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Melody of the Transcendent Venerable One
- Standard tuning (no mode indicated): 2 5 6 1 2 3 5 6
仙翁操 1
Xianweng Cao 
  Compare Caoman Yin and the earlier beginner's melody Tiaoxian Pin A transcription (215KB) 3        

The connection between this melody (which can variously be considered as a beginner's exercise, a warm-up piece, or a vehicle for transporting a player into an appropriate mood for qin play) and "Xianweng" ("The Transcendent Venerable One", one of the nicknames for the famous Song dynasty recluse Chen Tuan4) is something of a mystery. As the lyrics reminds us, Chen Tuan is said to have "de Dao", attained the Way; another name in the song text, Xiyi, reminds us of a title bestowed on Chen Tuan in 984: Xiyi Xiansheng, Master of the Invisible and Inaudible.5 There has never been a suggestion that Chen Tuan himself played qin; nevertheless, he is often connected with a series of related melodies clearly designed for beginners. These melodies all feature some of the most basic techniques in guqin play. Where they have lyrics these repeat the various names of Chen Tuan, adding that he attained the Way.

Some old handbooks suggest that unless one begins with simple melodies, one will never master the qin. My own teacher told me that the seemingly most simple pieces were the ones that required the greatest art.6 Xianweng Cao, one to two minutes long, begins and ends on the same two notes. This naturally allows one to play the melody over and over. Such repetition can be settling, not to mention meditative.7 It also allows the player to focus on the subtle tones that can be produced by a silk string qin when played well. This is the essence of qin play.

Although there is no indication of how Chen Tuan became connected with this melody, the connection began early: his name is first mentioned with the second surviving tablature of a related melody, called Caoman Yin (Strum Silk Prelude),8 published in 1557.9 The term Cao Man suggests that this is an essential beginner's melody, and there is a clear melodic relationship between that melody and the ones played today as Xianweng Cao.

Versions of Caoman Yin can be found in many early qin handbooks, under various titles.10 The earliest (1552) and some later ones are written in longhand tablature.11 They are almost always included with the essays at the beginning of the handbooks, rather than with the regular melodies. Perhaps this indicates they were considered only as introductory exercises (or as meditations).

None of the old handbooks seems to have had a melody specifically called Xianweng Cao. As for those mentioning Xianweng in the title, the earliest I have found is Diao Xianweng Ge in Qinxue Lianyao (1739).12 After this there are several more, with this title or others such as Tiao Xianweng Zhinan or Hexian Xianweng Diao, all have more in common with Caoman Yin than with Xianweng Cao. Although the one from 1739 might seem to be in transition to the modern version, as far as I have been able to hear this translation was never really developed. As for modern publications, Yinyinshi Qinpu (2000) has two entries called Xianweng Cao;13 fhe first version is quite similar to the one I learned from my teacher, Sun Yü-ch'in, but it is missing two sections; the second one from 2000 contains some phrases from earlier versions. Yinyinshi Qinpu has no commentary on either of these melodies, and so it is still difficult to know how the modern version came about.

Xianweng Cao is the first melody Sun Yü-ch'in taught to me. He did not mention its origins (about which see further). He also did not sing the lyrics when he taught Xianweng Cao, but I remember seeing them at that time. He did give me some tablature, but always said we should copy him, not look at tablature. The tablature of Xianweng Cao I have from Taiwan has number notation underneath but no lyrics. For my own transcription into staff notation I followed this version quite closely, adding the lyrics from memory, then later checking it with the version in Yinyinshi Qinpu.

Musically the first section of Xianweng Cao often has the same note repeated first on an open string then on a string stopped in the ninth position. The second section begins with notes played on open strings followed by the same notes played on strings stopped in the 10th position (or position 10.8 in the case of the third string); it ends with a recap of all these positions. Repeating the notes in stopped and open positions serves both to attune the ear to playing in tune and to make the player familiar with fundamental note relationships.

In my own version there is one significant note I change from the written version I found in Taiwan: on the 11th note I slide the thumb from the ninth position up to position 7.9 instead of the written 7.6. As a result, in the first section the melody becomes purely pentatonic (do re mi sol la) with the first string considered as do; the first note, an open seventh string, is re. In the second section the melody remains purely pentatonic if the third string is considered as do; the first note is still the open seventh string, but now it is considered to be la.14

Playing and viewing the melody this way gives a sense of how tonal centers can shift, particularly in the qin melodies as found in Ming and earlier tablature. For more on this, Google this site for "qin tunings".

Original Preface


Melody and lyrics16
Two sections, untitled.

  1. Xianweng, Xianweng, de Dao Xianweng,
    [De Dao weng, Chen Tuan Xianweng.
    De Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng
    Chen Xiyi de Dao dena Xianweng, (Chen Xiyi attained the Dao of the Transcendent Immortal.)
    de Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng.

  2. [Xianweng, Xianweng, de Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng.]
    Chen Xiyi de Dao dena Xianweng,
    de Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng.
    Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng,
    Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Transcendent Venerable One
仙翁 xianweng: 391.xxx, but 1/1146 has general comments; no mention of Chen Tuan (same with 42618.1013, see next).

仙翁 Xian Weng, though here translated as "Transcendent Venerable One", may also be translated as "Immortal Old Man". Although by itself "仙 xian" (or "仙人 xianren") is commonly translated as "immortal", as in English this does not necessarily signify a belief that the person literally lives on as a biological entity. It may suggest simply that the person's spirit lives on, perhaps leaving open the issue of whether this spirit has power (suggesting a sort of divinity), has consciousness, or has a powerful reputation. While the person is still alive (or being considered historically) he/she may be thought to have transcended such issues as life and death: who are we ordinary mortals to know or question such issues?

2. Tuning and mode
Mode is generally not indicated with this piece. As for tuning the strings, the pitch is relative, with 1=do, 2=re, etc.. In my transcription do is written as c, but the exact pitch depends on such things as the size and quality of the instrument and strings.

As explained here and at the bottom of the transcription, I changed one finger position from the way I learned it: 7.6 to 7.9 in measure 5. In this way the first section is completely pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6 if the tuning is considered 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 . The second section remains completely pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6 if the tuning is considered 5 6 1 2 3 5 6.

This sort of changed tonal center, perhaps more like transposition, can also be found in at least one other melody, Tiao Xian Pin aka Yi Sa Jin.

3. Transcription of Xianweng Cao (215KB)
The original transcription I used when I learned this piece in 1974 was a sheet of paper printed in Taiwan. Unfortunately I cannot seem to find it now.

4. Chen Tuan 陳摶 (906? - 989)
Some biographical details are given in a footnote under Caoman Yin

5. Master of the Inaudible and Invisible 希夷先生 (Xiyi Xiansheng)
9025.26 希夷 xiyi: 無聲曰希,無色曰夷,為道之本體也。 Xi (希) is what cannot be heard; yi (夷) is what cannot be seen. The name thus refers to the basic structure of the Dao. It also suggests longevity, hence 希夷﹕靈芝也 a longevity plant, perhaps a phantasmagoric mushroom.

6. "Simple" melodies as the most difficult
Mr. Sun actually said this in connection with the melody Xiang Fei Yuan, played today very much as it is written in Taigu Yiyin (1511). Taigu Yiyin has many simple songs. At that time there was apparently debate about singing style vs. purely instrumental style, but I haven't found specific details about this. One can imagine that the debate involved the relative value of a simple style vs. a complex one, but again I have not found the details.

7. Centering through repetition
Although Xianweng Cao is the first melody I learned I still enjoy playing it, and in doing so often repeat it a number of times using the last two notes of one repetition as the first two notes of the next, sometimes singing, sometimes not. This recording (with transcription) should give an idea. This playing of a simple melody (or even a simple note pattern) repeatedly in order to settle down or center oneself before playing more complex pieces might be considered as an aid to meditation: do it until the mind is empty while playing. This is in some ways comparable to the old custom of Chinese calligraphers rubbing their own ink. To do this they add water to the inkstone, then rub with another stone. To get in the right mood they might at times spend a considerably longer time than necessary doing this before beginning to write. (Compare the "jade bracelet structure" [玉環體 yu huan ti] mentioned for Guanshan Yue).

8. 操縵引 Caoman Yin. See the separate introduction to Caoman Yin, which can also be translated as Adjust the Strings Prelude

9. In Xingzhuang Taiyin Buyi, attributed to 蕭鸞 Xiao Luan, who called himself 杏莊老人 the Old Man of Apricot Village. The preface in this 1557 version is even more specific in its suggestion that one must begin with such a melody.


10. Cao Man and other alternate titles
Zha Fuxi's index 39/--/552 操縵 Cao Man mentions only the version in the Japanese Toko Kinpu, giving 仙翁操 Xianweng Cao as an alternate name. I assume the fact that they are not included in the melody sections is the reason that he did not properly index them. I have so far found 27 versions up to 1930, but because they are not in Zha's index I quite likely have missed some.

11. The earliest example of longhand tablature is Jieshidiao You Lan; the modern simplified tablature developed out of long hand tablature, apparently during the Tang dynasty. Although this fact may suggest great antiquity for this melody, it could also simply be a modern imitation of that style.

12. 琴學練要 Qinxue Lianyao is not in Qinqu Jicheng, but in 1996 it was reprinted in Beijing in a facsimile edition. 調仙翁歌 Diao Xianweng Ge (Playing the Xianweng Song; see Folio I, p.23) begins like the end of the version I learned, then has some phrases from the earlier versions.

13. 愔愔室琴譜 Yinyinshi Qinpu is the handbook of 蔡德允 Tsar Teh-yun (Cai Deyun). The first version there is quite like the one I learned; it has lyrics. The second has none, but it has some phrases from the earlier versions.

14. Different modality in each section
This is not changed by the fact that in the transcription the first note of each section is written as "A": changing the relative tuning within one piece from 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 to 1 2 3 5 6 would be very confusing. There is further comment under mode, including mention of other examples of this.

15. But see the preface to the 1557 version with Caoman Yin.

16. Original lyrics
Weng = venerable one; dena = "of that"; other words are explained above and elsewhere. The straight brackets [] indicate the part not included in Yinyinshi Qinpu.

The original Chinese lyrics, as in the above transcription, are as follows,

  1. 仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,
    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,

  2. [仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,得道陳摶仙翁。]
    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,
    仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,
    仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁。

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