Jieshi Diao Youlan
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Towering Rock Melody Secluded Orchid
- Jieshi Diao2; tuning: 1 2 4 5 6 1 2
碣石調幽蘭 1
Jieshi Diao Youlan    
  My transcription3 (compare original scroll)    
This melody, over 8 minutes long, is the world's oldest surviving substantial written melody:4 its preface suggests that it dates from at least the 6th century CE.5 That combined with its exceptional sophistication and beauty make it worthy of especial attention.

At present this website has You Lan commentary on the separate pages that have or concern:

  1. General Introduction
    - includes a translation of the original preface, references and comments on the title.
  2. My You Lan recordings and transcriptions
    - old version also on YouTube and BiliBili. Phrase numbers in the transcription correspond with phrase numbers in:
  3. My typed and punctuated copy of the original You Lan longhand tablature
    - compare with the original manuscript, now in the Japanese National Museum, Ueno.
  4. Finger Techniques used in tablature for You Lan, based largely on:
    - 汪孟舒:烏絲闌指法釋 the Explanation of Wusilan Finger Techiques by Wang Mengshu (plus the Yang edition)
  5. The Qin Melody List appended at the end of the original You Lan longhand tablature
    - with transliterations; appended to this is Qin Li, another list of melodies, also dated to the Sui or Tang dynasty.
  6. Mode and Structure in Jieshi Diao You Lan
    - Does this "diao", translated here as "melody", still have distinctive modality or structure?
  7. Xu Jian's study of You Lan
    - includes discussion of Bao Zhao and Cao Rou; translated from his Introductory History of the Qin

See also Zha Fuxi's Preface in Qinqu Jicheng (Chinese only).

Because, other than this You Lan, the only other surviving tablatures before the first qin handbook was printed in 1425 are for the short song Gu Yuan and for another short song and two sets of short modal preludes dating only from the 13th century (in Shilin Guangji and in Taiyin Daquanji), it is tempting to see this You Lan as an oddity. However, the attached list of melodies and the surviving descriptions of finger techniques show conclusively that this melody gives us but a glimpse of a strong and sophisticated music tradition that must have been centuries in developing. Unfortunately, at that time the music was only hand-copied, not printed, and we are left wondering how the music developed, and what role writing the music down played in this development.

The original manuscript copy of You Lan was preserved in Japan and is now in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.6 Meanwhile it had been uncovered in the 18th century and then copied by the well-known Japanese Confucianist Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728).7 The original is a scroll over 4 meters long with the tablature written out in longhand; it has been authenticated as dating from at least the 7th century CE.8

In the fourth century Xi Kang wrote a poem praising the beauty of qin. The sophistication and complexity of the present You Lan melody provide strong evidence supporting the common belief that Xi Kang was describing music that already had a strong tradition.9 However, it is very difficult to say how far back that tradition would be recognizable in the surviving You Lan melody. By Xi Kang's time it seems likely that the qin had achieved its current physical shape, but earlier surviving instruments suggest that the left hand finger techniques in particular would have been very limited.

The "you" of You Lan suggests a flower of such beauty that it stands alone; this has led to various translations of that part of the title, including Lonely Orchid, Solitary Orchid, Reclusive Orchid, Hidden Orchid, Elegant Orchid and so forth as well as Secluded Orchid.10 As for "lan", though today always translated as "orchid", it may in ancient times have referred to a different flower; this is emphasized by references that suggest its beauty lies more in its fragrance than in its appearance.11 In any case, this You lan is the earliest of a number of surviving qin melodies connected to the theme of orchids.12 Its tablature gives as an alternative title an Yi Lan meaning "Self-Reliant Orchid",13 while the earliest surviving melody with "orchid" in its title is an Yi Lan meaning Flourishing Orchid.14 At least one later surviving melody has the same title as here, You Lan (Secluded Orchid),15 but because the most famous orchid story is connected to Confucius, the same connection to Confucius may be made to any melody with orchids in the title. However, most properly the connection to Confucius is with the version called Flourishing Orchid. There the the story in the preface tells of Confucius, on his way home from having failed to find a worthy ruler who could appreciate his advice, finds a solitary orchid flourishing in a common field; he then compares himself to that orchid.

The "Jieshi" ("Towering Rock"16) of "Jieshi Diao", on the other hand, brings up another intriguing possibility: that Jieshi refers not to a musical mode but rather to the Towering Rock climbed by the famous warlord and erstwhile emperor Cao Cao after his conquest of the northeast. Does this part of the title suggest that "Jieshi Diao You Lan" deliberately contrasts Confucius' reaction to seeing a solitary orchid to Cao Cao's reaction on encountering a towering rock and seeing the vast sea to the east? The four jieshi stanzas that Cao Cao wrote survive, and he is said sometimes to have commissioned music for such occasions. Could the mood of the four poems correspond to the varying moods of Cao Cao' four poems?17

A purely musical analysis can help us know what makes this piece work musically, but how much can it tell us of what the the music may have been intended to convey? For example, if the opening two notes are interpreted as an octave leap does that suggest viewing the world from a mountaintop, while if those two notes are interpreted as a dissonant fifth does that suggest thoughts of an unsuccessful quest?

The accumulation and investigation of historical and literary references will give us a variety of ideas about what the music should convey but fails to tell us which if any is "correct". Fortunately, though, the beauty of the music and the various ideas from the literature are both sufficiently enticing that the task of getting answers, though perhaps impossible, is nevertheless both enjoyable and rewarding.18

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. You Lan references (for 碣石 Jieshi references see next)

Other pages from this section of the website, as linked above, also have further references.

2. 碣石調 Jieshi Diao (Towering Rock Melody) references
See this detailed account.

3. My Jieshi Diao You Lan transcriptions and recordings
Linked here are my original recordings and transcriptions (2005), my revised ones (2020), and some transcriptions and recordings by other players, as listed below.

Transcriptions and recordings by others (actual copies here)
This melody was much studied in the 1950s, presumably as a part of the project led by Zha Fuxi; this resulted in recordings by at least five separate players. Four of these have transcriptions, all included at the beginning of Volume 1 of Guqin Quji (古琴曲集第一集). The seven known recordings by these five masters are included in 國鵬 (Guo Peng), 絕響-國鵬輯近世琴人音像遺珍); he says they are for public, non-commerical use, so people may similarly copy them from here as well. They are as follows:

All play the second note as "G" (sol, 5). Of them all, only the recordings of You Lan by Guan Pinghu can easily be found on the internet. In addition, almost all other modern recordings of You Lan are by people who either follow the version of Guan Pinghu, or who re-interpret the melody based not so much on the original as on Guan's interpretation. Two prominent later recordings are:

Also of note are these two transcriptions:

There are many other recordings on the internet but most seem either simply to follow or somewhat modify pre-existing reconstructions (without credit).

4. You Lan: The world's oldest surviving substantial written melody
This melody, surviving from a document authenticated as having been written down in around the year 600 C.E., also documents the world's oldest surviving written instrumental tradition: one can play this same music today on essentially the same instrument (or course, there are still issues involved in the actual interpretation).

The word "melody" is deliberately used here instead of "composition". In discussing early music I have tried to make a distinction between "composing" and "creating". That distinction suggests that "composing" implies conscious ordering of musical structures; "created" music might be just as structured as composed music but the structuring is more instinctive. Based on that distinction, the structures of Jieshi Diao You Lan suggest that it more resembles a written composition than any other surviving piece of written music prior to at least the late Western medieval period. At the same time, it is not clear that the structures in Jieshi Diao You lan were put there consciously by a "composer": they could just as well have been felt instinctively by the first person whose version was written down. underlining this spontaneity, the music was not then written down by the player for others to follow, almost certainly it was written down by someone who listened to it being played (see stories such as this). Later editors, then, could have modified the structures in various ways.

The word "substantial" is also used carefully here. It does not mean "important", or suggest it is "more worthy of study", or "more representative of a distinctive tradition" than other early surviving tablature or notation. There are in fact some very important but still minimal texts that seem to document music from earlier periods. However, attempts to make music from those documents are extremely speculative if only because of the documents' brevity and simplicity. By contrast, this You Lan is a complete work by itself. Its length and complexity as well as the detail of the You Lan manuscript, plus the fact that there are surviving playable instruments dating from around the same time, make it unique. The tablature also provides specific evidence for an instrumental tradition of long standing: one can argue about such specifics as the length of notes, but musical structures can clearly be heard, and it was writen down in detail that is certainly comparable to that available for medieval Western notation.

In fact, the closest real competitor for a documentable antique repertoire is probably some of the music from China being reconstructed from documents connected to the original gagaku repertoire.

Other claims to the title "world's earliest music" include, for example:

Even more ancient claims have been made for some oral traditions, but there is no way really to verify them. It is thus unlikely that they could be used to revive a music tradition in the way that scholars and musicians have been able to revive medieval Western music.

5. Date of the You Lan scroll
There are actually two surviving early scroll versions of this melody, as listed in the next footnote. One is from around 600 CE, the other is a copy of it from around 1700. These are discussed in detail in several articles by Yang Yuanzheng. See in particular this one but also "Japonifying, p.111ff.

6. Museum copies
The original You Lan scroll, referred to by Yang Yuanzheng as the "Tokyo Manuscript", is now preserved at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. The later copy, made by Ogyu Sorai or under his supervision (see next), is apparently in the 彦根 Hikone Musuem together with the finger techniques scroll (plus its
original copy by Sorai?

7. Ogyu Sorai (Ogyū Sorai; 1666-1728; Wikipedia)
Ogyu Sorai (荻生徂徠 Disheng Culai, also known as Mononobe Noke (物部茂卿 Wubu Maoqing), was a well known Japanese Confucianist. He apparently believed that the true ancient Chinese music was preserved in Japan, especially but not exclusively in its gagaku tradition. The You Lan manuscript was also a part of this argument: Sorai argued strongly that this melody was actually created by Confucius himself.

Modern commentary on the You Lan scroll seems to begin shortly after 荻生徂徠 Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) discovered it shortly before the year 1720. Sorai also discovered and edited some related manuscripts, leading to confusion about their actual origin. Furthermore his helped keep commentary on the melody focused on Confucius rather han any alternative possibilities.

Of Sorai's You Lan manuscript and its discovery Van Gulik, op.cit., wrote as follows,

"The question arises whether Ogyu Sorai faithfully followed the Chinese original, or whether he wrote out in full a manuscript originally in (shorthand tablature), for his own purposes."

Van Gulik's skepticism, along with the problem of the first two notes, are the main reasons I did not work on this melody for a long time. As it turns out, though, it seems that in fact Ogyu Sorai's copy was remarkably identical to the original and what he edited (re-wrote or simply re-arranged) was commentary on the manuscript and its finger techniques.

8. Date
The paper and ink have been carbon dated.

9. Dating the You Lan style
Claims have been made that a possible creator of the melody was the 4th century poet Bao Zhao, who may also have written related lyrics ({[5+5]x2} x 5). However, there is no real evidence to support this claim.

10. lan
Though "lan" is almost always translated simply as "orchid", it is not certain how strictly one can define what this character meant in ancient literature as it may not have referred to flowers we know of today as orchids. For more on this see this footnote under Guqin and Orchids.

11. Fragrance over appearance
See under Orchids.

12. Later versions of You Lan
For a list of the later versions of You Lan see Zha Fuxi's index 19/181/--. At present only some preliminary comments are available for the first of these, the version in Xilutang Qintong (1525).

Another melody connected to orchids is Xiuxi Yin in Xilutang Qintong (1525)

13. Self-reliant Orchid (倚蘭 Yi Lan)
This alternate title for You Lan is not attached to any other known melodies. See further comment on "self-reliant".

14. Flourishing Orchid (猗蘭 Yi Lan
Survives in 36 handbooks from 1425 to about 1900, but there is nothing to connect it to any earliest melody.

15. Secluded Orchid dated 1525 (西麓堂琴統幽蘭 You Lan in Xilutang Qintong)
Survives in about six handbooks from 1515 to 1876, but there is no evidence connecting this melody to an earlier one.

16. Translating the "碣石調 Jieshi Diao" of "碣石調幽蘭 Jieshi Diao You Lan"
During the Ming dynasty guqin melodies were always identified by their mode (調 diao). Each diao had its own general modal characteristics, as discussed here; and the actual modal characteristics of Jieshi Diao You Lan are analyzed to some extent here. But these analyses are based purely on personal observation - there is little to no such information in the traditional literature. In addition, few Chinese commentaries on this melody mention the Cao Cao story or "Towering Rock Mountains (碣石山 Jieshi Shan)", a range of mountqains by the coast in what is today Hebei province.

17. Cao Cao's Four jieshi stanzas
Chinese research on You Lan always emphasizes the You Lan story over any Jieshi connection. However, Xu Jian's study of You Lan does make reference to Cao Cao and Jie Shi, in particular making a connection with Longxi Ballads. Also see further comment here as well and in Yuefu Shiji.

18. The Challenge of Jieshi Diao You Lan
My personal connection with this tablature has gone through several phases. Almost from the time I began study in 1974 I found its antiquity intriguing. My relationship with it has then gone through several phases.

  1. Examining the score, trying to understand the finger technique explanations, most notably in Wang Mengshu's Explanation of Wusilan Finger Techiques, and wondering about the discrepancies between these and the existing transcriptions and recordings. Ultimately my desire to try to do my own version was blocked by my inability to decide on the first cluster, as discussed here.
  2. In 2004 I finally "completed" my reconstruction and made a recording and transcription that is now linked here. I then returned to my main focus, qin melodies published during the Ming dynasty.
  3. In 2020, having found the work of Yang Yuanzheng very helpful in improving my understanding of the original finger technique explanations, and also having done further work on other early finger technique explanations, I decided to re-examine my interpretation of the melody.

This latter work is still ongoing, details of its current progress perhaps best linked from here

Return to the annotated handbook list or to the Guqin ToC.