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Qin in Hong Lou Meng
(Dream of the Red Chamber, a novel) 1
Chapter 87: Dai Yu 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 Dai Yu first plays a suite combining Si Xian (also called Yasheng Cao) with Yi Lan.9 Later in the Chapter she plays and sings two songs, the second one so sad that a string suddenly breakis - an ominous event.10

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
His completion (done with 程偉元 Cheng Weiyuan?) was apparently first published in 1791. It is the first edition to have 120 chapters.

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
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, an imaginative reconstruction of the performance described by Grandmother Jia 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 second half of the section title means, "Letting loose emotions as the gentle lady explains how qin music is written". The relevant passages, beginning in Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, p.151ff 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。」)

9. Chapter 87 感秋聲撫琴悲往事,坐禪寂走火入邪魔
The first half of the section title means, "Moved by autumn's sounds, play qin to mourn the sadness of separations". The chapter, Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, actually has two excerpts of note.

  1. p.166ff; the original begins, 「又將琴譜翻出,借他《猗蘭》《思賢》兩操,合成音韻,....」
  2. p.171ff; Bao Yu and Miao Yu overhear Dai Yu playing some songs.

10. Chapter 87 excerpt 2
Cao Xueqin, op. cit., Vol. 4, p.171ff. Here Daiyu sings what is apparently a song in three parts. The original lyrics are:

望故鄉兮何處, 倚欄桿兮涕沾襟。



In the second song Daiyu sings the following:

人生斯世兮如輕塵,天上人間兮感夙因。 感夙因兮不可オ,素心如何天上月。

As this latter song is sung, in the Penguin translation "Adamantina" (妙玉 Miaoyu) is horrified that Daiyu is playing a "sharpened fourth" (變徵 bianzhi) and fears that the first string (君絃太高 jun xian) is tuned too high ("too sharp"), at which point the string suddenly breaks. This seems to be a literary conceit related to an ancient story that the sound of bianzhi expressed sadness. There is no known qin song using these lyrics, and no known tuning based on the note bianzhi.

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