T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Novels and Operas   /   Performance themes   /   My performances 首頁
Qin in Hong Lou Meng
(Dream of the Red Chamber, a novel) 1
Chapter 87: Dai Yu plays qin2      

Hong Lou Meng was written in the mid 18th century by Cao Xueqin,3 then completed by Gao E.4 It concerns the decline of the Jia family.

In Chapter 54 Grandmother Jia recalls that when she was young her grandfather had an opera troupe that included an actress who was a very good qin player. She does not mention whether the actress actually played the qin as part of the opera. The small sound of the qin would make its inclusion there quite problematic, and I have not yet read a description of this ever happening. Today an actor will only pretend to play a qin; the prop used is usually an imitation.5

On the other hand, it is certainly possible that a small, private opera performance at a wealthy man's home could include someone playing a qin as a special event. In the above passage from Chapter 54,6 Grandmother Jia says that the actress once arranged with actual qin accompaniment a sequence of qin-playing scenes from the operas Xi Xiang Ji (Story of the Western Chamber), Yuzan Ji (Story of the Jade Hairpin), and a sequel to Pipa Ji (Story of the Lute).7

Further, in Chapter 86 of Hong Lou Meng Lin Daiyu explains qin tablature to Jia Baoyu. There is then mention of the melodies Wen Wang Cao, Gao Shan and Liu Shui.8

Then in Chapter 87 Dai Yu first plays a suite combining Si Xian (also called Yasheng Cao) with Yi Lan.9 Later in the Chapter she plays and sings two songs, the second one so sad that a string suddenly breakis - an ominous event.10

There is Ming dynasty qin tablature for each of the melodies named above. I have reconstructed and can play at least one version of each of them.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 紅樓夢 Hong Lou Meng (Wiki)
An alternate title is 石頭記 Shitou Ji (Story of the Stone). There are several abridged translations. Two complete versions are:

  1. The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes (Vols. 1-3) and John Mitford (Vols.4-5); London, Penguin Books, 1973-1986).
  2. Red Chamber Dream, online translation by B. S. Bonsall, available in .pdf format from the Hong Kong University Library website.

A Dream of Red Mansions, the translation by Yang Xianyi (1915-2009; Wiki) and Gladys Yang (1919-1999; Wiki), is now available in a four volume edition (ISBN 978-7-119-00643-7; Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 2001), a notice for which says it is "the version most complete". I have not compared it with the Hawkes/Mitford translation, said also to be complete, and it should be noted that two earlier translations by Yang and his wife published under the same title (one volume and three volume editions) are both abridged versions.

2. Image
This illustration is from 紅樓夢詩畫,天然如意寶藏本, 1882.

3. 曹雪芹 Cao Xueqin
14626.193. The Wiki biography, which gives his dates as 1724 or 1715 — 1763 or 1764, says he may be responsible only for the first 80 of the 120 chapters usually included. He was from a wealthy and influential Nanjing family (e.g., his grandfather 曹寅 Cao Yin [14626.188 style name 子清 Ziqing] had been a childhood playmate of the Kangxi emperor), but Cao Xueqin wrote (his part of) Hong Lou Meng while living in poverty in Beijing

4. 高鶚 Gao E
His completion (done with 程偉元 Cheng Weiyuan?) was apparently first published in 1791. It is the first edition to have 120 chapters.

5. Qin used as prop
I have seen the same phenomenon in films.

6. See The Story of the Stone, Vol. 3, Penguin edition, p.37.

7. Imagining the performance heard by Grandmother Jia of qin melodies from operas
Qin melodies from the three operas mentioned in Chapter 54 are:

    Xi Xiang Ji (Story of the Western Chamber)
  1. Feng Qiu Huang (see Wen Jun Cao)

    Yuzan Ji (Story of the Jade Hairpin)
  2. Xiao Xiang Shui Yun
  3. Zhi Zhao Fei
  4. Guanghan You

    Pipa Ji (Story of the Lute; "sequel": see comment)
  5. Hujia Shibapai (compare 1597)
    Melodies mentioned in the original opera text are:
  6. Si Gui (Yin ?)
  7. Bie Gu (Cao ?)
  8. Feng Ru Song
  9. Zhaojun (Gong?) Yuan

Not all of the melodies listed here are mentioned in the Hong Lou Meng narrative. Of course, an imaginative reconstruction of the performance described by Grandmother Jia would want to use versions current when she was younger. In this regard, note that the earliest versions of the novel were circulated ca. 1759, that Cao Xueqin came from the Nanjing area, and that his grandfather was probably born in the 1650s. Thus his own grandmother would presumably have lived in Nanjing during the latter 17th century.

8. Chapter 86
Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, p.151ff.

9. Chapter 87 excerpt 1
Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, p.166ff.

10. Chapter 87 excerpt 2
Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, p.171ff. Here Daiyu sings what is apparently a song in three parts. The original lyrics are:

望故鄉兮何處, 倚欄桿兮涕沾襟。



In the second song Daiyu sings the following:

人生斯世兮如輕塵,天上人間兮感夙因。 感夙因兮不可オ,素心如何天上月。

As this latter song is sung, in the Penguin translation "Adamantina" (妙玉 Miaoyu) is horrified that Daiyu is playing a "sharpened fourth" (變徵 bianzhi) and fears that the first string (君絃太高 jun xian) is tuned too high ("too sharp"), at which point the string suddenly breaks. This seems to be a literary conceit related to an ancient story that the sound of bianzhi expressed sadness. There is no known qin song using these lyrics, and no known tuning based on the note bianzhi.

Return to the Guqin ToC