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Chapter Five: Sui and Tang dynasties 1
Xu Jian, Introductory History of the Qin, pp.53-58 2

Part One: Qin experts

Although the Sui dynasty only lasted some thirty years {589-618}, music flourished. Commoner qin musicians included Li Yi and Heruo Bi; literati musicians included the brothers Wang Tong and Wang Ji. They all passed down their creations.

Li Yi:3 People called him "Mr. Lianzhu" because the qin he used was decorated in the middle with beads and colorful strings and was therefore named Lianzhu.4 The melody Lianzhu Nong recorded in Qin Li Tou Bo of the Sui dynasty may have been his work. He wrote Cao Chong Zi, Gui Shan Yue, "and also thirty-six 小調 short pieces", which may have been a combination of many popular short melodies. He also played well Zhu Yin Feng and Ai Song Lu from Hujia Wu Nong (Qin Tan, Guang Bowu Zhi).

Heruo Bi: 5 He created the Ten Short Melodies in gong mode that were passed down to later generations. These ten short melodies are: Shi Bo Jin, Bu Huan Yu, Fan Jia Yin, Yue Xi Yin, Yue Jiang Yin, Gu Fen Yin, Qingye Yin, Yexia Wen Chan, and San Qing; the name of (the 10th) melody has been lost, but some call it "Heruo". Su Dongpo wrote a poem that said, "If one can know Heruo in qin, he must love Tao Qian in poetry", which suggests that it is of the same artistic conception as Tao's poems. Emperor Taizong of Song dynasty considered these names not "elegant" enough, so he re-named Shi Bo Jin as Chu Ze Han Qiu and Bu Huan Yu as Sai Men Ji Xue (Xu Xiangshan Ye Lu). Among these, Qing Ye Yin can be found in Xilutang Qintong; it has in all three sections, the names of which are Yilun Qiuyue, Si Gu Jiliao, and Dongfang Ji Bai. It is a relatively short melody.

Wang Tong (CE ? - 615),6 nicknamed "Wenzhongzi", aspired to help the world. When he saw that Emperor Wen of Sui's policies were useless, he retreated to the crook of the Fen River (today Yangqu, Taiyuan, Shanxi). He played Nan Feng and other melodies at Fen Pavilion, and a fisherman commented that he expressed the ambition of a courtier but while the sound he played stayed thus, his actual playing deviated. Thus the untimeliness (of his own ambitions) painfully struck him and he wrote Fenting Cao. Gujiao Xing, a melody that has survived to this day, is one of his pieces.

Wang Ji (AD 585-644),7 nicknamed "Donggaozi", was a younger brother of Wang Tong. In his early years he "had hopes of becoming a nobleman", but was dissatisfied that the high officials did not use him in a serious way, so he resigned from his official position and retreated to Donggao. He accepted the ideas of Laozi and Zhuangzi and indulged in drinking. He wrote a poem that said,

Ruan Ji was rarely sober;
Tao Qian was often drunk.
One hundred years could not possibly be enough to spend,
Better take advantage of one's high spirits for song and verse.

This poem reflected his own life. The style of his poems was simple and sincere without the regular form of the Six Dynasties, thus carving out a way for Tang poems. He once "added to and subtracted from old melodies to make 'landscape melodies' (shanshui cao) that that were much appreciated by connoisseurs". The "adding to and subtracting from old melodies" referred to the process of rearranging traditional fundemental (melodies).

Whereas Sui dynasty musicians were gifted in their creativity, musicians of the Tang dynasty {618 - ca.905} were more developed in the art of performance, especially in gathering, arranging, and improving traditional melodies. Famous musicians included: Zhao Yeli, Dong Tinglan, Xue Yijian, Chen Kangshi, Chen Zhuo, etc.

Zhao Yeli8 (AD 563-639) of Jiyin, Caozhou (today around Caoxian, Shandong), was a famous qin musician during the Sui-Tang era. People respected his accomplishments in the art of qin and called him "Zhao Shi" (Teacher Zhao). He "corrected over fifty melodies, removing what is vulgar and returning the melodies to elegance, then passing them down in qin tablature records". The fifty-some melodies listed behind the hand-recorded copy of "You Lan" from the Tang dynasty included "Hujia Wu Nong", edited by Zhao Yeli. These fifty-some melodies may have been all the melodies that he organized. The Tang Annals listed nine volumes of his Qin Xu Pu and one volume of his Tanqin Shoushi Pu. The Song Annals listed a volume of his Tanqin Youshou Fa. Another in a preface for his qin tablature wrote of him:

"A gifted and enlightened youth, he was skilled in his artistic endeavors. He put up his hair to study by himself and did not go anywhere to meet more than one person. Plain in his modesty, he never acted outside the Dao. The cleverness of his writing is only short of Zhong and Zhang, while his qin is comparable to Ma and Cai. (Qin Shi)"

That is, (Zhao Yeli) was a devoted and talented qin musician whose study of qin can be compared to that done by Sima Xiangru and Cai Yong. His students included Song Xiaozhen, Gong Sunchang, and Sima of Puzhou, all of whom were famous in their time. He had a sophisticated understanding of his contemporary qin schools and once pointed out,

"The sound of Wu is clear and graceful; it flows continuously and gently, like the Chang River, and has the style of the elite. The sound of Shu is restless, like wild waves and violent thunder, or a fleeting talent."

He believed that only using nails produces "a sound that is too cold", while only using flesh produces "a sound that is too dull". Thus he advocated "using a combination of nail and flesh, so the sound may be warm and smooth". This technique has been widely used by later generations.

Dong Tinglan9 (AD 695-765) of Longxi was a famous qin musician during the prosperous Kaiyuan, Tianbao periods of Tang dynasty. At the time, the sound of the House of Shen and that of Zhu were popular within qin circles, so he learned to play these styles from the Adjutant (參軍 canjun) of Fengzhou, Chen Huaigu, and wrote qin tablature for Hujia, a melody he played well. His student Zheng You had very clear hearing, and could tune perfectly, especially to Shen and Zhu. His other student, Du Shanren, also surpassed him in learning. After a few decades, the melody Xiao Hujia that Jiang Xuan played was called "grieving Jia played slowly to mimic Dong's version" (Yuan Zhen: Xiao Hujia Yin). By this time, Dong Tinglan's reputation and influence had far surpassed and replaced those of the Shen and Zhu families.

Dong Tinglan possessed astonishing playing technique, which was vividly illustrated in a poem by Li Qi entitled 'Listening to the Great Dong Play the Hujia Sound'. Li wrote, "from slowing down to changing to fast, he plays with facility; the melody shifts and turns as if it has emotions", saying that Dong plays well the changes in tempo and is expressive in the turns in the melody. The beautiful music further led the poet into a realm of imagination: "The still darkness changes gracefully, as the long wind puffs at the forest and the rain collapses upon the tiles. The cold spring bursts forth and flutters among the trees, while wild deer calling pass the hall." Musical expression is rich and moving; without the excellent performance by Du Tinglan, Li Qi's poem describing music would not have existed.

The prestige of Dong Tinglan's qin art was very high, receiving at that time the praise of many people, and not just a few literati were associated with him. The tablature collections he edited had adulatory doctor Li Ao write for it voluntarily prefatory words.

Gao Shi, in his poem Leaving the Great Dong (Tinglan), wrote, "But don't worry that on the departure road you will have no close friends, In all the world, who is there who does not recognize you?" Such famous phrases can to a great extent reflect how the spectacular events of the most famous artist of his generation spread throughout the world.

Gao Shi's poem also wrote, "We friends are poor and should be so insufficient, that now when we meet there is no money for wine." This says he was so poor he could not pay for a drink. Xue Yijian also said, "Tinglan does not work for noblemen; instead, he wore his hair down and lived in the forest for sixty years", from which one can see how austere a life he led. Yet, because he was once an retainer (in the home) of Grand Councillor Fang Guan, some spoke ill of him. The famous poet Du Fu said, "Tinglan stayed at Guan's home for days and did wrong in his old age while depending on Guan. The biography of Fang Guan in the New Tang History even said that Dong Tinglan relied on Fang Guan's influence to take bribes; Fang Guan appealed for him and had his position "lowered to Junior Preceptor of the Heir Apparent". This should be doubted as it may have come from malicious slander by Fang Guan's political opponents. If he truly took bribes, he would not have been so impoverished. As a Grand Councillor, Fang Guan would not have risked his office simply for an attendant. A poem by Cui Jue ardently praised his relationship with Fang Guan:

"Of seven strings, five sounds are cold; the pursuit of this music has historically been a difficult quest.
Only Fang Cilu of Henan feels sympathy for Dong Tinglan."

Little of Dong Tinglan's work was recorded. Shen Qi Mi Pu has his Yi Zhen, a short melody characterized by its lively flow, refined theme, and sound structure.

Xue Yijian10 was mostly contemporary to Dong Tinglan, but somewhat later. During the Tianbao period (742 - 56), he was part of the imperial Hanlin Academy for his qin talents.11 He began studying qin at age nine and, by age twelve, could play some 30 melodies in huangzhong mode. He was especially skilled in playing Sanxia Liu Quan, Nan Feng, and You Xian. At age seventeen, he played 18 traditional melodies including Da Hujia, Xiao Hujia, Bie He, and Bai Xue. He studied even more diligently later on; he "traveled everywhere and whenever he heard of an especially insightful person, he always went to see him". After such extensive study, he played some three hundred miscellaneous melodies and forty major pieces, which exposure is rare in qin circles. Yet, he advocated that the study of qin should be focused and refined, asserting that "excess cannot be refined; refinement does not come in excess". Thus, he only sought perfection in a few superior pieces rather than spending the same effort on every single melody.

He wrote Qin Jue, in which he developed the ideas of Liu Xiang in 七列 Qi Lie, summarizing the use of qin thus:

"It can be used to observe social customs and education, to quiet the spirit and its anxieties, to embolden one's courage, to curb mundane vulgarity, and to guard against the supernatural".

This far surpasses the Han-dynasty claim that 琴者,禁也 "qin is an instrument of inhibition", and is far more comprehensive and realistic. He believed that it is not enough to satisfy one self with "use one's fingers lightly and with facility to attain a sound that is warm and smooth; the 音韵 sound and its nuances should be continuous and the 句度 lines fluid." Rather, he believed that one also needs to note that the "sound and the nuances all have a center", that is, artistic techniques must be secondary to the expression of the content. This view is doubtlessly also quite correct. He emphasized that when performing, one must "focus one's spirit, end one's anxieties, and fully devote one's emotions and mind". Thus, he stipulated "seven flaws" of performance, such as "looking around" and "swaying one's body or hand", which provided strict requirements to the gestures involved while performing. Qin books since the Song and Yuan dynasties have often reproduced the above view, and later generations have evolved further performance rules on the basis of this view.

Chen Kangshi12 lived during Emperor Xi's time period (AD 874-888). He studied qin from Mei Fuyuan, a Taoist from Dongyue (Taishan 泰山). He wrote in his autobiography,

"Although the teacher first introduced me to sound, later on I gained understanding alone. I have looked everywhere for the true sound: Jiu Nong, Guangling San, and the two Hujia are all everlasting sound from the past."

Here, when he speaks of gaining understanding alone, he means that he can break away from the teachings of his teacher and independently gather famous old melodies, which suggests that he spent much effort on traditional pieces. After having diligently studied qin traditions, he discovered:

"Since the eras of Yuanhe and Changqing, famed musicians of the past generations often did not understand modes or rhythm; those who have mastered playing technique fall into vulgarity, while those who play the right sound are prone to flatness; they all stopped at what was taught to them rather than furthering their personal understanding."

His criticism is very pointed. He believed that these musicians rarely understood compositional theory and thus could only imitate what their teachers taught them without personal comprehension; either they only pursued form, "falling into vulgarity", or they excessively limited themselves to the original, resulting in "flatness". This could not lead to innovation and development. To solve this problem, he pondered for years. After considering for a long time, he "created a total of one hundred 調 tunes, each with short preludes and poem-like prefaces. The editorial style of fitting a short piece, as a prelude, before every major melody extended until Ming Dynasty. He edited ten volumes of Qinshu Zhengsheng, including the Five Melodies of Cai and other traditional melodies, totaling over 80. There were also seventeen volumes of Qin Diao, one volume of Qinpu Ji, five chapters in one volume of Chu Diao, and one volume of Li Sao Tablature (Song Annals). Among these, Li Sao can be found in the Ming-dynasty Shen Qi Mi Pu and was one of his main creations; in later generations, however, this melody was much developed and changed.

Chen Zhuo:13 Mostly contemporary to Chen Kangshi, he was also a qin musician in late Tang. A resident of Chang'an, he worked in the Revenue Department of Jingzhao (Chang'an). He studied Nan Feng, You Chun, Wen Wang Cao, Feng Gui Lin and other melodies from Sun Xiyu. When he took Guangling San to Sun Xiyu seeking instruction, however, he was rejected. But Chen Zhuo did not give up and learned it from Mei Fuyuan instead.

Chen Zhuo wrote a poignant paragraph regarding musical rhythm:

"Beginning slow and speeding up afterward is the arrangement of a clever melody. Being slow in the middle and slowing down later expresses the pause in rhythm. The sound of rapidly striking the string should be as even as breaking bamboo; the nuances of slowly plucking should be solemn as the wind. There is also sound that abruptly stops while still strong, so that the sound has ended but the idea carries on."

This is still enlightening to our understanding of qin melodies today. He wrote ten volumes of Datang Zhengsheng Xin Zheng Qinpu (Tang Annals), nine volumes of Qin Ji (Song Annals), Qinfa Shu Gouti Pu (Taiyin Daquan), and so forth.

(Closing comments14)

From the above introduction, one can see that there were new developments in qin circles during the Sui and Tang dynasties.

  1. Professional qin musicians played a greater role. Division among these musicians became more definite and they had a more broad clientèle. They were not of high status and were close to the common people, hence they readily absorbed the quality of folk music and reflected the preferences of the people. Their work, such as Heruo Bi's Gongsheng Shi Xiao Diao (Ten Short Tunes in Gong Mode), were sometimes considered vulgar, which demonstrates that the vivacious folk music brought new blood into the art of qin melodies.

  2. Most qin musicians during the Sui and Tang dynasties had their own educational origins (師承渊源」, which provided strict requirements and training regarding performance technique. Their excellent artistic expression abilities were the result of diligent study, much as Chen Zhuo said: "Every time a senior qin player contemplated a melody, his teachers told him to 'measure a liter of beans to count the number of times to play'. Only with such diligence does he gain at the end." Such industrious practice is impossible for most amateurs.

  3. There was extensive, systematic collection and organization of traditional melodies. Xue Yijian began studying qin during childhood and went on to continue his studies in various regions, eventually mastering as many as 340 melodies. Chen Kangshi, after "extensively seeking" traditional melodies, edited a qin tablature that included over a hundred melodies. Such a difficult task could not have been realized without the efforts of professionals.

The emergence and growth of professional musicians stemmed from the large number of amateurs, among which the influence of the literati musicians also cannot be overlooked. Li Liangfu, for example, wrote an introduction to Guangling Zhi Xi Pu, while Lu Wei developed it into 36 parts, contributing positively to the preservation, spread, and development of this famous old melody. Other melody creations from Tang dynasty historical sources include: Xuan You's Wu She Shang Jiu Diaozi, Li Yue's Dong Biao Yin. Relevant literature includes: Zhao Weijian's Qin Shu, Qi Song's Qin Ya Lue, Wang Dali's Qin Shenglu Tu, and so forth. The great quantity and broad range both indicate the flourishing development of qin studies. Though these works no longer exist, some can be seen in fragments in later books and continue to play a role.


Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. See footnote to the preface for details of the period covered (589 - 979).

2. Original translation by Jin Qiuyu

3. Li Yi 李疑 (Qinshi Bu #70)
His Lianzhu qin is depicted in illustrations. 連珠弄 Lianzhu Nong; 琴歷頭薄 Qin Li Tou Bo; 草蟲子 Cao Chongzi (Insects in the grass); 規山樂 Gui Shan Yue; 小調 short pieces; 竹吟風 Zhuyin Feng; 哀松露 Ai Song Lu; 胡笳五弄 Hujia Wu Nong; 琴談 Qin Tan; 廣博物志 Guang Bowu Zhi.

4. Connected Pearls (連珠 Lian Zhu)
"Lianzhu" is the name of a qin style still seen today, though it is not always exactly as seen in this classical image.

5. Heruo Bi 賀若弼
This name is often incorrectly romanized as He Ruobi. There are further details on him in an entry under Other players.

6. Wang Tong 王通 (CE ? - 615; Qin Shi #112)
汾水 Fen River (today Yangqu, Taiyuan, Shanxi); 汾亭 Fen Pavilion. 南風 Nan Feng; 汾亭操 Fen pavilion melody (Fen Ting Cao).

7. Wang Ji 王績 (AD 585-644; Qin Shi #113)
東皋子 Donggaozi; 覓封侯 sought being a nobleman; 山水操 shanshui cao might also be the title of a melody.

8. Zhao Yeli 趙耶利 (563 - 639; Qin Shi #115)
曹州濟陰 Jiyin, Caozhou

9. Dong Tinglan 董庭蘭 (Qin Shi #130)
善贊大夫 (3975.xxx) adulatory doctor 李翱 Li Ao (Bio/942); 選寫 voluntarily wrote. 高適 Gao Shi, 別董大 Bie Dong Da. 莫愁前路無知己,天下誰人不識君 seems to be addressed directly to Dong: "Don't worry that on the road ahead you won't know have close friends, anywhere under heaven who does not know you?" 宰相房琯 Grand Councilor Fang Guan. 太子少師 Taizi Shaoshi: Junior Preceptor of the Heir Apparent (Hucker).

10. Xue Yijian 薛易簡 (Qin Shi #132)
三峽流泉 Sanxia Liu Quan, 南風 Nan Feng, 遊絃 You Xian.

11. 翰林待詔 Hanlin Daizhao for qin
This rank might be compared to the position created in the Song dynasty called "Qin Daizhao" (Qin [Player] Awaiting Imperial Command); see Chapter 6a1.

12. Chen Kangshi 陳康士 (Qin Shi #133)
僖宗 Xizong; 梅复元 Mei Fuyuan

13. Chen Zhuo 陳拙 (Qin Shi #137)
京兆戶曹 Jingzao hucao

14. Closing comments
李良輔﹕廣陵止息譜 Li Liangfu, Guangling Zhi Xi Pu; 呂渭 Lü Wei, 36 拍 pai. 蕭祐﹕無射商九調子 Xiao You's Wuyi Shang Jiu Diaozi. 李約﹕東杓引 Li Yue's Dong Biao Yin. 趙惟暕﹕琴書 Zhao Weijian's Qin Shu, 齊嵩﹕琴雅略 Qi Song's Qin Ya Lue. 王大力﹕琴聲律圖, Wang Dali's Qin Shenglü Tu.

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