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Chapter Five: Sui and Tang dynasties 1
Xu Jian, Introductory History of the Qin, pp.79-80 2

Part Four: Qin in Tang poetry

The Tang dynasty was a time during which poetry flourished. Over fifty thousand Tang poems survive, reflecting many aspects of contemporary social life. Circumstances regarding the art of qin music are also reflected in Tang poetry. Poets and qin players were in extensive contact and some fostered deep relationships. Some poets enjoyed qin and often played or even composed melodies; these included Wang Ji, Wang Wei, Li Bai, Gu Kuang, Bai Juyi, Wen Tingyun, and so forth. As they held a sophisticated understanding of qin music, the vivid descriptions and insightful discussion in their poetry provide excellent reference to understanding the accomplishment and influence of qin art.

Tang poems refer extensively to qin players. For example, the poetms of Li Bai have qin players such as Xiu Shi, Monk Jun of Shu and Lu Zishun; the poems of Yuan Zhen also feature (named qin players such as) Rou Zhi, Yu Jizhi, and Jiang Xuan and his (whose?) wife. Aside from this, there were also many poems especially written for such-and-such a Daoist, mountain dweller, honored teacher, recluse and others who play the qin. Qin was an indispensable component of the culture and lifestyle at the time. Some of these qin players were amateurs and others were professionals. Professional qin players (mentioned in poetry) include: Dong Tinglan, Du Shanren and Jiang Xuan, all of whom played Hujia, and Ying Shi, who was praised by both Han Yu and Li He. Although these (players) have no place in formal history, through Tang poetry one can see that they were very influential musicians.

It is also noteworthy that so many melodies were reflected in Tang poems. Some of these inherited the traditions of past generations and have deep historical roots; others have profoundly influenced melodies of later generations. From relevant poems, one can see that these are all melodies that were popular at the time and that were active in the musical lives of the people. Aside from previously mentioned melodies such as Bie He Cao, Da Hujia, Xiao Hujia, Pili Yin, and Zhaojun Yuan; also mentioned were such famous melodies as Zhi Chao Fei, Guangling San, You Lan, Bai Xue, Chu Fei Tan, Nan Feng, Si Gui, Chen Xiang, Yi Shui, Lu Shui, Sanxia Liu Quan, Shui Xian, Qiu Si and many others. Because after the early Tang there are no existing lists of qin melodies, and because there are no other literary records that one can examine to identify the hundreds of melodies said to have been collected by such people as Xue Yijian and Chen Kangshi, the melodies surviving through poetry are even more precious. These Tang poems help us clarify the background of some important melodies.

To explicate this question, one can use the example of Sanxia Liu Quan. Based on documentation, this melody seems to have existed only in the Tang dynasty, but careful analysis of relevant poems indicates otherwise. Not only is this melody included in the list at the end of Jieshi Diao: You Lan, Cen Shen and Li Jilan (Li Ye) of the Tang dynasty both wrote poems about Sanxia Liu Quan. Thus Li's poem is as follows:3

(My home was originally under the clouds of Wushan, and often I heard the Wushan waters flowing.
The sound of playing qin turns sparse and far, as if it is heard in a dream.
The waters of Sanxia stream for thousands of li; momentarily they flow by this lady's chambers.)
The enormous cascading rocks come to life under one's fingers, while waves spring from the strings.
At first one suspects anger with thunder and wind, but then it whimpers as if unable to flow through.
The water flows fast over rocks, losing momentum and splattering into the sand.
One reminisces that Master Ruan4 created this melody, and it could cause Zhongrong (Ruan Xian) wish to hear more.
One plays and plays once again, and desires that it would continue, like the flow of a spring.

The first six lines of the poem illustrate the musical expression in the same way it might with the surviving melody Liu Shui. The melody Gaoshan Liushui came from the story of Bo Ya and Zhong Ziqi, which predates the Qin dynasty, and has a very important place among qin melodies. Although it is not found in records of the Tang dynasty, one cannot so conclude that it did not exist then. Shen Qi Mi Pu, from the early Ming dynasty, clearly indicates in relevant explications that: "the two melodies Gao Shan and Liu Shui were once only one melody". "It was divided into two melodies in the Tang dynasty. This claim must have some basis. The last four lines of Li Jilan's poem (above) points out that as early as the Jin dynasty, this melody was favored by Ruan Xian, which demonstrates its long history. It is very common for famous melodies to change names as they are passed down, thus one cannot eliminate the possibility that Sanxia Liu Quan was (the same as) Gaoshan Liushui. Although one cannot entirely prove this idea based on this poem, the poem does provide some clues for further thought.

Commentary regarding the qin, qin melodies, qin performance, and qin appreciation is preserved in Tang poems and is a rare historical legacy for the study of qin art. From the vivid illustrations of these poems, we can appreciate the incredible performance technique of famous masters such as Dong Tinglan and Ying Shi. The different schools and regions formed different performance styles. Thus,

"People from Ba play slowly with sparse beats,
    while those visiting from Chu pluck the strings with urgency." (Liu Yunji, Yong Qin5)"

Such commentary regarding qin performance in Tang poems can complement the evaluation by Zhao Yeli of the Wu and Shu schools.6 In appreciating qin music, poets can often positively comprehend the expression of content, which provides us with some inspiration. For example, Shen Quanqi gained inspiration from Pili Yin (see comments by Xu Jian under Feng Lei Yin); Rong Yu connected Da Hujia to the contemporary political reality (again see Xu Jian comment); Yuan Zhen and Bai Juyi experienced sympathy for women through Bie He Cao, and so forth. At the same time, based on the remarks of the poets, one can also see that the art of qin in the Tang dynasty had developed a distance from other popular forms of instrumental music. For example, such poetic phrases as,

Dedicating one's life is not like the cleverness of the sheng mouth organ or yu panpipes; this pleases the ear in the way of the (vulgar music of) Zheng and Wei. (Li Shanfu, Presented to the qin play of Li the Recluse7)


If the sound of qin becomes similar to that of the pipa, it could already for a long time be bought from contemporaries. (???; Zhao Bo, Qin Song8)

And so forth, indicate this situation. The explanation that was devised for sort of phenomenon was, foremost, that,

"Only qin music still retains the ancient sounds of Chu and Han" (Xin Tang Shu: Li Yue Zhi9).

Qin melodies retained a large amount of ancient music.

"Although ancient music is held in high regard, most today do not play it." (Liu Zhangqing: Ting Tan Qin10)


"Ancient sounds are mild and flavorless,
Not matching the preferences of men today."(Bai Juyi, Abandoned Qin11)

Furthermore, the appreciative taste of the literati influenced qin performance, enhancing the artistic expression of qin music but lifting it away from the appreciation of the common people. In particular, some literati intentionally isolated qin music in opposition to ordinary music, believing that this constitutes "elegance";

"If what one plays is not new sounds, why are vulgar ears willing listen?" (Sima Zha, Tan Qin12).


"The music of the landscape is not heard by the vulgar." (Wang Ji, Shan Ye Tiao Qin13)

Thus, the development of the qin was negatively influenced and people could only lament,

"Zhong Qi cannot be found; who will discern the main note?" (Shi Biao, Bao Qin14)"

Many surviving melodies were created based on the artistic conception of Tang poems; some directly made qin songs out of Tang poems. The qin songs based on Wang Wei's "Song Yuan Er Shi Anxi" and on Liu Zhongyuan's "Yu Weng" are the most widely spread. In addition there are also Xiangyang Ge and Shui Long Yin" based on Li Bai, Bing Che Xing based on Du Fu, Maple Bridge Night Anchorage based on Zhang Ji, Feng Ru Song based on Jiao Ran, Lou Shi Ming based on Liu Yuxi, Dao Yi based on Pan Tingjian, and so forth. Among these some melodies have quite some depth. However, pieces such as the Ten Melodies Han Yu wrote based on Qin Cao were unremarkable; they are filled with preachings of feudalistic thought with no redeeming artistic features.

Return to Sui/Tang preface

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. See footnote to the preface for details of the period covered (589 - 979).

2. Initial translation by 金秋雨 Jin Qiuyu

3. QSCB did not include the first three lines of the poem; see complete original.

4. Master Ruan (阮公 Ruan Gong)
"Ruan Gong" apparently refers most often to Ruan Ji. However, here it may refer to his nephew Ruan Xian, as Ruan Xian is said to have created the melody Sanxia Liu Quan. Ruan Xian had the nickname 仲容 Zhongrong.

5. Liu Yunji, Yong Qin 劉允濟,詠琴
Ronald Egan translates this poem in his article Music, Sadness and the Qin, HJAS 57, p. 43. Egan translates these lines, 巴人緩疏節,楚客弄緊絲 as follows,

"A man of Ba slowly fingers the wide intervals,
A traveler from Chu plucks the closely-spaced strings.

Egan sees the passage simply as describing how two individuals play. It does seem quite possible that the poet is identifying two playing styles. Unfortunately, the description is tantalizingly brief. In addition, Ba presumably refers to Sichuan, and it is often said that the Sichuan style has always been very strong - so that "with urgency" might better be applied to it rather than to the Chu style.

6. If Shu and Ba are considered the same style, then the quoted descriptions strike me as rather contradictory.

7. Poem by Li Shanfu
Xu Jian has, 致身不似笙竽巧;悅耳寧如鄭衛滔(李山甫﹕《贈彈琴李處士》. However, QSDQ, Folio 20 (V/444), calls the poem, 贈彈琴道士 Presented to a Qin Playing Daoist, and gives this passage as, 致身不是笙篁巧;說耳寧知鄭衛滔。

8. Zhao Bo: (趙搏《琴歌》)
This poem does not seem to be included in Qinshu Daquan. The complete poem, from 全唐詩 Complete Tang Poems 卷771_5 is as follows (see end of line 2 and note "賣 sell" instead of "買 buy"):


The present translation is certainly not very accurate ("If the sound of qin becomes similar to that of the pipa, it could already for a long time be sold to contemporaries." Perhaps the idea is that although qins that sound like pipas are no good, the ones that have that sound are quite popular.)

9. 唯彈琴家猶傳楚漢舊聲(新唐書,禮樂志)

10. Liu Zhangqing: Ting Tan Qin(劉長卿﹕聽彈琴)
Qinshu Daquan has other poems by Liu Zhangqing but it does not seem to have this one. The original poem is,


Cool crystalline sounds resound on seven strings; in peace one can hear cold wind in the pines.
The ancient melodies, though held in high regard; are now rarely played.

See also the translation by Phil Newall.

11. Bai Juyi, Abandoned Qin 白居易,廢琴 Fei Qin
This poem, included in QSDQ, Folio 19 (V/417), is translated in Ronald Egan, Music, Sadness and the Qin, HJAS 57, p.54.



12. Sima Zha, Tan Qin 司馬扎,彈琴
所彈非新聲,俗耳安肯聞 This poem does not seem to be in QSDQ. The complete poem is


13. Wang Ji, 王績﹕山夜調琴 Shan Ye Tiao Qin
This poem does not seem to be in QSDQ. The complete poem is,


14. Shi Biao, Treasured Qin 釋彪﹕寶琴 Bao Qin
This poem can be found in QSDQ, Folio 19 (V/417). The complete poem is,


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