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Qin in Xi Xiang Ji
(West Chamber Romance, an opera) 1

Scholar Zhang, qin and Oriole 2      

In the Yuan drama Xi Xiang Ji, as written in the 13th c. CE by Wang Shifu,3 Scholar Zhang while preparing for the civil service exam comes to Buddhist monastery, where he sees and falls in love with Cui Yingying (Oriole).4 She falls in love with him after hearing him play the qin, but her mother has promised her to another. Later, by defeating some bandits, Scholar Zhang gains approval to marry Oriole, but when he then leaves to take the exam the mother again tries to marry her to the original suitor. Scholar Zhang returns just in time; he and Yingying then wed.

This story can be traced back to Yingying Zhuan, a Tang dynasty short story by Yuan Zhen (799-831),5 where it is Yingying who plays the qin. At one point she mentions the Sima Xiangru story, but there are no relevant lyrics; the qin is not used for seduction.

The qin song lyrics as they appear in the Yuan drama are almost identical to those that were in the earliest surviving complete zhugongdiao, called Xixiang Ji Zhugongdiao,6 dating from the 12th century. Although these lyrics are also attributed to Sima Xiangru, I don't know of any published occurrence earlier than here; Scholar Zhang plays them to seduce Ying-Ying.

The opera itself specifies that Scholar Zhang seduces Oriole by playing the qin song in his room while she listens from outside.7 The lyrics are the same as those of the qin melody Wen Jun Cao (links there to recordings). That melody is also sometimes called Feng Qiu Huang, and are said to have been used originally by Sima Xiangru to seduce Zhuo Wenjun, but outside of this context the Sima Xiangru lyrics are usually the lyrics used with the 1525 Feng Qiu Huang).

In an ensuing aria Student Zhang mentions several other qin melodies, suggesting they are less romantic.8 Still later, another scene also has him playing , but there it specifies that he is practicing restraint.

In the novel Hong Lou Meng Grandmother Jia mentions having heard someone playing qin melodies from this opera.

Many songs in operas are identified only by the name of a cipai or qupai. Some of these names are also the names of guqin melodies. In Xi Xiang Ji these cipai/qin melody titles include:

This has not yet been studied in detail, but it seems that none of the word patterns of the opera lyrics are the same as those of that accompany qin versions.

In addition, there is no song title or cipai connected to the most obvious song in the opera, the seduction song Feng Qiu Huang.

The significance of these latter two observations is not clear. At a minimum it points to the difficulty if not impossibility of using such qin melodies to try to recreate songs such as might have been in the original opera.

One of the characters in the play is a "qintong" (qin servant); this is one of the earliest mentions of this term.12

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Xixiang Ji 西廂記 (Wiki)
The Chinese text is online at Gutenberg. The most complete translation is Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema (ed. and transl.), The Moon and the Zither; Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991. A modern illustrated abridgement is The Western Chamber, Hong Kong, Hai Feng Publishing Co. 1982. The play is discussed in LXS, p.33.

2. Image
This is from 張國標 Zhang Guobiao, ed., 徽派版畫藝術 Art of Woodcut of the Huizhou School, 安徽省美術出版社 Anhui Publishing House, 1995, p.112 ("北西廂記").

3. 王實甫 Wang Shifu (fl. 13th c.)
Courtesy name of Wang Dexin (1250-1307? see short entry in Wiki).

4. 張生 Scholar Zhang; 崔鶯鶯 Cui Yingying.

5. Yingying Zhuan 鶯鶯傳
Yingying Zhuan is a Tang tale (傳奇 chuanqi; ICTCL/353) by 元稹 Yuan Zhen (ICTCL/949, which outlines the story); it is translated in James Hightower, "Yuan Chen and the story of Ying-ying." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 33, 93-103. The translation is included in several compilations, including Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature. In this version it is Ying-ying, not Scholar Zhang, who plays the qin. In one case she stops when she finds out he is listening; later, when it becomes apparent that they will not marry, she plays it for him, expressing her grief as a parting gift.

6. 西廂記諸宮調 Xi Xiang Ji Zhugongdiao
Cultural China has online information about zhugongdiao. ICTCL, p.332, says the only surviving complete zhugongdiao script is one by Master Dong (董解元 Dong Jieyuan), which dates to around 1200; on p.409 it summarizes the plot (which now ends with Ying-ying and Scholar Zhang marrying).

As of 2012 the complete text could be found online at www.my285.com. Scholar Zhang's seduction song lyrics (Section 4) here are as follows:


There are three differences here: 翙翙, 張絃 and 何時.

7. Scholar Zhang seduces Oriole
Scholar Zhang, having lit the incense and tuned his qin, addresses it as follows (translation from Idema):

Ah, zither, you and I have been constant companions on our wanderings. The success of tonight all depends on your demonic quality, your golden chord marks, your jade bridges, your snake-patterned bellows in crinkled lacquer, your scorched tail of Yiyang wood, and your icy strings....

Note that Oriole, she approaches the room where he is playing, speaks of the moon as "The Palace of Spreading Frigidity" (Guang Han Gong, as in Guanghan You), and as she hears him tuning the qin she wonders if her walking is causing sound from her hanging jade pendants (huanpei, as in Tianfeng Huanpei). See West and Idema, op.cit., p.267ff.

8. West and Idema, p. 273. The Chinese text there has Scholar Zhang singing,


The three melodies mentioned are as follows,

  1. On a Clear Evening Hearing a Bell (清夜聞鐘 Qing Ye Wen Zhong)
    15 occurrences from 1559 to 1878; 1561 says it is the same melody as #3.
  2. At Yellow Crane (Pavilion?) is the Old Toper (黃鶴醉翁 Huang He Zui Weng)
    There is a qin melody called Old Toper's Intonation (醉翁吟 Zui Weng Yin), but I do not know of a melody with the words Huang He (Yellow Crane) in the title.
  3. Weeping Unicorn, Sad Phoenix (泣麟悲鳳 Qi Lin Bei Feng).
    Only in 1559, but says its original title was Qing Ye Wen Zhong (i.e., #1).

The play dates from the 13th century: at that time could #1 and #3 been different, unrelated melodies?

9. 賀聖朝 He Sheng Chao (He Shengchao?)
The labeling of He Sheng Chao in Xi Xiang Ji suggests that it should be considered as following a cipai or qupai. Its lyrics (translated in The Moon and the Zither, p.384) are as follows:


Although ZWDCD does not include this title (it seems to have only the following related references: 賀 37609.xxx [praise; surname]; 聖朝 29727.224 a respectful way to refer to the current dynasty), a Wikipedia entry identifies it as a cipai, as follows:

(Cipai with 49 characters (compare 42 in Xi Xiang Ji, but a variety of forms; 5 character phrases tend to have the rhythmic pattern ×、××××. The standard ping ze patterns are:

[編輯] 詞牌格式

[編輯]代表作 Representative example: poem by Zhang Xian (990~1078)


Note that this does not fit the character arrangement given with the pingze pattern. However, the example in another Chinese Wiki entry does, a He Sheng Chao poem by 葉清臣 Ye Qingchen (? - 1051), as follows:



The lyrics for the qin melody called He Sheng Chao Primary Form (? Zha Guide 賀聖朝第一體 He Shengchao diyi ti), included only in 松聲操 Song Sheng Cao (XII/410, 1682), are somewhat different again:


Since there seems to be no structural connection between these examples (see also other online entries such as this one) and the Xi Xiang Ji lyrics, the significance of He Sheng Chao as an opera melody title is not yet clear. No source is given fro the qin melody.

10. Dian Jiangchun 點絳唇 (點降脣)
See in Japan. The examples here are all shorter than the full cipai lyrics (full pattern is 4,7;4,5;4,5;3;4,5). The first example is,


Translated in The Moon and the Zither, p.172.

11. Basheng Ganzhou 八聲甘州
The structure differs from that of the melody of this title in Japan. The lyrics here are:


Translated in The Moon and the Zither, p.219.

11. Qin servant (琴童 or 琴僮 qin tong)
 - Illustration at right is from The Moon and the Zither, p.367
The inscription says, "Ying (Oriole) orders the qin servant  
to take clothing, stockings and other things to the student"   
Of 琴童 HYDCD 4/587 says "侍琴的童僕 a servant who takes care of the qin" (21570.xxx). It gives as its earliest example 宋,廖瑩中《江行雜錄》 River Travels Miscellany by Liao Yingzhong (late Song). Here is says, "琴童、棋童、廚娘等級。截乎不紊 The class of qin and chess servants and kitchen girls were restrained without confusion" (?). The next reference it gives is from here in Xi Xiang Ji (note that Idema translates the character as lute boy").

"Qin tong" is usually translated (and thought of) as "qin boy", but in some illustrations, such as the ones in this site with Cangwu Yuan and Hujia Shibapai this does not seem to be the case. In Chinese landscape painting it was a common motif to show the scholar walking in the countryside wih a qin carried either by himself or by a servant. Here the boy might also be responsiblve for such matters as brewing tea (illustration). Quite likely other tasks could have included stringing the instrument when necessary as well as perhaps even tuning it (further comment).

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