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Guqin and Orchids 1
方秉蕑兮 It is time to gather jian 2    
The listing here includes over 40 minutes of music. The earliest melody listed is famous as the world's earliest written melody written down in sufficient detail to allow
reconstruction, but there are also several later melodies with "lan" in the title as well as others connected to orchids but without the word in the title.
  1. Jieshi Diao You Lan (Secluded Orchid, a Towering Rock Melody)
    This is the world's oldest surviving fully notated instrumental melody (7th century). The preface does not connect to any theme or story.
  2. You Lan (Secluded Orchid, 1525)
    Unrelated to previous
  3. Yi Lan (Flourishing Orchid, 1425)
    Confucius compares himself to an orchid flourishing alone in a field
  4. Yi Lan Cao (Rippling Orchids Melody, 1511)
    The music is set to lyrics entitled both Yi Lan and You Lan, from the Yuefu Shiji
  5. Pei Lan (Fragrant Orchid; also: Garland of Orchids; 1539)
    Concerns Xulingzi (fragrant orchids) or Qu Yuan (garland of orchids)
  6. Xiuxi Yin (Spring Purification Ceremony; 1525)
    This xiuxi took place at the Orchid Pavilion, near Shaoxing
  7. Liu Shang (Floating Wine-Cups; 1525)
    At the Orchid Pavilion xiuxi scholars floated wine-cups in a stream

There are further melodies connected to orchids that I have not yet reconstructed.

"Lan", almost always translated as "orchid", is the flower name most commonly connected to qin melodies, but the question remains: to what plant or plants does the word "lan" actually apply? Although today translated as "orchid", early Chinese sources use the character "lan" several different plants.3 On the other hand, although it may be very difficult to give precise taxonomic details, one can say that in general the image conveyed suggests a flower of such fragrance and beauty that it stands alone.4 The lan thus became a symbol for the true gentleman.5

In broader culture the orchid also represented love in various ways. These associations do not seem to connect to any known guqin melodies.6

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Guqin and Orchids
See also Guqin and Gardens

2. "方秉蕑兮 It is time to gather jian"
Regarding "It is time to gather jian", 32729.0 蕑 Jian says 蘭草也 "the same as lan cao"; it then quotes 爾雅 Er Ya and Mao#95 in the 詩經 Book of Songs. 33297.193 蘭草 lan cao says "Eupatorium chinensis", i.e., part of a group of compositae that includes daisies and chrysanthemums. See also footnote 3, I.A. The quote with the illustration is also from Mao#95, which begins:

溱與洧,方渙渙兮。 The Zhen and Wei rivers are now swelling,
士與女,方秉蕑兮。 So it is time for men and women to gather jian (Waley: scented herbs).

This illustration seems to show a type of eupatorium. It is from "毛詩品物圖改".

毛詩品物圖改 Revised Nature Illustrations for Mao's edition of the Book of Songs
My copy of this work, Mao Shi Pinwu Tu Gai, is an edition published in Taiwan; the title is also translated as the Revised illustrations of Plants and Animals in the Mao [edition of the Book of] Poems. (Compare with 毛詩、草木鳥獸蟲魚疏 the Mao [Edition of the Book of] Songs, Commentary on flowers, trees, birds, animals, insects and fish.) It was apparently copied from a Japanese work, with the title pronounced "Mōshi himbutsu zukō". It was compiled by the Japanese Sinologist 岡元鳳 Genpō Oka (1737-1787) of 浪華 Naniwa (Osaka), with marks in the text being kana that give the pronunciation in Japanese syllables. There are three prefaces, signed,

西播   那波師曾撰並書
浪花岡元鳳撰 (Genpō Oka)
I do not know from what this edition was "revised", and I am not sure about the marks in the text. They seem to be kana giving Chinese pronunciations for Japanese readers, but there may also be bopomofo, the Taiwan system of indicating pronunciation.

Another book also purporting to illustrate animals as depicted in the Book of Songs is(清)徐鼎 Xu Ting (Qing dynasty), Commentary on Illustrations from Mao's Edition of the Shi Jing (毛詩名物圖說 Mao Shi Ming Wu Tu Shuo). This work, in three volumes, has been copied in ctext.org.

3. Various meanings of lan
Both the Zhongwen Dacidian and Hanyu Dacidian (I. and II. below) connect lan with compositae and magnolias as well as with orchidae.

  I. 33297.0 蘭 lan:

A. 菊科香草名。即蘭草,一名蕑。 "The name of a fragrant plant of the ju ke family. (31989.50 菊科 ju ke are defined as compositae, a different family from orchids); another name is lan cao ("Eupatorium chinensis"), and it is also called jian (see footnote 1)." It then quotes from the Book of Songs, Mao#95, which uses the character jian (方秉蕑兮, see footnote 1 and the illustration at the top).

B. 蘭科香草名有數種,一莖一花者為草蘭,一莖數花者為蕙蘭,心白者為素心蘭,福建產者為建蘭。 "The name of a fragrant plant of the orchidae family, of several types. One flower per stem are called cao lan (32629.349 cymbidium virens or cymbidium), several flowers per stem are called huilan (32677.44, a genus of lan), those with a white center are called suxinlan (27924.17 a genus of lan), those grown in Fujian are called jianlan (Fujian orchids, perhaps the same as Taiwan orchids)." The earliest reference it gives is 毛詩、草木鳥獸蟲魚疏 the Mao (Edition of the Classic of) Poetry, Commentary on flowers, trees, birds, animals, insects and fish.

C. 木蘭也,花如連、香如蘭。 "Mulan, (a deciduous magnolia) with flowers like a lotus and fragrance like an orchid." The earliest reference given is 文選 Wen Xuan.

  II. 9/626 蘭 lan:

A. 蘭花 lan hua; the examples clearly refer to orchids, but the earliest reference is from the Ming dynasty.

B. 蘭草 lan cao, defined as 澤蘭 ze lan, which in turn (6/167) are defined as 菊科 ju ke (i.e., compositae); the references for this include 易、繫辭上 the first section of the 繫辭 xici 4th c. CE commentary on the 易經 Yi Jing (by 韓[康]伯 Han [Kang]Bo, which says 同心之言,其臭如蘭 "two people speaking with one mind gives a fragrance like the lan"), 左傳、宣公三年 Third Year of Duke Xuan in the Zuo Zhuan (see Legge, pp.292-4: Duke Wan's concubine dreams that heaven sends her a lan, saying that as the most fragrant flower it should represent the state; after this Duke Wan gives her a lan when he lies with her, resulting in a son they call Lan), and 離騷 Li Sao (lines 11-12, twining autumn lan to make a garland).

C. 木蘭 mulan, defined as 一種香木 a type of fragrant wood; references include a commentary in which 朱熹 Zhu Xi says the lan in 楚辭九歌 Nine Songs from the Songs of Chu refers to mulan (see I.C. above).

It might also be noted here that in the Book of Songs the character 蘭 lan is used only in Mao#60 芄蘭 Wanlan (31375.1; Waley: "vine bean"). The illustration at right, showing a broad-leafed wanlan twining around a narrow-leafed 葭菼 jia tan (32155.21, see Mao#57; Waley: "reeds and sedges"), is from the above-mentioned Revised Nature Illustrations for Mao's edition of the Book of Songs.

More recently "A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese", p.252, puts lán in the aster family and says, "for pre-Song texts, lán is invariably Eupatorium, not 'orchid'." For an example, see this translation by Knechtges.

In sum, it is open to question exactly what flower is intended by early references to lan: at times it could refer to plants that are not true orchids at all. And I am still looking for a description or illustration that clearly identifies any of the lan in the qin melody titles with the orchidae family.

4. Orchids: flagrant beauty or subtle fragrance?
The most important characteristic of lan in classical texts seems to be their fragrance. An example of this can be found in the annotated translation of the inscription on Orchids, a painting by 鄭燮 Zheng Xie (1693-1766), in Liu Yang and Edmund Capon, Fragrant Space, Chinese Flower and Bird Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties from the Guangdong Provincial Museum, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, pp.100-101. After comparing his painting with one by the Song loyalist painter Zheng Sixiao (1241-1318), who drew his orchids with roots pulled out to represent the effect of the Mongol conquest of China, Zheng Xie says he prefers painting the lan orchid to the hui orchid because "though it bears fewer blossoms, it effuses a more exquisite fragrance that lasts longer and spreads afar." (Return)

5. Orchids and gentlemen
Both the Confucius and the Qu Yuan story suggest a man who maintains his principles even though the world does not recognize his talents. Other flowers were also associated with gentlemen. A theme found in art is the 四君子 "four gentlemen", referring to 蘭、菊、梅、竹 orchids, chrysanthemums, plums and bamboo. (Return)

6. Orchids and love
This aspect is described in Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp,219-220, as follows.

The word lan can also mean lily or iris. The symbolical significance of the orchid has to do mainly with its scent. And "orchid-room" is the dwelling-place of a young girl or the bedroom of a married couple. A beautiful woman's breath is like the perfume of an orchid. The word lan = orchid occurs in women's names only.

Old texts mention bathing in orchid blossom. But this may be a euphemism for bathing in filth which was supposed to be a cure for possession by spirits. In general, the flower stands for love and beauty. 'Golden-orchid Bond' (jin lan qi) is a close friendship between two men or women, which is not necessarily sexual. A man can say to his wife: 'Above (on earth) we have the (bond of the) golden orchid, below (the earth) we have the same grave.' The relationship between two homosexuals cn also be described as a 'Golden-orchid Bond'....

Orchids in a vase may mean 'concord', after the passage in the Yi-jing which says: "When two people are in concord, their sharpness is broken. Words of concord are fragrant as orchids." (Return)

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