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Qin in Hong Lou Meng
(Dream of the Red Chamber, a novel) 1
Chapter 87: Daiyu plays qin2      

Hong Lou Meng was written in the mid 18th century by Cao Xueqin,3 then completed by Gao E.4 It concerns the decline of the Jia family.

In Chapter 54 Grandmother Jia recalls that when she was young her grandfather had an opera troupe that included an actress who was a very good qin player. She does not mention whether the actress actually played the qin as part of the opera. The small sound of the qin would make its inclusion there quite problematic, and I have not yet read a description of this ever happening. Today an actor will only pretend to play a qin; the prop used is usually an imitation.5

On the other hand, it is certainly possible that a small, private opera performance at a wealthy man's home could include someone playing a qin as a special event. In the above passage from Chapter 54,6 Grandmother Jia says that the actress once arranged with actual qin accompaniment a sequence of qin-playing scenes from the operas Xi Xiang Ji (Story of the Western Chamber), Yuzan Ji (Story of the Jade Hairpin), and a sequel to Pipa Ji (Story of the Lute).7

In a scene from Chapter 86 of Hong Lou Meng particularly well-known to qin players, Lin Daiyu explains qin tablature to Jia Baoyu. He responds that she must be a genius to understand such complicated writing. The scene also has an allusion to Wen Wang (Cao) and then mention of Gao Shan, Liu Shui and Yi Lan Cao.8

Then in Chapter 87 Daiyu plays first a suite combining Si Xian (introduced here under its earlier title, Yasheng Cao) with Yi Lan.9 Later in the Chapter she plays and sings a set of four songs. Before the fourth song she retunes a string, then as she continues to play a string suddenly breaks - an ominous event.10

Was Daiyu simply retuning the instrument within the same mode, or was she changing to another tuning for the final song? In this chapter as well as in Chapter 89 there are a number of potentially interesting technical details. Unfortunately, without the actual melody she was playing, or even the relative tuning of the melody, it is diffult to know what the details actually tell us about the nature of qin songs at that time.11

The passage in Chapter 89 has Baoyu commenting on the poems that (as recounted in the latter part of Chapter 87) he had recently heard Daiyu sing or chant with guqin. He says that she nicely used 平韻 ping yun (level tone rhyme) at the beginning, then suddenly switched to 仄韻 ze yun (oblique tone rhyme) at the end. When he asks her why she did that, she says it was just sudden inspiration, not following any rules. The implication here is that she was creating the lyrics and melody herself, though it is also possible she was creating lyrics to go with an existing melody (as described here). In any case, without the actual melody Daiyu was playing it is not possible to know what this says about the connection between the words and the music. Furthermore, I am not familiar with any analyses of qin songs in terms of the relationship between the ping ze structure of their lyrics and the actual qin melodies. However, I have read elsewhere that it is good to mix ping and ze sounds. Could Baoyu thus have been praising Daiyu for creating beauty while breaking this mold?12

There is Ming dynasty qin tablature for each of the melodies named above. I have reconstructed and can play at least one version of each of them.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 紅樓夢 Hong Lou Meng (Wiki)
An alternate title is 石頭記 Shitou Ji (Story of the Stone). There are several abridged translations. Two complete versions are:

  1. The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes (Vols. 1-3) and John Mitford (Vols. 4-5); London, Penguin Books, 1973-1986).
  2. Red Chamber Dream, online translation by B. S. Bonsall, available in .pdf format from the Hong Kong University Library website.

A Dream of Red Mansions, the translation by Yang Xianyi (1915-2009; Wiki) and Gladys Yang (1919-1999; Wiki), is now available in a four volume edition (ISBN 978-7-119-00643-7; Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 2001), a notice for which says it is "the version most complete". I have not compared it with the Hawkes/Mitford translation, said also to be complete, and it should be noted that two earlier translations by Yang and his wife published under the same title (one volume and three volume editions) are both abridged versions.

2. Image
This illustration is from 紅樓夢詩畫,天然如意寶藏本, 1882.

Perhaps the best known collection of such paintings is 孫溫繪本《紅樓夢》, re-published ca. 2010 as "A Dream of Red Mansions, as portrayed through the brush of Sun Wen'. (孙温, 1818–1904? 1827-1913?)

3. 曹雪芹 Cao Xueqin
14626.193. The Wiki biography, which gives his dates as 1724 or 1715 — 1763 or 1764, says he may be responsible only for the first 80 of the 120 chapters usually included. He was from a wealthy and influential Nanjing family (e.g., his grandfather 曹寅 Cao Yin [14626.188 style name 子清 Ziqing] had been a childhood playmate of the Kangxi emperor), but Cao Xueqin wrote (his part of) Hong Lou Meng while living in poverty in Beijing

4. 高鶚 Gao E (ca. 1738 - ca. 1815)
His completion (done with 程偉元 Cheng Weiyuan?) was apparently first published in 1791. It is the first edition to have 120 chapters. Gao E is said also to have written a 《琴曲四章》 (Qin Song in Four Sections), but it is not clear whether this refers to Chapter 89 of his continuation of the novel, or perhaps a commentary on the songs (q.v.), the lyrics of which he presumably wrote himself.

5. Qin used as prop
I have seen the same phenomenon in films.

6. Chapter 54 史太君破陳腐舊套,王熙鳳效戲彩斑衣 (ctext)
See The Story of the Stone, Vol. 3, Penguin edition, p.37.

The most relevant quote is, 「湊了《西廂記》的《聽琴》,《玉簪記》的《琴挑》,《續琵琶》的《胡笳十八拍》...」

7. Imagining the performance heard by Grandmother Jia of qin melodies from operas
Qin melodies from the three operas mentioned in Chapter 54 are:

    Xi Xiang Ji (Story of the Western Chamber)
  1. Feng Qiu Huang (see Wen Jun Cao)

    Yuzan Ji (Story of the Jade Hairpin)
  2. Xiao Xiang Shui Yun
  3. Zhi Zhao Fei
  4. Guanghan You

    Pipa Ji (Story of the Lute; "sequel": see comment)
  5. Hujia Shibapai (compare 1597)
    Melodies mentioned in the original opera text are:
  6. Si Gui (Yin ?)
  7. Bie Gu (Cao ?)
  8. Feng Ru Song
  9. Zhaojun (Gong?) Yuan

Not all of the melodies listed here are mentioned in the Hong Lou Meng narrative. Of course, a strict attempt to reconstruct the performance described by Grandmother Jia would also be rather impractical, as it would want to use versions current when she was younger. In this regard, note that the earliest versions of the novel were circulated ca. 1759, that Cao Xueqin came from the Nanjing area, and that his grandfather was probably born in the 1650s. Thus his own grandmother would presumably have lived in Nanjing during the latter 17th century.

8. Chapter 86 "受私賄老官翻案牘,寄閒情淑女解琴書" (The Story of the Stone, Vol. 4, Penguin edition, p. 151ff; ctext)
The second half of the section title means, "Letting loose emotions as the gentle lady explains how qin music is written". The relevant passages are on,

  1. p.153 (the original says, 「孔聖人尚學琴於師襄,一操便知其為文王。高山流水,得遇知音。」)
  2. p.156 (the original says, 「妹妹有了蘭花,就可以做《猗蘭操》了。」)

(Return) Versions of the melodies mentioned, Wen Wang (Cao), Gao Shan, Liu Shui and Yi Lan Cao all still exist in surviving qin tablature.

9. Chapter 87 Excerpt 1 (Penguin IV, p.166ff; segment 13 of the 31 segments in ctext)
The title of Chapter 87 is 感秋聲撫琴悲往事,坐禪寂走火入邪魔 (Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4; . Both excerpts occur in the first part of the chapter; its part of the title means, "Moved by autumn's sounds, play qin to mourn the sadness of separation".

As for Excerpt 1 , this part has the combining of Si Xian with Yi Lan. The original begins, 「又將琴譜翻出,借他《猗蘭》《思賢》兩操,合成音韻,....」

Yi Lan (in Chapter 86 called 猗蘭操 Yi Lan Cao) appears in many handbooks, some with lyrics (as here); the lyrics are associated with Confucius. Many versions of Si Xian also have lyrics (as here), these associated with Confucius' favorite disciple, Yan Hui. This perhaps suggests why the two pieces were combined here.


10. Chapter 87 excerpt 2 (Penguin IV, p.171ff; Segment 23 of the 31 segments in ctext
Here Baoyu and Miaoyu overhear Daiyu playing a melody on the qin; the melody has lyrics in four four-line stanzas, but it is unnamed and the lyrics have not been found elsewhere. This excerpt includes some technical details that are somewhat difficult to follow (further explanation).

Daiyu first plays the first three stanzas, with a short pause between each. The original lyrics of the three are (translations from Penguin):

  1. 風蕭蕭兮秋氣深, "Autumn deepens, and with it the winter's bitter moan...."

  2. 山迢迢兮水長。 "Hills and lakes melt into distant night...."

  3. 子之遭兮不自由, "Fate denies you freedom, holds you bound...."

Before the fourth stanza Daiyu stops to retune her qin. The ensuing stanza has the following lyrics:

However, before Daiyu began singing the fourth stanza, "Adamantina" (妙玉 Miaoyu, a Buddhist nun), hearing her retune, is horrified by a fear that Daiyu is tuning the「『君絃』太高了,與『無射律』只怕不配呢。」junxian (main/first string) too high, thus making it 不配 inappropriate for its musical scale/mode (無射律 wuyi lü).

Then after Daiyu goes ahead and plays the song Miaoyu gets even more alarmed, wondering how it could be that the note Daiyu is "忽作變徵之聲 suddenly playing is a bianzhi ('altered zhi'; more below) sound“: that sound has an "音韻可裂金石矣!只是太過!intonation enough to shatter bronze and stone! It's much too sharp!" (Yang: too extreme). Miaoyu is worried that the string "不能持久 will not be able to take it" (i.e., either it will not be able to hold its tuning, or might even break). At this point the '君絃蹦的一聲斷了 first string (main string?) does suddenly break'. Miaoyu then walks away, telling Baoyu that in time he will find out why this was so bad.

11. Technical explanations for this passage
There are basically two reasons for retuning a qin. One is that the instrument has gone out of tune; this usually requires minor tightening or loosening of one or more strings. The other is to change tunings; this usually requires tightening or loosening one or more strings so as to rasie or lower the individual pitches a half step or occasionally a whole step. This latter effort is more likely to cause a string to break, but there are no surviving qin melodies that call for returning the instrument in the middle.

Since Daiyu is apparently playing a melody of her own creation, perhaps she has decided to change the mode in the middle of the songs. However, it is extremely rare for the first string to break on a qin (see further): it is not only the thickest string but the one with the lowest tension. Thus, according to my understanding of this passage, for it to make sense to a knowledgeable qin player, if a string breaks while she is retuning then it almost certainly one of the upper strings that has broken.

Unless, perhaps, it is an omen of some sort.

More logically, when Daiyu retunes her qin she must be tigthening one of the upper strings. But can an upper string be a "君絃 junxian"? For this junxian would need to refer not just to the first string but to the most important string, i.e., the main tonal center. In addition, its name should be connected to the words the 無射律 wuyi lü. Finally, one must be able to interpret this as either tightening the 變絃 zhi string (i.e., the fourth string) or raising its relative pitch to or from "zhi". Can this be done? And what does this say about the level of understanding Cao Xueqin himself (or perhaps Gao E, who apparently wrote this part, and thus perhaps these poems) had of the qin?

君絃 Junxian (3395.xxx; 3/248xxx)
For "junxian" Penguin has "tonic B-flat" and Yang has "main string", but
this string name categorization suggests its specific meaning was "first string". The first string is often the "main string" (i.e., the "main tonal center") and I have not found qin texts that assign the term "jun xian" to any other than the first string. If it can be used to mean the string that is the "main tonal center", then this part of the passage would be more easily understandable. For one thing, the first string as the thickest is the one most unlikely to break. So perhaps she wants to change to a different tuning, one where the main string is one of the higher strings, such as the fourth (zhi) string in ruibin tuning. The fourth string is in fact one of the two most likely to break, however this tuning is achieved by raising the fifth string (yu), not the fourth.

無射律 Wuyi lü
Regarding wuyi lü, perhaps Cao Xueqin selected the wuyi part because by itself "wuyi" can have the
literal meaning of "without end", thus the breaking of the string suggests something is ending, at least for Daiyu. However, from references such as 十二律呂 12 pitches, 無射律琯 wuyi lü guan and 無射調 wuyi diao, neither the significance of the actual name nor its practical use is clear.

As for wuyi musical characteristics, this passage has only the aforementioned 無射律 wuyi lü, which Penguin and Yang translate as "scale" (note of a scale?). "", though often meaning "note" or "pitch", is a term closely connected to "調 diao", often translated as "mode". However, an examination, for example, of existing melodies using wuyi mode (see also under Han Gong Qiu) shows that in the Ming dynasty it was a tuning that required lowering the first string and raising (緊 jin) the fifth string. (As shown here, lowering the first string, if it is considered as "C", would give "Bb"; it is presumably a coincidence that this is the Penguin translation above of "jun xian".)

變徵之聲 The sound of bianzhi (reference)
With regard to bianzhi, note that the fourth string is commonly referred to as the "徵 zhi" string, and 緊 jin is a form of 變 bian (altering). In fact, at least two melodies in a handbook published in 1820 have melodies said to use a bianzhi tuning.

  1. A tuning called "變徵宮 Bian Zhi Gong" occurs in a version of 鷗鷺忘機 Oulu Wang Ji. Here the name of the tuning means that the rôle of the zhi (fourth) string was to be changed so that it would serve as the note "gong", and the resulting tuning was what is elsewhere called 慢宮 Man Gong, where the first, third and sixth strings are each lowered so that the relative scale is 3 5 6 1 2 3 5.
  2. A tuning called 變徵調 Bian Zhi Diao is used for one of the versions of 平沙落雁 Pingsha Luo Yan dated 1820 (actual melody at XX/137). Here the fifth string been changed ("bian") by tightening it a half pitch. In this raised 5th string tuning the relative pitches are 2 3 5 6 1 2 3. As can be seen, in this tuning the open fifth string has become do: could this have led Miaoyu to think it was the jun xian? In fact, the melody itself is actually in a la-mi mode and in this tuning the main tonal center is 6 (la: the open "zhi" string), in which case perhaps Miaoyu thought the fourth string was the "jun xian".

Once again these both seem quite likely to be coincidental: even if there are other examples of "bian" being used in this way it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that would cause a string to break (though see also this comment about breakage).
Furthermore, though Penguin calls it a "sharpened fourth" it seems to be referring there not to a particular string but to a note. As can be seen with this chart, it is in fact the fourth tone in "Lydian" (a whole tone fourth, like making it F# if the first tone was C). In addition, bianzhi can also be used to correspond to a note name in the gongche pu system. Here, for example, is a related references in 琴學參變 Qinxue Canbian, a handbook that has connections with opera. A search of my site turns up several more related references.

As for whatever was happening that actually caused the string to break, scientifically one can point to the fact that making the string too tight makes the sound more "sharp", and this makes it more likely to break. However, if something related to this is intended here it is probably more a poetic allusion or a literary conceit than a technical detail. Thus, the important thing about the string breaking is that it causes "horror".

Significance of these references
In support of the idea that the intention of the musical references in this passage was to have them express a premonition of Daiyu's own fate, one can point to several ancient stories of melodies in certain modes that can express great sadness, bring about catastrophe, or even cause strings to break.

One that refers specifically to bianzhi is that of Gao Jianli and Jingke (in 史記 Shi Ji; there "bianzhi" is translated as "the mournful key of F").

Then there is the story told in the several places, including the Qin Shi entry on Shi Kuang, of melodies in certain modes (here 清徵 qing zhi and then 清角 qing jue) causing a kingdom to collapse.

For an example of expressions of sadness causing strings to break see this reference to Cai Wenji (here the note or string is not specified).

Note that there is a technique in qin play called nian that is intended to represent the sound of a string breaking.

12. 平仄 Ping ze and qin songs
There is some general discussion of ping ze here, with an apparent example given here. Also see this discussion of dian and ju.

However, these commentaries do not explain what ping ("level tone") and ze ("oblique tone") are in terms of corresponding notes played on a qin. Lyrics are generally paired to qin melodies on a quite strict one character for one note pattern. Thus for an oblique sound one would presumably have to add a slide up or down, though perhaps this could be done by ornamentation in the vocal part and not necessarily limited by what is in the qin tablature.

However, to my knowledge the use of ping ze in creating qin songs has only been discussed in general ways, not in terms of the specific techniques one would use to work with or get around these strictures. Even comments by 高鶚 Gao E himself seem to deal only with the themes of the songs, not the relationship between the tonal patterns of the words and the actual notes of the melodies.

The original passage in Hong Lou Meng is as follows:


The whole lyrics of the song were already discussed in Chapter 87 Excerpt 2 (translation in The Story of the Stone, Volume 4, p.205).

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