Chu Ge
 T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
SQMP ToC / in Taigu Yiyin / QSCB analysis / Silk Zither Dreams 聽錄音 Listen to my recording with transcription / 首頁 
61. Song of Chu
- Chushang mode: same as qiliang 2
楚歌 1
Chu Ge
Farewell My Concubine 3 (further details)          
Chu Ge relates the final defeat of the prince of Chu, Xiang Yu,4 (232 - 202) at the hands of Liu Bang (247-195) in the struggle to overthrow and succeed the Qin dynasty (233-202). After the major battle at Gaixia, Xiang Yu fled, first getting lost at Yinling, then perishing in Wujiang; all are in modern Anhui province, with Wujiang being by the Yangzi River just a few kilometers upriver from modern Nanjing.5 After this Liu Bang went on to found the Han dynasty.

The earliest surviving mention of Chu Ge as a qin melody seems to be in the northern Song dynasty Qinqu Pulu of Seng Juyue (the monk Ju Yue), where it is #80 in a list of "less ancient melodies."6 It was then apparently very popular during the early and middle Ming dynasty, appearing in 14 handbooks to 1611, but after this it occurs only once, around 1800, where it is simply copied from an earlier version.7

In Shen Qi Mi Pu this piece is mistakenly grouped with the shangjue mode melodies: its tuning should put it together with those in the qiliang mode. This mistaken placement is often followed in later handbooks.

The version in Taigu Yiyin (1511) has lyrics throughout, but so far I have only been able to trace the source of the short song at the beginning: it occurs in Yuefu Shiji,8 where it is attributed to Xiang Yu himself. This poem is also included in Zhu Quan's preface (see below).

Xilutang Qintong (1525) also includes these lyrics, pairing them with part of the music in the section called He Cries at Having to Leave Yu Ji ("Concubine Ji", or "Fine Lady Yu"9). It is quite possible to sing these lyrics in Section 7 (same title) of the Shen Qi Mi Pu version as well.10

Whereas Zhu Quan gives no attribution, Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (before 1491) comes up with Zhang Liang as the creator.11 Zhang was the advisor who persuaded Liu Bang that he could dishearten the enemy if his soldiers would sang the songs of their native state of Chu.

The borders of the ancient state or region of Chu varied considerably, but in general centered on the modern provinces of Hubei, Hunan and perhaps Anhui. There are many references to melodies of Chu, from the collection of poems or songs called Chu Ci (including the works of Qu Yuan) to popular ancient melodies associated with the Chu region, including as #7 Yang Chun and # 30 Bai Xue; and to later melodies associated with the region, such as #53 Xiaoxiang Shuiyun.12

In his analysis of Chu Ge,13 Xu Jian compares it first to Zhaojun Yuan in its form, suggesting these may have been transplanted from people's narrative songs. He points out the similarity of its opening theme (a harmonic passage), which recurs several times, with the opening theme of Yang Guan San Die. He also mentions the significance of using the non-pentatonic tone fa in certain places.14

Besides mine, there are also recordings of the Shen Qi Mi Pu version of Chu Ge by Yao Bingyan (his 1961 recording is linked here) and Yao Gongbai.15

Original Preface 16

The Emaciated Immortal says,

this piece is an old one. It concerns Xiang Yu (of Chu, whose defeat by Liu Bang led to the latter establishing the Han dynasty in 202 BC) coming to Gai Xia, being unable to defeat the Han soldiers, (being tricked into) entering a ravine, (where) the Han soldiers surrounded him several layers deep. (The Han general) Han Xin caused his soldiers all to sound out with songs of Chu. Xiang Yu heard this at night, and was greatly alarmed, saying, "Has Han already overcome Chu? If this is so, how can the men of Chu be so numerous!" And so that night he got up and drank in his tent. He sadly sang about forgetting his troubles, and planned to bid farewell to his wife Yu Ji. He himself made a song which said, (see original lyrics)

My strength can lift mountains, and my spirit can encompass society;
But the times are not appropriate, and (my horse) Zhui is no longer quick;
When Zhui is no longer quick, what can I do?
Alas, Yu Ji; alas, Yu Ji; what will become of you?

He sang (this) several times, and Yu Ji joined him. Thus their tears flowed down, and all his followers cried; when none could look up at them, Yu Ji took a sword and slit her throat.17 Thereupon Xiang Yu mounted his fast horse, together with over 800 strong comrades under his banner, and went out into the night and broke through the blockade toward the south. (At daylight) when the Han soldiers realized this they chased them, and consequently his double pupils had no more hope. His soldiers scattered and his power lost, he came to Wujiang and, (refusing the offer of a boatman to take him across the Yangzi to safety, saying he had lost all his honor,) perished (also by slitting his throat).

Someone of that time was moved by this affair, and wrote a qin song to commemorate it.

Timings follow the recording on
my CD; 聽錄音 listen with my transcription.
Eight sections:18 (can be preceded by the opening of the 1511 song, as on this video)

(00.00) 1. Recalling his departure from Jiangdong (the region south of the Yangzi)
(00.37) 2. His spirit wants to consume the Qin rulers
(01.12) 3. At night he hears an iron di flute
(02.11) 4. His 8,000 soldiers are scattered
(02.26) 5. His brave spirit is dissipated
(02.58) 6. He cries at having to leave Yu Ji
(03.40) 7. He loses his way at Yin Ling (in Anhui; can add
lyrics here)
(04.20) 8. He will not cross at Wujiang
(04.49) -- play harmonics of the modal prelude
(05.02) -- Piece ends

Return to the Shen Qi Mi Pu ToC or to the Guqin ToC.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Song of Chu (楚歌 Chu Ge)
楚歌 15473.146 Song of Chu; the song heard by Xiang Yu's forces when surrounded by Han at Gaixia. According to Xiang Yu's biography, Shi Ji Annal 7 (RGH I/44-45), on hearing the singing Xiang Yu thought he was surrounded by countless Chu soldiers. He and his beloved Yu Ji then sang their farewell song, after which Xiang Yu and 800 horsemen broke away from the encirclement. There is no mention here of her committing suicide.

2. Chushang Mode (楚商調 Chushang Diao)
Shen Qi Mi Pu includes Chu Ge after Zhuangzhou Meng Die, which is in Shangjue mode. However, it is clear that Chu Ge should be connected to Shenpin Chushang Yi, which uses the same tuning as 淒涼調 Qiliang mode: tighten 2nd/5th strings: 2 4 5 6 1 2 3. As for its modal structure, it could perhaps be described as a shang mode with a Chu tuning: many melodies associated with Chu use one of the raised fifth string tunings, and the predominant tonal center is re (i.e., the note shang: "D" in my transcription). Most phrases, sections and the entire melody end on re. The secondary tonal center, as is almost universally common in early guqin is up a fifth from the primary tonal center, in this case la (yu; "A" in my transcription).

For further information of modes see Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature. There are also some comments on the melodic structure below.

3. Farewell My Concubine
See painting details

4. Xiang Yu 項羽
The story of Xiang Yu and his beloved concubine 虞姬 Yu Ji was also related in the popular opera 霸王別姬 Bawang Bie Ji (see Wiki, where it is translated The Hegemon-King Bids His Lady Farewell, but it is now perhaps more often translated as Farewell My Concubine).

5. Gai Xia, Yinling and Wujiang "垓下遺址 Ruins of Gaixia" 
Although some tourist information is available about Gaixia and its environs I have not yet found any indication that there are any known sites reliably dated to the time of the battle.

  1. 垓下 Gaixia
    The Battle of Gaixia (
    Wiki) took place in 202 BCE. Chinese commentary to Shi Ji (I/333) says Gaixia was at 洨縣 Xiao County in 沛 Pei. The right closeup in Google earth shows a Gaixia Village (垓下村 Gaixiacun) in northern Anhui province about 50 km north northeast of 蚌埠市 Bengbu City and about 15 km east of 固鎮 Guzhen (3 1/2 hours by train from Nanjing?). It is between a 濠城鎮 Haocheng Zhen and a 霸王城 Bawang Town, with 韋集鎮 Weiji County shown about 3 km to the north and a Gaixia Old Battleground (垓下古戰場 Gaixia Guzhanchang) about 3 km to the northeast. Another 20 km or so north of Gaixiacun, just east of 靈壁縣 Lingbi county seat, is an indication for a 虞姬墓 "Tomb of Yu Ji". The present account says Gaixia in a ravine. However, the Shi Ji account does not mention this, and according to the Google map and some online images such as the one to the right from Baidu this whole area has flat terrain. On the other hand an article on the Lingbi Government website, which describes visiting the site, shows an image that is perhaps a ridge. There are some websites, such as Baidu and China Hotel, that discuss various Gaixia-related tourist attractions, including the 虞姬墓 "Tomb of Yu Ji" (q.v.) and a "韋集鎮單圩老莊 Shanyu Ancient Village of Weiji County".
  2. 陰陵 Yinling
    After the battle Xiang Yu is said to have become lost in swamp near 陰陵 Yin Ling, then gone east to 東城 Dongcheng. My
    historical atlas shows Yinling about 50km south of Gaixia, northwest of the modern town of 定遠 Dingyuan. Google earth does not seem to include this name, but it seems to be located amongs some hills between Dingyuan and 蚌埠市 Bengbu.
  3. 烏江 Wujiang (Wu River)
    historical atlas shows Wujiang by the Yangzi River about 20 km upstream (southwest) from Nanjing. 19454.79 says 烏江 Wujiang, now called 烏江浦 Wujiangpu (on Google maps 烏江鎮 Wujiangzhen), is a 水 stream and 縣 county in northeastern 和縣 He County of Anhui, adding that Xiang Yu committed suicide here. Google maps also show a 西楚霸王靈祠 Western Chu Great Conqueror's Shrine (for some reason calling it his Concubine Temple) by a stream called Four Horse Mountain River (四馬山河 Simashan He). Chinese Wiki has information under 乌江镇. From the account in Shi Ji Annal 7 (RGH I/46) it seems to have been a village on the banks of the Yangzi River. If Xiang Yu continued south southeast for another 50 or so km from Yinling, passing through Dongcheng, his route could have taken him by modern 滁洲 Chuzhou and ended here at the Yangzi upriver from the modern Nanjing.

Also mentioned (see title of Section 1) is 江東 Jiangdong; 17496.142 says this means the same as 江左 Jiangzuo and 江南 Jiangnan, i.e., the south side of the lower Yangzi valley. However, Shi Ji says he was from 下相 Xiaxiang (宿城 Sucheng in northern Jiangsu), so perhaps Jiangdong refers to and that he was buried at 穀城 Gucheng, then part of 魯 Lu (northwesternmost Shandong?).

6. Titles related to Chu Ge
In addition to having the first occurrence of the title Chu Ge, Seng's list also includes at least two other entries that may have the same theme, 楚歌行 Chu Ge Xing and 楚襄王 Chu Xiang Wang. Meanwhile, the list in Qinyuan Yaolu does not include Chu Ge itself, but it does have three entries using the same story: 楚襄雲 Chu Xiang Yun, 拔山操 Ba Shan Cao and 楚歌行 Chu Ge Xing.

7. Tracing Chu Ge
Zha Guide 10/99/149. See also the appendix below.

8. Yuefu Shiji lyrics
The lyrics are included in the footnote below. They are called 力拔山操 Li Ba Shan Cao in Folio 58 (p.850) of 樂府詩集 Yuefu Shiji, a collection of ancient poetry compiled in the Song dynasty. 項羽 Xiang Yu's proper name was 項籍 Xiang Ji. The introduction mentions only two sources, quoting the account in Han Shu (see next footnote) and one in 琴集 Qin Ji, which adds only that there was also a song called 力拔山操 Li Ba Shan Cao by Xiang Yu himself and one called 虞美人曲 Yu Meiren Cao that was perhaps later. The lyrics are those included in the Chu Ge illustration, which depicts this scene.

9. 虞姬 Yu Ji ("Concubine Yu", "Fine Lady Yu", "Yu's wife", Consort Yu [Wiki/Chinese Wiki].),
The account in Shi Ji Chapter 7, translated by Nienhauser in GSR I/205 seems to mention her only in connection with the famous song; just before its lyrics are given the text says she was "a fine lady, Yü, whom he favored and who always kept him company", then that she sang the song with him. There is nothing about her own suicide. Generally available sources do not say how that part of the story made its way into the Chinese opera version, but today it is presented as part of the historical account (as in the Wiki account linked above, which cites only the Shi Ji reference, the Chinese version adding one from Xiang Yu's biography in 漢書 Han Shu, which seems to add no further details ( The Chinese Wiki article seems to suggest that the stories about her originated in folklore, then in the Song dynasty were spread by literati such as the famous poet Su Shi

10. Chu Ge lyrics, from Yuefu Shiji
The version of Chu Ge in SQMP has no lyrics. However, this video recording has lyrics added both as a prelude and in Section 7. The reason for this is as follows:

Singing the lyrics from Section 1 of the 1511 Chu Ge serves well as a prelude, setting the mood for the music that follows.

Most qin melodies, if they have lyrics, have them throughout. Xilutang Qintong (1525) is the only qin handbook regularly to have lyrics only in one or two sections of a melody. The lyrics Xilutang Qintong has for Chu Ge, included with part of Section 7 (of 10), are:

「力拔山兮氣蓋世, Li ba shan xi, qi gai shi.
時不利兮騅不逝,   Shi bu li xi, zhui bu shi.
騅不逝兮可奈何,   Zhui bu shi xi, ke nai he?
虞兮虞兮奈若何!」 Yu xi, Yu xi, nai ruo he?

These lyrics (translated in the SQMP Chu Ge preface above), can also be sung with the opening of the SQMP Chu Ge, Section 6. Although the pairing of finger strokes to Chinese characters does not quite follow the traditional pairing method, I sometimes sing them with SQMP because they are very appropriate to the slashing sound that comes shortly thereafter, in Section 7.

The 1491 lyrics do fit by this pairing method, but they are applied to the whole melody and to my ears do not have the dramatic impact of the lyrics as applied in 1525.

11. Zhang Liang 張良
Zhang Liang, style name 子房 Zifang, is the subject of the qin melody 圯橋進履 Yiqiao [San] Jinlü (At the bridge, going down [three times] for the shoe), which tells of Zhang fetching a shoe which an old man dropped off a bridge. The old man, who turns out to be a sage, thereupon imparts the knowledge Zhang subsequently uses to become Liu Bang's chief advisor.

12. Chu melodies
Later melodies associated with Chu usually have a tuning which includes raising the fifth string from standard tuning. There have been no studies into the origin of this custom, and it must be noted that all surviving versions of Yang Chun and Bai Xue use standard tuning.

13. In Qinshi Chubian, Chapter 6b1-1 (pp.95-6).

14. Structure of Chu Ge
There is a brief comment on the modal structure in the footnote for Chushang mode. As for the comparison by Xu Jian with Yangguan Sandie, the first phrase of the 1425 Chu Ge in my transcription has the note sequence 6 6 6 1 2 1 3 2 2 2 (repeated); for most versions of Yangguan Sandie the opening is 6 1 2 1 3 2 2. (Specifically, for the earliest three surviving versions of Yangguan Sandie here are the opening sequences: 1491 has 6 1 2 6 3 2 2; 1511 has 3 1 2 1 3 2 2; and 1530, though it starts with a different phrase [4 5 6 1 1 for "長亭柳陰陰"] it then continues with 6 1 2 1 3 2 2 for "渭城朝雨挹輕塵".)

In Chu Ge this opening theme appears again (sometimes identically, sometimes somewhat altered) at the end of Sections 1, 2 (repeated), 3 (also in a repeated harmonic passage in the middle [mm.122-129]) and 4, then in partial form in the middle of Section 5 and finally in the middle of Section 7, followed immediatly by the slashing sound mentioned here.

In the second section Xiang Yu's strong spirit may best be represented by a two bar phrase played with a similar quick rhythm variously played as
          1 2 1 2 2 2 2 (mm. 48-50)
       2 1 2 2 4#2 2 2 (mm. 53-54)
          7 6 5 6 6 6 6 (mm. 58-59; 62-63)
          3 2 1 2 2 4 2 (mm. 64-65)
          6 5 6 6 6 6 6 (mm. 68-69)

As with many other early guqin melodies (I have not closely compared modern melodies) many phrases seemed to be grouped into couplets. This becomes particular apparent where there seem to be paired two bar or four bar phrases played in 4/4 or 2/2 time. Compare, for example, mm. 92-95 with 96-99: they both begin and end the same but the latter adds extra notes in the middle.

Another interesting couplet comes at the beginning of Section 8: the parallel between mm.243-247 and 238-252 can be seen and heard easily. Also quite noticeable is the dissonance created by the fa (F) in the second part (m.250; it also appears in m.263). Here it would seem that this dissonance is very nicely representing that fact that Xiang Yu's world has collapsed and he has come to the end.

Of course, very little is known about the specifics of how emotions were represented in early Chinese music. This difficulty is underlined by a comparison of the section titles of different versions of this melody, shown below. Thus compare these two versions of the title of Section 2:

1425: "氣欲吞秦 His spirit wishes to consume the Qin rulers"
1525: "垓下勢窮 Decisive defeat at (the battle of) Gaixia"

The meanings are quite opposite and yet, as can be heard by comparing the 1425 recording included here (beginning at 0'37") with the recording by Zhang Peiyou of her reconstruction from the 1525 handbook. (Her recording is currently online here; the above passage begins at 6'30"): in spite of the different titles, the melody is really very similar. Thus, it would seem, back in the Ming dynasty different people felt very differently about the mood of virtually the same melody.

Because early qin melodies survive only in tablature form, this makes it quite complicated to make informed assumptions not only about what emotions the music might be expressing, but also about how this was done. Since the rhythms are not directly indicated, in reconstructing melodies such as this one, one must try to decide when one finds similar finger patterns that are repeated whether these patterns naturally showed similar rhythms, or whether they were written (or had been played) this way deliberately to show (or because of) similar rhythms. Or whether something else quite different was intended (or considered important). This is discussed further under Rhythm in early Ming qin tablature.

15. Other recordings of the 1425 version (see also 1525
In about 1976, when I was first starting to reconstruct a few old pieces, I privately heard the late 張世彬 Zhang Shibin of Hong Kong play Chu Ge. Its beauty further inspired my own interest in playing the old pieces; unfortunately I do not know whether he ever recorded it, or if so what happened to it.

16. Preface
For the original Chinese text see 楚歌.

17. Yu Ji slits her throat
In the middle of Section 7 (right after the final appearance of the opening theme) there is a sudden quick glissando across all seven strings, in a high register, that seems to represent such a slashing sound. Yu Ji thus commits suicide so that Xiang Yu will not worry about her during the upcoming battle.

18. Music
For the original Chinese section titles see directly below as well as 楚歌. The 1491 lyrics fit (but see comment on its Section 7 lyrics compared to those I have borrowed from 1525 for use here in SQMP Section 7).

There is quite a variety as well as repetition of section titles within the different versions of Chu Ge that have them. Here are six examples:

  1. 1425 (translated above):
    1. 憶別江東; 2. 氣欲吞秦; 3. 夜聞鐵笛; 4. 八千兵散; 5. 英雄氣消; 6. 泣別虞姬; 7. 陰陵失道; 8. 烏江不渡.
  2. 1491 (almost the same: only #1 and #4 are different):
    1. 銜枚出塞; 2. 氣欲吞秦; 3. 夜聞鐵笛; 4. 塞土十年; 5. 英雄氣消; 6. 泣別虞姬; 7. 陰陵失道; 8. 烏江不渡.
  3. 1511 (listed and translated there):
    1. ___; 2. 憶別江東; 3. 長驅關塞; 4. 鐵衣塵土; 5. 禾黍秋風; 6. 夜聞鐵笛; 7. 八千兵散; 8. 英雄氣消; 9. 陰陵失道; 10. 虞姬泣別; 11. 拔劍聲; 12. 烏江不渡.
  4. 1525:
    1. 憶別江東; 2. 垓下勢窮; 3. 夜聞楚歌; 4. 起飲帳中; 5. 流涕長澘; 6. 八千兵散; 7. 泣別虞姬; 8. 陰陵失道; 9. 亭長艤舟; 10. 烏江不渡.
  5. 1546 (copied 1561):
    1. 憶別江東; 2. 長驅關塞; 3. 禾黍秋風; 4. 鐵衣塵土; 5. 英雄氣消; 6. 夜聞鐵笛; 7. 八千兵散; 8. 泣別虞姬; 9. 烏江不渡。
  6. 1589 (see also ≥1802):
    1. 憶別江東; 2. 氣欲吞秦; 3. 夜聞鐵笛; 4. 愈聞愈慘; 5. 八千兵散; 6. 英雄氣消; 7. 泣別虞姬; 8. 陰陵失道; 9. 烏江不渡.

The above brings into question the relationship between such titles and the music to which they are connected: a title connected to one section in one handbook may in another handbook be connected to a section with completely different music.

Return to the top

Appendix: Chart Tracing Chu Ge
Based mainly on Zha Fuxi's Guide,

    (year; QQJC Vol/page)
Further information
(QQJC = 琴曲集成 Qinqu Jicheng; QF = 琴府 Qin Fu)
  1.  神奇秘譜
      (1425; I/174)
8T; detailed comments above
  2.  浙音釋字琴譜
      (<1491; I/225)
8TL; music same as SQMP but 1491 adds lyrics throughout;
Also: two section titles are different (1. 銜枚出塞; 4. 塞土十年)
  3. 謝琳太古遺音
      (1511; I/292 [details])
12TL but unnumbered; all have lyrics; all also have titles (q.v.) except the first section;
First section quite similar to qiliang modal prelude; the rest is related to the 1425 main melody
  4. 西麓堂琴統
      (1525; III/258)
10T; quite similar to 1425, especially in the first half, but does sections differently
Adds famous lyrics to Section 7 and once again the ending is very different from 1425; see further, including a link to a 2021 recording by 張培幼 Peiyou Chang
  5. 發明琴譜
      (1530; I/370)
8; lyrics; first section is also like qiliang modal prelude; compare 1511
  6. 風宣玄品
      (1539; II/295)
8T; melody related quite closely at first, but last three sections almost completely different
  7. 梧岡琴譜
      (1546; I/452)
9T; preceded by "qiliang modal prelude", adding that it is same as chushang (it is!);
related: compare 1539 (ending also seems unrelated to 1425)
  8. 琴譜正傳
      (1561; II/469)
9T; identical to 1546
  9. 太音傳習
      (1552-61; IV/174)
9T; no modal prelude, but said to use qiliang
related; compare ending with other post-1425 versions
10. 太音補遺
      (1557; III/391)
9T; preceded by modal prelude called qiliang but actually like earlier chushang;
otherwise, compare with 1546
11b. 新刊正文對音捷要
      (1573; #42)
Not in QQJC: same as 1585 below?;
11. 重修真傳琴譜
      (1585; IV/420)
10T; lyrics = 1511; quite different; first section is like chushang modal prelude
12. 文會堂琴譜
      (1596; VI/175)
9; related
13.a 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1589; VII/149)
9T; new lyrics; related (called qiliang but no diaoyi)
13.b 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1609; VII/149)
A copy of 1589?
14. 陽春堂琴譜
      (1611; VII/440)
9; related (adds a bit?)
    . 琴苑新傳全編
      (1670; XI/--)
Handbook has is a Chushang modal prelude (XI/408), but there is no melody under it.
15. 裛露軒琴譜
      (>1802; XIX/186)
9T; music and section titles as 1589 but no lyrics;
qiliang; "from 太古遺音" (i.e., 1589)

Return to the top, to the Shen Qi Mi Pu ToC or to the Guqin ToC.