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Dapu: Bringing old music to life   /   Some Issues in Historically Informed Qin Performance 首頁
Bell Yung on Dapu 1 榮鴻曾論打譜

Bell Yung, Professor Emeritus of Music of the University of Pittsburgh (retired 2012) specializing in Chinese music, has written numerous articles on dapu (playing/learning a qin melody from the tablature rather than from a living person) and edited a book of transcriptions.2 From his writings, and from his personal comments, it seems that he believes that the old qin tablature should be seen only as a source for creating new music, and that any attempt to use it to reconstruct old music or an old style is both futile and in violation of qin tradition.

As this website shows, through both my recordings from ancient sources and my Analysis, I believe that dapu can serve both the old and the new. Unfortunately, I have so far been unable to get any direct comments from Prof. Yung on my work. So below, while discussing several of Prof. Yung's publications on dapu, I make an attempt to show how, to me, his published opinions seem to conflict with some of the evidence put forward in his own writings.

After some general remarks I focus on his 1987 and 1994 articles, then on his 1997 book of transcriptions.

In brief, my understanding of qin tablature is that it can be used both for reconstructing old qin pieces or styles, and for creating new pieces based on these materials. Since we can never know for sure what any music sounded like in the days before sound recording, I have to base my argument on the belief that qin tablature is specific enough that it can used to create performances which modern historical scholars can accept as potentially accurate. I believe this is comparable to the standard used in critical studies of early Western music.

Most qin players I have spoken to see dapu as reconstructing old music. My impression is that most, nevertheless, tend to change what is written in the tablature, for various reasons. However, this is only a tentative statement because, after my initial work based on Guan Pinghu's dapu, I decided not to study other dapu carefully until I had completed my own recordings. I think it important to have as many independent efforts as possible. Then, if people with the same intention of historical reconstruction independently come up with their own intepretation of the same melody, then get together and talk about their reasoning for doing so, perhaps a consensus can be reached as to the parameters within which one might say the piece was originally played.

Because my own dapu efforts aim to reconstruct old music, in this I feel a kinship to people who about 100 years ago began reconstructing early Western music. Given the vast amount of early music that survives in qin tablature, compared to the small amount of this so far reconstructed, how can anyone at present either deny its potential or claim accurate interpretation? So even if my own attempts at believable reconstruction are ultimately unsuccessful, I still think that qin tablature will eventually be used the way medieval Western notation has been used in the 20th century: to re-create what has become accepted as a distinctive genre that, while never accepted as definitive, presents beautiful music that can hold up quite well against criticism by those who doubt its accuracy.

Medieval Western music has the advantage of period instruments that present an immediately distinctive sound. Since the qin is itself unchanged over the centuries (though adjustments have made since the Cultural Revolution to accommodate the nylon-metal strings that have been prevalent on qins since then), I believe the main defining characteristics of a recognized early qin style will center on such factors as rhythm, melodic structures, modality, ornamentation and use of silk strings.

I can even imagine codification of a "correct" medieval qin style stifling creativity, but it shouldn't. This issue is still commonly debated within early Western music movement, showing that such creativity remains alive and well.

Historical Interdependency of Music:
A Case Study of the Chinese Seven-String Zither (1987)

As Prof. Yung points out (1987, p.85), learning music from qin tablature was in fact very much the exception. Qin was primarily an oral tradition and, as with other oral traditions, the qin student copied his or her teacher in learning a piece.

Prof. Yung goes on to say (as I also do) that the normal function of the tablature for a qin melody was as a memory aid for students who had already studied the melody from their teacher. The way I understand this is that they remembered the notes and rhythms; what wasn't so easy to remember was the fingering. And if specifics of a melody were forgotten, looking at the tablature would remind them of the learned rhythms. Thus the original function of any qin tablature, as everyone to whom I have spoken seems to agree, was not to give freedom to the players in their interpretation, but in order to remind students of how their teacher played a piece.

My own teacher, Sun Yü-Ch'in, although he also expressed the opinion that tablature did not specify rhythms because this was up to the player, whenever he taught me a melody he was very quick to correct me whenever my playing technique differed in any way from his.

A standard for oral music traditions is commonly said to require that only once a student has achieved a certain level of play will the teacher accept that there is freedom to change. This was true of my teacher, Prof. Yung's teachers (1987, p.85) and, I believe, quite likely was true with many or most qin teachers in the past. Of course, within all traditions there are always teachers with their own opinions and teachers who never accept change, not to mention good and bad teachers.

Most qin players who became noted for their creativity probably also started in this way. Learning by rote need not stifle creativity: it can provide a basis on which later to be creative. For qin players this creativity was supplemented by the availability of old qin tablature, which provided rich resources upon which to build. And just as copying one's teacher exactly was not a barrier to later creativity, playing precisely from old tablature also need not be, nor is there any evidence it ever was, a barrier to later creativity. Quite likely this creativity remained generally within the confines of the idiom as described by the tablature. However, changes in this idiom over the centuries suggests that the creativity did lead to changes in the idiom.

People playing revised versions sometimes still referred to the old tablature. Sometimes new tablature would result. Sometimes the changes were never written down. During the Qing and perhaps Ming dynasties there seems to have been more revision of old tablature than there was creation of completely new tablature. During the Song dynasty, the music of which Shen Qi Mi Pu is the best source, there is evidence both for collecting and reproducing accurate versions of old pieces, for revising old pieces, and for creating new pieces.

It is somewhat futile to try to try to analyze the accuracy, or creativity, of Song or Ming dynasty qin players playing from earlier tablature. There is, however, enough evidence that some of them wanted to do this accurately to provide sufficient justification, if such justification is needed, for trying to do so again today.

Prof. Yung (1987, pp.86-9) points to the differing versions of Guangling San, and the acceptance by some people of Guan's interpretation being accurate, to support his claim that the tablature was always used as a basis for creating new music. However, while mentioning that there are many versions of any one title, he also mentions that some qin handbooks copied earlier versions exactly. If in fact changes were part of a deliberate creative process, then should we not also conclude that copying old tablature was evidence of a parallel attempt accurately to preserve the past?

In the same discussion Prof. Yung mentions (1987, p.88) the criticism Guan's performance of Guangling San brought from people like Prof. Chen Yingshi, who argued that Guan changed so many notes that his interpretation should really be called a revision. Here it is not clear whether Yung considers Chen Yingshi's opinion valid. To do so, it would seem, would be to accept that it is possible to use qin tablature to reconstruct old pieces with a measurable degree of accuracy. Here the crux of the issue might be whether Guan deliberately made the changes under the assumption that the original was incorrect, or deliberately made the changes simply because he preferred it that way.

Here the issue may be related to what I have said (rather glibly) about my own reconstructions. If they are correct, then I am bringing to life something that has been lost for centuries. If they are incorrect, then I am creating new music. Can new music be divided into intentionally new and unintentionally new?

Not Notating the Notable:
Reevaluating the Guqin Notational System

One of the themes Prof. Yung explores in this article is the conflict between preservation and change. This conflict is, I think, found in all music. But it is difficult to make close analogies between qin and other traditions because, to my understanding, qin music is the only oral tradition that also has a long history of such detailed written music. Indeed, someone who believes that the lack of precision in qin tablature shows that the performer was allowed creativity (1994, p.52) should also conclude that, for example, those Chinese opera forms which only wrote down bare outlines in, at best, limited solfeggio, allowed even more creativity. This may be true, but in the absense of written records it is difficult to compare the creativity of qin players with that of opera performers (where, again, the teachers required extensive rote learning). And with Buddhist chant it seems that even less of the music was written down: did this chant require creativity? In sum, the important factor is not whether the music is written down, or how; rather it is the attitude of the players and the listeners towards creativity. Early qin commentary suggests there was no unified opinion on this.

One comparison which might be quite instructive is between the way qin players used qin tablature to the way, for example, 19th century Western musicians interpreted 18th century scores. How was the attitude of the 19th century musician reinterpreting Bach on the piano different from that of the 19th century qin player taking liberties with early qin tablature?

Perhaps one answer is that the Western musician would be considered "only" an interpreter and his version would never be written down, whereas that of the Chinese musician might be written down and thus eventually become independent from the original.

From my point of view the accurate use of written material in reconstructing early Western music has resulted in music with at least as much a claim to modernity as music played within the traditional 19th century Western aesthetic, an aesthetic which has been very influential in modern Chinese conservatories.

By analogy, a successful attempt to play Shen Qi Mi Pu tablature accurately, in addition to giving us a window on an ancient tradition, also provides a fresh repertoire and training for being creative in a style with great potential for modern appeal.

How intentional is the leeway allowed by Shen Qi Mi Pu tablature? Prof. Yung (1994, p.52) gives, as his prime example of intentional leeway, directions in the Shen Qi Mi Pu version of Gao Shan telling the player to "slide up to a point between markers 8 and 9" whereas today the tablature specifies 8.5. As I have discussed in the article Qin Tunings (see in particular Table 5), early tablature was simply using a different system to indicate the same note. "8.5" is not as precise as it seems, as the exact position of the finger depends on things like how accurately the markers are positioned and how high the bridge is. In fact, 8.5 represents a sound as much as it does a position, just as does "between 8 and 9", and in both cases the person writing the tablature knew exactly what note was required, and so we know exactly what note has been described.

Also on p.52 Prof. Yung implies, by analogy, that because the phrasing is not written out, this is also up to the performer. Punctuation is also omitted in classical Chinese, he adds, but there it "is delineated by grammatical structures". It is not clear whether Prof. Yung believes that qin music was not delineated by musical structures, but the irony of this for me is that, presumably from playing from so many old tablaturess, I often find it easier to find the phrases implied by qin tablature than I do finding phrases implied by classical Chinese grammatical structures.

Going beyond the original intention of the tablature, what of its interpretation by people who had not learned the piece from the teacher whose version the tablature described? Here, unfortunately, there is little historical evidence of players' aims in using the tablature. Prof. Yung (1994, p.54, para.4) points out the fact that the music kept changing, and from this concludes that this is related to the imprecision of the tablature. However, he quotes no historical sources to support this conjecture. I have not found any to oppose it, but the existence of similar amounts of change in purely oral traditions makes me think that changes in qin music show that it was in this way similar to other Chinese music, and this was independent of the role of tablature.

It seems that people are often creative in spite of their training or themselves. No matter how strict a teacher was in requiring students to imitate, the creative student eventually makes changes. And no matter how precise a composer tried to be in notation, artists and critics will still argue about what is the correct interpretation. Thus, one can not necessarily make a direct comparison between degree of creativity in a preformance and the degree1 of precision required in learning the techniques, or the degree of precision aimed for in the written source on which the particular performance is based.

Prof. Yung concludes (1994, p.56) that, because "it is less important to reproduce musical sound from the past than it is to allow a contemporary musician to experience the 'mood' prescribed by the composition", qin tablature was deliberately imprecise.

The starting premise may well be true, at least at present, but it is a subjective opinion that certainly was not shared by all. As for the resulting conclusion, there is no evidence to support either that any imprecision in the tablature was deliberate, or that its imprecision encouraged creativity. Quite as likely it discouraged many from playing when a teacher was not available, and so in the end the lack of precision weakened the tradition.

Celestial Airs of Antiquity (1997)

Celestial Airs of Antiquity has Prof. Yung's transcriptions of six pieces from Shen Qi Mi Pu Folio I, together with a CD which Prof. Yung made of Yao playing these pieces in 1982. The recording was made in Yao's Shanghai apartment, so there is much in the way of environmental sounds.

Prof. Yung does not comment on how these surroundings might have affected Yao's play. Nor does Yung (generally an advocate of silk strings) mention the fact that Yao is using metal strings on his qin.

From the recordings it is possible to appreciate Yao's skill and sensitivity. To my own ears, however, these are better captured in the five recordings of Yao in Vol. V of the guqin series of "An Anthology of Chinese Traditional and Folk Music".3

In addition to his transcriptions Prof. Yung has a preface, including mention of his own qin studies with Yao Bingyan; an introduction; and commentary on each of the individual pieces.

In his introduction to Shen Qi Mi Pu Prof. Yung points out (p.6) that "in a systematic the 1950s, about 150 collections...were located; these contain an extensive repertory of over 3,000 items. It should be noted, however, that some pieces are identical copies of earlier ones, and many others are variants of one another." It might also be added that Zha Fuxi, who led the research, grouped these items into about 680 distinctive pieces and their variants (see his index).

Prof. Yung goes on to say that Shen Qi Mi Pu survives in two copies in China, a Jiaqing (1522-66) edition in the Beijing City Library, and a Wanli (1573-1620) edition in the Shanghai City Library; he then quotes without comment Van Gulik in a footnote, "The Library of the Cabinet (Naikaku-Bunko) in Tokyo has a fine first edition, and I possess a beautifully executed manuscript copy".

A number of years ago I visited the Naikaku-Bunko and learned that theirs is in fact a Jiaqing edition, not a first edition. And Van Gulik's own hand-copy seems to be lost -- it is not to be found in his collection preserved in Leiden.

In another footnote (also p.6) Yung says, "There are three modern reprints of this collection": in 1956 a facsimile reprint of the Wanli edition; in 1963 a reprint of the Jiaqing edition in the first Qinqu Jicheng; and in 1981 a second reprint of the Wanli edition in the first volume of the new Qinqu Jicheng series.

Prof. Yung's failure to mention the publication by Dr. Tong Kin-Woon of the Wanli edition in his 1971 compilation Qin Fu (reprinted 1981) is rather puzzling. Dr. Tong, like Prof. Yung, is a specialist in Cantonese opera and guqin, so it is difficult to believe that Yung was unaware of this publication. In any case, the result is that he does not include the following interesting story.

In his Afterword to Shen Qi Mi Pu Dr. Tong says that the Jiaqing edition is in fact now in the National Palace Museum Library in Taiwan. During World War II this edition was taken to the Library of Congress in the U.S.A, and around 1960 it was "returned" to Taiwan. Dr. Tong thinks what Zha Fuxi reprinted in China in 1963 must have been from a copy Zha had made or obtained during one of his earlier visit to the United States. Tong points out that if you look at the lower right corner of p.69 of the Qinqu Jicheng Original Series (Vol. I, 1963; page one of the Jiaqing Shen Qi Mi Pu), you can see that a seal has been rubbed out. He thinks Zha must have done this because, as the original in Taiwan clearly shows, it is a seal of the Guomindang (Nationalist Party, ruling in Taiwan).

In his Qin Fu Dr. Tong reprinted not the edition in Taiwan, which he said would have been too expensive, but the 1956 Wanli facsimile edition. However, if you look at the facsimile edition you will note that there are some places where characters are either a bit faint or they blur a little into each other. Dr. Tong says he spent "about 300 hours" going through the facsimile edition, carefully using ink and correction fluid, in order to make his reprint of this edition very sharp. It is.

Dr. Tong points out that the 1981 Wanli reprint is in some places sharper than the 1956 facsimile edition. It is very unusual (unknown, from my experience) for any of the other Qinqu Jicheng reprints to be fixed up in this way, and so Tong suspects that the 1981 edition may, at least in part, be copied from his Qin Fu edition. However, he cannot be sure because he has not seen the original on which the 1956 facsimile edition was based.

Coming to Bell Yung's comments on rhythm, two are particulalry relevant to the present discussion.

On p.10 Prof. Yung says that from the recording the opening nine measures of Guangling San "were clearly intended by Yao Bingyan to be perceived as unmeasured": so what is the transcriber to do? Prof. Yung's transcription puts them into a 4/4 framework.

On p.11 Prof. Yung says,

"In the guqin tradition, metrical, rhythmic, and phrasal expressions are left alone within the realm of musical sound and are not forced into a non-musical framework, such as visual representation. In the absence of such non-musical records, a performer is more likely to vary his interpretation of the music, being constantly influenced by external circumstances as well as by his own growth and development. But in an edition with Western staff notation, the musicologist is forced to be unambiguous in his metrical interpretation; a more specific interpretation is likely to be frozen in time."

To me the underlying assumption of "more likely to vary his interpretation" is that in a purely oral tradition the music will change more quickly than in a written tradition. I am not convinced of this.

Having heard the opening of Guangling San, to what extent will the listener preceive it as a regular 4/4 after looking at Prof. Yung's transcription? Not to a great extent, I think: they would still perceive it as Yao played it: either unmeasured or with very flexible rhythm. And if they are familiar with the tradition, the fact that there is a transcription in 4/4 will not necessarily lead them to play using a strict 4/4 tempo.

Not having heard Guangling San, if players A and B learned the piece from Prof. Yung's transcription together with the original tablature while players C and D learned it only from the original tablature, would the A and B versions be more similar to each other than the C and D versions to each other? Here my opinion is that because of the transcription A and B might learn the piece more quickly, but if they took to heart Prof. Yung's commentary (or if they had ever heard someone play the piece) they would know that even written time values are not to be interpreted too literally, and so I am not convinced their end results would more similar to each other than those of C and D would be to each other. And because I believe that much of the structure of the music is made clear by the tablature, it is possible, assuming they all actually followed the original tablature closely, that all four interpretations would be quite similar.

In sum, I don't find staff notation to be necessarily as specific as Prof. Yung seems to believe it is, nor the tablature as imprecise: this all depends on how the notation or the tablature is used. Thus, as I try to explain in the introduction to my transcriptions of Music Beyond Sound, the reader should understand that what is notated is not exactly the melody, but something like an intellectual conception of the melody. Although I may see my own recreation on paper as 4/4, if you listen to the way I play it, the 4/4 is not always so obvious. Only by transcribing from a recording could I give a precise indication of exactly where it speeds up and slows down. But the process of doing that would be to me very artificial: I just don't perceive the music in such a precise manner.

The first piece transcribed in Celestial Airs is Jiu Kuang. The original tablature is copied in the back of the book, though note that pages 154 to 157, giving the original tablature are scrambled, so that the music of Jiu Kuang actually begins on p.154 and continues on p.156 then p.155.

In Yao Bingyan's own explanation of Jiu Kuang (Yinyue Yishu, 1981/5) he says that he originally reconstructed it in the 1950s using double rhythm, but later he changed to using triple rhythms. He admits that triple rhythms are not a known part of traditional Chinese music, but because there were triple rhythms in poetry and because of a reference by the Tang qin master Chen Zhuo which might be saying that some music could be played in triple rhythm (see Qinshu Daquan, Folio 8 [1590], in Qinqu Jicheng, Vol. V, p.171), plus the fact that this music sounded convincing to him in triple rhythm, he felt that this was a correct interpretation.

My understanding of this explanation is that he does not justify it in terms of being creative, he justifies his interpretation on a historical basis combined with it sounding good to him played that way, so he thinks this either possibly or probably was the way it was originally played. Since Yao's triple rhythm version has led a number of people to believe that Jiu Kuang proves that there was triple rhythm in early Chinese music, it is unfortunate that Prof. Yung makes no comment on what Yao wrote. (My own analysis is included under the qin song version.)

From the transcription of Jiu Kuang we can see specific examples of typical changes made by Yao. Thus on the second line of p.17 the marker "yin" (drink) has been moved from after the cluster indicating the ring finger hits the open third string, to before it. This means an additional note is played when the phrase is repeated (see the last line of the same page; Prof. Yung does not mention this change).

On page 18, line two, measure 34, the first two notes are changed from a slide from G to B flat into a slide from A to B flat (not to C, as in Prof. Yung's transcription). Prof. Yung has written the original tablature underneath, showing the finger should slide on the 3rd string from the 13th up to the 10th position; what Yao has done is slide up from the 11th position instead of from the 13th.

When the passage is repeated in a higher register (measures 45-46) Yao again changes the slides. This time he changes them so that instead of going from the original F to B flat (measure 46) it becomes a slide from B flat to C (again there is a mistake in Prof. Yung's transcription; it is correct in measure 48). In both cases Prof. Yung (see Performance Notes 3 and 6 [p.89]) says Yao's changes "may or may not be intentional."

These changes affect the melody but not the rhythm or mode. More significant are changes such as those in Guangling San where, in addition to playing only the middle half of the piece, Yao consistently changes a flatted mi into a natural mi. (See p.60 measure 18, p.61 measures 48 and 49. Here Prof. Yung does not comment on whether these changes are intentional, but he does in 1987 (p.87), where he writes that Yao admitted he went along with Guan Pinghu's changes because the original sounded wrong to him. On this basis Yao concluded they must be a mistake.

To my knowledge, in spite of comments by musicologists such as Prof. Chen Yingshi, all Chinese players today make this same change.

This may, as Prof. Yung claims, show creativity. However, the fact that all players follow this lead might at the same time evoke the suspicion that the level of play today is not what it was in the time of Zhu Quan, the Emaciated Immortal.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Bell Yung on Dapu
Prof. Yung and I first discussed dapu when I gave a workshop on guqin music at the 31st ICTM World Conference, July 3-9, 1991, in Hong Kong (see ICTM bulletin, p.17). First I discussed the traditional use of the term - as a way of creating new music. Then I posited that it could also be used as a way to try to learn as much as we could about how the music might have been played in the past, discussing in particular what careful study could teach us about the the modality of early qin music, and suggesting that such study could lead to an Early Music Movement for guqin comparable to the Early Music Movement in the West.

Professor Yung says he generally agrees with this, but he did not deal with the subject of historically informed performance in his own writing.

2. Bell Yung publications on Dapu
Articles by Prof. Bell Yung on dapu include (updated):

1984 "Choreographic and Kinesthetic Elements in Performance of the Chinese Seven-String Zither." Ethnomusicology 28: 505-517

1985 "Da Pu: The Recreative Process for the Music of the Seven-string Zither" in Music and Context: Essays in Honor of John Ward ed. Anne Dhu Shapiro, Music Department, Harvard University, pp. 370-384.

1987 "Historical Interdependency of Music: A Case Study of the Chinese Seven-String Zither" in The Journal of the American Musicological Society, XL.1 (Spring 1987): 82-91. (Best bibliography of Chinese sources.)

1989 "La musique du guqin: Du cabinet du lettre a la scene de concert," in Cahiers de musiques traditionnelles 2 (Geneva), pp.51-62. Written in English. (I haven't seen this yet.)

1994 "Not Notating the Notatable: Reëvaluating the Guqin Notational System," in Themes and Variations: Writings on Music in Honor of Rulan Chao Pian, pp. 45-58. Co-published by the Music Department, Harvard University and the Institute for Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

1996 Celestial Airs of Antiquity, Music of the Seven-String Zither of China, Madison, A-R Editions

Other relevant publications include,

1997 Georges Goormaghtigh and Bell Yung, "Preface of Shenqi Mipu: Translation with Commentary", ACMR (Association for Chinese Music Research) Reports, Spring 1997, pp.1-7

2008 The Last of China's Literati: The Music, Poetry and Life of Tsar Teh-yun, Hong Kong University Press.

2017 "An Audience of One: The Private Music of the Chinese Literati", Ethnomusicology Vol. 61, No. 3, Fall 2017, pp.506-539

2021 "From humble beginnings to qin master: the remarkable cross-fertilization of folk and elite cultures in Yao Bingyan’s 姚炳炎 dapu 打譜 music", Routledge Handbook of Asian Music: Cultural Intersections, edited by Lee Tong Soon, London and New York

In addition, 1987 lists the following, which apparently is not yet published:

1984b "Unusual pitch material in a 15th century collection of zither notation." Paper read at the 29th annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Los Angeles, 18-21 October 1984. (Return)

3. Recordings by Yao Bingyan
In perhaps 2017 a number of further silk string recordings of Yao were published in a 4 CD set under the title, "The Art of Yao Bingyan". Here the first two CDs have recordings made before 1980, so all but perhaps one use silk strings; the latter two CDs exclusively use nylon-metal strings. Likewise, with the set on five CDs starting here; once again, all recordings made before 1980 have silk strings; all those after have nylon-metal.


Return to the Guqin ToC or to analysis.