Xi Kang's Qin Fu 嵇康﹕琴賦
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Xi Kang: Qin Fu
"Rhapsody on the Qin": further comments1
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This poetic text is perhaps most noted for its rhapsodical praise not just for the music produced on a qin but for the wood and silk that make it possible. However, it mentions very few specific physical attributes of the qin. It is thus the totality of the rhapsody that suggests, first, that the qin of Xi Kang's day was quite different from the instruments that have been unearthed from the graves in pre-Han Chu tombs: their shapes (see images of early forms and the associated commentary under Origins of the Qin) suggest it would have been very difficult to play any melody on them, much less a complex one; and second, that it is quite similar to the qin of today.

The rhapsody begins with the following preface (Van Gulik's translation):

From the days of my youth I loved music, and I have practised it ever since. For it appears to me that while things have their rise and decay, only music never changes; and while in the end one is satiated by all flavors, one is never tired of music. It is a means for guiding and nurturing the spirit, and for elevating and harmonizing the emotions. Nothing equals music in its power to bring solace to those who dwell in poverty and loneliness. Therefore, if instrumental music proves to be insufficient, one hums2 a melody to set forth his intention; if this is not sufficient, one composes words for the tune, in order fully to express his thoughts.

The rhapsody contains what seems to be the earliest mention of several qin melodies (Section references refer to Van Gulik):

  1. Bai Xue (White Snow; 白雪 X)
  2. Qing Jue (Pure Jue; 清角 X)

  3. Lu Shui (Clear Waters; 淥水 XIII; one of the Caishi Wu Qu [below])
  4. Qing Zhi (Pure Zhi; 清徵 XIII)
  5. Tang Yao ([Emperor] Tang Yao; 唐堯 XIII XIII)
  6. Weizi (or Yong Weizi: Celebrate the Viscount of Wei; 詠微子 XIII)

  7. Guangling (San) (Guangling [Melody]; 廣陵(散) Section XIX)
  8. Zhi Xi (together with previous or separate; 止息 Section XIX; 廣陵止息?)
  9. Dong Wu (Eastern Battle; 東武 Section XIX; 東武太山?)
  10. Tai Shan (Mount Tai; 太山; Section XIX; 東武太山?)
  11. Fei Long (Yin) (Flying Dragon [Prelude]; 飛龍[引] Section XIX)
  12. Lu Ming (Deer Calls; 鹿鳴 Section XIX)
  13. Kun Ji (Jungle Fowl; 鹍雞 Section XIX)
  14. You Xian (Roaming on Strings; 遊絃 Section XIX)
  15. Caishi Wu Qu (Five Melodies of the Cai Clan; 蔡氏五曲 Section XIX)
  16. Wang Zhao (Jun) (王昭[君]; Wang Zhao(jun) Section XIX)
  17. Chu Fei (楚妃; Chu Consort Section XIX)
  18. Qian Li Bie He (Cranes Separated by a Thousand Li 千里別鶴; Section XIX; one melody or two?)

Sometimes it is not always clear whether the mention of what is today a melody title was in fact intended as such in Xi Kang's poem (perhaps inspiring a later title).

The rhapsody is also noteworty for passages that mention attributes of the qin that suggest that in Xi Kang's time the qin had basically the same form as today. These include the following (translation is from Knechtges; links mention the section of the translation but go to that section in the translation; e.g. k2 goes to the Chinese text translated in Knechtges section 2; v2 goes the text translated in Van Gulik's section 2):

  1. "The place where the paulownia (yiwu) grows
    Rests on the high ridge of a lofty mountain...."

    (K1; V3; for "椅梧" [yiwu] K has "paulownia" while V has "catalpa". 15326.8 says only a wood for making qin and se, referencing this poem. 15326.6 椅桐 yitong says the same, referencing Shi Jing #50. Kroll translates the latter as "royal paulownia". For a long time it has been said the qin should be made of two types of wood, heavier for the bottom, lighter for the top. It seems unlikely that here it should be "yi wu", intending to indicate this. The whole passage suggests that the awe-inspiring nature of qin music is influenced by the awe-inspiring natural surroundings of the trees from which the instrument is made.)

  2. "They chisel out the center, join the seams, fitting them tightly together,
    Achieving a perfect balance between the gaps and joints.
    They paint and carve it,
    Adorn it with designs and patterns.

    They inlay it with rhinoceros horn and ivory,
    Apply a layer of blue and green.
    The strings are made of Yuan Ke's silk,
    For the studs they use Mount Zhong jade.

    It has figures of dragons and phoenixes,
    The forms of ancient worthies...."

    (K4; V9; for "鎪會裛廁" VG specifies that it is a top and bottom piece that are joined together; the Chu instruments did not have a separate bottom and top. As for the ornamentation, it is rare today but can most notably be seen on one of the oldest known qins, preserved in Japan's Shoso-In.)

  3. K8: "Sometimes the strumming and thrumming...."
    V16: "The various touches of the finger technique...."

    Van Gulik's commentary here says that a number of commentators have tried to connect "靡靡猗猗....縹繚潎冽" with specific fingering techniques; he agrees they probably do this, but says that the specific modern equivalents are probably unknowable.

  4. "The strings are long, and thus the studs can be used to sound the notes...."

    (K12; V21: "絃長故徽鳴" seems to be a direct reference to the studs (hui) that mark the harmonic nodes on a qin, but V does not mention this word. See this footnote regarding the possibility that "hui" at one time meant "tassel".)

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Further comments on Xi Kang's Rhapsody on the Qin (琴賦 Qin Fu; 中文)
These are largely based on the two most important translations:

R. H. Van Gulik, Hs'i Kang and his Poetic Essay on the Lute
David R. Knechtges, Wen Xuan III, Rhapsody on the Zither, pp.279-302.
The original text is also included in Qinshu Daquan, Chapter 18.

2. Translating "吟詠 yin yong"
3484.42 動聲曰吟,長言曰詠。與吟永,吟咏,吟呵同。(詩經《關雎.序》:「國史明乎得失之跡,傷人倫之廢,哀刑政之苛,吟詠情性以風其上,達於事變而懷其舊俗者也。」)
This earliest references is from the preface to the first poem in the Shi Jing, but this may not provide definite meanings for the term as used throughout history.

Van Gulik (p. 70) translates the "yin yong" in Xi Kang's preface as "hum"; Knechtges (p.279) has "hum or sing". "Yin yong" also appears elsewhere on this site, as do yin and yong separately, and usually it is not completely clear what is meant. This is particularly true as to when it might refer to "humming". The modern Chinese term for "hum" is 哼 heng, but this character seems to be quite rarely used in classical poetry. For 哼 3731. gives as its earliest reference 集韵 (Ji Yun: an early Song dynasty rhyming dictionary). It also gives 訇 and 呻 .

This is of particular interest when it comes to qin songs that seem resistant to either singing or chanting: see in particular almost all the melodies in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (>1505) and many of those in Taigu YiyIn (1511). Could it be that they were hummed, but that those humming also knew the words and so the pattern of the words really had to fit the pattern of the melody even if it was "unsingable"?

On this site there are some further relevant comments and/or observations here:

In addition, a search for 吟詠 either together or separately will turn up more.

Return to Guangling San, or to the Guqin ToC.