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Chapter Five: Sui and Tang dynasties 1
Xu Jian, Introductory History of the Qin, pp.72-73 2
Part Two (Qin melodies) :

5. Li Sao

(The poem) Li Sao is a representative creation of the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan. The melody Fei Long Yin,3 mentioned in the Rhapsody on the Qin by Xi Kang, seems to have come from (the following lines in Li Sao):4

"Harness winged dragons to be my coursers;
Let my chariot be of fine work of jade and ivory!"

In the early Tang, there were also such melodies as Qu Yuan Tan and so forth. Chen Kangshi of the late Tang began using the original poem as the title, authoring a Li Sao with 8 sections (Xin Tang Shu: Yiwen Zhi5). By the Ming dynasty it had developed to two types, one with eighteen sections and the other, eleven sections. Later on, Zepan Yin, Qu Yuan, Qu Yuan Wen Du, Diao Qu Yuan, Quzi Tian Wen, Sao Shou Wen Tian and other pieces related to Qu Yuan successively appeared. One can say that Chen Kangshi's Li Sao inherited the past and inspired the future.

Qu Yuan's original (poem), Li Sao, was a monologue by the suffering poet. The poem is divided into eight parts:6

1. Narrates his background and ambitions;
2. Writes of his political encounters;
3. Writes that even after persecution he still maintains his ideals;
4. States his ambitions to mythical characters;
5. Imagines traveling to the sky and into the earth to find one who understands him;
6. Writes of his ambivalent sentiments upon leaving Chu;
7. Imagines leaving Chu to travel far away;
8. Expresses the determination to die for his ideals.

It is a long lyric poem with strong romantic colors.

The melody Li Sao expresses Qu Yuan's determination to execute political reform in Chu and his frustration that this ideal cannot be realized. According to Chongwen Zhongmu,7 Chen Kangshi "gave sound to Li Sao". In the beginning it might have been the original poem sung, but it eventually developed into a solo instrumental piece. (Almost) all surviving Li Sao tablatures use lines from the original poem as section titles, thus the two must have been closely related. Tablatures of Li Sao passed down from the Ming and Qing dynasties number over 37 types, so it was a relatively popular melody at the time.

Qin Xue Chu Jin (1894), in its afterword for this melody, articulated: "Its purpose under examination is mysterious. Its initial mood is a collection of grief and anxiety in layers of unutterable complications. It then becomes unrestrained and free, as if unburdened by the world." The afterword also summarizes the melody as one that "begins depressed then becomes bold".8 These two lines can help us understand its musical expression.

The melody totals eighteen sections. As for the musical expression9 of "beginning depressed", it often appears before the eighth section with the mood of grief and indignation. The main musical phrase expressing this is as below:

(Staff notation example not yet online10)

As for the phrases expressing "(becoming) bold", by the seventeenth section this has developed into a tune that concludes the entire melody:

(Staff notation example not yet online11)

The music reflects Qu Yuan's principles as he experiences several setbacks but still maintains his ideals.

In addition, there is a commonly seen musical phrase that is used for the introduction and connection of sections. Its basic structure is:

(Staff notation example not yet online12)


Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

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

2. Initial translation by Jin Qiuyu

3. Fei Long Yin 飛龍吟
Feilong Yin is included the qin melody section
of YFSJ. See footnote under Li Sao.

4. Translation from David Hawkes, Songs of the South, p.77 (lines 337/8). Compare the online translation at http://www.chinapage.org/poem/quyuan/quyuan-e.html.
    Then winged horses to my chariot brought; My carriage bright with jade and ivory wrought."

5. 新唐書,藝文志 Xin Tang Shu: Yiwen Zhi

6. I am not sure the origin of this analysis.

7. 崇文總目 Chongwen Zongmu

8. 始則抑郁,繼則豪爽 shi ze yi yu, ji ze hao shuang

9. 主题音调 "thematic tone"

10. See my transciption mm.47-54. It is not clear to me how Xu Jian thinks this is expressed up through Section 8.

11. See my transciption mm. 402-413. I play this whole section very slowly and freely.

12. See my transciption mm. 1-2 (re re la la). As I cannot find a re la sequence later in the melody, I assume Xu Jian is referring to passages that feature other fifth intervals.

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