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Elegant Chinese Melodies of Springtime and Love
Silk-string guqin music celebrating love and springtime; concerts have taken place during:
Chinese "Spring Festival" / Valentine’s Day / a Chinese spring ceremony / springtime in general 1
  "Playing" #6 Zhi Zhao Fei in Kun opera 2    
Some of the most appealing guqin melodies from the Ming dynasty are connected by title or otherwise to spring. Fortunately in China "spring" can have a wide interpretation. Thus although in China today "New Year" often refers to the Western New Year, the traditional Chinese New Year is often called "Spring Festival", the "first spring month" beginning with a new moon anywhere between 21 January and 20 February.3 It thus usually overlaps with Western Valentine's day, February 14th. Deeper into spring is the Spring Purification Ceremony made famous by Wang Xizhi in the year 353 C.E.. This one hour program of guqin melodies on the themes of spring and love, played as published in 15th and 16th century scores, can thus be timed to commemorate any or all of these three events, as well as springtime and love in general.

Guqin Silk-string Zither (絲絃古琴)

Guqin (“goo chin”) was the Chinese literati’s musical equivalent to their classical painting, poetry and calligraphy; as such it has a timeless beauty and corresponding sophistication. From ancient times it was considered the “instrument of Confucius” and so it was important to write down its music. The music is written in a tablature that details tuning, finger positions, stroke techniques and ornamentation, but not rhythms. Finding the structures in the music enables bringing it to life. In 2003 UNESCO nominated the guqin part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, leading to a major revival of interest in the guqin as a musical instrument as well art object.

Performer: John Thompson (唐世璋)

Through over 40 years playing the guqin, John Thompson has become the best known player doing Historically Informed Performance of early guqin melodies. His website, www.silkqin.com, is generally acknowledged as being the most detailed source of information on early guqin music. He lived in Hong Kong for 24 years, working as Artistic Consultant to the Festival of Asian Arts, but now lives in the New York area.


  1. Song of Wenjun (文君操 Wenjun Cao, 1539)
    Ancient stories tell of the famous poet Sima Xiangru (179-113 BCE) seducing the beautiful Zhuo Wenjun by singing for her a guqin song. In popular opera the lyrics have often been those of the present piece. The two verses have lyrics as follows:

    1. There is a beautiful woman, once seen she is unforgettable.
      If one day I no longer see her, thinking of her leads to madness.
      The male phoenix soars around, searching the four seas for his mate,
      But unfortunately the beautiful woman is not at this eastern wall….

    2. With qin instead of words, I unburden myself of these feelings.
      When will you accept me, and relieve my restless anxiety?
      A willing word will combine our virtues; hand in hand we'll be joined.
      Otherwise I must go on flying, bringing depression (and) ruination.

  2. Yearning for Spring (Spring Thoughts: 春思 Chun Si, 1525)
    "Chun Si" often evokes images of a woman longing for an absent lover, but this upbeat melody has subtitles that bring forth positive images of the coming spring, such as a woman happily looking forward to the return of an absent lover. The associated commentary begins, "Knowledgeable men of elevated stature cherish living in solitude, feeling the harmony of a fragrant springtime...."

    All 12 section titles are as follows:

    1. Flitting butterflies settle on a cluster of flowers
    2. Flying off to a hidden valley
    3. Dappled carp splash in the fragrant pond
    4. Mandarin ducks bathe in the warm water
    5. Willow blossoms fly across bamboo (harmonics)
    6. Weeping willows hang down into the green waters
    7. Coming out of the forest a pair of cranes dance
    8. Wind and duckweed move in the middle of the pond (harmonics)
    9. Bees suck honey from flower blossoms, then return
    10. A red sun revolves across the sky (harmonics)
    11. In a bamboo grove partridges call out
    12. Swallows return to the decorated beams (of wealthy homes)

  3. Springtime River Melody (春江曲 Chun Jiang Qu, 1511)
    This piece, from the earliest surviving collection of guqin songs, has three sets of lyrics, two of them concerning lovers. However, the melody works equally well as a purely instrumental piece. The lyrics are:

    1. (郭震 Guo Zhen)
      The river water is deep and clear,
              above it on both sides is a bamboo grove.
      Bamboo leaves float on (spoil) the color of the water,
              but the young gentleman has spoiled my heart.

    2. (張籍 Zhang Ji)
      The river in spring is cloudless, mornings the water is calm;
              rush leaves arise out of the water, and ducklings call out.
      From Changgan (in Nanjing) my husband loves traveling afar;
              (while) I dye spring clothing, the sewing already done.
      As a wife, my whole life had been spent in Nanjing; (then)
              last year I followed my husband to live north of the Yangzi.
      When spring came I was unable to go to my parents' home;
              our boat small, the wind great: we couldn't cross (the river).
      To leave my in-laws I first had to ask my husband,
              then personally at the river edge sacrifice to the Water Spirit.

    3. (張仲素 Zhang Zhongsu)
      Swirling waves overflow the river in spring;
              on both sides you can see white duckweed.
      While returning, before I had realized it night fell;
              coming away from the river bank the moon followed me.

      At homes on the bank of the river in spring,
              travelers of all ages go by.
      If they don't know about the tidal waters reliably,
              by the end of the day they run into a sand bank.

      There is morning mist at the south river crossing,
              uneven and repeated waves flow sideways.
      The island in front: where is it?
              In the fog, wild geese call out.

  4. Spring River Evening View (春江晚眺 Chun Jiang Wan Tiao)
    Although published in a different handbook, this melody uses and expands upon a number of motifs from Springtime River Melody. It has six sections, as follows:

      1. 鼔枻安流 Gu Yi An Liu Beating the oars with the current
      2. 維舟晚渡 Wei Zhou Wan Du Tie up the boat for the evening ferry
      3. 涵空望遠 Han Kong Wang Yuan Looking afar at the sky reflected in the water
      4. 長天澄碧 Chang Tian Cheng Bi All day there is a clear blue sky
      5. 落日流紅 Luo Ri Liu Hong As the sun sets it flows red
      6. 垂波蕩漾 Chui Bo Dang Yang Nearby waves ripple

  5. Spring Dawn Intonation (春曉吟 Chun Xiao Yin, 1525)
    As published here this melody is a prelude to Pheasants Fly in the Morning (next).

  6. Pheasants Fly in the Morning (雉朝飛 Zhi Zhao Fei, 1425; image above)
    In the well-known opera scene 琴挑 Qin Tiao a man courts a woman with this piece. It describes a male and female pheasant flying happily as a pair. A man approaching middle age, seeing this, observes that in nature most creatures pair off, but he has not yet found his mate. Associated poetry suggests that this event took place in spring.

    Section titles (from the identical music in 1491) are as follows:

    1. The sky is comforting and the sun is warm
    2. The green wheat is in rows
    3. Red feathers (on the body) and long headfeathers
    4. Male and female pheasant fly together
    5. Stopping and flying at the appropriate times
    6. They fly back and forth in a pair
    7. Together in life and death
    8. Min (Xuan) goes out to get firewood
    9. Touched by the animal, the man thinks of himself
    10. He looks up to heaven and cries out
    11. How are people different from other things?
    12. The evening of life
    13. A faithful relationship from beginning to end
    14. Using a qin to record the affair

  7. Cry of the Osprey (關雎 Guan Ju, ca. 1491)
    Guan Ju is the title of a poem in the ancient Classic of Poetry; the lyrics tell of a gentleman unsuccessfully pursuing a beautiful girl. In later versions such as this one the man is King Wen and he succeeds more because of his virtue than his ardor.

    The 9 section titles are as follows:

    1. The prince-like osprey finds a good marriage
    2. Very gentle are (the wives of the royal family of) Zhou and Zhao
    3. Using (a birdcall) as a metaphor for (the queen's virtue)
    4. Praise (her) virtue and acclaim (her) conduct
    5. (Like) the wind (, the queen) guides the world
    6. They mutually call out in harmony to each other
    7. The correct (wedding) ceremony (leads to) a successful marriage
    8. (The king and queen's) virtue (is) as great as heaven and earth
    9. (The king and queen have) eternal worship in the Zhou family temple

  8. Sunny Spring (陽春 Yang Chun, 1525)
    The earliest surviving version is this one; it is musically unrelated to the version in Shen Qi Mi Pu. THE 1525 version has 10 sections, titled as folows:

    (Play Essence from Gong Mode as prelude?)

    1. A fine, elegant day
    2. Beautiful fragrant flowers along the purple-flowered pathway
    3. Bird calls penetrate the woods (begins with harmonics)
    4. Falling petals are shaken from the sleeves
    5. A flute plays Fallen Plum Blossoms20 (harmonics)
    6. A golden bell protects the moon (during an eclipse)
    7. A wanderer drums and pipes
    8. Gulls splash in the light ripples
    9. Swallows chatter amongst the carved beams
    10. A rope swing in the courtyard

  9. A Phoenix Seeks his Mate (鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Huang, 1525)
    The famous lyrics of this melody, dated from the Han Dynasty, are said to have been sung by Sima Xiangru to seduce the lovely Zhuo Wenjun (compare #1 above).

    (Sung during Section 3)
    This male phoenix has returned to his old home,
    from roaming the four seas searching for his mate.
    Time was not yet ripe, there was no way to meet her;
    then what a surprise: this evening I come up to this hall,
    and there's a dazzling maiden in the women's quarters.
    The room near but she far: this poisons my guts.
    How can we entwine our necks like mandarin ducks?
    How can we flutter about, and together soar?

    (Sung during Section 8)
    Lady phoenix, lady phoenix: come with me and nest,
    be supported, breed with me, forever be my wife.
    Exchanging affection in a physical way will harmonize our hearts;
    at midnight if you follow me who will know?
    Our wings together will rise, fluttering as high we fly.
    If you are unmoved by my feelings, it will cause me misery.

    There are quite a few other melodies that could also be included in such a program.3

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Elegant Chinese Melodies of Spring and Love
Versions of this program have taken place on a number of occasions. Note that it was only in 2023 that I found and reconstructed a melody that actually concerned the Chinese Spring Festival itself: Dongfeng Qi Zhuo Li (East Winds Work Together), a ci song about the New Year's Eve.

  1. This developed from a program first presented for the Chinese Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) at Yale University, 2014.
  2. The title "Spring and Love" was first used for a performance at Chatham Square Library, 12 February 2016; attached here is a .pdf copy copy given out at that performance; it includes all the translated lyrics and all section titles, plus links to further information.
  3. The Chatham Square program was largely repeated 1 May 2016 at the Taipei Qin Hall, timed to commemorate the Spring Purification Ceremony that traditionally took place during the third lunar month (Wang Xizhi's famous poem dated his event to the beginning of "暮春 muchun" in the year 353: the third ten-day period of the third lunar month [27 April to 4 May in 2016]). For the Taipei performance it was thus appropriate to add the melody Riverside Purification Ceremony (see below).
  4. The program above has been modified so that at present it largely reflectes the program scheduled for the Phoenix Museum of Art, April 7, 2017.

In addition, the pages with Spring and Passions of the Literati list other melodies that could be added to or substituted for other programs with a similar theme.

2. Image: Playing #6 "Zhi Zhao Fei" in Kun opera
Copied from a blog of the Shuimo Kun Opera Troupe, Taiwan (shuimokun.pixnet.net; English info). In this scene, described elsewhere, the man plays "Pheasants Fly in the Morning", after which the lady says, "You are not really so old." Qin melodies "performed" (never for real) in opera often concern love and/or seduction (see Qin in Popular Culture.

3. Chinese New Year
The Chinese lunar year begins with the new moon closest to the day on the Chinese traditional solar calendar called "Start of Spring" (立春 Lichun), equivalent to 4 or 5 February on the Western calendar. The previous month, "Major Cold" (大寒 Dahan), usually begins on the first new moon after the winter solstice (Dahan begins on the second new moon during the years when an intercalary month must be added to make up for the fact that 12 lunar months have closer to 354 days than 365 days).

4. Other melodies that have or can be used for this program

  1. Full length melodiesc

    1. Riverside Purification Ceremony (臨河修禊 Lin He Xiuxi)
      This was an extra item for the performance in Taipei 1 May 2016. It sets to music what is probably the most famous example of Chinese calligraphy, the Lanting Preface written by Wang Xizhi for a springtime event where winecups were floated down a stream. The melody is a setting for guqin of the words to Wang Xizhi's Lanting Preface.

    2. Spring River (春江 Chun Jiang)
          Fan Li floats on a lake: with Xi Shi?

  2. Various qin songs
    There are numberous qin songs related to love; some concern both spring and love. However, performing them requires a venue where the lyrics can either be projected or given to the audience in handouts. Examples include:

    1. Essence from Gong Mode (宮意 Gong Yi, 1597)
      The lyrics of this melody evoke scenes of spring romance as men and women meet while flowers bloom and birds sing.

        Favorable winds and moistening rain bathe the flower-strewn firmament,
        A purple flowered lane to a green door: be entwined in tender affection.
        The fragrant grass is plenty for laying with love.
        Young lords and princes, gambol around a swing.
        Beauties, yellow buds on the willow bank,
        Passing ripe apricots along the dyke.
        Right now the spring light is so bright and beautiful,
        With thinning clouds and light haze: seize this wonderful time!
        With flowers stuck in hat brims, reds mutually reflect in peach blossom pretty faces.
        As swallows return to the court yard.
        Of spring romance one can never tire,
        So don't be miserable about spending ready cash (for wine or love).
    2. Mulberry Lane (陌上桑 Moshang Sang, 1597)
      This melody is set to ancient lyrics, though again they need not be sung. They tell of the beautiful Luofu, who picks mulberries along the roadside. A wealthy lord comes along and tries to seduce her, but she rejects him, saying she loves only her husband. The full lyrics are as follows:

      1. Sunrise at the southeast corner shines on our Qin clan house.
        The Qin clan has a fair daughter, she is called Luofu.
        Luofu is good at silkworm mulberry, she picks mulberry at the wall's south corner.
        Green silk is her basket strap, cassia her basket and pole.
        On her head a twisting-fall hairdo, at her ears bright moon pearls.

      2. Green silk is her lower skirt, purple silk is her upper shirt.
        Passersby see Luofu, drop their load, stroke their beard.
        Young men see Luofu, take off caps, put on headbands.
        The ploughman forgets his plough, the hoer forgets his hoe.
        They return home to mutual resentment - all because they saw Luofu.

      3. A prefect from the south is here, his five horses stand pawing the ground.
        The prefect sends his servant forward to ask, "Whose is the pretty girl?"
        "The Qin clan has a fair daughter, her name is Luofu."
        "Luofu, how old is she?"
        "Not yet quite twenty, a bit more than fifteen."

      4. The prefect invites Luofu, "Wouldn't you like a ride with me?"
        Luofu steps forward and refuses: "You are so silly, Prefect!
        You have your own wife, Prefect, Luofu has her own husband!

      5. In the east more than a thousand horsemen, my husband is in the lead.
        How would you recognize my husband? His white horse follows black colts,

      6. Green silk plaits his horse's tail. Yellow gold braids his horse's head.
        At his waist a lulu dagger - worth more than ten million cash.
        At fifteen he was a country clerk, at twenty a court official,
        At thirty a chancellor, at forty lord of his own city.'

      7. As a man he has a pure white complexion, bushy whiskers on both cheeks.
        Majestic he steps into his office, dignified he strides to the courtroom,
        Where several thousand in audience all say my husband has no rival!"

              Coda: Repeat previous line.

    3. Clear Peaceful Music (清平樂 Qing Ping Yue, 1676)
      Subtitle: 7th night (of the 7th lunar month: 七夕 Qi Xi; 1676)
      With regard to "love", particular note might be made of this song. It was published in Japan but probably brought there from China. Its lyrics are a ci poem relating aspects of the story of the cowherd and the weaving girl, who have separately been banished into the heavens but who can meet on the "Magpie Bridge" of the Milky Way on the 7th day of every 7th lunar month, hence the lyrics would most naturally be associated with "Chinese Valentine's Day", which takes place in autumn. The lyrics are:

      Magpie Bridge has formed, yet it limits happiness to (once a year).
              It seems as if in the ladies' quarters gourd-fruit (offerings are ready) early, finished by the time of festive events.
      Staring into the top end of the Milky Way, we seem to float on a log as we try to meet this evening.
              Who knew the world here could be so vast: (this) arouses our hidden passions!

    4. Water Tune Prelude (水調歌頭 Shui Diao Ge Tou; 1687)
      Melodies such as this set to ci poem lyrics can easily be used for other lyrics in the same pattern. This example uses the following lyrics by Su Dongpo (popularized by Teresa Teng) in the voice of a person singing to the moon about separation from a loved one.

      When will the moon be clear and bright?
            With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the clear sky.
      In the heavens on this night,
            I wonder what season it would be?
      I'd like to ride the wind to fly home.
            Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions
            are much too high and cold for me.
      Dancing with my moonlit shadow,
            It does not seem like the human world.
      The moon rounds the red mansion,
            Stoops to silk-pad doors,
            Shines upon the sleepless,
      Bearing no grudge,
            Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?
      People experience sorrow, joy, separation and reunion,
            The moon may be dim or bright, round or crescent shaped,
            This imperfection has been going on since the beginning of time.
      May we all be blessed with longevity,
            Though thousands of miles apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.


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