Lao Can You Ji: The Travels of Lao Can
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Guqin in The Travels of Lao Can
Lao Can You Ji (Wiki),1 a novel by Liu E (1857-1909)2
  Liu E also produced a qin handbook 3  
The Travels of Lao Can is a famous Chinese novel in 20 chapters. For the original text see ctext. For English translations there are at least two, one complete, one abridged:

Overall, the novel does not contain many references to guqin, but there are some of considerable interest.5 This is not surprising given the fact that Liu E himself also compiled a qin handbook, as shown at right.6 The references discussed here begin in Chapter 9 but then intensify in Chapter 10.

This whole section, from early in Chapter 8 through to the beginning of Chapter 11, is told from the point of view of a man named 申子平 Shen Ziping, introduced in Chapter 7 (Shadick/p.78). In Chapter 8 Ziping has entered a remote mountainous region where he seeks shelter in a secluded group of houses. Here he meets a young woman with the nickname 璵姑 Yu Gu (Miss Jade) and a man nicknamed 黃龍 Huang Long (Yellow Dragon).

Chapter 9 begins with Ziping and Yu Gu examining several poems. The first poem began with a reference to "Xiyi" ("inaudible and invisible"), a nickname of Chen Tuan, the Song dynasty recluse also connected to what for centuries has been the standard melody for beginners on guqin, Xianweng Cao. Soon Yellow Dragon joins them as they discuss philosophical matters.

The first half of Chapter 10 (see also ctext) has the title "驪龍雙珠光照琴瑟 a Pair of Black Dragon Pearls Illuminate a Qin and Se". The ensuing passage describes qin play using a number of technical terms.7 But first, having heard what sounds like an avalanche, the three retire to a cave. Here Yu Gu plays qin and Huang Long plays se (Shadick calls them a lute and zither, admitting this translation is quite arbitrary). There is some discussion about the difference between a qin and a se and Ziping, said to be a qin player himself, finds it all very interesting. Eventually the other two play a melody said never to have been previously written down, 海水天風之曲 Melody of Sea Waters and Heavenly Winds.

There is indeed no known tablature for a melody of that name, but Ziping declares it to be even better than the well-known melody called 漢宮秋 Autumn in a Han Palace. Here for context perhaps one should listen to a rendition of the latter, but then to represent the former one should presumably look for an intriguingly attractive melody that people are unlikely to have heard before. Perhaps most relevant here and now might be the melody 桃源春曉 Spring Dawn at Peach Blossom Spring (1525), a rarely heard melody which concerns someone stumbling into a fabulous world - a story that has clearly inspired the present narrative.8

Chapter 10 then has some further discussion about how the two instruments interact, basically saying that though they 合奏 play together they do not 同奏 play in unison. This is said to exemplify the expression (from the Analects of Confucius) that "君子和而不同 Gentlemen seek harmony, not unity". This could also be translated as "Gentlemen can have different views, but remain in harmony", but could also be used to allude to a musical approach now referred to as heterophony? If so it seems to suggest that a heterophonic approach is more a people's style, whereas the scholars go for unison playing. On this there is further comment here.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 老殘遊記 Lao Can You Ji (Wiki)
Wiki says, "The Travels of Lao Can is a novel by Liu E (1857-1909), written between 1903 and 1904 and published in 1907 to wide acclaim. Thinly disguising his own views in those of Lao Can, the physician hero, Liu describes the rise of the Boxers in the countryside, the decay of the Yellow River control system, and the hypocritical incompetence of the bureaucracy. Its social satire showed the limits of the old elite and officialdom and gave an in-depth look into everyday life in the countryside in the late Qing period."

2. 劉鶚 Liu E (1857 - 1909; Wiki)
Liu E is also discussed together with his qin handbook Shiyixianguan Qinpu

3. Image: Liu E's qin handbook
十一絃館琴譜 Shiyixianguan Qinpu

4. Translations
The Yangs' translation (1947) omits chapters 9-11, 16, 18, 19 and part of 20, leaving just 13 chapters. Although the one by Harold Shadick is complete and quite thorough, he does translates qin as "lute" and se as "zither", and he also does not seem fully to understand some of the terms related to qin play.

5. References to guqin in Lao Can You Ji
More will turn up with a more thorough reading, in particular of the Chinese text. Such references need not mention qin itself. Two examples:

  1. In the preface Liu E, who did not succeed either as an official or in business, compares his tale to "weeping", citing other works he considers to have been weeping. Thus, he begins by mentioning Qu Yuan's Li Sao, a lament that inspired the qin melody Li Sao.
  2. In Chapter 3 there is a reference to an illustration of Liezi Riding the Wind: as here?

Lao Can himself is said to be an alter-ego of Liu E. Interestingly the main discussion of qin in the book occurs in a portion (Chapters 9 and 10) that is told from the point of view another character, Shen Ziping.

6. References from Liu E's handbook?
Because my focus has been music as published during the Ming dynasty, I have not learned any melodies directly from Liu E's 1907 handbook. Closest would be the version I have learned of the shorter You Lan: my interpretation from 1634 shows that version to be quite similar to the one here.

Listed or linked here are recordings by Chen Changlin of four melodies from this handbook.

7. Chapter 10
See in particular Shadick (1952), p.108

8. 海水天風之曲 Sea Waters and Heavenly Winds
17933.43 only 海水. Besides Spring Dawn at Peach Tree Spring there are several other rarely heard melodies on that topic, in particular Tiantai Yin.

On a completely different tack one might borrow a melody from the Shiyixianguan Qinpu, Liu E's own qin handbook. For example, it contains a melody called Wuling Chun (Spring in Wuling). Ostensibly about "a pleasant awakening on a spring day", the "Wuling" in its name refers also to the place Tao Yuanming used for his Peach Blossom Spring Tale. However, I play a different version of a melody with this title. (Note that here it is used as a woman's name.)

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