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37. Former Red Cliff Rhapsody
- Standard tuning:2 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 played as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2
前赤壁賦 1
Qian Chibi Fu
  Wu Yuanzhi: Red Cliff 3                       
The lyrics of the Former Red Cliff Rhapsody and Latter Red Cliff Rhapsody are personal accounts (in the form of fu: poetic essays/rhapsodies) by the famous poet Su Dongpo (1037 - 1101). During 1080-86 Su was in exile as a minor official at Huangzhou (main city Huanggang), on the Yangzi River in what is today Hubei province. While there he made trips with some friends to a nearby scenic river spot called Red Cliff.4 This was the place, according to Su's account,5 where over 800 years earlier the famous Battle of Red Cliff had taken place.6 According to Su's own narrative his trips took place in the 7th and 10th lunar months of 1082. They are thought to have been written shortly thereafter. The qualifiers "former" and "latter" were added later; some translations instead call them "first" and "second" rhapsodies (or "prose poems". In the first of the rhapsodies Su contrasts the fighting that took place there back then with the peacefulness of the present scene. This leads to comments about what can be possessed and what can not, as well as what is permanent and what is not.

These settings of the lyrics for qin are largely syllabic, following the common pairing method for almost all known qin songs. The present piece is a setting of the former fu; next (see next melody) is a setting of the latter one. These do not appear in the 1511 edition of Taigu Yiyin, but only its continuation, dated 1515.

Settings of the lyrics for the former fu survive in at least 11 later handbooks up to about 1802 (see chart); as for the latter fu, settings survive only in the first three of these 11 handbooks and then in an additional one dated 1828. It should be noted, though, that although the lyrics are all the same, the music all seems to be different.7

This fu is also the subject of a number of famous paintings.8 For example,

  1. 喬仲常 Qiao Zhongchang, Latter Red Cliff Rhapsody (ca. 1123 CE)
    Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.9

  2. The painting above by 武元直 Wu Yuanzhi (late 12th c.)
    National Palace Museum, Taiwan

There have also been a number of published translations of the poems into English.10

Original preface 11

According to Chao Buzhi's Preface to the Continuation of Li Sao,12 the former and latter parts of Red Cliff Rhapsody were written by Master Su. (During the battle in ancient times), Cao Cao with his world-conquering attitude floated large boats on the river, as far as the eyes could see there were no Wu (soldiers). Zhou Yu was a young man, Huang Gai his subordinate general, a torch was used to burn (Cao Cao's boats). (Much later) Master (Su), when demoted to a post at Huanggang, often traveled below Red Cliff, forgetting his worldy aims. Seeing the river waves rushing clean he naturally meditated on the past, and in accord with (Zhou) Yu's skills wrote this rhapsody, and so on.

Music and Lyrics: Ten sections 13
(Originally undivided; the divisions here follow later versions)

  1. In autumn of (1082 CE), during the full moon of the 7th lunar month, I and some friends went floating on a boat, and traveled below Red Cliff. There was a fresh breeze, and the water remained smooth; as I raised my wine and poured it for my friends, I intoned the poem about a bright moon.
    14 I sang phrases about this seductive beauty.

    Soon, the moon came out above the eastern mountains, hovering in the northern sky;15 white dew extended across the river, shimmering water met the sky. We let our reed boat drift as it wished, and it floated over a great expanse. Boundlessly, as if traversing the void, we rode the winds, not knowing where we might stop; soaring, as if transcending the world, we stood alone, sprouting wings as if immortal.

  2. Thus as we drank our wine and enjoyed it greatly, I tapped on the side of the boat and sang out. The song went,
            Cassia oars, ah; magnolia rudder;
                knock at the formless light, ah; upstream it is bright.
            So remote, ah; my cherished;
                I look for the beautiful one, ah; in the vast heavens.

    One of guests (hereafter, "friends") could play the dongxiao flute, and he accompanied me as I sang. Sounding like "wu wu", it was as if lamenting, as if yearning; as if sobbing, as if complaining. Other notes were graceful, not cut off but like a fine thread; they danced through the sunken depth of submerged dragons, and cried around the solitary boats of widowed women.

  3. I myself became sorrowful. Straightening my clothing and sitting up straight, I asked my friend, "Why are you acting this way?" My friend said,
            "The moon shines so stars are few,
                Crows and magpies fly south.
    Is this not (lines from) a poem by Cao Mengde?
            Towards the west is Xiakou, towards the east is Wuchang;
                Mountains and rivers intertwine, the foliage is gloomy.
    Is this not where Mengde was surrounded by the young Zhou (Yu)?

  4. (harmonics)
    Having smashed Jingzhou and descended on Jiangling, (Cao Cao) had followed the currents eastward, ships stem to stern for 1000 li, flags obscuring the sky. He poured himself wine at the river's edge, set down his lance and wrote (this) poem. He was certainly the hero of his age, but now where is he?

  5. (harmonics)
    How is it, then, with you and me, a fisherman and woodcutter on an islet in the river, companion to fish and friends of deer? We ride in a solitary small boat, and raise our wine gourds to toast each other, lodging on earth as briefly as mayflies, insignificant grains in a vast ocean. We mourn our lives must be so short, and envy the Great River's limitless expanse. To cling to a flying immortal and roam with him, or embrace the endless moonlight. Knowing that these cannot suddenly be attained, I entrusted these bequeathed sounds to the melancholy breezes."

  6. I myself then said, "Do you my friend really understand water and moonlight? The one passes by here but has never gone away; the other can be empty or full but in the end it never changes size. (But) looking at things from the standpoint of change, then heaven and earth cannot remain the same for even an instant. Looking from the standpoint of not changing, then neither external objects nor the self have any limit. So what reason is there for envy?

  7. Furthermore, within heaven and earth, every object has its master. If something is not mine, then I cannot fully obtain even the tiniest hair of it. But as for a clear breeze over the river along with moonlight shining in the mountains, if the ears catch one it has sound, and if the eye eperiences the other it has color. These can be taken without limit, and used without ever using them up. Such is the Creator's limitless storehouse, and for me and you they are freely available.

  8. (harmonics)
    My friend was happy and laughed. We washed our cups and poured more wine. The food and snacks finished, the cups and plates looked like wolves had gone through them. Then using each other as pillows in our boat, unaware that in the east daylight was arriving.

(This translation, still tentative, largely follows those referenced in this footnote, making adjustments for the flow of the music.)

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Red Cliff Rhapsody (Qian Chibi Fu 前赤壁賦)
There are at least two Red Cliffs on the Yangzi river:

  1. In Hunan province up the Yangzi River from Wuhan (further below)
    Historians generally think this is where the famous battle actually took place.

  2. In Hubei province down the Yangzi friver from Wuhan (further below)
    This is where Su Dongpo, most painters and many others seem to have preferred to imagine it took place, at least until recently.

Neither area has landscape as dramatic as that shown in paintings such as the one above. See further in the footnotes below.

2. Tuning and Mode
Taigu Yiyin does not organize melodies by mode. The version in 1539 is grouped under zhi mode, but it seems actually to be in huangzhong (raise fifth string, lower first). In 1585 it is in shang mode, with still other modes mentioned elsewhere.

3. Red Cliff Image
The original of this painting, in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, is dated ca. 1100 CE and attributed to 武元直 Wu Yuanzhi (late 12th c.). I bought my copy at the Museum shop.

4. Location of Su Dongpo's Red Cliff
The Red Cliff mentioned by Su Dongpo was down the Yangzi river from Wuhan, near what is today 黃岡 Huanggang (in 黃州 Huangzhou); from 1069 to 1074 Su was posted here as an official. This Red Cliff is also the subject of another poem by Su Dongpo, 赤壁懷古 Chibi Huaigu (see online translation). Apparently the historical characters for this Chibi are 赤鼻, not 赤壁, and it is on the north bank rather than the south, the latter being considered correct. In addition, photographs of this site show a gap between the images by painters and the geographical reality here. See, for example, the images now on the 華夏 Huaxia web pages dated 2005 and 2007. Nevertheless, claims for this place persist. See also the next footnote below.

5. Location of Red Cliff battle
There is considerable argument about the actual location of this battle. The site most commonly named by historians is up the Yangzi River from Wuhan about midway between Wuhan and Yueyang, near the Hunan/Hubei border. It is not far from a township formerly named 蒲圻 Puqi; in 1998 the name was offially changed to Red Cliff (赤壁鎮 Chibi Zhen) to bolster its claims, and a tourist site has been built here. Available online photographs of the cliff here may suggest that this location has more in common with the paintings than does Dongpo's Chibi (see previous footnote), but more panoramic photographs would also show the paintings to have been very fanciful. (See, for example, the first image on this website.)

6. Red Cliff Battle
There is quite a bit of information on the internet about this battle. See, for example, Battle of Red Cliffs. The battle was fought during the winter of 208-9 (i.e., 874 years before 1082, when Su Dongpo is thought to have written Chibi Fu), shortly after the Viceroy of Wu 周瑜 Zhou Yu (175-210) had married one of the daughters of Qiao Xuan (Wiki). At the battle Zhou, with some assistance from the soon to be famous strategist Zhuge Liang of Shu, combined to stop an attack by Cao Cao of Wei. Most famously they used a ruse suggested by 黃蓋 Huang Gai: he would pretend to surrender, and sail several boats secretly filled with incendiary devices into Cao Cao's massed fleet, then set them ablaze. In the battle Zhou Yu was wounded by an arrow; he survived but his death the following year was apparently due to infection from the wound.

Red Cliff: the film score (and guqin "duet"; see also Qin in film)

The battle at Red Cliff was the focus of a 2008 film called Red Cliff (see, for example, Answers and Wikipedia; the original film is in two parts, each over 2 hours long, of which I have seen only the first). In the film, when Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang together decide to oppose Cao Cao, they show their likemindedness by successfully playing a qin duet together. The music they play largely comes from repeating certain particularly flashy phrases from the melodies Guangling San and the modern Liu Shui apparently as played by 趙家珍 Zhao Jiazhen (at writing it can be seen here and elsewhere on YouTube). For this music the credits say only "中國古琴作曲唐建平 Chinese zither composer Tang Jianping", with no mention of the actual player, suggesting perhaps Tang recorded (or took existing recordings of) individual passages (on a single nylon/metal or composite string qin), then himself put the bits together electronically. The film also has a passage with eerie music played in Japanese noh flute style. Otherwise, although the film seems with its costumes and story to be trying to give a semblance of historical accuracy, the film score, by Taro Iwashiro, has virtually no Chinese flavor; even the qin is treated as though it would have been better off as a 19th century Western instrument. It is disconcerting to read some online comments on the score by people who clearly would find it odd if the characters wore Western clothing for a Chinese period movie, but seem to have no problem with the film's apparent allergy to Chinese music traditions.

7. Tracing various versions of Chibi Fu (tracing chart)
The chart is based largely on three entries in Zha Guide, as indicated below.

8. Other famous Red Cliff paintings
For a possible Japanese example see the Metropolitan Museum website

9. Nelson Atkins Scroll
This long scroll is partially reproduced in Masterpieces of Chinese Paintings Overseas, Vol. I, pp. 112/3.

10. Translations of the Red Cliff Rhapsodies
These include,

  1. Red Cliff I and II, in Richard Strassberg, Inscribed landscapes: travel writing from imperial China, pp. 185-88
    May be available online: search for "In the fall of the year jen"
  2. Red Cliff Rhapsodies, 1 and 2; translated by Richard Strassberg (identical to previous)
    Victor Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature; NY, Columbia U. Press, 1994l; pp. 438 - 440
  3. Two Prose Poems on the Red Cliff; translated by Burton Watson
    Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o; Port Townsend, Copper Canyon Press, 1994; pp. 94 - 98
  4. The Poetic Exposition on Red Cliff; translated by Stephen Owen
    Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature; New York, W.W. Norton, 1996; pp. 292 - 294 and (#2) 675 - 676
  5. First and Second Fu on the Ch'ih-pi (Red Cliff), translated by Liu Shih-Shun
    Liu Shih-Shun, Chinese Classical Prose: The Eight Masters of the T'ang-Sung Period; Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1979. pp. 260 - 267. His translation of the former rhapsody (First Fu on the Ch'ih-pi (Red Cliff) was once available online together with with simplified Chinese, English and Vietnamese versions!

11. Original preface
The Chinese original is as follows:


12. 晁補之 Chao Buzhi (1053-1110; sometimes transliterated Zhao Buzhi)
14239.2 "宋鉅野人,字无咎...." Chao was a Song dynasty scholar-official from Juye (in Shandong), style name Wujiu. He was a friend and protégée of Su Dongpo. His writings included a 琴趣外篇 Qin Qu Waipian.

13. Original lyrics of Qian Chibi Fu (see also Hou Chibi Fu)
In Taigu Yiyin the Chinese lyrics, which pair Su Dongpo's original poem (including the introduction) to the qin tablature using the standard method, are not clearly divided into sections. However, later versions seem to suggest arranging them into varying numbers of sections. The following shows the 8 section division as in 1585 (the versions with 10 sections do so by dividing each of the first two sections as indicated):

  1. 壬戌之秋,


  2. 於是飲酒樂甚,
        擊空明兮沂泝溯流光。   ("沂" elsewhere is "泝")


  3. 蘇子愀然,

  4. 方其破荊州,

  5. 況吾與子,

  6. 蘇子曰:

  7. 且夫天地之間,

  8. 客喜而笑,

See also the translation.

14. Poem about a bright moon
The phrase here, 「誦明月之詩, 歌窈窕之章。」 is generally said to be a reference to Shi Jing poem #143 陳風 Airs of Chen, The Moon Emerges, the first verse of which is:


The poem compares the beauty of the moon to that of a young lady. However, it uses neither the full expression 月明 nor 窈窕.

15. The northern sky
The phrase here, 「鬥、牛之間。 Between the bean and the ox」, names stars or constellations roughly corresponding to the Big Dipper and Capricorn, both in the north.

16. A poem by Cao Mengde
Cao Mengde is 曹操 Cao Cao, 155 - 220). These lines can be found in the first of two ballads called 短歌行 Duan Ge Xing he is said to have written after the Red Cliff battle; the following lines also seem to be from a poem, but their source has not been identified.

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Chart Tracing 前、後赤壁賦 Qian and Hou Chibi Fu

There is further comment above. Here the chart is based mainly on the first two of the three related entries in Guide:
      前赤壁賦 Qian Chibi Fu 14/152/283
      後赤壁賦 Hou Chibi Fu 14/153/285
          赤壁賦   Chibi Fu 28/--/--
The third of these does not list any not already listed in the first two.

The comments about relationships between the melodies are tentative based on brief examinations; note also that pieces with different tunings sometimes are still related melodically.

    (year; QQJC Vol/page)
Further information
(QQJC = 琴曲集成 Qinqu Jicheng; QF = 琴府 Qin Fu)
1a. 黃士達太古遺音
      (1515; I/328)
1; Qian Chibi Fu (details); not in 1511
Standard tuning but no mode name given
1b. 黃士達太古遺音
      (1515; I/330)
1; Hou Chibi Fu (further); not in 1511
Standard tuning but no mode name given
2a. 風宣玄品
      (1539; II/265)
1; Qian Chibi Fu; same lyrics but different music from 1511;
Grouped with zhi mode but tuning seems to be huangzhong, as in 1589
2b. 風宣玄品
      (1539; II/269)
1; Hou Chibi Fu; same lyrics but different music from 1511;
Grouped with zhi mode but tuning seems to be huangzhong (not in 1589)
3a. 重修真傳琴譜
      (1585; IV/372)
8T; Qian Chibi Fu; grouped with shang mode
Same lyrics, different music from previous
3b. 重修真傳琴譜
      (1585; IV/374)
6T; Hou Chibi Fu; grouped with shang mode
Same lyrics, different music from previous
  4. 玉梧琴譜
      (1589; VI/83)
7; "Chibi Fu", only Former; ruibin mode;
Another new melody
  5. 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1589; VII/130)
11T; Qian Chibi Fu; Huangzhong mode (1 3 5 6 1 2 3); no Hou Chibi Fu
Almost same as 1539 (散抹六,勾五,跳七,大九勾四....") but divides into sections
    . 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1609; Fac/)
Should be same as 1589
  6. 文會堂琴譜
      (1596; VI/210)
10; Qian Chibi Fu; grouped with shang mode
  7. 藏春塢琴譜
      (1602; VI/425)
7; "Chibi Fu" but only Former; ruibin: copy of 1589
34. 陽春堂琴譜
      (1611; VII/--)
11TL; Qian Chibi Fu; Raise 5th, lower 1st tuning; missing;
Compare 1589 (lyrics same; adds section titles)       (太古正音欽佩)
  8. 理性元雅
      (1618; VIII/261)
11; Qian Chibi Fu; Huangzhong; related to 1589
  9. 自遠堂琴譜
      (1802; XVII/538)
8; Qian Chibi Fu; zhi diao gong yin but raise 5th, lower 1st;
Related to 1589
88. 裛露軒琴譜
      (>1802; XIX/119)
11T; Qian Chibi Fu; Huangzhong;
"1589", but without the lyrics
97. 琴學軔端
      (1828; XX/437)
6; Hou Chibi Fu; huangzhong mode; difficult to read;
Seems to start, "泛起,大七勾三,勾四,抹跳五,中七勾一,大七托五...."