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Secluded Orchid, in Stone Tablet Mode
- Jieshi mode2; tuning: 1 2 4 5 6 1 2
碣石調幽蘭 1
Jieshi Diao Youlan    
  My transcription3 (compare original scroll)    
This melody, about 10 minutes long, is the world's oldest surviving substantial written melody:4 its preface suggests that it dates from at least the 6th century CE.5 The original manuscript copy was preserved in Japan and is now in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.6 Meanwhile it had been uncovered in the 18th century and then copied by the well-known Japanese Confucianist Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728).7 The original is a scroll over 4 meters long with the tablature written out in longhand; it has been authenticated as dating from at least the 7th century CE.8

In the fourth century Xi Kang wrote a poem praising the beauty of qin. The dating, sophistication and complexity of the present You Lan melody provide strong evidence that Xi Kang was describing music of a tradition recognizable in this melody.9

The "you" of You Lan suggests a flower of such beauty that it stands alone. This has led to various translations of the title, including Lonely Orchid, Solitary Orchid, Reclusive Orchid, Hidden Orchid, Elegant Orchid and so forth as well as Secluded Orchid. As for "lan", though today always translated as "orchid", it may in ancient times have referred to a different flower; this is emphasized by references that suggest its beauty lies more in its fragrance than in its appearance.10

The melody is the earliest of a number of qin melodies on the theme of orchids. Some of these also have the name You Lan.11 Because the most famous orchid story is connected to Confucius, sometimes the same connection is made to any melody with orchids in the title, but most properly the connection to Confucius is with the version called Yi Lan (Flourishing Orchid).12

Also of value is a list of melodies, also apparently made during the Sui or Tang dynasty, appended at the end of the tablature.

At present the You Lan section has separate pages for:

  1. Secluded Orchid, in Stone Tablet Mode, a General Introduction,
    - includes a translation of the original preface and links to my recording and transcription.
  2. My You Lan recording (mp3; 7.7 MB) and transcription (.pdf), also access: Phrase numbers in the transcription correspond with Chinese phrase numbers in:
  3. My typed and punctuated copy of the original You Lan longhand tablature
    - compare with the original manuscript, now in the Japanese National Museum, Ueno.
  4. Finger Techniques used in tablature for You Lan, based largely on:
    - 汪孟舒:烏絲闌指法釋 the Explanation of Wusilan Finger Techiques by Wang Mengshu (plus the Yang edition)
  5. The Qin Melody List appended at the end of the original You Lan longhand tablature
    - with transliterations
  6. Modality in Jieshi Diao You Lan
    - some preliminary comments based on direct observation
  7. Xu Jian's study of You Lan
    - includes discussion of Bao Zhao and Cao Rou; translated from his Introductory History of the Qin

See also Zha Fuxi's Preface in Qinqu Jicheng (Chinese only).

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. You Lan references
9411.431 幽蘭 says you lan is "an orchid growing in a secluded valley", "the name of a flower", and "the name of a qin melody". See also further You Lan references as well as further on varying meanings of the word "lan" itself.

Other references include

Further references are included in the pages linked above.

2. Stone Tablet Mode (碣石調 Jieshi Diao
See further.

3. You Lan transcription
Originally completed in 2005.

4. You Lan: The world's oldest surviving substantial written melody
This melody also documents the world's oldest surviving written instrumental tradition. This particular phrasing is necessary because there are some very minimal texts that seem to document music from earlier periods. However, attempts to make music from these documents are extremely speculative if only because of the documents' brevity and simplicity. By contrast the length and complexity as well as the detail of the You Lan manuscript, plus the fact that there are surviving playable instruments dating from around the same time, provide specific evidence for an instrumental tradition of long standing: one can argue about specifics such as the length of notes, but the detail is certainly comparable to that available for medieval Western notation.

In fact, the closest real competitor for a documentable antique repertoire is probably some of the music from China being reconstructed from documents connected to the original gagaku repertoire.

Other claims to the title "world's earliest music" include, for example:

Even more ancient claims have been made for some oral traditions, but there is not way really to verify them. It is thus unlikely that they could be used to revive a music tradition in the way that scholars and musicians have been able to revive medieval Western music.

5. Date of the You Lan scroll
There are actually two surviving early scroll versions of this melody, one from around 600 CE the other from around 1700. These are discussed in detail in several articles by Yang Yuanzheng. See in particular this one but also "Japonifying, p.111ff.

6. Museum copies
The original You Lan scroll, referred to by Yang Yuanzheng as the "Tokyo Manuscript", is now preserved at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. The later copy, made by Ogyu Sorai or under his supervision (see next), is apparently in the 彦根 Hikone Musuem together with the finger techniques scroll (plus its
original copy by Sorai?

7. Ogyu Sorai (Ogyū Sorai; 1666-1728; Wikipedia)
Ogyu Sorai (荻生徂徠 Disheng Culai, also known as Mononobe Noke (物部茂卿 Wubu Maoqing), was a well known Japanese Confucianist. He apparently believed that the true ancient Chinese music was preserved in Japan, especially but not exclusively in its gagaku tradition; the You Lan manuscript was presumably also a part of this argument.

Modern commentary on the You Lan scroll seems to begin shortly after 荻生徂徠 Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) discovered it shortly before the year 1720. Sorai also discovered and edited some related manuscripts, leading to confusion about their actual origin.

Of Sorai's You Lan manuscript and its discovery Van Gulik, op.cit., wrote as follows,

"The question arises whether Ogyu Sorai faithfully followed the Chinese original, or whether he wrote out in full a manuscript originally in (simplified tablature), for his own purposes."

Van Gulik's skepticism, along with the problem of the first two notes, are the main reasons I did not work on this melody for a long time. As it turns out, though, it seems that in fact Ogyu Sorai's copy was remarkably identical to the original and what he edited (re-wrote or simply re-arranged) was commentary on the manuscript and its finger techniques.

8. Date
The paper and ink have been carbon dated.

9. Dating the You Lan style
Claims have been made that a possible creator of the melody was the 4th century poet Bao Zhao, who may also have written related lyrics ({[5+5]x2} x 5). However, there is no real evidence to support this claim.

10. lan
Though "lan" is almost always translated simply as "orchid", it is not certain how strictly one can define what this character meant in ancient literature as it may not have referred to flowers we know of today as orchids. For more on this see this footnote under Guqin and Orchids.

11. Later versions of You Lan
For a list of the later versions of You Lan see Zha Fuxi's index 19/181/--. At present only some preliminary comments are available for the first of these, the version in Xilutang Qintong (1525).

12. Another melody connected to orchids is Xiuxi Yin in Xilutang Qintong (1525) (Return)

Return to the annotated handbook list or to the Guqin ToC.