Qu Yuan Wen Du
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12. Qu Yuan Asks for Advice
- Qiliang mode: 2 4 5 6 1 2 3 2
屈原問渡 1
Qu Yuan Wen Du  
Meeting the Fisherman (from Zepan Yin) 3    
"Wen du" literally means to ask someone for passage across a body of water. Here, though, it more fully means "asking how to get past the obstacles thrown up by life". This latter understanding of the phrase comes from the present story, wherein Qu Yuan, walking along a riverside, meets a man on a boat and has a philosophical conversation with him. Qu Yuan (or Ch'ü Yüan, 332-295 BC; see below) was famous as an upright minister not properly appreciated. His consequent suicide at the Mi-luo River is still commemorated in the Dragon Boat Festival of the 5th of the 5th lunar month.

As recounted in Chapter 84 of the Record of History, Qu Yuan, banished to the south, meets a fisherman on a riverbank. The fisherman, surprised at seeing a high official in such a low state, advises Qu Yuan to be more accommodating, but Qu Yuan says that the world has grown too foul for him to be able to live in it. He then writes the long poem Huai Sha Fu (Embracing the Sand),4 epitomized by the line "Phoenixes are penned up in cages while common birds soar free", embraces a rock, and leaps to his death. However, none of the lyrics here are related to those either of Huaisha Fu or of the more famous poem and melody Li Sao.

Versions of Qu Yuan Wen Du seem to have been quite popular during the Ming dynasty, surviving in at least 13 handbooks from that period, with all melodies clearly related; after this it is known to have been included in only two more handbooks.5 The last one, dated ca. 1802, was a near copy of the version dated 1589.

Qiliang, the mode of this melody, requires tuning the second and fifth strings one semitone higher than standard tuning; it is often used for melodies connected to Qu Yuan: at least two other pieces in this mode concern him, Li Sao (Falling into Grief, his best known poem); and Zepan Yin (Marshbank Melody), based on the Chu Ci poem Yu Fu.6 The theme of the latter is very close to that of Qu Yuan Wen Du.

Zheyin Shizi Qinpu makes no attribution for the melody. Zha Fuxi's Guide says it has Song dynasty folk origins. He does not not give the basis for this assertion, but there is some logic to claiming Song dynasty origins - this handbook aimed to collect earlier melodies and its pairing of lyrics and music also suggests there were earlier versions. However, saying "folk origins" was probably a comment required of the times.7

Other than my own, to my knowledge there has been one other modern reconstruction of a version of this melody. Apparently it was originally done by Yao Bingyan around 1979, but it only became widely available through performances by his son, Yao Gongjing.8 The Yao version is based on the tablature in Xilutang Qintong (1525), which is closely related to the 1491 version for the first six sections or so, after which it adds material. There are various other modern recordings now available but all seem to have been based on the Yao interpretation.9

Zheyin Shizi Qinpu Preface 10

The Beyond-Sounds Immortal says,

As for this melody, it is not known where it originated. It is not in the handbook of the Royal Ancestor. It is thought that while the sage (Qu Yuan) was exiled to the barbarous southern region, not knowing where to go, he asked a fisherman to take him (across the river), and so this was created.

Zheyin Shizi Qinpu music and lyrics 11
Timings follow the recording on my CD; 聽錄音 listen with my original transcription.
The setting is largely syllabic. Within each of the eight sections most phrases rhyme.

Section titles (timings: column 1: my CD; column 2: my 2016 online recording (聽錄音 listen).
For the 2016 recording there are also two online transcriptions: relative pitch (C = do) and actual pitch (in Ab major)

  CD     2016
00.00   00.00   1. Expelled to the barbarous south
01.03   01.13   2. The wilderness ferry is a dangerous obstruction
01.54   02.12   3. The old fisherman asks his name
02.24   02.51   4. (Qu Yuan) reports his bitterness
02.47   03.18   5. A lonely person in exile
03.19   03.54   6. The gentleman's grief extends 10,000 miles (, as he worries about the kingdom's ruler)
03.50   04.32   7. (Sounds of) the delicate Canglang river
04.13   05.08   8. The ever-changing situation
04.33   05.33       Closing harmonics (compare music of the last line with the first line of Chu Ge)
05.01   06.07       End

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Qu Yuan Wen Du 屈原問渡
7845.70 is only 屈原 Qu Yuan, with no longer entries. As for 問渡 wen du: 3840.xxx, 12/32xxx. The full title has also been translated as Qu Yuan Asking His Way At the Ferry, and Homage to Qu Yuan.

2. Qiliang mode (淒涼調 qiliang diao)
2 4 5 6 1 2 3 is the relative tuning, achieved by raising the second and fifth strings a half step each from standard tuning. There is more information about qiliang mode under Shenpin Qiliang Yi and Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature.

In my own transcription I use relative note values, which in the Chinese system generally do not have accidentals; so whereas on the present recording the actual pitch of the first string is B flat on a piano, since the transcription has the key signature C this note is written as D, i.e., 2 (re). If one transcribes giving notes the modern Western concert pitch (A=440), then in this tuning if the first string (relative pitch 2 = re) is played as C (as is commonly done in Chinese conservatories) then a transcription will use the key signature for B flat major. If the first string is played as B then the key signature will be A major. If it is played as B flat, as on the present recording, then the key signature will be A flat major (as on this alternate transcription).

3. Illustration from Zepan Yin
The two melodies tell very similar stories.

4. Embracing the Sand
11716.35 懷沙賦 Huaisha Fu is the fifth of the Nine Pieces (九章 Jiu Zhang, attributed to Qu Yuan) in the Chu Ci. See David Hawkes, The Songs of the South, Penguin Classics, p.169ff.

5. Tracing Qu Yuan Wen Du
Zha Guide 12/133/216. The 13th tablature is not yet seen. All 15 tablatures are included in the appendix below.

6. See the illustrations for the Chu Ci (楚辭, Songs of the South) poem Yu Fu.

7. Folk origins
Zha Guide p. 12: "宋代民間".

8. Version of 姚丙炎 Yao Bingyan
It was recorded by his son 姚公敬 Yao Gongjing in Yaomen Qin Music.

9. Other recordings of Qu Yuan Wen Du
The recording by Yao Gongjing is mentioned above. The CD 簫聲琴韻 (English title "Hard to Say Goodbye"; Hugo HRP 7229-2 [2001]) by 李鳳雲 Li Fengyun and 王建欣 Wang Jianxin (簫 xiao), which has it on track 4, seems largely to follow the Yao interpretation of the version in Xilutang Qintong, with the xiao closely following the qin except for the octave leaps.

Several recordings on YouTube do not identify their source but seem to be based on Yao's interpretation of the Xilutang Qintong version. This one is by 陳慶燦 Chen Qingcan of the Taiwan 瀛洲琴社 Yingzhou Qinshe. This one adds xiao and sheng (the guqin player, K.C. Chang, seems to be consulting an electronic score as he plays).

In contrast, this one (also here, but with annoying ads) features the Hubei Chime Bells Orchestra, including qin. It seems to have been included on several CDs, but I am not sure of the details (one YouTube version says 先秦、漢巍六朝 Ancient Classics of Qin Han and Wei Dynasties). This interpretation takes many liberties with the tablature. I have not seen information where it identifies the source, but any claim that the music dates from such an ancient period has no basis in fact.

10. Original preface
The original Chinese preface is:


See also under 屈原問渡.

11. Original section titles and lyrics
Structurally Qu Yuan Wen Du introduces numerous melodic phrases that are then repeated with some variation and in differing orders. In my own reconstruction I have identified nine such phrases. If they can be labeled A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, then they appear in the following order:

A1, B1, C1, A2, D1, E1, C2, F1, D2, E2, G1, H1, I1, G2, B2, C3, A3, D3, E3, C4, F2, D4, C5, I2, G3, H2

Altogether these 26 permutations of the nine phrases give the melody an apparent coherence but also a complexity that makes it somewhat difficult to memorize. Memorizing the lyrics can help with this, but in solo performance following the melody precisely as written was not necessarily considered necessary.

As for the pairing of words and music, this generally follows the custom of putting meaningless syllables such as 的那 on the finger technique called 對起, though it sometimes pairs regular characters in this position. This and othere characteristics, such as the existence of musical phrases repeated on lyrics with differing structures seems to suggest that perhaps the original lyrics came from a somewhat different version of the melody. Of course it could also mean that the person(s) pairing the lyrics to the melody had only the tablature, and had never actually heard the melody itself, at least not as played according to the present tablature. It is also possible that the lyrics were added to help with memorization of the melody.

On the other hand, this structure of phrases repeated in flexible order and lyrics that do not always match may suggest that the melody had an improvisatory nature.

The original Chinese section titles together with the original lyrics are as follows (the section titles are also listed under 屈原問渡):

  1. 南荒投逐

  2. 野渡危磯

  3. 漁翁問姓

  4. 伸言己志

  5. 一身逐客

  6. 萬里憂君

  7. 細和滄浪

  8. 勢時任變

The lyrics together with versions from other handbooks are online here. And in doing my original reconstruction I used this .pdf file copied from Zha Guide 216 [740]). However, there are some discrepancies there. For example in Section 4 phrase 5 a character that looks like 䀡(? 23769 chan: look) omitted here, and the next character, 記, is changed to 託.

Appendix: Chart Tracing Qu Yuan Wen Du
Based mainly on Zha Fuxi's
Guide, 12/123/216.

    (year; QQJC Vol/page)
Further information
(QQJC = 琴曲集成 Qinqu Jicheng; QF = 琴府 Qin Fu)
  1.  浙音釋字琴譜
      (<1491; I/265 [details])
8 sections; lyrics
First phrase is repeated with a glissando in between
  2. 西麓堂琴統
      (1525; III/255)
9; no lyrics;
"一名九歌 also called Jiu Ge"; see afterword
  3. 發明琴譜
      (1530; I/353)
8; similar melody but new lyrics
  4. 風宣玄品
      (1539; II/300)
8; similar but no lyrics
  5. 梧岡琴譜
      (1546; I/454)
6 sections; no lyrics
  6. 琴譜正傳
      (1561; II/474)
6; same as 1546;
Preceded by 弔屈原 Diao Qu Yuan; 10 sections; same mode  
  7. 太音傳習
      (1552-61; IV/177)
8 sections; no lyrics;
  8. 太音補遺
      (1557; III/397)
6 sections; no lyrics;
  9. 重修真傳琴譜
      (1585; IV/500)
8; first version not to repeat opening phrase
Lyrics similar to 1530; music still related but very different
10. 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1589; VII/153)
9; lyrics similar to 1530
Repeats opening phrase with glissando in between
11. 陽春堂琴譜
      (1611; VII/442)
9 sections; no lyrics
For music compare 1589
12. 理性元雅
      (1618; VIII/291)
9; lyrics similar to 1530
Music very different from all previous
13. 義軒琴經
      (late Ming; IX.5)
Zha lists it, but I can't find it;
Also no other pieces in this mode
14. 立雪齋琴譜
      (1730; XVIII/36)
9; 屈子問渡 Quzi Wen Du; 離憂調 Liyou mode: lower 1st string half step;
"改訂 revised" but music still seems related; lyrics similar to 1530
15. 裛露軒琴譜
      (>1802; XIX/183)
9T; "from Taigu Yiyin";
titles and music same as 1589, but no lyrics

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