Xianweng Cao
 T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Teaching HIP    Caoman Yin    Chart tracing Xianweng Cao/Caoman Yin   /   Videos for learning guqin Listen with transcription   首頁
Melody of the Transcendent Venerable One
- Standard tuning (no mode indicated): 2 5 6 1 2 3 5 6
仙翁操 1
Xianweng Cao 
  Compare Caoman Yin and the earlier beginner's melody Tiaoxian Pin A transcription (215KB) 3        

This melody, the title of which might also be translated as Melody of the Ancient Immortal, can variously be considered as a beginner's exercise, a warm-up piece, or a vehicle for transporting a player into an appropriate mood for qin play. However, its connection with "Xianweng" ("The Transcendent Venerable One", one of the nicknames for the famous Song dynasty recluse Chen Tuan4) is something of a mystery. As the lyrics remind us, Chen Tuan is said to have "de Dao", attained the Way; another name in the song text, "Xiyi", reminds us of a title bestowed on Chen Tuan in 984: "Xiyi Xiansheng, Master of the Invisible and Inaudible".5 There has never been a suggestion that Chen Tuan himself played qin; nevertheless, he is often connected with a series of related melodies clearly designed for beginners. These melodies all feature some of the most basic techniques in guqin play. Where they have lyrics these usually repeat the various names of Chen Tuan, adding that he attained the Way.

Some old handbooks suggest that unless one begins with simple melodies, one will never master the qin. My own teacher told me that the seemingly most simple pieces were the ones that required the greatest art.6 Xianweng Cao, one to two minutes long, begins and ends on the same two notes. This naturally allows one to play the melody over and over. Such repetition can be settling, not to mention meditative;7 and it also encourages the player to focus on the subtle tones that can be produced by a silk string qin when played well. This is the essence of qin play.

Although there is no indication of how Chen Tuan became connected to what is generally considered as a beginner's melody, the connection began early: although the earliest known publication of such a melody, originally called Caoman Yin (Strum Silk Prelude),8 had no lyrics and made no mention of Chen Tuan, the second surviving publication, in 1557, again had no lyrics but mentions him in the prelude.9 The third, then, from 1573 where it is called Tiaoxian Runong, mentions him in both the prelude and the lyrics. Regarding the title, the words "cao man" suggest that this is an essential beginner's melody. It is important to note, however, that although there is a clear melodic relationship between the old versions of this melody and the ones played today either as "Caoman Yin" or as "Xianweng Cao", there is also today a version of Xianweng Cao that has similar lyrics to the old Caoman Yin but has quite a different melody. This latter, transcribed at right and with recordings linked below, is the beginner's melody that I first learned.

Versions of Caoman Yin can be found in many early qin handbooks, under various titles.10 They are almost always included with the essays at the beginning of the handbooks, rather than with the regular melodies. Perhaps this indicates they were considered only as introductory exercises (or as meditations). The earliest (1552) and some later ones are written in longhand tablature.11

None of the old handbooks seems to have had a melody specifically called Xianweng Cao. As for those mentioning Xianweng in the title, the earliest I have found is Diao Xianweng Ge in Qinxue Lianyao (1739).12 After this there are several more with this title, plus others such as Tiao Xianweng Zhinan or Hexian Xianweng Diao. All have more in common with Caoman Yin than with what I learned as Xianweng Cao. Although the one from 1739 might seem to be in transition to the modern version, as far as I have been able to hear this transition never really continued. As for modern publications, Yinyinshi Qinpu (Hong Kong, 2000) has two entries called Xianweng Cao;13 fhe first version is quite similar to the one I learned from my teacher, Sun Yü-ch'in, but it is missing two sections; the second one from 2000 contains some phrases from earlier versions. Yinyinshi Qinpu has no commentary on either of these melodies, and so it is still difficult to know how the modern version came about.

Xianweng Cao is the first melody Sun Yü-ch'in taught to me. He did not mention its origins (about which see further). He also did not sing the lyrics when he taught Xianweng Cao, but I remember seeing them at that time. He did give me some tablature, but always said we should copy him, not look at tablature. The tablature of Xianweng Cao I have from Taiwan has number notation underneath but no lyrics. For my own transcription into staff notation I followed this version quite closely, adding the lyrics from memory, then later checking it with the version in Yinyinshi Qinpu.

Musically the first section of Xianweng Cao often has the same note repeated first on an open string then on a string stopped in the ninth position. The second section begins with notes played on open strings followed by the same notes played on strings stopped in the 10th position (or position 10.8 in the case of the third string); it ends with a recap of all these positions. Repeating the notes in stopped and open positions serves both to attune the ear to playing in tune and to make the player familiar with fundamental note relationships.

In my own version there is one significant note I change from the written version I found in Taiwan: on the 11th note I slide the thumb from the ninth position up to position 7.9 instead of the written 7.6. As a result, in the first section the melody becomes purely pentatonic (do re mi sol la) with the first string considered as do; the first note, an open seventh string, is re. In the second section the melody remains purely pentatonic if the third string isnow considered as do; the first note is still the open seventh string, but now it is considered to be la.14

Playing and viewing the melody this way gives a sense of how tonal centers can shift, particularly in the qin melodies as found in Ming and earlier tablature. For more on this, search this site for "qin tunings".

Original Preface


Melody and lyrics16 (Listen with transcription; watch video; video for students)
Two sections, untitled.

仙翁 Xian - weng (Transcendent - Venerable One)
陳摶 Chen Tuan (Proper name of Chen Tuan)
陳希夷 Chen Xiyi (Nickname of Chen Tuan)
得道 de Dao (Achieved the Dao)
的那 dena ("of that", filler syllables with no meaning)
  1. 仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,
    Xianweng, Xianweng, de Dao Xianweng,

    [De Dao weng, Chen Tuan Xianweng.

    De Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng].

    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,
    Chen Xiyi de Dao dena Xianweng,
    (Chen Xiyi attained the Dao of the Transcendent Immortal.)

    De Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng].

  2. [仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,得道陳摶仙翁。]
    [Xianweng, Xianweng, de Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng.]

    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,
    Chen Xiyi de Dao dena Xianweng,

    de Dao Xianweng, de Dao Chen Tuan Xianweng.

    仙翁,仙翁,仙翁,仙翁 ,
    Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng,

    Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng, Xianweng. Xianweng.

The straight brackets [] indicate the part not included in Yinyinshi Qinpu.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Transcendent Venerable One (仙翁 Xianweng
仙翁: 391.xxx, but 1/1146 has general comments; no mention of Chen Tuan (same with 42618.1013, see next).

"仙翁 Xian Weng", though here translated as "Transcendent Venerable One", may also be translated as "Immortal Old Man". 翁 Weng by itself is a generally affectionate term that can be translated simply as "oldster". As for "仙 xian" (or "仙人 xianren"), it is commonly translated as "immortal", but as in English this does not necessarily signify a belief that the person literally lives on as a biological entity. It may suggest simply that the person's spirit lives on, perhaps leaving open the issue of whether this spirit has power (suggesting a sort of divinity), has consciousness, or simply has a powerful reputation. If the person is still alive (or even being considered historically), referring to him or her as a "xianweng" may simply suggest that the person has transcended such issues as life and death: after all, who are we ordinary mortals to know or question such possibilities?

On the other hand, in ancient China there was also a definite interest in the idea of and possibilities for real immortality here on earth. Some sense of this can be found through Wikipedia, beginning with the article Xian (Taoism).

In addition, Joseph Needham wrote about the connection between alchemy and the search for immortality in Science and Civilization in China. For example, in Chapter 33. Alchemy and Chemistry (Part III of Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology) he describes various substances that have sometimes been said to have been used to create a sense of immortality, such as amanita muscaria (fly-agaric? a phantasmagoric mushroom; see below); and substances used to attain physical immortality via, for example, some metallic substances such as gold, iron and mercury), some of this perhaps somehow related to the fact that ancient diets were often iron-poor in northern areas where there were no fresh green vegetables in winter.

2. Tuning and mode
Mode is generally not indicated with this piece. As for tuning the strings, the pitch is relative, with 1=do, 2=re, etc.. In my transcription do is written as c, but the exact pitch depends on such things as the size and quality of the instrument and strings.

As explained here and at the bottom of the transcription, I changed one finger position from the way I learned it: 7.6 to 7.9 in measure 5. In this way the first section is completely pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6 if the tuning is considered 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 . The second section remains completely pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6 if the tuning is considered 5 6 1 2 3 5 6.

This sort of changed tonal center, perhaps more like transposition, can also be found in at least one other melody, Tiao Xian Pin aka Yi Sa Jin.

3. Transcription of Xianweng Cao (215KB)
The original transcription I used when I learned this piece in 1974 was a sheet of paper printed in Taiwan. Unfortunately I cannot seem to find it now.

4. Chen Tuan 陳摶 (906? - 989)
Some biographical details are given in a footnote under Caoman Yin

5. Master of the Inaudible and Invisible 希夷先生 (Xiyi Xiansheng)
9025.26 希夷 xiyi: 無聲曰希,無色曰夷,為道之本體也。 Xi (希) is what cannot be heard; yi (夷) is what cannot be seen. The name thus refers to the basic structure of the Dao. It also suggests longevity, hence 希夷﹕靈芝也 a longevity plant, perhaps a phantasmagoric mushroom.

6. "Simple" melodies as the most difficult
Mr. Sun actually said this in connection with the melody Xiang Fei Yuan, played today very much as it is written in Taigu Yiyin (1511). Taigu Yiyin has many simple songs. At that time there was apparently debate about singing style vs. purely instrumental style, but I haven't found specific details about this. One can imagine that the debate involved the relative value of a simple style vs. a complex one, but again I have not found the details.

7. Centering through repetition
Although Xianweng Cao is the first melody I learned I still enjoy playing it, and in doing so often repeat it a number of times using the last two notes of one repetition as the first two notes of the next, sometimes singing, sometimes not. The recordings linked here (especially with the transcription) should give an idea. This playing of a simple melody (or even a simple note pattern) repeatedly in order to settle down or center oneself before playing more complex pieces might be considered as an aid to meditation: do it until the mind is empty while playing. This is in some ways comparable to the old custom of Chinese calligraphers rubbing their own ink. To do this they add water to the inkstone, then rub with another stone. To get in the right mood they might at times spend a considerably longer time than necessary doing this before beginning to write. (Compare the "jade bracelet structure" [玉環體 yu huan ti] mentioned for Guanshan Yue).

8. 操縵引 Caoman Yin. See the separate introduction to Caoman Yin, which can also be translated as Adjust the Strings Prelude

9. In Xingzhuang Taiyin Buyi, attributed to 蕭鸞 Xiao Luan, who called himself 杏莊老人 the Old Man of Apricot Village. The preface in this 1557 version is even more specific in its suggestion that one must begin with such a melody.


10. Cao Man and other alternate titles
Zha Fuxi's index 39/--/552 操縵 Cao Man mentions only the version in the Japanese Toko Kinpu, giving 仙翁操 Xianweng Cao as an alternate name. I assume the fact that they are not included in the melody sections is the reason that he did not properly index them. I have so far found 27 versions up to 1930, but because they are not in Zha's index I quite likely have missed some.

11. Longhand tablature (文字譜 Wenzi pu)
The earliest example of this tablature is Jieshidiao You Lan. As for Xianweng Cao, there are at least six examples of it written out in longhand (see in this tracing chart).

The modern shorthand tablature developed out of long hand tablature, apparently during the Tang dynasty. Although this fact may suggest great antiquity for Xianweng Cao, it could also simply have been done in modern imitation of that style. (For another use see also here.)

12. 琴學練要 Qinxue Lianyao is not in Qinqu Jicheng, but in 1996 it was reprinted in Beijing in a facsimile edition. 調仙翁歌 Diao Xianweng Ge (Playing the Xianweng Song; see Folio I, p.23) begins like the end of the version I learned, then has some phrases from the earlier versions.

13. 愔愔室琴譜 Yinyinshi Qinpu
This is the handbook of 蔡德允 Tsar Teh-yun (Cai Deyun). The first version there is quite like the one I learned; it has lyrics. The second has none, but it has some phrases from the earlier versions.

14. Different modality in each section
This is not changed by the fact that in the transcription the first note of each section is written as "A": changing the relative tuning within one piece from 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 to 1 2 3 5 6 would be very confusing. There is further comment under mode, including mention of other examples of this.

15. But see the preface to the 1557 version with Caoman Yin.

16. Original lyrics
The original Chinese lyrics, as in the above transcription, are by themselves as follows,

  1. 仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,
    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,

  2. [仙翁,仙翁,得道仙翁,得道陳摶仙翁。]
    陳希夷得道的那仙翁 ,
    仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,
    仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁 ,仙翁。

Return to the Guqin ToC or to play qin.