version, published 1664 but presumed to be late Ming)
  9. Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Xiao Xiang Shui Yun; I play the melodically related 1425 earliest)
  10. Thrice (Parting for) Yangguan (Yangguan Sandie; I play the melodically related 1530 earliest as well as the 1491 earliest long version)
  11. Dialogue between a Fisherman and Woodcutter (Yu Qiao Wenda; I play the melodically related earliest, dated 1559)

Footnotes (Numbers refer to entries in Zhongwen Dacidian)

1. Modern repertoire
Typical definitions of "repertoire" (e.g., "the complete list or supply of works available for performance") suggest that the "modern guqin repertoire" could include all the 200 or so melodies in my own repertoire. (The 650+ melodies in old handbooks could likewise be described as the "potential traditional repertoire", "potential" because most of these survive only as guqin tablature, which does not indicate rhythm; for all the melodies in my own repertoire there are transcriptions into staff notation, thus making them available for performance by any qin player of appropriate skill). This shows the difficulty of trying to define the meaning of "modern repertoire".

Conservatory syllabus
A subset of "repertoire" is "syllabus". The three volume 古琴曲集 Guqin Quji (
Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe, 2009) is one such syllabus. (One can find English advertisements referring to it as, "Collection of Guqin Music Score [Three Volumes] [Chinese Edition]", but the book has no English text.) This set of books has the modern Chinese conservatory guqin syllabus in tablature with number notation (it is not clear why this set was given the same Chinese title as the previous two volume Guqin Quji, from which it took or adapted a number of melodies). This syllabus includes 90 melodies organized into 10 levels.

The Table of Contents for this Guqin Quji (Chinese only, available here as a 2.2 MB pdf file) shows that the 90 melodies include the following types:

From what I can tell, versions of about 30 to 40 of the 90 melodies in Guqin Quji might be included in one (or both) of the first two categories above, i.e., they were actively transmitted from the past. It should be emphasized, though, not only that these conservatory versions are not the only available versions of many melodies, they are also often changed (or selected) according to the tastes of the metal-string dominated "conservatory style".

Going from "syllabus" back to "repertoire", for the purposes of this program "modern repertoire" refers to pieces actively taught from teacher to student. Hence it does not include modern compositions played only by one person, but it does include reconstructed melodies which since their reconstruction have become widely played. ("Wine Mad" is a good example of how reconstructed versions can become a popular part of the active repertoire even when the reconstruction is clearly inaccurate.) By this definition most of the pieces I play personally are not part of the modern repertoire. However, all of the 16 pieces I learned from Sun Yü-Ch'in were actively played at the time and remain so.

2. A modern version and its source (enlarged image)
The image above shows two versions of a well-known melody: at right is the earliest form, called Xiang Fei Yuan (the commentary at front has been removed to facilitate comparison of the music); at left is the modern version, called Xiang Jiang Yuan.

3. Core of the modern repertoire
These 15 to 20 pieces were, as far as I could tell, the only pieces still actively taught in the early 1990s. This may say more about the students of that time than about the teachers: some teachers certainly did have a larger repertoire, or had once had a larger repertoire, but they did not have students learning them. (For example, Yinyinshi Qinpu of Hong Kong's 蔡德允 Cai Deyun [Tsar Teh-yun] includes 33 melodies, but to my knowledge quite a few of them she rarely or never taught.)

4. Changes in qin melodies over time
Guqin music was transmitted orally as will as through tablature. Thus, although qin melodies were written down in detail comparable to that used with early Western music (pre-Baroque), the transmission was largely via students copying teachers rather students copying written music. The main reason qin tablature did not directly indicate note values/rhythms was not that this was left up to the individual, but because one learned the correct rhythms (or rhytmic parameters) by copying the teacher. It was mainly this oral aspect of transmission that led to the music gradually changing. In general, over time individual melodies became more ornamented as a result of this oral transmission.

Regarding oral transmission, it is interesting to compare (though it is not directly comparable) the changes that took place in early Chinese texts, many of which were originally transmitted at least in part orally. A very interesting online article on oral transmission of poetry, focusing on that of 韋莊 Wei Zhuang but generally covering Tang and to some extent early Song, is Christopher M. B. Nugent's The Lady and Her Scribes: Dealing with the Multiple Dunhuang Copies of Wei Zhuang’s “Lament of the Lady of Qin”. Prof. Nugent covers this topic further in his book, Manifest in Words, Written on Paper: Producing and Circulating Poetry in Tang Dynasty China (Harvard-Yenching, 2011).

Prof. Nugent, by taking modern (i.e., surviving) versions of Tang poems, many or most of which survive originally either through oral transmission (the original poems often just dashed off on a sheet of paper by the poet and given to friends, or some not even written down by the actual poet; in any case the original is lost) and then transcription by various parties who had often simply memorized (their own versions of) the poems, and comparing these with recently discovered Dunhuang versions of the same texts, written down or at least collected during the Song dynasty. The Nugent article (p.52ff) tentatively identifies the many inconsistencies into 11 types:

  1. Variant forms that do not necessarily change the meaning.
  2. Similar sound and form
  3. Graphically similar
  4. Phonetically similar
  5. Similar meaning
  6. Reversed characters
  7. Extra characters
  8. Missing characters
  9. Commentarial characters
  10. Split characters (e.g. 公羽 vs 翁)
  11. Variant drift (p.55: "the most difficult to explain")

Prof. Nugent concludes that usually or often we have no way of knowing whether surviving "standard" versions of early poems are in fact the same as what the poet actually wrote. Furthermore, at that time in particular it was often considered not just acceptable but desirable to "improve" poems with one's own changes - changes were not necessarily "corruptions" (later editors did not always share this same cavalier attitude).

As for music, the types of changes over time are quite different and the reasons likewise different; nevertheless, it would be interesting to see a similar analysis of the sorts of changes that have taken place through the combination of oral and textual transmission of qin music, and the attitudes towards these changes.

5. Sun Yü-Ch'in (孫毓芹)
Sun Yü-Ch'in was an excellent teacher in the traditional style (see testimonial), and when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1976 I was told that my playing style very much resembled his. However, after this I gradually stopped playing the melodies I had learned from him, changing my focus to the reconstruction of early melodies, and my repertoire now consists almost exclusively of the earliest published versions of any particular melody.

The melodies listed above for this program are the versions I play today of the melodies I first learned from him (in the list, "original" means "earliest known published version"). The list is alphabetical (see also next footnote).

6. Melodies published during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644
The melodies in this program were published throughout the Ming dynasty. A more detailed series of programs on music published in Ming dynasty handbooks divides this 276 year period into three parts:

  1. Early Ming
    Focuses on music published in the Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425)
  2. Mid-Ming
    The main sources are Taigu Yiyin (1511), Xilutang Qintong (1525) and Fengxuan Xuanpin (1539)
  3. Late Ming
    Melodies from handbooks published between Wuyin Qinpu (1579) and the end of the dynasty.

Because my personal focus has been playing the earliest surviving version of any particular title, and because by the end of the Ming dynasty there seems to have been an increased emphasis on recycling old melodies rather than creating new ones, my repertoire for the late Ming period is smaller than for the other two periods.

7. Melodies learned from Sun Yü-Ch'in but not included in this program
The first two melodies could also be included as I still play them. The first is a beginners' melody and quite different from its Ming source; the second cannot be traced to the Ming. The melodies listed after these two also cannot be traced to the Ming dynasty and at present no versions of them are part of my active repertoire.

  1. Xianweng Cao (I play this along with various related Caoman Yin beginning from 1552)
  2. Yu Lou Chun Xiao (I play Chun Gui Yuan, the Longyinguan Qinpu original [1798?])

  3. Changmen Yuan (currently not part of my repertoire: no Ming dynasty editions)
  4. Pu An Zhou (currently not part of my repertoire: dates from 1722 [I have reconstructed but do not play its source melody, Shitan Zhang])
  5. Yi Guren (19th c. [?]; I play the melodically unrelated 1425 Shanzhong Si Youren)
  6. Zui Yu Chang Wan (19th c; I play only the melodically unrelated 1525 original)

Sun Yü-Ch'in did not play the modern Ao Ai when I studied with him; he apparently learned it later from tablature, presumably that of one of the abridged version (the version on his memorial CD is an abridged version: 5.39?). Subsequently I learned the melodically related but quite different Yu Ge from <1491.
Return to the Top

Return to the Sources
Chinese Cultural Studies Center, Hong Kong,
6 August 2015
Poster;     Watch video on YouTube

  1. Introduction by Oi Ling Chiang, director of the Chinese Cultural Studies Center (00.00-02.10)
  2. Preliminary comments by John Thompson (02.10-03.30)
  3. No Ulterior Motives regarding Seabirds (鷗鷺忘機 Oulu Wang Ji; with discussion of the structure)
  4. Peaceful Evening Prelude (良宵引 Liangxiao Yin; I play melodically related 1614 earliest)
  5. Wild Geese Descend on a Sandbank (Pingsha Luo Yan; I play 雁落平沙 Yan Luo Pingsha, the melodically related 1634 earliest)
  6. Three Repetitions of "Plum Blossoms" (梅花三弄 Meihua Sannong; I play the melodically related 1425 earliest)
  7. Dialogue between a Fisherman and Woodcutter (漁樵問答 Yu Qiao Wenda; I play the melodically related earliest, dated 1559)
  8. Flowing Streams (流水 Liu Shui; I play the melodically related 1425 earliest)
  9. Leaves Dance in an Autumn Breeze (梧葉舞秋風 Wuye Wu Qiufeng; I play the earliest published version, published 1664 but presumed to be late Ming)
  10. Come Away Home (歸去來辭 Gui Qu Lai Ci; I play the melodically related 1511 earliest)
  11. Question and answer (50.40 - 84.04)

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