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Playing Qin for an Ox
Elaborating on a well-known expression
對牛彈琴
A depiction by 石濤 Shí Tāo  

The proper environments for playing qin were traditionally said to be alone, for a friend, or at a gathering where participants would also appreciate (or do) calligraphy, painting or other activities popular amongst literati.2 The emphasis is on playing for people expected to understand the music (i.e., zhi yin). But what about the stories such as that of Boya and Ziqi suggesting that such people are very rare?

The four inscriptions with the painting at right by Shi Tao included suggestions that oxen may actually be better listeners than what Shi Tao criticized as the pretentious amongst his contemporaries (compare the comments in this linked article by James Watt).

The original text of the inscriptions, linked here, is transcribed in a footnote,3 but they have not yet been translated. About these Alice Li sent the following comments:4

The inscriptions with Shi Tao's painting are four different poems (each one is in a distinct calligraphy).

On the top are the first three poems. Of these, the one on the right was originally written by 曹寅 Cao Yin (grandfather of the famous writer Cao Xueqin), the one in the center is by Yang Duanmu (a government official); these were both copied by Shi Tao on his painting (presumably because the other poems are specifically connected to one or the other). The third inscription, top left, is a poem (or two poems in one calligraphic style) written by someone apparently named Gu Weizhen, the first part responding to Cao's poem, the other to Yang's.

Underneath this, to the left of the qin-player and ox, is the fourth poem (again, two poems in one calligraphic style) by Shi Tao specifically for his painting, the first part again referring to the poem by Cao and the second to the one by Yang.

The most quoted text from the painting is this one by Shi Tao:

世上琴聲盡說假,不如此牛聽得真
People in the world all talk about qin in a false way; no one listens as truthfully as this ox.

I think Shi Tao picked this well-known phrase 對牛弹琴 and used it in a very witty, unconventional and satirical way to express his feeling of loneliness: with no 知音 to understand him he would rather play qin to an ox, who seemingly listens to him attentively.

Further regarding the last poem, in Shi Tao's signature for it he wrote "戲為之", which means (the poem was) "composed playfully". The style of the poem is quite plain and common (with 順口溜 catch phrases and a 數來寶 folk style), which I think was also Shi Tao's deliberate choice.

The whole painting seems to have a very heavy tone of sarcasm. There are comments about the qin player's eyes, the ox's body with its back to the audience of the painting, and just remember the name of the painting, "Playing Qin Facing an Ox". Someone has even suggested that the painting should be taken as a Qing Dynasty cartoon (q.v.). In many ways, its intention is closely related to that of Cao Xueqin's Hong Lou Meng, in which Liu Laolao is interpreted as the embodiment of the ox. (《紅樓夢》與南京:雲散高唐,水固湘江(石濤)_紅樓夢吧_百度貼吧。)

For the first of the four poems she sent a link (wenku.baidu.com) that added further information regarding the poem.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1 Playing qin for an ox (對牛彈琴 dui niu tan qin)
This popular Chinese saying, as with the English "Casting pearls before swine", can be used to criticize the ignorance of the intended recipients, but it can also be a satirical comment on someone who does not take his/her audience into consideration.

7617.16 對牛彈琴 says, "謂對愚人說深理也 Speak profound reasoning to a stupid person". It then quotes two sources, both 18th century, as follows:

  1. (錢大昕,恆言錄 Hengyan Lu by Qian Daxin [1728–1804, Wiki]):
    「莊子,齊物論」注,是猶對牛鼓簧耳。「野客叢書」云,對牛彈琴,見「禪錄」。張鑑注,「禪錄」乃「五燈會元」。易林,牛耳聾聵不知聲味。「宏明集」曰,昔公明儀為牛彈清角之操,伏食如故,卽此意。
    According to Commentary (by 晉·郭象 Guo Xiang [d. 312 A.D.; Wiki] on the phrase "其好之也,欲以明之彼。非所明而明之,故以堅白之昧終 They loved them and wished to make them known to others. But as they could not be made clear, though they tried to make them so, they ended with the obscure [discussions] about 'the hard' and 'the white'" [ref; see in CTP]) in the section of Zhuangzi called Adjustment of Controversies (Qiwulun), this is like 對牛鼓簧 (7617.xxx) beating the huang (reed [of an] instrument) for an ox. Yeke Congshu (compiled by 王楙 Wang Mao of the Southern Song dynasty) says "Playing the qin for an ox", see Chan Lu (25391.xxx; The Zen Record?). Commentary by Zhang Jian (1768-1850) says Chan Lu is Wu Deng Hui Yuan (by 普濟 Puji, 1179-1253). Yi Lin (14130.84: a Han dynasty work by 焦延壽 Jiao Yanshou) says, Ox ears being deaf and stupid do not know about sound and taste. Hongming Ji (a 5th c. Buddhist text?) says, Formerly Gongming Yi (1480.277 Warring States musician) played a qingjiao melody for an ox but saw that it continued to eat the way it always had; this expresses the same idea.

  2. (通俗編,獸畜,對牛彈琴 Tongsu Bian [Explanation of Common Things], by 翟顥 Zhai Hao [1736-1788]):
    按「五燈會元」惟簡答僧問直云,對牛彈琴。
    According to Shou Chu (Beasts and Livestock), a section of Wu Deng Hui Yuan (12th c.), Think Simple (惟簡禪師? 11050.xxx) responded to the monk Ask Direct (?) saying, "Play the qin for an ox".

The first reference seems to suggest that the earliest form of this expression was "對牛鼓簧 beating the huang for an ox"; note, however, that the relevant passage in Zhuangzi discussed the qin, not the huang.
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2 Painting by 石濤 Shí Tāo, with inscriptions (ca. 1705)
Shi Tao (1642-1707;
Wiki) was a famous painter who also used many other names (e.g., 原濟 Yuan Ji; 1642-ca.1718). Note that he dates from around the same time as the commentary above, and that the further commentary with the full version of his painting 對牛彈琴圖 Depiction of Playing Qin For an Ox (see also this commentary) seems to suggest the ox actually makes a suitable listener.

The original is in the 故宫博物院 National Palace Museum
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3 Inscriptions with the painting by 石濤 Shí Tāo (see original)
The inscriptions with the painting are all poems that can be found transcribed on several sites, including this one. These transcriptions are generally as follows:

  1. By 曹寅 Cao Yin, 鹺使原韻 Salt Commission, rhyme sequence

    柳風飂飂白石磢,玄晏先生聘玄賞。
    何來致此觳觫群,三尺龍唇困鞅掌。
    麻姑海上栽黃竹,成連改制無聲曲。
    仙宮岑寂愁再來,烏牸白牯俱不俗。
    瑩角翹翹態益工,寢訛齕飼函真宮。
    朱弦弛縆大雅絕,箏秦世反稱絲桐。
    桐君漆友應難解,金徽玉軫究安在。
    老顛寧為梁父唫,老革詎作雍門嘅。
    此調不傳聽亦靡,刻畫人牛聊復爾。
    一笑雲山杜德機,閉門自覓鐘期子。
    (曹子清鹺使原韻)

  2. By Yang Duanmu (楊中訥 15489.83 字耑木), Hanlin Academy, rhyme sequence

    何年畫手顧虎頭,誤墨染成烏牸牛。
    手揮五絃者誰子,知非無意良有由。
    趙瑟秦箏滿都市,白雪陽春輸下里。
    海上移情若箇知,乘閑奏向牛丈耳。
    平原軟草眠綠雲,或寢或訛耳不聞。
    惟牛能牛天自定,愧我人籟離其真。
    今古茫茫廣陵散,世聞寥聞夜未旦。
    更張且和牧豎歌,彈出南山白石爛。
    (楊耑木太史原韻)

  3. By Gu Weizhen, nickname Huantie? (顧維禎 44649.290 only 顧維; 幻鐵 9397.xxx 44649.xxx)

    成連去後鍾期往,大地茫茫誰識賞。
    忽來妙手寫入神,開卷新奇各鼓掌。
    朱絃不肯混絲竹,寧向田間理一曲。
    主伯亞旅若聞 □ ,質之牛耳聊免俗。(□=疑缺一字)
    曲聲休論工不工,五音端本先調宮。
    但使相公能問喘,和平自許出孤桐。
    反覆圖中得真解,非山非水別有在。
    彷彿倪迂昔日心,縱伴煙霞亦悲 □ 。
     □ 歎何人過靡靡,癡腸不斷我與爾。
    收囊同返夕陽村,舊識依然橫笛子。
    (和曹)
    清風洗耳一掉頭,清泉竟有不飲牛。
    值得攜琴向之鼓,我與牛意兩自由。
    由他燕駿無人市,千金 □ 碎宣陽里。
    洋洋灑灑滌心胸,忍使清音入俗耳。
    何期妙筆生煙雲,點染俳諧成異聞。
    初疑憤世戲為此,諦視方知面目真。
    分明熱鬧清涼散,長夜偷歌旦復旦。
    逢時只恐相公嗔,翻道陽春調熟爛。
    (和楊。顧維禎幻鐵。)

  4. By 石濤 Shi Tao (nicknames include 清湘 and 大滌子) playfully

    古人事,真豪爽,未對琴牛先絕賞。
    七絃未變共者誰,能使玄牛聽鼓掌。
    一絃一弄非絲竹,柳枝竹枝欸乃曲。
    陽春白雪世所希,舊牯新犢羞稱俗。
    背藏頭似不通徵,招角招非 □ 正工。(□=疑缺一字)
    有聲欲說心中事,到底不爨此焦桐。
    牛聲一呼真妙解,牛角豈無書卷在。
    世言不可污牛口,琴聲如何動牛剗。
    此時一掃不復彈,玄牛大笑有誰爾。
    牛也不屑學人語,默默無聞大滌子。
    (和曹)
    非此非彼到池頭,數盡知音何獨牛。
    此琴不對彼牛彈,地啞天聾無所由。
    此琴一彈轟入世,笑絕千群百群里。
    朝耕暮犢不知音,一彈彈入墨牛耳。
    牛便傾心夢破雲,琴無聲兮猶有聞。
    世上琴聲盡說假,不如此牛聽得真。
    聽真聽假聚復散,琴聲如暮牛如旦。
    牛叫知音切莫彈,此彈一出琴先爛。
    (和楊。清湘大滌子若極戲為之。)

There are some inconsistencies in the online renderings of the original calligraphy.
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4 Comments from Alice Li
Sent in December 2013; I did some editing and added links to further information.
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