T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Areas   /   My repertoire   /   Performance themes   /   My performances   /   As a series 首頁
Silk Zither Dreams
A Musical Tour of Old China
Program Introduction  
縵遊神州 1
  "Playing qin" : holding it while contemplating nature 2 
This program evokes China's natural and poetic beauty as experienced in the mind of the Chinese literati of bygone days.3 All the music is played on a silk string guqin from scores published in the Ming dynasty, following principles of historically informed performance. Most of the melodies are selected because of their associations with specific places around China, but this should not be taken too literally: guqin music, like Chinese landscape painting, was usually more poetic than descriptive. Thus, by listening to the music and learning the associated stories one can gain a deeper appreciation of how the literati of that time viewed their natural and cultural environment.

This poetic approach is epitomized by the melody below called Water Immortal's Melody. The title is here associated with a place where Boya supposedly created it (Penglai or Mount Tai, both in Shandong) or a place where he is said to have played it (Wuhan/Hanyang in Hubei). More importantly, though, it conveys his learning to express himself on the qin by listening to the sounds of nature, then blending the silk strings of the guqin with all the other natural elements.4

The following is a representative program (Shanghai, 24 February 2013). It has about 60 minutes of music (not including gaps between pieces; no intermission):5

  1. Song of Chu (楚歌; prelude: opening of 1511 qin song Chu Ge)
    Xiang Yu loses the battle for empire at Gaixia and environs (Anhui)
  2. Spring Dawn at Peach Blossom Spring (桃源春曉)
    A fisherman encounters an idyllic society in the Wuling Mountains, northwest Hunan (Chu region)
  3. Water Immortal's Melody (水仙操)
    Boya learns from nature in Penglai and/or Mount Tai (Shandong); expressing this in Hanyang (Hubei; see above)
  4. Moon Atop a Plum Tree (梅梢月; prelude: the song Plum Blossoms)
    Lin Bu appreciates plum blossoms from his home in Hangzhou (in Lower Jiangnan)
  5. Apricot Tree Forum (杏壇; Section 10 is a 琴歌 qin song)
    Confucius teaches at Qufu, Shandong (Other areas)
  6. Cangwu Lament (蒼梧怨)
    Recalling Emperor Shun's death in the Hunan/Guangdong border region (part of the old Chu region)
  7. Autumn Thoughts at Dongting 洞庭秋思, a prelude to:
  8. A Drunken Fisherman Sings in the Evening (醉漁唱晚)
    Poets at leisure on Taihu Lake and the Songjiang River (in Lower Jiangnan)
  9. Jade Sheng, Heavenly Crane (瑤天笙鶴); Section 8 can be a qin song
    Wangzi Qiao ascends into immortality from the Songshan Mountain Range (more at Henan)
  10. Li Ling Thinks of Han (李陵思漢)
    Li Ling in captivity in the Gansu/Mongol regions (North and Central Asia)

There are a sufficient number of melodies that one could do a series of programs focusing on certain regions individually.6

Alternatively, by taking out some melodies or including other relevant melodies one can easily change the length of this single program. Likewise one could also make either a one hour single CD or a two hour double CD of this title.7

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Silk string zither dreams: A Musical Tour of Old China (夢迴絲桐,縵遊神州 Menghui Sitong, Manyou Shenzhou)
The Chinese title here can be broken down as follows:

  1. 夢迴 Menghui: dreams (of traveling)
    "Menghui" literally means "dream-travel", suggesting wandering around then coming back.
  2. 絲桐 Sitong: musical
    "Sitong", literally "silk and tong wood", is a literary name for the qin, China's musical instrument par excellence.
  3. 縵遊 Manyou: touring
    "Manyou" literally means "Unembellished travel", "simple travel" "traveling in/with plain silk".
  4. 神州 Shenzhou: old China
    "Shenzhou" literally means "sacred area". According to 25211.70 神州, the earliest reference to Shenzhou is in the quote "中國名曰赤縣神州", attributed to 鄒衍 Zou Yan in the Shi Ji biography of Mencius. Nienhauser VII/180 translates this quote as, "The Central Region he called 'the Sacred Township of the Red Country'", adding in a footnote that Zou Yan's use of the word 州 zhou in Shenzhou emphasized his opinion that 中國 Zhongguo (today "China", but often translated as "Middle Kingdom") was a small part of a greater world.

Thus although the main title and subtitle of the Chinese and English are not literal translations, the combined translation conveys the same idea.

2. "Playing qin"
Photo taken by Lau Shing-Hon on Cheung Chau, Hong Kong, December 2010. I lived on Cheung Chau 1976 to 2001, beginning and completing a large amount of my reconstruction there.

The following footnote has a related comment.

3. Evoking the world of the Chinese literati
The evocation can be purely musical or it can be accompanied by projected film or images. Links here to suggested melodies show that related images and commentary can include photographs, paintings, poetry, calligraphy and more.

It will be noted that some pieces can refer to more than one place (Canon of Form and Emptiness is particularly appropriate to anywhere there is a statue of Guanyin) or to a place the actual location of which is disputed (Discussing the Dao at Kongtong Mountain).

4. "Playing qin" in nature
Once when I was playing for some older guqin players I asked for advice on what I could do to improve my technique. One of them said simply, "Visit famous beauty spots in China". I cannot recall whether he added "relevant to guqin", but I do recall that others nodded their heads in apparent agreement.

Note that he did not say that I should actually play my guqin at these places. And although a common motif in Chinese literati art shows people out in nature with a qin, rarely are they shown actually playing it. Aspects of this attitude can also be seen in the story about qin in nature told in the Qin Shi biography of Boya, as well as the attitude expressed under Qin Ideology in the inscription to the fan painting of a scholar in the countryside with his stringless qin: taking the qin into nature may facilitate the absorption of natural sounds, by the qin as well as the player. These can then come out when one returns home and plays in a quiet environment.

Modern players who say that one of the advantages of nylon metal strings is that they can be taken outdoors more easily may miss this point, that the music was thought of as part of the environment, not part of an effort to overcome it. The silk string sound can only blend with its environment; metal, by its nature, seems intended to overcome it.

In addition to gaining inspiration directly from nature, in the quiet studio one can also be inspired by looking at relevant paintings. In this regard it might be noted that traditional Chinese artists are not known to have done their paintings while actually out in nature.

Traveling to places connected to qin, and finding art that relates to qin melodies, can lead to interesting experiences. One example of this is related with the melody Mid Autumn Moon, which I once had occasion to play on a peak of the Huangshan Mountain range during Mid-Autumn evening. Some time later I found what seemed to me a relevant painting; looking at it helps me relive the experience.

My personal reaction in this type of experience has, so far, been that in such an environment my playing tends to become slower and more contemplative, with each note sufficient unto itself (being recorded often seems to have the opposite effect). However, I have also had this experience when simply playing on a good instrument in a very quiet studio, with no other sensory input. The resulting sound may seem even more abstract to the uninitiated listener (meaning just about everyone, since so few people actually know the ancient melodies), but to the 知音者 zhiyinzhe (one who knows music) the melody is in fact just as clearly there.

5. Program organization
The melodies here are arranged first by tuning, so that to change tuning during the program strings are only loosened, not tightened. Then within standard tuning they are arranged by mode.

6. Performing this theme as a series
As suggested by the list below, there is a sufficient number of old melodies that one could do a series with each program focusing on a different region of China.

  1. The Xi'an region (formerly Chang'an or )
    Melodies included here mostly connect to stories from the Zhou through Tang dynasties.
  2. The Jiangnan region)
    Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, often considered the cultural heartland of China, especially after the Tang dynasty
  3. The Chu region
    Southern China, specifically Hunan province (and perhaps occasionally Hubei)

Note that some areas are noticeably missing, such as Hebei province (including Beijing) and the south provinces of Guangdong, Guizhou and Yunnan. Other areas

7. Other melodies to consider
Many other melodies could be included instead, or in addition - perhaps tailoring the program to a performance location, or doing a series of programs each focused on a different region (see above. Some possible melodies include:

  1. Discussing the Dao at Kongtong Mountain (崆峒問道)
    The Yellow Emperor and Guangchengzi meet in Ningxia (North and Central Asia)
  2. A Male Phoenix Searches for his Mate (鳳求凰; with preludes)
    Sima Xiangru seduces Wenjun near Chengdu, Sichuan (see Other areas); two sections are a qin song
  3. Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (瀟湘水雲)
    Guo Chuwang sees the Xiao and Xiang rivers, Hunan (part of the old Chu region)
  4. Floating Wine-Cups (流觴)
    A spring ritual in Shaoxing (in Lower Jiangnan)
  5. Spring River (春江)
    Fan Li floating on Taihu Lake, west of Suzhou in (Lower Jiangnan)
  6. White Moon over the River (江月白; with prelude; two sections can be a qin song)
    Boya and Ziqi meet near Wuhan (or Changzhou), part of the old Chu region)
  7. Geese Settle on the Flat Sandbank (平沙落雁)
    Geese on sand banks originally evoked exile by the Xiang River in Changsha, part of the old Chu region)
  8. Autumn River Night Anchorage (秋江夜泊)
    A temple bell in Suzhou (Lower Jiangnan)
  9. Come Away Home (歸去來辭)
    Tao Yuanming at Jiujiang, Jiangxi (see Other areas); a 琴歌 qin song
  10. Old Toper's Chant (醉翁吟)
    Chuzhou (Ouyang Xiu's retreat in Anhui); a 琴歌 qin song
  11. Thrice Parting for Yangguan (陽關三疊)
    Xi'an and west (in North and Central Asia); a 琴歌 qin song
  12. Flowing Streams (流水;見高山)
    Mount Tai in Shandong and/or Wuhan in Hubei
  13. Nomad Reed Pipe (大胡笳)
    Inner Mongolia (part of North and Central Asia)
  14. Autumn in the Han Palace (漢宮秋)
    Ban Jieyu abandoned in her palace in Xi'an
  15. Encountering Sorrow
    Miluo River, Hunan (Chu region)

  16. Xiangyang Song (襄陽歌)
    The lyrics by Li Bai describe places and events in Xiangyang, northern Hubei (see other areas).
  17. Mulberry Lane (陌上桑)
    At Handan (Hebei) Luofu resists the advances of a local official (see other areas); a 琴歌 qin song

Return to my performances or to the Guqin ToC.