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Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci     John Thompson     Performance themes     My performances     首頁
Matteo Ricci: 利瑪竇﹕西琴曲意八章 1
Eight Songs for Western Keyboard 2 Li Madou: Xiqin Quyi Bazhang, 1601  
  Ricci songs set to qin (pp. 1-2; expand; listen)              
In 1601 Matteo Ricci presented a keyboard instrument (here considered as possibly a clavichord somewhat like mine) to the Ming court; around the same time he also provided Chinese lyrics3 for eight songs to be sung to melodies played on this instrument. Since Ricci was not able to meet the Wanli Emperor directly, he had his assistant, Diego de Pantoja, who also perhaps arranged or created the original musical setting, teach four eunuchs to play them.4 The eunuchs presumably then played these for the emperor.

After this the songs are said to have achieved some acclaim in Beijing.5 However, to my knowledge statements to this effect might have been referring only to the lyrics themselves. As for the accompanying music, this apparently was never published; indeed no contemporary comment on any specifics of the music seems to have survived at all. In fact, all that has survived are the Chinese lyrics, as published in 1608 by the convert Li Zhizao, together with a brief preface.6 Most writers on this subject have assumed that the music was Western; this may be true, but there is no hard evidence proving this (there is further on this below and elsewhere). So in 2008, while putting together ideas for a program called Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci, I did my own arrangement based on the guqin melody Mozi Sings with Feeling as published in 1609; the first page of my transcription of this is shown at right. As for Ricci's original Chinese lyrics for these eight songs, these are arranged below next to English translations (mostly my own), as follows:7

1. 吾願在上,一章 My Promises are Above8
  誰識人類之情也? Who can distinguish the circumstances of mankind?
  人也者,乃反樹耳。 Take people, for example: they seem to be the opposite of trees.
  樹之根本在地,而從土受養, A tree's roots are in the earth, so it receives its nourishment from the ground;
     其幹枝向天而竦。    its trunk and branches respectfully incline towards heaven.
  人之根本向乎天,而自天承育, People's roots are inclined towards heaven, thus from heaven receiving nurture;
     其幹枝垂下。    but our trunk and limbs extend downwards.
  君子之知,知上帝者, What civilized people know is God's knowledge.
  君子之學,學上帝者, What civilized people learn is God's learning,
     因以擇誨眾也。    so one uses this in selecting how to instruct the people.
  上帝之心,惟多憐恤蒼生, The heart of God only only great sympathy for the common people,
     少許霹靂傷人,    and seldom allows rumbling thunder to harm people.
  當使日月照,而照無私方矣! When (God) causes the sun and moon to shine, it shines not in private places.
  常使雨雪降,而降無私田兮! (God) often causes the rain and snow to fall, but it falls not on private fields.

2. 牧童遊山,二章 A Shepherd Boy Wandering in the Hills (see Spence9)
  牧童忽有憂, A shepherd boy fell sad one day,
  即厭此山, Hating the hillside on which he stood;
  而遠望彼山 He thought a distant hill he saw
        之如美, More beautiful by far,
  可雪憂焉。 And that going there would wipe away his sorrows.
  至彼山, So he set off to that distant hill,
  近彼山, But as he drew near to it
  近不若遠矣。 It looked less good than it had from afar.
  牧童、牧童 O shepherd boy, shepherd boy,
  易居者寧易己乎? How can you expect to transform yourself
By changing your dwelling place?
  汝何往而能離己乎? If you move away can you leave yourself behind?
  憂樂由心萌, Sorrow and joy sprout in the heart.
  心平隨處樂, If the heart is peaceful, you'll be happy everywhere,
  心幻隨處憂, If the heart is in turmoil, every place brings sorrow.
  微埃入目, A grain of dust in your eye
  人速疾之, Brings discomfort speedily;
  而爾寬於串心之錐乎? How can you then ignore this sharp awl
That pierces your heart?
  已外尊己, If you yearn for things outside yourself
  固不及自得矣, You will never obtain what you are seeking.
  奚不治本心, Why not put your own heart in order
  而永安於故山也? And find peace on your own hillside?
  古今論皆指一耳。 Old and new writers alike give this advice:
  遊外無益, There's no advantage to roaming outside,
Keep the heart inside, for
That brings the profit.

3. 善計壽修,三章 The Proper Way to Calculate Longevity10
  善知計壽修否? Do you properly understand how to calculate longevity, or not?
  不徒數年月多寡, Do not merely count the number of years and months,
  惟以德行之積,盛量己之長也。 Instead consider the accumulation of virtuous actions, as this is one's best measure of length.
  不肖百紀,執及賢者一日之長哉! Living less than a century, worthy people grasp the whole length of each day!
  有為者,其身雖未久經世, Productive ones: even if they have not spent long in society,
  而足稱耆耄矣。 they are equal to those who live into their 60s or 70s
  上帝加我一日,以我改前日之非, If God gives me one extra day, it is so I can change yesterday's errors,
  而進於德域一步。 And go forward one further step into a state of virtue.
  設令我空費寸尺之寶,因歲之集, If I waste precious time, then as the years accumulate,
  集己之咎, This fault itself then accumulates.
  夫誠負上主之慈旨矣。 And this really goes against God's compassionate purpose.
  嗚呼!恐再復禱壽, Alas! I fear again and again praying for a long life.
  壽不可得之,非我福也。 Long life is not there for the taking, that is not our good fortune.

4. 德之勇巧,四章 The Valiant Art of Virtue11
  琴瑟之音雖雅, The sounds of ancient zithers (qin se12), although elegant,
  止能盈廣寓,和友朋, Can only fill a great hall, bringing harmony to friends,
  徑迄牆壁之外,而樂及鄰人。 Or extend beyond the garden walls, bringing pleasure to neighbors.
  不如德行之聲之洋洋, This is not equal to the grandeur of the sounds of virtuous action,
  其以四海為界乎! Which have the whole world as a boundary!
  寰宇莫載, (Actually,) the whole world cannot contain it,
  則猶通天之九重, And so it even penetrates the nine layers of heaven.
  浮日月星辰之上, Floating above the sun, moon and stars,
  悅天神而致天主之寵乎! It pleases the heavenly spirits and gains the esteem of the Lord of Heaven!
  勇哉,大德之成, How valiant! It is an achievement of great virtue,
  能攻蒼天之金剛石城, It can have influence in the diamond city of heaven!
  而息至威之怒矣! And it can appease the wrath of the most majestic!
  巧哉,德之大成, How artful, the achievement of virtue;
  有聞於天, Having been heard in heaven,
  能感無形之神明矣! It can move the formless heavenly hosts. 13

5. 悔老無德,五章 Regretting old age without virtue 14
  余春年漸退,有往無復, My youth has gradually receded: there is going forward but no repeating.
  蹙老暗侵,莫我恕也。 As I approach old age and darkness invades, no one shares my feelings.
  何為乎窄地而營廣廈, How to go about it, with narrow land build a grand mansion,
  以有數之日,圖無數之謀歟? Or with a limited number of days, plan an unlimited number of schemes?
  幸獲今日一日,即亟用之勿失。 Enjoy having each and every day, and eagerly use them without fail.
  吁!毋許明日,明日難保; Alas, one cannot depend on tomorrow: tomorrow is hard to guarantee.
  來日之望,止欺愚乎? Hopes for future days: they just cheat the foolish.
  愚者罄日立於江涯,俟其涸, Fools stand all day on the riverbank, waiting for it to dry up,
  而江水汲汲流於海,終弗竭也。 But rivers flow tirelessly to the sea, never ending in exhaustion.
  年也者,具有輶翼,莫怪其急飛也。 Years: they all have light wings, do not wonder at their speedy flight.
  吾不怪年之急飛,而惟悔吾之懈進。 I do not wonder at the years' speedy flight, just regret my own procrastination.
  已夫!老將臻而德未成矣。 Alas! As old age reaches its extreme, virtues can no longer be perfected!15

6. 胸中庸平,六章 Inner balance 16
  胸中有備者,常衡乎靖隱, Those who in the heart have completeness are usually at ease with quiet solitude;
  不以榮自揚揚,不以窮自抑抑矣。 Not using prosperity for self-flattery, or poverty for self-limitation.
  榮時則含懼,而窮際有所望, When successful they still have fear, and when poor they still have hope,
  乃知世之勢無常耶! Thus they realize that world conditions are never constant!
  安心受命者,改命為義也。 Those who calmly endure their fate can change their fate properly.
  海嶽巍巍,樹於海角, As for sea cliffs so lofty, and trees along sea headlands:
  猛風鼓之,波浪伐之,不動也。 Fierce winds batter them, waves chop at them, but they do not move.
  異於我浮梗蕩漾,竟無內主, How different from my floating on a log in vast waves, really having no inner compass,
  第外之飄流是從耳。 And so in the external drifting currents I just follow along.
  造物者造我乎宇內,為萬物尊, The Creator created me in the world, of all creatures the most honorable,17
  而我屈己於林總,為其僕也。 But I submit myself to the great collection of all, becoming its servant.
  慘兮慘兮! Alas! Alas! 
Who of those who embrace the strength and knowledge of virtue,
            can avoid dependence on things and forget themselves,
  而己先棄之,斯拔於其上乎? And having first forgotten themselves, then promote others above themselves?
  曰﹕「吾赤身且來,赤身且去, It is said, "Our physical bodies come (into the world), then leave it;
It is only virtue that can be buried with the remnants of our bodies,
            as for the rest, who could take that with them?"

7. 肩負雙囊,七章 Shouldering two sacks 18
  夫人也,識己也難乎?欺己也易乎? For anyone, isn't understanding difficult? Isn't deception easy?
  昔有言,凡人肩負雙囊。 Formerly it was said, everyone on their shoulders carries two sacks.
  以胸囊囊人非, They use the sack on their chest to carry others' faults,
              以背囊囊己慝兮。             (but) use the sack on their back to carry their own evil deeds.
  目俯下易見他惡, They look down and it is is easy to see other's evils,
  回首顧後囊, (But they must) turn their head to look at the sack on their back,
  而覺自醜者希兮! And so they think their own shameful acts are insignificant!
To look at other's shortcomings one uses dragon eyes;
            to see one's own failings one has blind eyes.
  默泥氏一日濫刺毀人。 (The prophet) Mani20 one day was excessively lashing out, reviling people.
  或曰,「汝獨無咎乎? Someone said, "Are you really without sin ('defect')?
  抑思昧吾儕歟?」 Or thinking of muffling us?"
  曰,「有哉!或又重兮,惟今吾且自宥兮!」 He said, "There they are! Perhaps they are also important, only now I also myself forgive."
  嗟嗟!待己如是寬也,誠闇矣! Alas! Treating oneself thus so leniently, it is certainly short-sighted.
  汝宥己,人則盍宥之? If you forgive yourself, then should others forgive you?
  余制虐法,人亦以此繩我矣。 If I decide on harsh rules, others also use these to restrain me.
  世寡無過者,過者纖乃賢耳。 Society rarely has no transgressors, transgressors clever as your goodself.
Do you expect them to forgive your big warts,
          while (you) can avoid forgiving their minor blemishes?

8. 定命四達,八章 Death reaches everywhere (see Menegon21)
  嗚呼!世之芒芒, Alas! In the bustle of the world,
  流年速逝,逼生人也。 years go by and quickly reach an end, pressuring on the living.
  月面日易,月易銀容, The silver face of the moon changes every month.
  春花紅潤,暮不若旦矣。 But the rosy softness of spring flowers withers from morning to evening!
  若雖才,而才不免膚皺, No matter what your beauty, you cannot avoid wrinkles,
  弗禁鬢白。 nor stop hair from becoming white.
  衰老既詣, When old age and decrepitude arrive,
  迅招乎凶, they rapidly summon the lethal night upon you,
  夜來暝目也。 and you close your eyes in death.
  定命四達,不畏王宮, Death reaches everywhere, does not fear royal palaces,
  不恤窮舍, does not shirk the houses of the poor.
  貧富愚賢, Poor and rich, ignorant and cultured,
  概馳幽道, all are conducted along the tenebrous way.
  土中之坎三尺, Burial under three feet of dirt,
  候我與王子同圽22兮! that awaits me as well as the royal prince!
  何用勞勞,而避夏猛炎? What is the use in making so many efforts to avoid the heat of summer?
  奚用動動,而防秋風不祥乎? Why take so many pains to avoid the inconveniences of the autumn wind?
  不日而須汝長別妻女親友。 Soon you will have to separate yourself forever from your wife, your relatives, your friends.
  縱有深室,青金明朗, If you have a beautiful house, decorated with precious things,
  外客或將居之。 maybe someone else will come and live in it.
  豈無所愛? Is there anything you do not love about it?
  苑囿百樹, However, none of the numerous trees in your garden,
  非松即楸, except for the pine and the catalpa,
  皆不殉主喪也。 will survive after the funeral of the master.
  日漸苦,萃財賄, All the riches you have accumulated with so much effort day after day
  幾聚後人樂侈奢一番, will be enjoyed by your descendants,
  即散兮! and squandered at once.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a
separate page)

1. Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji 利瑪竇中文著譯集
The Chinese text used for these songs comes from a modern re-publication, Matteo Ricci: Writings and Translations in Chinese, published 2001 in two editions. Page references here are to the Hong Kong edition in traditional characters, published by 香港城市大學出版社 the City University of Hong Kong Press. For details, search the City University site using either the Chinese or English title, but the book is only in Chinese. In 2001 the book was also published using simplified characters, by 復旦大學出版社 Fudan University Press, Shanghai. That edition (see details) is considerably less expensive. Some further information about the book is on the website of the USF Ricci Institute Library.

For publications important to understanding and contextualizing these songs see the list of Original Sources as well as the English language sources listed after them.

2. Eight Songs for Western Keyboard (西琴曲意 Xiqin Quyi; see further information)
The original Italian title for this set of songs was apparently Canzone del manicordio di Europa voltate in lettera cinese (Songs of the European manicordio rendered with Chinese characters). Regarding the English translation, "xiqin" in this title has been variously translated, most often either as "for clavichord" or "for harpsichord". My best guess is that the instrument Ricci first brought to Beijing was a clavichord, but it also may have been a harpsichord or Italian virginal; eventually he probably had more than one. For more on this see also Keyboards ca. 1600 CE and What musical instrument(s). As for the term "quyi" in the title, literally "song meaning", it can also indicate "making a special concession to achieve others' goals" (deFrancis). Many thanks here to Marco Musillo, in 2012 a research associate at the Museum of Cultures in Lugano, for providing some translations from FR and giving other advice.

Jonathan Spence,
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, pp. 198 - 200, gives an account of Ricci writing these lyrics. In it he says Ricci had help from some court eunuchs (further next under "Music"), though the nature of this assistance is not made clear; Spence also translates into English the lyrics for the second of the songs.

The complete lyrics, as copied and translated above, were taken from Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji, pp. 287-291. The general introduction to that modern edition says (p. 285) that Ricci's lyrics were largely inspired by the Psalms of David, mentioning in particular Ricci's songs #2, #5, "and so on". Ricci refers to them not as religious lyrics but as 道語 daoyu, suggesting lyrics on moral or philosophical subjects.

According to what Ricci himself wrote (FR, 2/135, last paragraph - see .pdf copy of 2/134-35),

This little work (the eight songs) became very useful because the Fathers were using it as a gift for important people; sometimes the songs were all written in our language with the Chinese composition as a version of it;....

In other words, according to the modern editor d'Elia, Ricci had already written the lyrics in Italian (to a greater or lesser extent copying or paraphrasing earlier sources), then translated and/or transliterated them (see comment by d'Elia below) into Chinese. If written in Italian a transliteration would have been most useful for the eunuchs if written under the notation, in case they were meant to sing them. However, there is no surviving document with the songs in Italian (or hard evidence that such a document ever existed), a transliteration into Chinese, or any notation that might have been provided by Ricci; nor has any document survived with further information about any of these. Thus one must consider the possibility that Ricci wrote out drafts in Italian but never made them public; and/or that guidelines for the music may have been written down, but since the eunuchs were probably used to playing from memory, not from notation, perhaps none was provided.

As a result, all that we have today of the eight songs is the text of the Chinese lyrics, as edited and published in 1608 by the Catholic convert 李之藻 Li Zhizao, published, then preserved in some Chinese compendiums. This is the text used in Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji.

This same Chinese text can also be found with some different phrasing together with the Italian translation (not Ricci's original text, if it ever existed) by Pasquale D'Elia in his "Musica e Canti Italiani a Pechino (Marzo-Aprile 1601)," Rivista degli Studi Orientali 30 (1955): 131-45. It is slightly different from the Chinese text I copied here from Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji. I also made a few minor punctuation changes and aligned the Chinese according to the English translations.

Jonathan Spence,
ibid., also has brief comments on the music, giving as his source FR, 2/134-35. This includes the statement that, "the words (Ricci) had written (were) sung by the court musicians to Pantoja's music", but no source is given for this statement. Spence also writes, "Ricci's little cycle of eight songs became immediately popular in China among the intellectual elite, according to his own account, and copies were rapidly printed and circulated;" the endnote adds, "Ricci summarizes his Chinese friends' comments in FR, 2/134-35.

Regarding the actual music, it seems that in fact no contemporary publications says anything specific about its source; and as for the popularity of the songs, there is also no information about whether Ricci's comments on this refer simply to a document with only the lyrics, whether they refer to a version that had attached romanization or even music (not to mention punctuation), or whether they refer to actual performances the Jesuits (or anyone else) perhaps could have given at home or at social gatherings. And with regard to written scores it should be emphasized that it was only recently in Europe that the custom had arisen of playing music while looking at written scores rather than simply playing from memory. In China there is no mention of any old tradition of looking at detailed notation while playing: written music, whether for the qin (where the tablature is quite detailed) or for voice or other instruments (where at best only an outline was written down), was there to help remember and preserve what was always learned through oral tradition (in opera, for example, there were sometimes mnemonic aids put with the libretto to help remind the singers of what they had already learned orally). In this regard it would be very reasonable to guess that the lyrics were provided to help the eunuchs memorize the melodies, as they would almost certainly have had to play them from memory.

As for what Ricci himself wrote about the music, this is transmitted in several passages from FR. In the following, from 2/132-33, which calls the keyboard instrument a manicordio, Ricci describes meeting the court musicians:

Appearing just then were four other eunuchs who had the office of playing the Emperor's string instruments. They were very grave, more so than the court mathematicians, because in China playing a lute and other stringed instruments represents a very solemn act. For this reason individuals who are skilled in this activity are highly valued, and at court there is an academy with many musicians. The four eunuchs came to report that the Emperor wanted us to teach them to play the manicordio that we had recently delivered as a gift. Following the imperial order, we were forced to go into the court in order to teach the four eunuchs to play it, as well as to tune the instrument. Previously, in anticipation of displaying the manicordio and its musical qualities to the court (i.e., Emperor himself), Father Ricci had asked Pantoja to study some sonatas in Nanjing from Father Cattaneo, who was well trained in music. As a beginner Pantoja had learned very well in a very short time, not only to play but also to tune the manicordio.

(Ma subbito uscirno fuora altri quattro eunuchi sonatori delli strumenti di corde del Re, che sono persone molto gravi, assai più che gli matematici; perciochè il sonare leuto et altri instrumenti di corde è cosa assai grave nella Cina; e così sono molto preggiati quelli che lo sanno far bene, e ve ne è nel palazzo un collegio di questi assai ricco. Questi vennero a dire da parte del Re che gli insegnassero a sonare il manicordio che gli avevano presentato. Per questo furno forzati a ire ogni giorno al palazzo a insegnargli a sonare e temperare questo strumento. A questo effetto aveva il P. Matteo fatto imparare in Nanchino al P. Pantogia dal P. Cataneo, che sapeva molto bene, alcune sonate per mostra dell'artificio di questo stromento. E, non avendo prima saputo niente, il P. Pantogia aveva imparato assai bene in quel puoco tempo che stette in Nanchino non solo a sonare, ma anco a tenperare il manicordio).

This suggests that it was highly unlikely that Pantoja himself, little more than a beginner, could have composed the music he taught to the eunuchs.

Next, as can be seen in this .pdf copy of pages 2/134/5, Ricci wrote that, when he had brought the keyboard instrument to Beijing in 1600, people were curious about the sound, and the emperor ordered his music masters, the court eunuchs, to learn to play them, so (Pantoja) taught them some European "sonate", without words. Later the eunuchs asked Ricci for some words to attach to the sonate and so he provided the lyrics of these eight songs.

Again referring to the keyboard instrument as a manicordio, at first Ricci called the eight songs "Canzone del manicordio di Europa voltate in lettera cinese" (Songs of the European manicordio rendered with Chinese characters). From this it is still not clear whether the eight lyrics had their own music or were attached to the European music that the eunuchs could already play with the Western instrument. Ricci goes on to comment on the lack of rhyme in the Chinese lyrics, discussed further with Li Zhizao's preface below.

Going back to Ricci's own account (.pdf; translation from Marco Musillo):

(2/134, third sentence of 601, beginning "Chiesero con molta...."):
(The eunuchs) asked with insistence for songs to accompany the sonatas they played on the manicordio. In fact they wanted to have this information in case the Emperor asked them about it. Father Matteo thus made eight short compositions in the Chinese language on subjects of moral significance, full of sentences taken from our authors (meaning both Latin classics and in Italian) who encourage people to achieve virtue and lead a good life, with the title "Songs for the Manicordio Translated into the Chinese Language" (西琴曲意八章)...."

(2/134-5, the Ricci quote in the footnote [#6] to the above: "Nell' anno XXVIII....lingue sono diversi"):
The content of this quote is almost identical to that in the preface to Li Zhizao's 1608 edition of the Eight Songs (see

(2/135, last paragraph, beginning "Venne ad essere...."):
This little work [the eight songs] became very useful because the Fathers were using it as a gift for important people; sometimes the songs were all written in our language, with the Chinese composition as a version of it....

(2/135, footnote 1, In traslitterazione cinese dall'italiano, molto probabilmente, se non proprio in italiano. CF. N.482)
Here D'Elia seems to suggest the possibiity that there originally were Italian lyrics transliterated using Chinese characters.

Nowhere is there an explanation as to why in the text the musical instrument is called a manicordio while in the footnote it is called a clavicembalo. In addition, although the eunuchs request European "canzoni" (songs), it is not clear whether this refers to the music as well as the lyrics.

In addition, Aleni quotes Ricci has having written, "問西來曲意。利子始譯八章", i.e., again not making clear the source of the music. Thus, although all this shows that the eunuchs did learn some Western music, none of it gives specific information about the music used for these songs. In addition, there is no evidence to discount the possibility that there was ever more than one setting.

So Fonti Ricciane does not specify the music used for these songs; and, as mentioned above, if there ever was an original document or edition containing the music as well as the lyrics, it is long lost. This has led to a certain amount of speculation as to the nature of this music (see further comment, in particular by Cronin). Sometimes Ricci himself has been credited with having written the music. However, although Ricci had musical training, it is difficult to believe he composed new music for such an extensive set of songs. As for whether another of the Jesuits composed new music, even if they had such skills this seems unlikely considering the time frame within which they had to work. Thus it seems most likely that existing melodies were used or adapted.

Some sources (e. g., Cronin) say the music was adapted from madrigals by Giovanni Animuccia (ca. 1520 – 1571) and Nanino (also called Nanini; they do not specify which of the two brothers they mean, Giovanni Maria Nanino [1543 or 1544 – March 11, 1607] or Giovanni Bernardino Nanino [c.1560 – 1623]). There does not seem to be music from these composers listed amongst the effects of the Jesuits in Beijing, but perhaps there is mention of it somewhere. It seems most likely, however, as mentioned above (see also Picard, op. cit., p. 852), that specific information about whatever music there was for these songs is now long lost. (For a later setting see Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine.)

Li Zhizao's 1608 edition of the lyrics (copied and translated above) has a preface (copied and translated below); the versions here were taken from Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji, p. 287. This preface says that the emperor requested 本國之曲 qu of (its or our) own country. Since 曲 qu could mean either "melody" or "song", and 本 ben is similarly ambiguous, this statement does not by itself justify the claims that the eunuchs demanded Western music with lyrics. In particular, since most qu for the Chinese qin did not have lyrics one might argue that this was a request for a Chinese melody. The preface then quotes Ricci's answer to this, but it is also somewhat ambiguous as to when he is referring to music and when he is referring to lyrics. Ricci also makes a point of apologizing about the lack of rhyme in the Chinese text. In this regard, it should be remembered that European musicians, as with Chinese musicians, were used to playing either from memory or from written sources that were very much incomplete. So Ricci may have been apologizing about the lack of rhyme because he was used to musicians depending on rhyme to help them follow the musical rhythms.

Chinese, or Chinese-influenced, music?
My own fancy has been to imagine someone versed in Chinese music (guqin in particular) creating the music for these songs. In this regard one should note a tantalizing comment in the general introduction to the songs in Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji (p. 285, lines 5-6; the source is not clear). Here a statement seems to suggest that in Nanjing Ricci had had
Lazaro Cattaneo teach Pantoja 彈奏技巧和辨識中國五音 keyboard skills and recognizing the Chinese music system. In Beijing Pantoja had only a few months to teach them. As senior musicians perhaps the eunuchs could have quickly picked up basic keyboard skills, but the most elderly of them apparently had a great deal of trouble trying to gain a basic understanding of Western music principles. In addition, if as mentioned the eunuchs did help create either the Chinese lyrics for the songs, or their transliteration into Chinese characters, it seems quite possible that they also helped create some of the music. Also, if indeed the lyrics became quite widely known in Beijing, is it not possible that some people might have tried singing their own versions?

Mozi Bei Ge (Mozi Sings with Emotion)
In order to explore how Ricci's songs might have sounded if set to Chinese music I have paired his lyrics to an adaptation of my reconstruction of the qin melody Mozi Bei Ge (Mozi Sings with Emotion) as published in the 1609 edition of the Nanjing qin handbook Zhenchuan Zhengzong Qinpu; there are some brief comments on the potential relevance of Mohism to Christianity in separate footnotes entitled Mozi Sings with Feeling and Mohism (and Christianity). Qin melodies were usually played and taught for quite a while before they were published, and so the original qin melody was almost certainly being played in Nanjing at the time Ricci lived there, though perhaps in a somewhat different form. In many places my adaptation, though paired to the lyrics, still closely follows the original qin melody. The biggest difficulty when doing this was following the traditional Chinese method of pairing qin melodies to lyrics, in which there is generally one Chinese character (i.e., syllable) for each right hand stroke and for each left hand pluck, but none for left hand slides. In several places within this arrangement there are several right hand strokes for one Chinese syllable, in other places one syllable for each note of a slide. Although this would not be idiomatic for a qin player trying to play and sing a melody according to the original tablature, the word density remains similar to the traditional Chinese methods and one can argue that thus the musical nature of the pairing is not significantly changed. Actual changes to the melody itself were mostly through repetition, augmentation and deletion of phrases, and altering of the rhythms I had worked out for my original reconstruction (qin tablature does not directly indicate note values/rhythm); there are also a few added passages in the style of qin music of that time.

A performance designed to show the relationship between the qin melody Mozi Bei Ge (my recording is about 10 minutes in duration) and my setting of the Eight Songs of Matteo Ricci (about 15 minutes in duration) could begin with a complete rendition of one followed by a complete rendition of the other. Or the 13 sections of the former (re-arranged into eight sections) could alternate with the settings of the 8 individual songs. The first two columns below show how the two versions interconnect. The third column, meanwhile, is a guideline with more detail on the actual relationship between the two.
  Mozi Bei Ge (listen):
  timing; Section #
Song #
Song melody and its source (listen; view pdf):
  timing; corresponding qin melody section
    00.00     1     1   00.00     1 (view jpg)
    00.41     2     2   01.58     2, part 1; 5, part 2; then 2, part 2 (view jpg)
    01.41     3 & 4     3   03.43     3 then 4
    03.05     5 & 6     4   05.26     5, part 1; then 6
    04.17     7     5   06.58     7
    04.57     8     6   08.50     8 then 9
    06.10   10     7   11.06   10
    07.13   11-13     8   13.15   11, then 12, then 13
    09.03   closing harmonics       15.52   closing harmonics (can repeat lyrics of last line)
    09.31   melody ends       16.11   melody ends

On the second line I have a link to my recording of Section 1 of Mozi Bei Ge as well as a link to my recording of Song 1 together with its transcription: since I don't play clavichord, I played it here on the qin (hence the instrumental line leaps around much more than is indicated for the singing line). In the separate recordings I have made of myself singing these songs the melody becomes a bit slower; but since I am not ready to put that online, I cordially invite readers to sing along themselves.

Once again, I emphasize that there is no reliable evidence telling us either the type of music or the specific music that Ricci used or even had in mind for his lyrics. Thus, although I would never suggest that anyone ever actually made a setting of Ricci's lyrics to any specific melody, much less a qin melody, I wouldn't rule out any such possibilities. In addition, no matter what the "original" setting was, if the lyrics actually "became immediately popular" among the intellectual elite in Beijing, as suggested by Ricci, what is to say it didn't inspire some qin player to do his own setting (as it did me)? That certainly makes more sense to me than a Chinese scholar suddenly starting to sing Western melodies, as suggested by some commentators.

As for other settings that have been done for any of Ricci's Eight Songs, to my knowledge as of 2012 the only other ones that have been made are those of songs 2 and 6 as recorded in the CD Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine, using music by Giovenale Ancina not published until 1699.)

3. Origin of the lyrics
Although the songs are commonly attributed to Ricci, his own sources are not clear. They are said to have been inspired by old Western philosophical and religious texts, such as the Psalms, but few of these have been identified. He may have written them out in Italian, but if so he does not mention this, nor have any such lyrics been found. As for the Chinese, it has been argued that he may have provided a transliteration as well as a translation (see D'Elia), but that assumes he had first written them in Italian. It has also been said that Ricci had assistance in writing the Chinese lyrics, for example from the eunuchs, who had requested them. All the evidence about Ricci suggests he would not have needed such assistance, though perhaps for reasons of time constraints or in case the music itself was something of a cooperative effort it may have been provided here. There is some further discussion of this above.

4. Music taught to eunuchs
Some details of this are discussed further above, but to my knowledge there is no specific information about the music played with the songs. My own setting is (at present partially) linked above.

Much has been made of the fact that Ricci was not able to play the keyboard intrument at court. Perhaps this was because Ricci was an outsider. On the other hand, qin players were notorious for not wishing to play at court. Many reasons have been given, but a quite logical one could be that such delicate instruments usually do not fare well in grand spaces.

5. Reception of the songs
There are no specifics about how and when the melodies were played for the emperor. As mentioned above, although Ricci himself wrote that the songs were well received among the intellectual elite in Beijing, no specifics of this are given. Nevertheless, this has apparently sometimes been expanded to comments such as the following.

Vincent Cronin, The Wise Man from the West
This book, on pp. 169 - 173, has a narration depicting music played and encountered by the Jesuits in China. This includes fanciful descriptions that have the music going forth "across the courtyards and upturned gilded roofs to the Imperial presence," adding (p. 173) that "the Emperor and all Peking were humming madigals." Such comments almost certainly reflect poetic license or wishful thinking; others are clearly incorrect (e.g., p. 170, "With an untempered scale and without semitones no harmony was possible."). Cronin says that his narrative is based on Jesuit accounts, but since the book has no footnotes it is difficult to know the source of or basis for any of these statements, and thus difficult to evaluate this account of the musical encounter. It would be particularly interesting to know the source of statements such as the one on p. 170 saying that Ricci's songs were set to the music of madrigals by Animuccia and Nanino, as discussed above.

6. Preface in 李之藻 Li Zhizao's edition of the Eight Songs for Western Keyboard (1608)
This preface (also discussed in a previous footnote) was published originally in Chinese (there is no evidence of an Italian or Latin version of either the preface or of the songs themselves). The full text is as follows:


If the preface was originally written in Italian that version is long lost. It was rendered into Italian in footnote 6 on pp. 134-5 of FR (.pdf) as follows (translation by Marco Musillo):

In the 28th year of the Wanli reign, called gengzi 庚子 (14 February 1600 to 2 February 1601), I, Matteo [Ricci], went to the capital and offered [to the Emperor], among other things, a beautiful clavicembalo, a musical instrument from the West 西洋樂器雅琴一直(具?) that has a shape different from any Chinese instruments, and when played it makes interesting sounds. The Emperor’s reaction was of surprise. For this reason the court musicians made the following request: "Play, we beg you, the songs of you country that certainly exist, and to which we would like to listen". I then answered: "I, a foreigner, only have the knowledge of a few moral phrases that I have recently practiced. I will translate their general meaning into your language but [be aware] that I am only rendering in Chinese the meaning without rhymes (verso), because the sounds of the two languages (Chinese and Italian) are different."

My own translation from the Chinese is as follows:

During the 28th year of the Wanli reign, a gengzi year (1601 C.E.), I (or "Matteo Ricci") prepared gifts and went to the capital (Beijing) to offer them up (to the emperor). Among (the gifts) was the Western musical instrument yaqin ("elegant" qin) - one of them, regarded in China as having a strange form, and when played as making exotic sounds. The emperor marveled at it, and so his music master made a statement, saying, "Its performance should have melodies (qu: songs?) of (its or our) own country, then we would be willing to listen to it." I (or "Matteo") responded, saying, "As for other songs/melodies, this visitor (i. e., I) do not know about this; I am only accustomed to some songs/melodies with philosophical texts. As of now I have translated their general meaning using literary Chinese, as follows. But although I have translated according to the meaning (of the words), in places I have not been able to make (the words) follow the original rhymes, since the sounds of the each place's language are different."

This preface seems to say that Ricci's original lyrics (whether or not written originally by himself) were in rhyming Italian or Latin, but that the rhymes were lost when translated into classical Chinese. Note, however, the comment above that perhaps suggests that Ricci originally used Chinese characters to transliterate the sounds rather than translate their meaning.

The interpretation of "竇" (as in 利瑪竇) as "I" rather than "Matteo Ricci" can be found in D'Elia's translation of this Chinese preface into Italian, as seen in the footnote; according to Li Sher-shiueh this is also confirmed by the writing style. This seems to suggest that in this preface Li Zhizao was copying something Ricci had written, perhaps for a now-lost handwritten edition of the lyrics.

On the other hand, although D'Elia translates "本國之曲" as "songs of your country" (i.e., Italy, or the West in general), at present I am leaving open the possibility that it could have meant "songs of our country" (see also above).

7. English translations of the songs
#2 was translated by Jonathan Spence; #8 by Eugene Menegon. Rregarding my own translations, some parts remain tentative. Suggestions for alternate interpretations are most welcome. Also, much has been written about the author of these lyrics having been inspired by earlier sources. It would be useful to have more concrete details about this.

8. Song #1: My Promises are Above (吾願在上 Wu Yuan Zai Shang)
    Tentative translation.

Regarding the translation here of "君子 junzi", it is quite difficult to render all its implications briefly into English. Mathews' dictionary, for example, says, "the princely man - a gentleman, the wise man, a man of complete virtue, the beau-ideal of Confucianism." ABC dictionary has, "1. Man of noble character; gentleman. 2. sovereign." I use "civilized" as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, "Showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement; humane, ethical, and reasonable".

9. Song #2: A Shepherd Boy Wandering in the Hills (牧童遊山 Mutong You Shan)
    Translation of this song (but not the title) is from Jonathan Spence, op. cit., pp. 198-199. Copied here with permission.

10. Song #3: The Proper Way to Calculate Longevity (善計壽修 Shan Ji Shouxiu)
    Tentative translation

11. Song #4: The Valiant Art of Virtue (德之勇巧 De zhi Yong Qiao)
    Tentative translation

12. Qin se 琴瑟
Qin se (qin zither and se zither) is a phrase often found in the Shi Jing (Book of Songs). It might be translated as "small and large zither", but at that time it seems to have been a stock phrase for zithers, or perhaps string instruments in general (of which, at that time, zithers are the best [or only?] known examples). In Ricci's time the use of "qin se" evokes the antiquity of these instruments, but does not prove familiarity with the instruments themselves. At that time the se was very rarely used, perhaps only in a court ritual ensemble, or in a few scattered attempts to revive it. By the late Ming dynasty the qin, though by reputation still the instrument of scholars and recluses, not played to "bring pleasure to neighbors", was by some accounts more commonly used to show off one's elegance (ya; for more on this see James Watt's The Qin and the Chinese Literati). If this is true, it would not be surprising for Ricci to be somewhat skeptical of the spiritual nature of the qin. Popular images of the qin are further discussed here in The Qin in Novels and Opera.

13. Dictionaries translate 神明 shenming as "deities", but Ricci would presumably have intended something like the more Biblical "angelic hosts of heaven".

14. Song #5: Regret old age without virtue (? 悔老無德 Hui Lao Wu De)
      Thanks to 賈抒冰 Jia Shubing for help with this translation.

15. "臻 zhen (arrive)" follows D'Elia. Li Madou Zhongwen Zhuyi Ji has 王+秦 jin (21636, the name of a piece of jade; character not in computer programs). Zhen seems to make more sense. For the last character D'Elia had 夫 fu instead of 矣 yi.

16. Song #6: In the heart/mind there is balance (? 胸中庸平 Xiongzhong Yong Ping)
Tentative translation; thanks to 賈抒冰 Jia Shubing for assistance. As for Yongping (庸平 3/xxx;), does it allude to the Doctrine of the Mean (中庸 Zhong Yong)?

17. 為萬物尊 Wei wanwu zun
D'Elia believes that there is a connection between this phrase and one from the 書經 Shu Jing: (惟天地萬物父母,)惟人萬物之靈 (See Legge, Shoo King, p. 283 [V,I, Art. I3]: "(Heaven and Earth is the parent of all creatures;) and of all creatures man is the most highly endowed."

18. Song #7: Shouldering two sacks (肩負雙囊 Jian Fu Shuang Nang)
It has been argued that the title and first half of #7 come directly from one of Aesop's Fables, "Two Bags", but there are also other claims. The translation of the second half is quite tentative - more on this below. Thanks to 賈抒冰 Jia Shubing for assistance on the first draft.

19. Dragon eyes (龍睛 long jing)
The original "dragon clear weather" (龍晴 long qing) does not make sense; D'Elia makes same change.

20. (The prophet) Mani ("默泥氏 Mo-ni-shi")
This identification of Monishi (Moni Shi) as the prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism, is at present tentative. In Chinese the name Mani (c. 216-276; Wiki [中文]) is generally written "摩尼" (like 默泥 pronounced "Moni") but 12855.10 does not give any early references for this transliteration and I don't know its history, what variants there were, or how common these might have been. There were Manichaeans in China from early times (see, e.g., Manichaean Input to Chinese Culture and Art), and it is possible that Ricci had met some. The question, "Are you really 無咎 wujiu?" could then be, "Are you really without sin?", referring to the claim of the Manichaean "elect" to have sinless perfection. (Thanks to several people on the EUCHINA listserve for suggesting Mani, and especially to Ad Dudink, who added [referencing in particular an online .pdf, p.12ff] the specific suggestion concerning Manichaeans and sinlessness, and that "What Ricci is telling here might be found in the anti-Manichaean writings of e.g. Augustinus.") If this understanding of the passage is correct it may also suggest that Ricci had met Chinese who were familiar with the Manichaeans, and he wished to make clear to them that Manichaean beliefs were not the same as Christian beliefs.

D'Elia (op. cit.) identified 默泥氏 Monishi as Parmenides (ca. 520 - 450 BCE), considered by some to be the earliest Greek philosopher. Parmenides taught that, "Reality is one; change is impossible; and existence is timeless, uniform, and unchanging. (And) the world of appearances...is false and deceitful" (Wikipedia). It might have been natural that Ricci would discuss Parmenides with the Chinese, since Parmenides was perhaps the Western philosopher dating most closely from the time of Confucius (551 - 479 BCE). However, I don't know why there would be mention of Parmenides in this poem, as to my knowledge Parmendides is not associated with concepts of forgiveness. In modern references Parmenides' name is phoneticized in various ways (巴門尼德底斯 8942.50; 帕爾門尼 etc.), but Ricci would certainly have had to make up his own rendition.

If staying with the Greeks, the pronunciation "默泥氏 Monishi" actually fits better with the early philosopher Melissus (of Samos, mid 5th c. BCE; see Wiki). For Melissus one can find 墨利索斯 Molisuosi (5615.xxx) as well as 麥里梭 Mailisuo (48695.xxx), 梅里蘇 Meilisu (15223.xxx), etc. However, I also have not yet found anything in Melissus connected to forgiving (or not casting the first stone).

An interesting facet of Ricci's transliteration is his using the character 默 Mo. 49049 默 does not seem to have any entries for early Western philosophers, but 49049#9 默 says it is an alternate form of 墨 (same pronunciation). And although 5615 墨 also does not seem to be used in the names of any Western philosophers, the early Chinese philosopher 墨子 Mozi was known for the doctrine of 兼愛 jian'ai, often translated as "universal love". It might thus seem plausible that Ricci would draw on someone with a name that somehow resonated with that of Mozi. (This, of course, is pure speculation, especially as I have not heard of Ricci mentioning Mozi in any of his writings.)

21. Song #8: Death reaches everywhere (定命四達 Ding Ling Sida)
English translation (based on the translation in D'Elia, Pasquale. "Musica e Canti Italiani a Pechino [Marzo-Aprile 1601]." Rivista degli Studi Orientali 30 [1955]: 131-45; D'Elia's article translates all eight songs into Italian) is from Menegon, Eugenio. "Deliver Us from Evil: Confession and Salvation in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Chinese Catholicism." In Forgive Us Our Sins: Confession in Late Ming and Early Qing China, edited by Nicolas Standaert and Ad Dudink, pp. 9-101. Sankt Augustin / Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 2006, p. 11. Copied here with permission.

22. mo
5045 圽 (extended character set) says it can be the same as 理 li; or it can be the same as 歾 or 歿 mo (the latter both mean "die").

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