Qu Xian Shen Qi Mi Pu Preface
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Preface to The Emaciated Immortal's
Handbook of Spiritual and Marvelous Mysteries
Qu Xian Shen Qi Mi Pu Xu1

It is said that (Fu Xi), Lord of the Green Essence,2 in accordance with the qualities of the five elements,3 fixed the five musical notes,4 thereby (laying the groundwork for) constructing the qin and se zithers -- this was the beginning of the qin; (Shen Nong), Lord of the Red Essence,5 pared down a tong tree to make a qin and used sinews6 as strings, thereby continuing its development (as a physical object); (the (Yellow Emperor), Xuan Huang7 (created qin music by) using the qin called Di Zhong8 to assemble the spirits at West Mountain so they could praise his sagely virtue. This was the foundation work of these three sages.9

As the qin became a physical object, the sages made it in such a way that it could correct purposeful thoughts, provide leadership in worldly affairs, bring accord to the six influences10 and tune the harmony of the seasons. It is indeed the divine instrument of heaven and earth, and a most ancient spiritual object; thus it became the music used by sages of our Middle Kingdom to control the government, and the object used by princely men to cultivate (themselves); it is only appropriate to stitched sleeves (i.e., scholars) or yellow caps (Daoists).

What can be done about the fact that vulgarity pours out while the Dao (only) trickles, and pure customs are becoming rare? As a result even jobless commoners, the street-peddler class, base types like singsong girls and actors, vulgar uncivilized barbarians, and the sort of persons who have incurable illnesses are all using (the qin) without any compunction.11 This has then led to evil influences bringing debauchery, (and the) destruction of this spiritual object. This is bad luck for the qin, misfortune for things in general, cheap use of a valuable object, and a situation in which the Dao is not (being treated) as it was in ancient times.

Liu Xiang12 (80 - 9 BCE) said,

Highly valued objects should not be bestowed upon people of lower rank.
The rites and music are not to be spread out among the four barbarians.

How can the qin be treated in that way? And so in sympathy I begin to sigh; it always makes me painfully sad.

As for rescuing this damaged legacy from the past and seeking its future as a Great Essence13, I am writing this preface in order to (help) arrange this; to prompt teachers, when they accept students, to select the (sort of) person who will pass this on, so that they won't bring destruction on this profound creation, but rather spread out the beauty of its supreme great music. 14

Moreover, qin tablatures recorded by the various experts (include) more than a thousand, but those which have been passed on to our generation number no more than several tens.15 As for the ones for which we do not have definite indications of the performance technique, I am afraid they contain mistakes, and so I do not dare spread (them) throughout society, lest this mislead people of later periods.16

I personally have been taught 34 tunes.17 These all have their phrasing (indicated here). The playing method, including ornamentation and the proper tuning, have in no way been concealed. They have been printed (here) in order to transmit them: later students can look at this tablature and obtain everything by themselves. They won't have to wait for a teacher who can pass it on to them. To tell the truth (others) would not pass on these mysteries for 10,000 pieces of gold.

As for the 16 pieces in the first folio,18 Taigu Shenpin, they are the most ancient pieces; so far no one has passed on the mystery (of how to play them),19 so they have no phrasing indicated. (Only) men of distinction can learn these by themselves. This is how the Dao of the qin has been passed on. If only the melody has been transmitted, don't add tablature; (if only the melody and its tablature have been transmitted), don't add punctuation.20 And so it was that Xi Kang ended his life without passing on (his music); Bo Ya broke the strings (of his qin) and didn't play anymore (after the death of Ziqi).21 These (stories) are intended to show that one should not carelessly transmit the qin by teaching it to unworthy people.

I figured that the qin pieces neglected by our generation were quite numerous, so I ordered the qin workers22 Li Jizhi (nicknamed Zhu Yan), Jiang Yizhi (nicknamed Lan Gu), Jiang Kangzhi (nicknamed Zhu Han), Ho Mianzhi (nicknamed Xuan Pu) and Xu Muzhi (nicknamed Jing An) -- five men in all23 -- frequently to change teachers and receive (all their teachings). In this way the Dao of the qin could be brought into proper regulation.

In my opinion, these pieces include ones with differing moods.24 This is because the aims of the (various) men of distinction (who played them) each resulted from their own differing natural dispositions. Those kinds (of people) do not associate themselves with prevalent customs, and do not get mixed up with filth; instead they have pure and clean bodies on heaven and earth, instead following their aims outside the materialist world (thereby) expanding (themselves) until their bodies become part of the Great Void.25 In an elegant and leisurely way they become spread out around the six directions.26

This ambition to cherish ones' own virtues and contentedly obtain things is revealed when (they) play the qin, develops from their elevated interests, is told to the gods, and kept appropriate to the Daoist mysteries, thereby bringing refined enjoyment into their own aims. So how could they just slavishly follow along in the destruction of this refined object by their predecessors rather than use it to express their own aims?27

Everything has its own Dao! To take things that are different and make most of them the same would be despicable. Such is the importance of small details.28

Now, as for this handbook, the melodies are ones which I have in the past acquired, and they all represent the sounds of my spirit. (In writing down) the characters and phrases, the dots and lines, there is nothing which I have omitted. As for the ones which had vulgar names, all these I have changed (to more refined ones) in order to illumine the Dao of the qin; thus (the music) will not descend into vulgarity.29

I am publishing this in order to pass them on to society, and so that the world's later generations can also obtain them; and as a result they won't become lost to people who (want to) study them in the future. I have frequently added corrections, and not worked at it for simply a day or so. I continued in this way for 12 years, then fixed (the details of) this handbook.

Perhaps this will be of some slight help, in redirecting (the qin) back to ancient ways, (so we can) see once again the influence of Fu Xi, and then the society during (even earlier legendary rulers such as) Ge Tian30 and Wu Huai,31 will reappear. How could a person who has obtained this (music) not value this inheritance but instead hide it?

Written during the first year of the Hongxi reign (1425/6), on the first day of the third month, by the Emaciated Immortal.

Return to the Shen Qi Mi Pu index or to the Guqin ToC.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Comment on this translation of the original preface to Shen Qi Mi Pu
In 1975 I originally translated this preface by Zhu Quan with the help of my classical Chinese teacher in Taiwan, 方慕廉 Fang Mulian. In the 1980s I revised it with the assistance of 唐健垣 Dr. Tong Kin-Woon (hereafter TKW).

When revising the translation for this website I also consulted the translation by Bell Yung and Georges Goormaghtigh, published in ACMR Reports, Vol.10, No.1 (Spring, 1997) as Preface of Shenqi Mipu, Translation and Commentary. The two most important differences between my translation and that of Yung-Goormaghtigh can be grouped as follows (for specific examples search the footnotes below for "Y-G"):

  1. In several places Y-G's interpretations suggest that Zhu Quan was encouraging players to change the way pieces were played; according to my understanding, Zhu was trying to reconstruct ancient music, and he avoided including pieces if he thought what he was publishing might describe something different from the way the music was formerly played; and
  2. Y-G translate several passages in such as way as to suggest Zhu considered the qin to be a secret tradition (e.g., their translation of the title; my own understanding is that the "mi" of Shen Qi Mi Pu means "mysterious", not "secret"); their translation makes Zhu's writing seem rather inconsistent, as in other places he clearly states he is trying to make qin music available to the present generation.

A major problem in doing this translation (including Zhu Quan's commentary on the individual pieces) is identifying the sources mentioned. These include the following.

  1. Qin History (琴史 Qin Shi); see Dunshi Cao, Guangling San, Huaxu Yin, Gao Shan, Yang Chun, Zhao Yin, Huo Lin, Yi Zhen (all in Folio I), and Da Hujia (Folio III). None of Zhu Quan's quotes follows the text to be found in the surviving Song dynasty source of that title by 朱長文 Zhu Changwen.
  2. Qin Book (琴書 Qin Shu); see Guangling San. Wang Shixiang in his Guangling San article, p.17 fn, says that Qinyuan Yaolu, includes contents from a Qin Shu written during the 宋景祐 Song Jingyou period (1034 -38), as outlined in 周慶雲,琴書存目 Zhou Qingyun's Qinshu Cunmu. There, Folio II, #15 (Tang) has nothing, but Folio III, #8 says it is included in Qinyuan Yaolu.
  3. Qin Collection (琴集 Qin Ji); see Yang Chun. No information about this source.
  4. Qin Tradition (琴傳 Qin Chuan [Qin Record, Qin Zhuan?]); see Meihua Sannong and Heming Jiugao. Qinshu Cunmu attributes a book of this title to Liu Xiang of the Han dynasty (see footnote above), but has no further information about this source.

2. 32425.163 蒼精﹕神名(禮記,月令)其帝太昊其神句芒....龍名 says this is 太昊 Tai Hao, the dynastic name of 4351.153 伏羲 Fu Xi, the first legendary emperor; he is said by Cai Yong to have invented the qin and se zithers)

3. Water, wood, fire, earth, metal

4. They form the pentatonic scale

5. 赤精之君 Chijing zhi jun; 37843.xx, but 9/1172 赤精 identifies him as 炎帝 Yan Di, the dynastic name of 神農 Shen Nong, "2838-2698", successor of Fu Xi and predecessor of the Yellow Emperor.

6. Y-G says this is actually bamboo fiber; TKW says there are also precedents indicating it could be from animal.

7. 39038.28 軒皇 Xuan Huang was the personal name of the Yellow Emperor, "2698-2598". The Shi Ji begins with his biography.

8. Di Zhong: 遞鍾 39931.22 (Transmit Affection) says it is also called 號鐘 Hao Zhong (Proclaim Affection), then quotes the Han Shu biography of 王褒 Wang Bao (see ICTCL) saying Bo Ya played a qin with this name. Taiyin Daquan Ji has what is claimed to be an image of this qin (QQJC, I, p.43).

9. Y-G suggest that this refers to another group of three, such as Yao, Shun and Yu.

10. Yin, yang, wind, rain, darkness, light; also: cold, heat, drought, moisture, wind, fire.

11. People who should not be associated with the qin
In this (rather embarrassing) rant it is a bit surprising that Zhu Quan does not mention Buddhists: he was known to be strongly anti-Buddhist (see The Ming Prince and Daoism, p. xiii, etc).

12. 劉向 Liu Xiang's biography is in Qin Shi, Folio 3. I have not found the source of this quotation.

13. 5965.177 太朴 Taipu, "The Transcendent Dao".

14. 5960.694 大音 dayin says it is 大聲 dasheng, a great sound which must in fact be 希聲 xisheng "beyond sound" (as in my CD, Music Beyond Sound).

15. Types of melodies
Here Zhu Quan seems to be saying that in the past thousands of melodies had been written down, but only several dozens of these had survived in tablature form. There would thus have been four categories of qin pieces for Zhu to consider:

  1. Pieces existing in name only; of these there were several thousand.
  2. Pieces for which there were players but no tablature. Zhu does not say how many of these there were, only indicating that he is unwilling to provide tablature for them; reading between the lines one might guess that these included popular pieces played by the "wrong" kind of person.
  3. Pieces for which there was tablature but no players. Many of these dozens had so many mistakes that he could not feel confident about their reconstruction; these 不經指授者 bujing zhishouzhe (next footnote) are the pieces he is either hesitant to transmit or unwilling to edit. From this one might guess that the 16 of these he included in Folio I either had no obvious mistakes, or had so few that he felt one might still be able to play them accurately from the tablature. But even here he was not willing to add his own punctuation, lest it be incorrect.
  4. Pieces for which there were both players and tablature: 34; it is unclear how the modal preludes fit this scheme.

16. No definite indication of performance technique ("不經指授者")
Literally, "ones that not been transmitted by direct instruction", such instruction being necessary to be able to confirm that the tablature accurately described how to play (and ornament) all the notes. Although one might guess that this means that some of the tablature Zhu Quan's assistants found had so many mistakes that he did not think the music could be accurately reconstructed, it is not clear what Zhu Quan would have meant by "mistakes". If something is physically unplayable (not uncommon in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu), then clearly there is a mistake somewhere, but in Shen Qi Mi Pu it is quite rare to find passages that are physically unplayable. Does this mean Zhu Quan did not include tablatures that originally had "too many" mistakes, or only that he excluded ones that had mistakes he couldn't "correct"? Do the melodies in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu not found in Shen Qi Mi Pu include ones which Zhu Quan did not include because of mistakes in the tablature? See also the next footnote.

17. Personally taught 34 tunes ("予昔親受者三十四曲")
This is the number of tunes included in Folios 2 and 3, not counting the 14 short modal preludes (shenpin diao yi). Zhu Quan had a wide range of scholarly interests and it seems quite likely that he himself was an accomplished player. However, his actual skill level is not known and the expression translated here as "personally taught" (親受 qin shou) could simply mean "had personally been explained", not that he necessarily had mastered 34 melodies, or even that he had personally edited those 34 tablatures. Just before this he mentioned melodies "不經指授者 that not been transmitted by direct instruction". There the character "授" is used while here the character is "受": both are pronounced "shòu" and can have the same meaning. But does their juxtaposition here emphasize that in the former case the melodies had not been passed down through oral transmission while the latter melodies had been thus transmitted and so he had been able to receive personal instruction on how to play them?

18. Number of pieces in Folio I
The first folio actually has 15 pieces and two 開指 kaizhi (modal introductions). Zhu's counting indicates that he considered one of the kaizhi to be part of Guangling San and the other to be a separate entity. If, in fact, he didn't play either he might have been mistaken. The instructions coming with #12 Kaizhi seem to indicate it was an intrinsic part of #13. For more on this see the General Introduction.

There is evidence to indicate that after SQMP these Folio I pieces continued to be treated as relics rather than as part of an active repertoire. Several later handbooks repeat them exactly as in SQMP, but most are rarely seen. The Gao Shan and Liu Shui that have survived are related to the SQMP version but seem to come from a different source. Later versions of Yang Chun are musically unrelated.

19. So far no one has passed on the mystery (昔人不傳之秘 Xi ren bu chuan zhi mi)
This passage could also be translated: "people of olden days did not pass on the secrets." Y-G has "ones that old masters considered as secrets and did not intend to teach and transmit." In all cases it implies to me that Shen Qi Mi Pu is a book of (former) secrets, not a secret book.

20. Zhu Quan on whether to add punctuation in Folio I of Shen Qi Mi Pu
For this passage (the original is "傳曲不傳譜;(傳譜)不傳句。") Y-G's translation has a different slant from mine: "If the music is taught, the tablature is not given; if the tablature is given, the phrases are not marked." The idea is that qin music should be kept secret, but this seems inconsistent with other parts of the preface.

As for the actual lack of punctuation, it seems to apply only to the first edition. There have been three known original editions of Shen Qi Mi Pu (see analysis by Tong Kin-Woon). The first edition is dated 1425, the second edition was published during 1522 - 1567, the third edition during 1573-1620. The second and third editions actually have punctuation added for six of the melodies in Folio I: Dunshi Cao, Huaxu Yin, Yang Chun, Zhao Yin, Jiu Kuang and Huo Lin. (Note, however, that Folio 1, leaf 19 of the 3rd edition omits the punctuation for Huaxu Yin that can be found the second edition!)

The lack of punctuation is also mentioned in part 3 of a footnote above. Zhu Quan seems to be expressing the opinion that the player's aim should be to try to play a transmitted piece accurately. This may sometimes be possible, as with the 34 pieces mentioned above. But where the information is incomplete, as with the 17 pieces in Folio I, he says the player should go to the source rather than rely on what might be a later person's misinterpretation: this is why for these 17 Zhu Quan did not add punctuation.

21. For Xi Kang see also #2 Guangling San; for Bo Ya see also #5 Gao Shan.

22. Qin workers (琴生 qinsheng)
Y-G translate qinsheng as "students" (學生 xuesheng), but Yao Pinwen (see 朱權研究 Zhu Quan Yanjiu, p.113 and elsewhere) shows they were court eunuchs who assisted in Daoist rituals and music events. Having sent them out to find and learn qin pieces, perhaps he even studied from them.

23. Five men
See further. The character 之 zhi at the end of each of their names underlines the similarity of their roles in Zhu's administration. Zhu's book on opera 太和正音譜 Taihe Zhengyin Pu has some further information about them, 蔣康之 Jiang Kangzhi in particular. Jiang Kangzhi was a musician from Nanjing who Zhu Quan heard singing in Nankang during his boat trip from Nanjing to take up residence in Nanchang. He later wrote a poem in Jiang's honor. See also the previous footnote.

24. Different moods
The original only says, "不同者": differences. I interpret it as different pieces; Y-G interpret it to refer to differing versions of the same piece. TKW says that it is possible that the latter is what Zhu meant, but it is not specifically what he says.

25. 5965.394/2 太虛 Tai Xu See Zhuangzi #22/65.

26. 六合 liuhe: north, south, east, west, up, down: everywhere, as in the title of #27 Shen You Liuhe.

27. Original text: "豈肯蹈襲前人之敗興而寫己之志乎?"
Y-G: "Therefore how uncompromisingly he would avoid following and copying the old and worn-out materials of others in order to express his own aspirations!" TKW disagrees with that interpretation.

28. Original text: "各有道焉!所以不同者多使其同則鄙也。夫細之甚也。"
Y-G: "Each person has his own Tao! Therefore most versions are different from others. If they are identical, they fall into vulgarity. If so, they would have been extremely insignificant." TKW disagrees with that interpretation.

29. Zhu Quan's changed Shen Qi Mi Pu melody titles
Zhu Quan statement that "其名鄙俗者,悉更之以光琴道 the names that were pisu he changed in order to illumine the Dao of the qin" causes several problems. It is assumed that "names" refers to melody titles, but could it also or instead refer to section titles? Here 鄙俗 pisu is translated as "vulgar", but what does this mean: politically incorrect? populist? risque? The main problem, though is that he gives no indication of which names he changed.

To answer this this one must examine old qin melody title lists. Here it would be most useful if a melody list survived from Zixiadong Pu, but this apparently is not the case. Of existing lists the one in Taiyin Daquanji, Folio 5 is of particular interest, as Zhu Quan himself is said to have edited at least one version of this handbook. This list has titles not in SQMP, and does not include all the SQMP titles.

When searching for titles in these earlier known lists one might guess that if a title is not found in an early list, it may be one of the titles Zhu Quan has changed. Titles not in the earlier lists I have been able to consult include:

  #3. Huaxu Yin
  #4. Gufeng Cao (Gong Yi has suggested this was originally a Central Asian dance)
#10. Jiu Kuang (compare the theme of Xiuxi Yin)
#16. Yi Zhen (this title is especially problematic in light of its specific attribution to Dong Tinglan, though the title is not mentioned in his Qin Shi biography; QSCB Chapter 5b4 suggests this melody originally had the name of a folk tune).
#22. Kai Gu
#22. Tianfeng Huanpei
#27. Shen You Liu He
#50. Baji You
#59. Shenhua Yin (always associated with Zhuangzhou Meng Die, attributed to Mao Minzhong, and thus too late for early lists).

Of all the SQMP melodies Zhu Quan attributes to Song dynasty composers, Zhuangzhou Mengdie is the only one not included in the list in Taiyin Daquanji Folio 5 (note that that list also does not include shangjiao mode itself). However, some of the titles in that list are shorter than the same titles in SQMP and later. These are:

#35. Liezi Yu Feng (just called Yu Feng)
#39. Yu Hui Tushan (just called Tu Shan)
#53. Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (just called Shui Yun)

Another approach with regard to the changed titles is to suggest that these may have been pieces for which there were known existing alternative titles that Zhu Quan might have considered inappropriate. These include:

  #2. Guangling San, also called Nie Zheng Kills the Han King (my teacher told me he would never play a piece with such a violent theme);
#18. Guanghan You (a Daoist theme), which is elsewhere called Qingdu Yin (a love theme);
#25. Guanghan Qiu (a Daoist theme), which was also called Zhegui Ling, referring to a folk tale.

Other titles seem to have replaced old titles with no known inappropriate nature:

  #1. Dunshi Cao (alternate title Jishan Cao is Zage #1 and also listed elsewhere)
  #8. Xuan Mei (alternate title Zuo Wang)
#14. Shanzhong Si Youren (lists include such variants as Si Guren and Shanzhong Feng Youren)
#46. Longshuo Cao (old lists have the alternate title Zhaojun Yuan, and perhaps other related titles)

However, I also have no hard evidence to back any of these theories, nor have I found any textual evidence to support any of the guesses people have made about changed titles. At present this remains very much an open question.

30. 32168.11 葛天 Ge Tian was an ancient ruler of the region around 泰山 Taishan the most sacred ancient mountain. 32168.13 葛天氏 quotes 陶潛,五柳先生傳 Tao Yuanming's autobiography about Ge Tian and 無懷氏 Wu Huai (see next footnote).

31. 19580.744 無懷 Wu Huai refers to 19580.746 無懷氏 Mr. Wu Huai; Wu Huai was the nickname of another ruler of antiquity, before Fu Xi; he also ruled at Mt. Tai.