Dongtian Chun Xiao
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Spring Dawn in a Grotto-Heaven
Standard tuning, gong mode ( 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 ) 2
洞天春曉 1
Dongtian Chun Xiao 
  Dongtian Chun Xiao illustration from Kuian Qinpu 3        
Grotto-heavens, also mentioned in the melody title Cranes Dance in a Grotto-Heaven, should be remote scenic areas, otherworldly in appearance and at best having good geomantic properties. In many parts of China today there are still many places claiming such properties.4 Some are natural areas, though usually over the years greatly modified by human hand; others are completely artificial, having been built into private gardens. Grotto-heavens are also a popular theme in literati painting, and one might naturally assume that they should be good places to play the qin.

This particular evocation of a grotto-heaven, Dongtian Chun Xiao, is the third melody in Zangchunwu Qinpu (1602); it follows the modal prelude Shenpin Gong Yi,5 as well as the short Harmonious Spirit Intonation (He Qi Yin6), the three of them seeming to form a set. This assumption is supported by commentary inserted here in the 1602 handbook between Shenpin Gong Yi and He Qi Yin.7 The commentary mostly concerns the qin player Shen Taishao and his creation of these two titled melodies.

The same commentary also mentions the third melody in this handbook attributed to Shen, Xishan Qiu Yue (compare Jishan Qiu Yue), but not the fourth, Feng Xiang Xiao Han.

Although He Qi Yin does not appear in any later handbooks, during the Qing dynasty Dongtian Chun Xiao became one of the most common, surviving in 28 handbooks from 1602 to 1946.8 Adding to this, two handbooks (1670 and 1876) have an abbreviated version of Dongtian Chun Xiao called Taoyuan Chun Xiao,9 which the 1670 preface connects to the poet Pan Yue.10 Nevertheless, it is not at all clear how widely it was actually played. Truly popular melodies tend to develop considerably over the years, but my preliminary examination of the various versions of Dongtian Chun Xiao through 1802 (I have not yet seen any of those published after that date) suggests they all have a remarkable similarity. Does this mean that this piece was very much respected but not actually played that much?

Perhaps related to this is the length of the piece. In Wuzhizhai Qinpu (1722) it is said that Dongtian Chun Xiao was one of the "Five Grand Qin Melodies". Not only does it have 18 Sections, but some of those sections are quite long by themselves. Were the abbreviated versions of the melody just mentioned above created because of this? On the other hand, although the shorter version was first published 40 years after the first publication of Dongtian Chun Xiao, it was published in a handbook known to have copied earlier tablature. One must then consider the possibility that the shorter version (or shorter versions) appeared first, then were expanded to the present length (and the name correspondingly changed).11

Further in this regard, my present working assumption is that Shen Taishao either created this melody or gave it its earliest full form. Here one might speculate that there is a connection between the fact that he was living (and teaching) in Beijing and the fact that modally his version stands out for the many occurrences of non-pentatonic notes, in particular the note fa (see further). Shen's student Yan Cheng learned it and developed his own version, often changing fa to mi; the other early Yushan school qin master Xu Hong almost completely eliminated the instances of fa, and in this form (see 1673) it subsequently became a melody particularly associated with the Yushan School.

These changes often involve simply changing a note here and there to make the melody more pentatonic. However, two specific instances of change highlight two other types of change. First, at the beginning of Section 8 the 1722 version seems accidentally to have omitted three clusters; later handbooks copy this.12 Second, at the beginning of Section 9 there is a passage with very striking modality and idiom; here the second handbook (1611) changes the whole passage into something more "normal", and the ensuing handbooks all copy this changed version.13

It might be instructive here also to look at the left hand ornamentations (吟猱 yin nao in Chinese, named for the two basic types of vibrato, yin (tight and fast) and nao (loose and slow). In the present Dongtian Chun Xiao (1602) nao occurs about 144 times, either by itself, at the end of a slide or at the beginning of a slide; no different types of nao are mentioned. On the other hand, yin only occurs about 20 times and usually it is used as part of a slide (always downward), seeming to give an indication of how to do the slide: either a "retreating slide" (退吟 tui yin; 12) or a "flying slide" (飛吟 fei yin; 3); only five times does it seem to be used not in connection with a slide, and here it almost always called a "fine vibrato" (細吟 xi yin). On one occasion in the middle of section 9 it comes at the end of a 分開 fen kai. It could be interesting to study how this compares with other melodies. Meanwhile, given the belief that there is a lot of variety within the practice of guqin ornamentation, my general inclination is to interpret the nao as a combination of rhythmic guideline (its note cannot be too short) and invitation to do any of a variety of vibratos depending on the circumstance.14

Also of interest would be a study of the punctuation. In some places there is quite a lot of punctuation, such as in Section 1. In other places (for example the latter part of Section 2) the melody goes on for a great length without any punctuation to indicate a break. An preliminary examinationn of the first 10 or so later versions suggests that, though a quite a few notes were changed, the punctuation remained largely intact. Does this confirm that the phrases were very long, or does it more likely suggest a conservatism on the part of the transcribers, who may have been modifying old tablature rather than transcribing anew what they had heard? 15

Zha's Guide does not list any section titles for any of the versions, but these actually can be found in at least three handbooks.16) In addition, only five (1602, 1673, 1705, 1722 and 1914) have direct commentary, but none of these after this earliest one seeming to mention Shen Taishao. In addition none of the commentaries says anything about the significance of the title.
As yet I have not found any recordings of this title. However, there is a recording by 楊葆元 Yang Baoyuan of what is said to be the 1670 Taoyuan Chun Xiao, but which is actually a shortened version of Dongtian Chun Xiao.

Original preface17
After the modal prelude but before the prelude He Qi Yin this handbook, published in 1602, has relative comments outlined here and translated (with the original text) here. They seem to refer to several pieces including Dongtian Chun Xiao, but prefaces specifically for this melody can only be found in three later handbooks.

Music 18   _ _
18 sections, untitled

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Spring Dawn in a Grotto Heaven (洞天春曉 Dongtian Chun Xiao) (VI/294)
17777.9-13 and 5/1143 have various dongtian but no qin reference or mention of this title. For Chun Xiao see under Chun Xiao Yin. Other melodies also mention either dongtian or chunxiao (e.g., He Wu Dongtian and Chun Xiao Yin), but there seems to be no musical connection.

Perhaps there is some relevance with 洞天福地 Dongtian Fudi (Grotto Paradise, a Daoist term): elsewhere Dongtian Chun Xiao is associated in some way with these Daoist grotto paradises. (See Appendix 2.)

2. Gong mode (宮調 gongdiao)
Standard tuning, here 5 6 1 2 3 5 6, in some other modes is considered as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2. For further information on gong mode see Shenpin Gong Yi and Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature.

3. Kuian Qinpu Illustration (QQJC XI/7)
The illustration above, which has no inscription, is placed directly below an illustration that seems to serve for the whole book.

4. Grotto-Heavens in China
An internet search for "洞天" or "grotto-heaven" emphasizes the places that are tourist attractions.

5. Celestial Air Introducing the Gong mode (神品宮意 Shenpin Gong Yi)
See also gong mode above. The gong modal prelude from 1602 is a relatively long version drawing on several earlier versions.

6. Harmonious Spirit Intonation (和氣吟 He Qi Yin)
3600.163 only heqi: friendly; yin and yang in balance. This melody title only here (see in ToC).

7. Commentary in 1602 between Shenpin Gong Yi and He Qi Yin
This commentary, apparently all by Hao Ning (his name actually is aligned directly under the title He Qi Yin), introduces #2 and #3 but also mentions #28. It first briefly introduces 沈太韶 Shen Taishao, then apparently describes the circumstances of creating these three pieces. The full original text (see original jpg and pdf of tablature) is as follows:

Master Shen was from Yue, restricted name Yin, nickname Taishao. From a very young age loved the music of the ancient rulers; whenever he encountered beautiful scenery he would take his qin and wander into its forests, springs, green pines and tall bamboo. Towards guests he was quite charming, pursuing an interest in showing admiration for Boya and Ziqi.

On one occasion, with a bright moon hanging in the sky and a fresh breeze smoothing the way, wine was served with guests. Happy and deeply drunk (he) made use of a couch in a mountain monk's cottage. Quickly he fell into a dream and it immediately seemed as if he was in Penglai. There was a stone grotto so he entered it and looked around. Here he saw an old gentleman playing qin. I (i.e., Hao Ning?) asked him (i.e., Shen Taishao?), saying, "The old gentleman was playing what melody?" The answer was, "A melody of Harmony". I again asked, saying, "What is this place?" The old gentleman answered, saying, "Part of a grotto heaven." I (Shen?) then departed. Deeply impressed, I was hardly aware when the sound of a bell startled me awake. Sighing, I said, "This dream was not simply mundane." And so was written this "He Qi Yin and Dongtian Chun Xiao, put in Gong mode and having the idea of all things nurturing life. (And so also) was created Xishan Qiu Yue and put in Jue mode, with the intention of riding on winds and soaring in clouds.
(Under the title of He Qi Yin:) The Henan Inquirer into Mysteries Hao Ning has written this. (Translation tentative: the use of "予" [first person pronoun] is confusing; Shen Taishao is the one generally credited with having created this melody, but here it is not clear who the actual narrator is.)

Because the final sentence is written under the title for He Qi Yin perhaps that one sentence is referring only to that melody, but more likely it is referring to all three.

8. Tracing Dongtian Chun Xiao
Zha Guide (28/223/--) lists 28 handbooks to 1946, as follows:

  1. 藏春塢琴譜 (1602; VI/302; many occurrences of fa)
  2. 陽春堂琴譜 (1611; VII/366; partially written using decimal system, but not consistent)
  3. 松絃館琴譜 (1614; VIII/77; earliest Yushan school handbook; fewer fa but still many; no commentary or attribution)
  4. 思齊堂琴譜 (1620; IX/19)
  5. 樂仙琴譜     (1623; VIII/450; largely a copy of 1611)
  6. 徽言秘旨     (1647; X/57; 1692 same)
  7. 愧菴琴譜     (1660; XI/9; illustration: see above)
  8. 臣卉堂琴譜 (1663; XI/119)
    琴苑心傳全 (1670; X/329; called 桃園春曉 Taoyuan Chun Xiao, but it is actually a version of Guang Han You!
  9. 琴苑心傳全 (1670; X/485; called 桃園春曉 Taoyuan Chun Xiao, but it is actually a shortened version of DTCX
  10. 大還閣琴譜 (1673; X/334; after 1614 the second most important Yushan school handbook; most fa changed to mi; afterword says Yan Tianchi attributed it to Shen Taishao)
  11. 德音堂琴譜 (1691; XII/489)
  12. 琴譜析微     (1692; XIII/44)
  13. 蓼懷堂琴譜 (1702; XIII/191; each section adds subtitles)
  14. 誠一堂琴譜 (1705; XIII/335; first with commentary)
  15. 五知齋琴譜 (1722; XIV/430; introduces "省 short rests" after 1st and 2nd notes in opening phrase; commentary)
  16. 蘭田館琴譜 (1755; XVI/192; "徐青山譜 pu of Xu Qingshan" [see 1673]; subtitles as 1702; pu same)
  17. 琴香堂琴譜 (1760; XVII/23)
  18. 自遠堂琴譜 (1802; XVII/304; seems to be a copy of 1722 五知齋 but adds subtitles from 1702 though that pu is somewhat different)
  19. 裛露軒琴譜 (>1802; XIX/56; "熟派 Yushan school"; "copy of 1722 五知齋")
  20. 琴譜諧聲     (1820; XX/182)
  21. 琴學軔端     (1828; XX/419)
  22. 鄰鶴齋琴譜 (1830; XXI/77)
  23. 悟雪山房琴譜 (1836; XXII/301)
  24. 天聞閣琴譜 (1876; from 1702 but without subtitles; XXV/143)
  25. 天聞閣琴譜 (1876; from 1670; XXV/177); called 桃源春曉 !, but is the 1670 shortened version of DTCX
  26. 天籟閣琴譜 (1876; XXI/92)
  27. 響雪齋琴譜 (1876; ---/--)
  28. 希韶閣琴譜 (1878; XXVI/276: missing)
  29. 詩夢齋琴譜 (1914; ---/--)
  30. 沙堰琴編     (1946; XXIX/330)

Four handbooks include commentary on Dongtian Chun Xiao:

  1. 1602; (after Shenpin Gong Yi [中文; details here)
  2. 1705 (XIII/327; "溫舒廣大 calm-carefree and vast"),
  3. 1722 (XIV/422; Shu [Changshu] school; preface: "its beauty is calm and soothing"; afterword: "洵古調 truly an old melody", but difficult)
  4. 1914 ("最難得其冲和古淡之意 very difficult to attain its diffuse and anciently subtle meaning").

The 1705 comment comes from the Record of the Historian, Book of Music, description of the effect of listening to melodies in gong mode ("聞宮音使人溫舒而廣大").

The 1722 handbook has interlineal commentary which could be helpful to someone reconstructing and/or playing the melody. For example, at the beginning os Section 7 is the following comment:

Phrases 1, 2 and 3: humble sounds (?). Phrase four: enter the grotto heaven. 6 and 7: they have comfortable whistling.

Perhaps this, as well as the significance of the section subtitles applied later (see below), will become more clear as I continue to work on the actual music.

9. Version called Spring Dawn at the Peach Spring or Spring Dawn at the Peach Garden (桃源春曉 / 桃園春曉)
Zha Fuxi apparently considered these two titles to refer to the same melody: his Guide (23/198/--) lists the "garden" title as an alternate to "spring". And because his Guide listing does not take into account that the 1670 handbook actually has two relevant melodies, the list from his Guide should have had four entries instead of three, as follows:
      1525 ("spring"; raised fifth tuning; III/277)
      1670 ("garden"; short DTCX; XI/329)
      1670 ("garden"; a version of the unrelated Guang Han You; XI/485)
      1876 ("spring"; XXV/177, identical to XI/329)
Because the 1525 entry is a unique and distinctive melody using raised fifth tuning while one of the two 1670 entries is in fact a version of another unrelated melody, only two of the entries here need to be considered. Here, although the two tablatures are (in spite of the differences in their titles) identically shortened versions of another completely different melody using standard tuning, the Dongtian Chun Xiao discussed on this page. Here are some specifics on these four:

  1. 桃源春曉 Spring Dawn at the Peach Spring (1525; raised fifth tuning; III/277)
    This unrelated melody can be heard here.
  2. Spring Dawn at the Peach Garden (桃園春曉 Tao Yuan Chun Xiao; 1670; QQJC, XI/329)
    The actual melody here seems to be a condensed version of Dongtian Chun Xiao (details): DTCX always has 18 sections, but here there are only 9. This is mentioned somewhat obscurely in a comment in front of the preface, apparently added later. This comment and the actual preface are as follows (compare the original),

    本洞天春曉, 是曲十六段,無此曲。
    The original "Dongtian Chun Xiao" is a melody in 16 (sic) sections; there was not this piece (i.e, there was no "Tao Yuan Chun Xiao").
    As for this piece, it was created by
    Pan Yue. These phrases,

    Peach blossoms being fragrant and willows charming, as the chills of spring break the dawn.
    I wrote this piece for my joyful feelings as I confronted this scene, to express this feeling, and hint at my feelings towards it.

    describe (the atmosphere) in a most complete way.

    Regarding the quatrain here, it looks like a poem structured (4+4). I have not found it quoted anywhere else, so quite likely it was written by the person who also wrote the preface. (Thanks to 孫小青 Sun Xiaoqing for his guidance on this).

    Regarding the comment attached at front: unfortunately it is not clear how much later it might have been added. It is puzzling on two accounts:

    1. It says DTCX is has 16 instead of 18 sections (carelessness?).
    2. It says there was no Taoyuan Chun Xiao (TYCX), whereas the 1670 handbook as included in QQJC has an (unrelated) melody of that very title (next). Since that melody is in an appended section in the QQJC edition, perhaps this means that the writer did not have one of the editions that including this title (further comment).

    The 9 sections of the present TYCX seem to have been made by combining sections from the 18 section DTCX. In this way the two DTCX harmonic sections (#8 and #15) have become sections #4 and #7 in TYCX. The tablature in the 1670 handbook is difficult to read, but it was copied out very neatly in 1876.

  3. Spring Dawn at the Peach Garden (桃園春曉 Tao Yuan Chun Xiao; 1670; QQJC, XI/485)
    This melody, also in 9 sections, is actually a version of the 1425 melody Guang Han You. Although it is musically unrelated to the other Tao Yuan Chun Xiao in this handbook it has exactly the same preface (the main part as given above).

  4. Spring Dawn at the Peach Spring (桃源春曉 Tao Yuan Chun Xiao [i.e., title as in 1525]; 1876; XXV/177; no commentary).
    In spite of the title difference, the text here says the version used was copied from the 1670 handbook. Since it was in fact copied from 1670 #1, the mistake between "garden" and "spring" in the title is quite puzzling. Even more puzzling is the fact that, as in 1670, the melody is actually a shortened version of Dongtian Chun Xiao.

The relationship between the short and long version can perhaps best be discerned by looking at a Dongtian Chun Xiao tablature while listening to the recording by 楊葆元 Yang Baoyuan of what is said to be the Peach Spring melody (a.k.a., the Peach Garden melody; listen here) .

10. 潘岳 Pan Yue (247 - 300)
Pan Yue was a leading poet of his day and famously handsome: it was said that when he rode through the streets of Luoyang women would follow him, offering him peaches (symbolizing immortality).

Pan Yue's 笙賦 Rhapsody on the Sheng is translated in Knechtges, Wen Xuan, III, p.303ff. The rhapsody includes the following couplet (p.311; music instruments given their Chinese names),

If Ye of Jin (Shi Kuang) takes fright and throws down his qin zither,
  what about the se zither player of Qi and the zheng zither player of Qin?
Pan has also been credited with creating a melody called 閑居樂 Xian Ju Le. In 300 he was executed together with Shi Chong.

11. Expansion or contraction?
This of course is purely speculation. Generally the tablature for any melody that has survived through centuries has become longer and longer. However, today there seems to be an impatience with long melodies, and a number of melodies that are "too long" are commonly played in shorter versions, such as Guangling San and Yu Ge/Ao Ai.

12. Copy error?
In Section 8 of the earliest version (1602) the fifth and sixth cluster (harmonics on the first then third string) is repeated for the seventh and eighth clusters, then again for the 10th and 11th clusters. In 1722 the 7th to 9th clusters have been omitted. Since such simplification is quite rare, the most logical reason for this here is that the scribe was confused by the repetitions.

13. Modal change
The first two phrases at the beginning of Section 9 of the earliest version (1602) there are three occurrences of the complex cluster called 雙撞 shuang zhuang. Here the first and third occurrences are based on a sharpened fa (f# in my transcription). Apparently this was too radical for later players, as the second handbook (1611) completely changed this passage and the later handbooks immediately switched to copying that.

14. Ornamentation,
See also an Historical view of guqin ornamentation. It is often said that ornamentation tended to increase over the years.

15. Punctuation,
The issue of punctuation goes back at least to Shen Qi Mi Pu, where a number of melodies in Folio 1 had none at all, at least in the earliest edition (comment).

16. Subtitles in 1702, 1755 and 1802
The three handbooks with subtitles are as follows:

  1. 蓼懷堂琴譜 Liaohuaitang Qinpu (1702; XIII/191; lyrics not repeated in 1876)
  2. 蘭田館琴譜 Lantianguan Qinpu (1755; XVI/192)
  3. 裛露軒琴譜 Yiluxuan Qinpu (1802; XIX/56; copied from 1702 though that pu is somewhat different)

All have the subtitle written in small print after each section number. These subtitles are:

  1. 啓明清旦 (The planet) Venus is visible at dawn
  2. 金雞三唱 A golden pheasant calls out three times (Buddhist significance?)
  3. 月淡星稀 The moon and stars are faint and scattered
  4. 玉殿鐘鳴 From a jade palace a bell resounds (>1802: 玉殿鳴鐘)
  5. 群仙朝會 A crowd of immortals meets at dawn
  6. 鸞鳳和鳴 Male and female phoenix call out together
  7. 光含萬象 A brightness encompasses myriad images
  8. 鶴舞洞天 Cranes Dance in a Grotto Heaven (泛音 harmonics)
  9. 九皋聲徹 Sounds penetrate the nine marshpools
  10. 仙珮迎風 Fairy jade in the wind
  11. 九霄步虛 In the ninth layer of heaven strolling in emptiness
  12. 風雲際會 Wind and clouds happen to meet
  13. 萬樹桃花 Myriad trees with peach blossoms
  14. 澗水淙淨 The mountain stream waters gurgle along unhindered (not in 1702? >1802: 義和御轡)
  15. 金雞離海 The golden pheasant stays apart from the sea (泛音 harmonics)
  16. 玉兔西沈 The jade rabbit (i.e., the moon) sinks in the west (>1802: 兔魂西沈
  17. 彩霞萬叠 Rosy clouds in myriad layers
  18. 雲迎旭日 Clouds welcome the rising sun (>1802: 光輝扶桑)


Zha's Guide does not include subtitles with any of its listed versions, and there may be some other handbooks I have not yet found that have them.

17. Original preface
The Chinese original of the commentary prior to He Qi Yin is included not yet online.

18. Music of Dongtian Chun Xiao from 1602 and later
In 2010 I transcribed this earliest version and compared it with later ones, 1611 and 1614 in particular; however, I then set it aside without finishing it for several reasons, including its length and its extended passages in high positions (above the 5th hui). The major differences seemed to be mostly matters of ornamentation and, especially in early editions, the interpretation of certain notes as either mi or fa. As I comment with the 1614 version of the melody Autumn River Night Anchorage, an increased appearance of fa seems to have been a significant modal trend in certain handbooks published around 1600; and as with that melody, once again here the occurrence of fa seems to diminish or disappear in the later versions. Most notably the version in the earliest Yushan handbook, 1611, has many occurrences of fa, but these are almost all changed to mi in its successor, 1673.

Interpreting this is complicated by some confusion in the finger position indications (e.g., 六七 or 六半 vs 六下). For some reason the old system, quite capable of precision if used properly (see comment under the decimal system), was by 1600 no longer being used with precision. In fact, one might speculate that it was a resulting confusion about this that led to the introduction (perhaps in Yangchuntang Qinpu, 1611) of a decimal system for indicating finger positions. Unfortunately, the earliest use of this system was not yet very precise.

In 2021 I returned to this tablature and have subsequently made a new transcription. Again when dealing with non-pentatonic notes I consulted later early versions. And again, for the reasons given above, I have generally accepted incidences of fa, a note that seems to be used in what seems to me a consistent and coherent manner. Reinforcing this, in some handbooks I have found non-pentatonic notes that seem random. These may eventually turn out to be interesting variants but at present they more likely seem to be copy errors and have less credence.

Other than this, a cursory examination of the later versions (listed here) suggests that with some exceptions this melody remained relatively unchanged at least through 1802. This perhaps suggests that, although it was considered a very important piece, it was not widely played, perhaps because of its difficulty: players had to continually refer back to earlier tablature rather than simply play it from memory.

There has been some online commentary that discusses the music in Chinese only, but the main example I have seen of this has since been removed. On the other hand, the commentary with the version in Wuzhizhai Qinpu looks as though it might be quite helpful, so I have copied its preface and afterword here in Appendix 1.

Appendix 1

The commentary with Wuzhizhai Qinpu looks as though it could be very useful in working on Dongtian Chun Xiao, so I have temporarily copied it here, with the plan for translation. (Source:

Preface to the melody (QQJC XIV/430)

The beauty of this melody is its leisurely pace and amiable nature: sounds appropriate to the universe. Those who play it, if they don't contemplate the essential spirit of those predecessors who created it, and instead deride the melody as too plain, are not really playing it (?).....

Afterword to the melody (QQJC XIV/437)

The melody "Dongtian" is a truly old tune, relaxed and peaceful, like "Lacquer Garden" (Zhuangzi)'s Butterfly Dream rather similar.... Over 50 melodies (?)....

(I? Xu) Jun have inherited the family teachings, and have painstakingly pursued them for several decades; if someone says I am returning to the past how can I disagree? Perhaps one can know the original track from the sources - it is not as though I have not worked long and hard to find out. Now I am over 59 years old, at times going around Wanjiang (the region in Anhui along the Yangzi river). (This afterword) was written in the ninth month of 1721 by Xu Jun (age 59), in the Five Knowings Studio Qin Room.

In addition, the 1722 melodies have interlineal comments. And at least two editions of this melody have section titles added (q.v.).

Appendix 2

The following, found on the internet, may be relevant. It mentions Dongtian Chun Xiao right after Eight Views of Guishan, but I am not yet sure of the connection.

溈山探幽之二 Exploring the hidden Mount Gui (in Hunan), #2






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