Sima Xiangru
 T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Qin biographies       首頁
Sima Xiangru
- Qin Shi #66
司馬相如 1
琴史 #66 2
Expressing the heart through the qin 3      
Sima Xiangru (179 - 117) is considered one of early China's best and most influential essayists and poets. His most famous poems are fu, often translated as "rhapsody", but he also wrote numerous essays.4

However, he is more broadly famous for the story of his seduction of Zhuo Wenjun,5 said to have taken place at the home of her father, Zhuo Wangsun,6 in Linqiong (today called Qionglai),7 a town about 50 miles southwest of Chengdu.

Sima Xiangru's original name was apparently Quanzi (Puppy). He later changed it because of his admiration for Lin Xiangru.8

Earlier in his career, after a brief stint at the court of Emperor Jingdi (r. 156 - 141) in Chang An,9 he had lived at the court of Prince Xiao of Liang,10 in Shangqiu, Henan province. In 143, when the prince died he returned home to Chengdu.

In 142 or 141 C.E. Sima Xiangru returned to Chang An and lived at the court of Emperor Wudi (r.141 - 87). Here as a Gentleman of the Court he was very influential in extending Han authority over Sichuan. Being independently wealthy through his wife's family allowed him to live well without the need for public office. When he became ill he retired to his 茂陵 Maoling, near Chang An, and died here. He had apparently been a prolific writer, but when at his death the emperor sent someone to collect Xiangru's writings, they found that most of it had been lost.

In the Ming dynasty Sima Xiangru's seduction of Wenjun is retold in connection with two musically unrelated qin melodies with two different sets of lyrics said to have been used by Sima Xiangru for the seduction:

For other qin connections note that Sima Xiangru's essay Da Ren Fu is said to have been based on the poem Yuan You. And Qin illustration 28 in Taiyin Daquanji shows a qin named Lu Qi that supposedly was his.11

A more complete version of the seduction of Wenjun is told in the History of the Western Han. This is included in Qinshu Daquan (QQJC V. p.348), Folio 16, #11.

The original Qin Shi essay is as follows,12

Sima Xiangru, style name Changqing, was from Chengdu. He became famous for his essays. During the Han period there were few good at playing the qin.

Once as a guest traveling in Linqiong the local magistrate (, his old friend 王吉 Wang Ji,) got him together with the wealthy people in that city. (One of them,) Zhuo Wangsun, knowing that the magistrate had a valued guest, sent him a written invitation. When they were merry with drink the Lingqiong Magistrate first played the qin. He then said, "I have heard you are fond of (the qin named) Green Silk. Would you be willing to use it for our pleasure?" Xiangru (first) politely declined, then he played one melody, then continued. Mr. Zhuo's daughter (, who had recently been widowed), secretly from the doorway spied on this. Her heart was moved and she was enamoured of (Xiangru). That night she eloped with Xiangru and Xiangru took her as his consort. As a result historians have said that Changqing (Sima Xiangru) 以琴心挑文君 used the soul of the qin to pluck Wenjun.

Alas, ....

(Translation incomplete.)

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 司馬相如 Sima Xiangru (179 - 117; Wiki)
3306.207 司馬相如,字長卿 Sima Xiangru, style name Changqing (原名犬子 original name Quanzi [Puppy]). His biography is chapter 117 of the Shi Ji; translated in Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian, II.259-306. See also ICTCL pp. 723-4 and Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Periods, pp. 487 - 9.

2. 8 lines; the source of the essay is not indicated.

3. Image: Expressing the heart through the qin (琴心 qinxin)
The calligraphy here is by David Chan (陳子慧 Chan Chi-Wai). Literally "qin xin" means "qin heart", but there have been various translations and explanations, including "soul of the qin", "expressing deep emotions on the qin", or perhaps "expressing profound emotions, as one can best do on the qin".

21570.7 琴心 qinxin says 為托琴音以通情也 make use of qin sounds to express emotions (compare "以琴談心 use the qin to express one's true feelings" under 寄情 Ji Qing Cao). Three references are given:

  1. 史記司馬相如傳 The Shi Ji biography of Sima Xiangru
    This earliest passage was incorporated into the Qin Shi biography above. Although the Shi Ji story says Sima Xiangru "以琴心挑之 used the qin to express his emotions," it makes no mention of lyrics, of which there are now two completely different versions. This suggests it was the way he played that was most important.
  2. 杜牧,代人作 Du Mu (Wiki), Dai Ren Zuo
    "錦字梭懸壁,琴心月滿臺。" (6th of 8 lines)
  3. 李群玉,戲贈魏十四詩 Li Qunyu, Xi Zeng Wei, 14 poems
"Qin xin" can also have more purely philosophical meanings. This is discussed in Jao Tsung-i, Harmoniousness: Essays in Chinese Musicology, Chapter 10 (source:; translation by Colin Huehns):

The process of using the qin to refine the heart was known by the ancients as 'qin heart'. Daoist texts customarily used the qin to represent a harmonious plane of thought, therefore Huangting neijing jing 黃庭内景經 (a revelatory text received by Wei Huacun 魏華存, 252–334) is also called Taishang qinxin wen 太上琴心文.88 The book also includes Liangqiuzi’s (梁丘子, fl. eighth century) notes to the introduction, which read:

Of the myriad natural laws, mankind is the host, and for mankind, it is the heart that is the crux. Were there no host, then natural laws would not have been born; were there no heart, then the body could not stand upright. The heart and natural laws have many manifestations, and those that are delved and used are not all identical.


It also gives:

The qin represents harmoniousness; and playing richly on it can harmonize the six fu internal organs, calm the heart and spirit, and cause a person to attain the spirithood of a celestial immortal.


The following references are also discussed by Jao.

21570.8 琴心三疊 Qin Xin Sandie says 道家語 "Daoist expression". Two references:

  1. 海錄碎事 Hailu Suishi is in 21570.8
  2. 高似孫,緯略 Gao Sisun, Wei Lue, also discusses this.

琴心三篇 Qin Xin Sanpian (Qin expression, 3 chapters) is also related. It is the first entry in Qinshu Cunmu, attributed to Xie Juanzi, as well as an expression in a Li Bai poem. For this see Jao again:

"Li Bai (李白, 701–762) in 'Lushan yao' 廬山謠 gives: 'Having first fed on reconstituted dan elixir, with no emotion left for this world; qin heart, three layers, the Way begins to form itself." 早服還丹無世情,琴心三疊道初成.'"

Jao gives several more references, in particular regarding the use of "qin as a metaphor for 'harmoniousness'."

4. Translations of works attributed to him include,

子虛賦 Rhapsody of Sir Vacuous; Knechtges, Wen Xuan, II, 53-72
子虛賦 (Rhapsody on) Sir Fantasy; Burton Watson in Mair, Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 392-411.
上林賦 Rhapsody on the Imperial Park; Knechtges, ibid, III, 73-114
長門賦 Rhapsody on the Tall Gate Palace; ibid, III, 115-136
大人賦 Rhapsody on the Great One; Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, pp.181 - 3
大人賦 (Rhapsody on) The Mighty One; Burton Watson in Minford and Lau, Chinese Classical Literature, 295-8
美人賦 (Rhapsody on) The Beautiful Person; John Scott in ibid, 292-4
上書諫獵 Against Hunting; Herbert Giles in ibid, 572
琴歌 (Qin Song:) Cock-Phoenix, Hen-Phoenix; Anne Birrell in Mair, ibid, 444.

5. 卓文君 Zhuo Wenjun
2792.8 Zhuo Wenjun says she was from 臨邛 Linqiong and the daughter of 卓王孫 Zhuo Wangsun, who was wealthy but does not otherwise seem to appear in history. 13766.164 文君 Wenjun has several people with this name, including Wen Wang as well as 卓文君 Zhuo Wenjun; .165 文君新寡 Wenjun Newly Widowed and .166 文君當壚 Wenjun in a Wine Shop give references from the biography of Sima Xiangru in Shi Ji. They all tell of her seduction by Sima Xiangru, also related in connection with the melodies Feng Qiu Huang and Wenjun Cao. After living in poverty and running a wineshop for some time, Wenjun was reconciled with her father, who then gave the couple 100 servants, 1,000,000 in cash plus everything he had already given her for her previous dowry; they then set up very comfortably at a mansion in Chengdu. Later, Wenjun is herself said to have written a melody called Baitou Yin (see below), included ancient melody lists such the Moderately Ancient section of Seng, and with tablature in 1618.

白頭吟 Baitou Yin White Hair Intonation (attributed to Zhuo Wenjun)
Baitou Yin (23191.1075: see YFSJ) survives only in 1618 (QQJC VIII, p.298; Guide 31/242/460); the mode there is called Wumei. According to the story, some years after Sima Xiangru and Zho Wenjun were married, as Wenjun's hair was turning grey, Xiangru decided to take a concubine. Wenjun then wrote Baitou Yin to remind Xiangru of his previous vows; he relented. Playing this melody requires using one of the strange tunings typical of that handbook: tighten the 2nd and 6th strings, giving 1 3 4 5 6 2 2 !; this tuning could hardly be more different than that for Feng Qiu Huang (lower the 3rd and 6th strings).

The lyrics for the melody Baitou Yin are the first two poems in YFSJ, Xianghe Geci, Chu Diao Qu (p.599). The originals are as follows (note the similarity of the two):

Poem 1

Poem 2
平生共城中,何嘗斗酒會。 (The qin melody has 生平 . This line not in #1)
郭東亦有樵,郭西亦有樵。 (Not in #1)
兩樵相推與,無親為誰驕? (Not in #1)
男兒欲相知,何用錢刀為? (欲相知 was 重意氣 in #1)
如五馬噉萁,川上高士嬉。 (Not in #1)
今日相對樂,延年萬歲期。 (Not in #1)

Both poems are translated in Anne Birrell, Popular Songs, pp.154 - 7.

6. 卓王孫 Zhuo Wangsun
No further information on him outside of this story.

7. 臨邛 Linqiong
Further information; modern maps sometimes still have 臨邛 Linqiong as well as 邛崍 Qionglai.

8. 閵相如 Lin Xiangru
Lin Xiangru was a minister under 趙惠王 King Hui (also called 惠文 Huiwen) of Zhao (r.298 - 266). Giles tells a story in which Lin Xiangru keeps the King of Qin from succeeding with a false offer of trading 15 cities for a gem then in the possession of King Huiwen of Zhao.

Two stories in 十二國史 (see Qinshu Daquan, Folio 16, #9) tell of the King of Zhao playing the qin. Because of the connection with Lin Xiangru, this is presumably Huiwen of Zhao. Zhao had its capital in 邯鄲 Handan (southern Hebei).

9. During the reign of Emperor Jing (r. 156 - 141)

10. 梁孝王劉武 Prince Xiao of Liang
Prince Xiao of Liang was Liu Wu (r. 168-144). His court was located in what is today 商丘 Shangqiu in Henan province, near the border with Shandong province. Its modern website claims to have been the "family home" of Confucius (it is just over 100 miles SW of Qufu) and the home town of Zhuangzi.

11. 綠綺 Lu Qi (28209.315; 9/922)
Lu Qi (Green Silk; Green Gossamer) is the name of a qin said to have been given to Sima Xiangru by 梁王 the Prince of Liang (see above) in response to Sima Xiangru's 玉如意賦 Poetic Essay on a Jade Ruyi (now lost); Bai Juyi's 白帖 Bai Tie says that Sima Xiangru used this qin to play 求鳳之曲 (i.e., Feng Qiu Huang). It was so famous that its name alone was often used to signify "beautiful qin"; see for example a Li Bai poem; in another poem he suggests this as the name of his own qin. Another qin of this name is the one in the biography of Xie Juanzi said to have belonged to a woman he met. However, when included amongst illustrations of famous qins, as at right from Taigu Yiyin, it is always said to belong to Sima Xiangru. The same qin is also illustraed in Taiyin Daquanji, Folio 2, and its use in the seduction is shown in the qin illustration in Fengxuan Xuanpin.

12. Original text
The original Chinese from Qin Shi is as follows:


嘗客游臨邛,臨邛令與之相善。邑富人卓王孫至有貴客,為具召之。酒酣,臨邛令前奏琴,曰: 「竊聞君善綠綺,願以自娛。」相如辭謝,為鼓一再行。卓氏女文君,竊從戶窺,心悅而好之。夜亡奔相如,相如納之。故史氏謂長卿以琴心挑文君。


From 嗚呼!not yet translated.

Return to QSCB, or to the Guqin ToC.