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Playing Qin for an Ox
Elaborating on a well-known expression
對牛彈琴 1
A depiction by 石濤 Shí Tāo  

The proper environments for playing qin were traditionally said to be alone, for a friend, or at a gathering where participants would also appreciate (or do) calligraphy, painting or other activities popular amongst literati.2 The emphasis is on playing for people expected to understand the music (i.e., zhi yin). At the same time, stories such as that of Boya and Ziqi suggest that such people are very rare. So what should or should not qin players expect from an audience?

In this context "playing the qin for an ox" has often been interpreted as expressing the sentiment that you should only play the qin for someone as enlightened as you yourself are. However, perhaps the earliest story along this theme seems rather to suggest that the onus is on the qin player to understand the listener: it is fine to play the qin even for an ox, you just have to know how to make the qin speak in a language the ox will understand. This message comes from a 5th century Buddhist text, which tells a story about Gongming Yi, a qin player said to have lived during the Spring and Autumn period.

Further perspectives on this story can be found in the four inscriptions accompanying the painting at right by Shi Tao (1642-1707; see full image. These include suggestions that oxen may actually be better listeners than most of Shi Tao's contemporaries, whom he criticized as pretentious (compare the comments in this linked article by James Watt).

This original text of these inscriptions is transcribed in a footnote below,3 but they have not yet been translated. About these Alice Li sent the following comments:4

The inscriptions with Shi Tao's painting are four different poems, each one in a distinct calligraphy. On the top are the first three; underneath this, to the left of the qin-player and ox, is the fourth poem.

  1. The one on top right was originally written by 曹寅 Cao Yin (grandfather of the famous writer Cao Xueqin).
  2. The one top center is by Yang Duanmu (a government official); these first two were both copied by Shi Tao on his painting (presumably because the other poems are specifically connected to one or the other).
  3. The one at top left is a poem (or two poems in one calligraphic style) written by someone apparently named Gu Weizhen, the first part responding to Cao's poem, the other to Yang's.
  4. Finally, next to the image, is a poem (or, again, two poems in one calligraphic style) by Shi Tao specifically for his painting; the first part again refers to the poem by Cao and the second to the one by Yang.

The most quoted text from the painting is this one by Shi Tao:

People in the world all talk about qin in a false way; no one listens as truthfully as this ox.

I think Shi Tao picked this well-known phrase 對牛弹琴 and used it in a very witty, unconventional and satirical way to express his feeling of loneliness: with no 知音 to understand him he would rather play qin to an ox, who seemingly listens to him attentively.

Further regarding the last poem, in Shi Tao's signature for it he wrote "戲為之", which means (the poem was) "composed playfully". The style of the poem is quite plain and common (with 順口溜 catch phrases and a 數來寶 folk style), which I think was also Shi Tao's deliberate choice.

The whole painting seems to have a very heavy tone of sarcasm. There are comments about the qin player's eyes, the ox's body with its back to the audience of the painting, and just remember the name of the painting, "Playing Qin Facing an Ox". Someone has even suggested that the painting should be taken as a Qing Dynasty cartoon (q.v.). In many ways, its intention is closely related to that of Cao Xueqin's Hong Lou Meng, in which Liu Laolao is interpreted as the embodiment of the ox. (《紅樓夢》與南京:雲散高唐,水固湘江(石濤)_紅樓夢吧_百度貼吧。)

For the first of the four poems Ms. Li sent a link (wenku.baidu.com) that added further information regarding the poem.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1 Playing qin for an ox (對牛彈琴 dui niu tan qin)
This popular Chinese saying, as with the English "Casting pearls before swine", can be used to criticize the ignorance of the intended recipients, but it can also be a satirical comment on someone who does not take his/her audience into consideration.

7617.16 對牛彈琴 says, "謂對愚人說深理也 Speak profound reasoning to a stupid person". It then quotes two sources, both 18th century, as follows:

  1. (錢大昕,恆言錄 Hengyan Lu by Qian Daxin [1728–1804, Wiki]):
    The four references here can be translated as follows:

  2. (通俗編,獸畜,對牛彈琴 Tongsu Bian [Explanation of Common Things], by 翟顥 Zhai Hao [1736-1788]):
    According to Shou Chu (Beasts and Livestock), a section of Wu Deng Hui Yuan (12th c.), Think Simple (惟簡禪師? 11050.xxx) responded to the monk Ask Direct (?) saying, "Play the qin for an ox".

2/1295 對牛彈琴 adds several more quotes, beginning with,

The first reference above (from Hengyan Lu) seems to suggest that the earliest form of this expression was "對牛鼓簧 beating the huang for an ox"; note, however, the mention of 簧 huang is only in the commentary by 郭象 Guo Xiang (Wiki), while the relevant passage in Zhuangzi discussed only the qin, not the huang.

The fourth reference, from 宏明集 Hongming Ji (Collection of Universal Brilliance?, an early Buddhist text attributed to 僧祐 Seng You, 445-518); compare 廣宏明集 Guang Hongming Ji from the 7th c.), tells of 公明儀 Gongming Yi (1480.277 春秋,魯,南武城人) playing a "qingjue melody for an ox. This story seems later to have been expanded and/or retold; modern accounts in English often simplify his name to "Ming Yi" and describe him as a qin master. The way the story is now told it seems to suggest the moral is that you should not play the qin for someone who cannot understand qin music: someone not as enlightened as yourself.

However, if my understanding of the original story is correct, it more likely is trying to convey the message that if you want listeners actually to pay attention to what you play, you should give them what they are used to hearing. The original text from Hongming Ji along with my tentative translation is as follows,

公明儀爲牛彈淸角之操,伏食如故,非牛不聞,不合其耳矣。轉為蚊虻之聲,孤犢之鳴,即掉尾奮耳,蹀躞而聽。是以《詩》、《書》理子耳。 (四庫全書子部十三)
When Gongming Yi played a qingjue melody for an ox, it just continued eating grass. It wasn't that the ox couldn't hear it, it was just nothing special to its ears. (Gongming) then changed to playing so that it sounded like mosquitos and horseflies, upon which a solitary calf cried out, flicked its tail, wriggled its ears, and moved forward to listen (i.e., it responded to sounds with which it was familiar). This is like using classic texts and adjusting them to your ear. (?)

For "qingjue melody" see under Shi Kuang and compare it with 清商調 Qingshang Diao

2 Painting by 石濤 Shí Tāo, with inscriptions (ca. 1705)
Shi Tao (1642-1707;
Wiki) was a famous painter who also used many other names (e.g., 原濟 Yuan Ji; 1642-ca.1718). Note that he dates from around the same time as the commentary above, and that the further commentary with the full version of his painting 對牛彈琴圖 Depiction of Playing Qin For an Ox (see also this commentary) seems to suggest the ox actually makes a suitable listener.

The original is in the 故宫博物院 National Palace Museum

3 Inscriptions with the painting by 石濤 Shí Tāo (see original)
The inscriptions with the painting are all poems that can be found transcribed on several sites, including this one. These transcriptions are generally as follows:

  1. By 曹寅 Cao Yin, 鹺使原韻 Salt Commission, rhyme sequence


  2. By Yang Duanmu (楊中訥 15489.83 字耑木), Hanlin Academy, rhyme sequence


  3. By Gu Weizhen, nickname Huantie? (顧維禎 44649.290 only 顧維; 幻鐵 9397.xxx 44649.xxx)

    主伯亞旅若聞 □ ,質之牛耳聊免俗。(□=疑缺一字)
    彷彿倪迂昔日心,縱伴煙霞亦悲 □ 。
     □ 歎何人過靡靡,癡腸不斷我與爾。
    由他燕駿無人市,千金 □ 碎宣陽里。

  4. By 石濤 Shi Tao (nicknames include 清湘 and 大滌子) playfully

    背藏頭似不通徵,招角招非 □ 正工。(□=疑缺一字)

There are some inconsistencies in the online renderings of the original calligraphy.

4 Comments from Alice Li
Sent in December 2013; I did some editing and added links to further information.

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