Li Ling Si Han (1525)
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100. Li Ling Thinks of Han
- Huangzhong mode:2 1 2 3 5 6 1 2
李陵思漢 1
Li Ling Si Han
Su Wu parts from Li Ling (see text)3                  
Although the only surviving commentary for the melody Li Ling Si Han makes no mention of the origin of its melody, poetry references such as those mentioned below suggest it survives at least since the Yuan dynasty.4 In addition, although tablature for the title Li Ling Si Han survives in only two handbooks, the present one dated 1525 and the version with lyrics published 14 years later in Fengxuan Xuanpin,5 versions of a later title, Su Wu Si Jun (said to be another name for Han Jie Cao), seem in fact to have more of a melodic connection to the 1525 Li Ling Si Han.6

As for a possible earlier origin of this melody, another factor suggesting this is its topic. During the 2nd century BCE the Han dynasty military leader Li Ling7 and the political ambassador Su Wu (see Han Credentials) were both captured and held in long captivity in north central Asia by the Xiongnu.8 Their stories became very popular again during the 13th and 14th centuries as the Southern Song dynasty was collapsing under northern pressure, then came under Mongol control during the Yuan dynasty. This made the main issue brought up by their stories particularly relevant: should one serve non-Han rulers? This issue is behind a number of Yuan and late Song dynasty artistic creations, including three 12th/13th century poems in Qinshu Daquan that mention this title,9 and several surviving contemporary paintings with this theme.10

Li Ling, a brave fighter and skillful archer from a family in Chang An with a long history of military leadership,11 became a cavalry officer in the Han army based in Jiuquan, a city in the western Gobi desert in what is today central west Gansu. The Xiongnu base was then apparently about 500 km to the north northeast, near Juyan in what is today westernmost Inner Mongolia.12 When the Han Wudi emperor first sent his army on an expedition against the Xiongnu Li Ling met with particular success. This led the emperor in 99 BCE to send out a major force from Jiuquan; the Shi Ji account says they went to Qilian Tianshan, but while Jiuquan was in the Qilian region (the Qilian mountain range runs east west just to its south), the Tianshan mountains would have put them far west of Juyan. The main body had 30,000 troops while Li Ling, with 5,000 cavalry, was separately sent "about 1000 li north to Juyan" in an attempt to divide the Xiongnu army, and about 100 li from there he found himself surrounded by about 30,000 (or 80,000) Xiongnu. The Han soldiers tried to escape, but after 8 days half the men were dead and they had no more weapons. Finally, cornered in a valley and out of food, Li Ling surrendered to the Xiongnu. Only 400 soldiers managed to escape. Because of Li Ling's family and personal bravery the Xiongnu leader honored Li Ling by giving him a daughter in marriage. However, when Wudi heard this back in Chang'An, and that Li Ling was serving the Xiongnu, he had Li Ling's mother, wife and children executed.13

Several years earlier, the court official Su Wu had been sent by Han Wudi as an envoy to the Xiongnu (see Han Jie Cao). The Xiongnu detained Su Wu and tried to get him to work for them. They tried various methods, including having Li Ling talk with him (see image with Han Jie Cao), but Su Wu refused. In 86 there was peace and in 81, after 18 years in captivity, Su Wu was able to return to Han. His farewell to Li Ling (perhaps at a place as far north from Juyan as Lake Baikal) is another famous theme in Chinese lore, expressed in particular through poetry and art. Li Ling himself could never go home. He spent the rest of his life amongst the Xiongnu, dying amongst them 74 BCE.

Early writers often praised Su Wu and criticized Li Ling. Some later writers were more sympathetic to Li Ling, but he has always remained controversial, not so much for his surrender as for his willingness to work for the enemy.14

Wen Xuan has three poems attributed to Li Ling,15 plus a letter16 he is said to have written to Su Wu.

Modally the scale is predominantly do re mi sol la with the main tonal center being la and secondarily mi. However, the last phrase in Section 9 ends with the note sequence mi flat - re - do. Then the closing harmonics, which are written out but are identical to those in the modal prelude, also end on and use do as the tonal center.

Original commentary17

Li Shaoqing lost his ambition amongst the fur (-wearing Xiongnu), and had no way to give expression to his loneliness and resentment. When Su Wu returned home (Li Ling) had a melancholy yearning for the homeland; this brought out his moral loftiness. 100 generations later, just hearing these sounds still causes people's hat and hair to stand on end (in alarm).

Nine sections, titled;
18 timing follows my recording 聽錄音; no lyrics

00.00   1. Skilled rider
00.27   2. Enormously strong (lit., throttles tigers)
01.17   3. From river bridge (departing for battle; compare Farewell to Su Wu)
01.51   4. Entering the desert
02.40       "Repeat Section 3"
03.09       "and (repeat) Section 4"
03.52   5. Pushed to the extreme
04.19   6. Arrows exhausted
05.04   7. Thinking of home (music identical to Section 5)
05.31   8. Meeting a friend (Su Wu; musical motifs from Section 3 suggest departure)
06.09   9. Tears at parting (music almost identical to Section 5)
06.40        closing harmonics
07.04        end

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Li Ling Si Han references
14819.1082 李陵 has only Li Ling himself, no mention of music. For biographical information see Wikipedia and Loewe. For poetic references see below. There is a Peking opera called Li Ling Stele (李陵碑 Li Ling Bei) about a Song dynasty general who commits suicide by hitting his head against a stele commemorating Li Ling rather than surrendering to the northern invaders (compare Su Wu Miao).

2. Huangzhong Mode
From standard tuning lower the third string. The 1539 version uses the same tuning but calls the mode Manjiao (lowered third). For more information on this tuning see Shenpin Biyu Yi and Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature.

3. Parting of Li Ling and Su Wu in art and poetry
The image above was extracted from the online version of a famous painting called Parting of Su Wu and Li Ling (National Palace Museum, Taiwan). For more on images with this theme see below.

There are a number of poems about this parting, some attributed to Li Ling himself. Three from Wen Xuan are mentioned below. Another, also traditionally but dubiously attributed to Li Ling himself, is usualy called simply "Parting Song" (別歌 Bie Ge, but !):


Arthur Waley, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, translates this poem after including another (see original text from Wen Xuan), connecting them with commentary the source of which I have not yet traced, as follows:

Parting from Su Wu, by Li Ling

The good time will never come back again:
In a moment, — our parting will be over.
Anxiously — we halt at the road-side,
Hesitating — we embrace where the fields begin.
The clouds above are floating across the sky:
Swiftly, swiftly passing: or blending together.
The waves in the wind lose their fixed place
And are rolled away each to a corner of Heaven.
From now onwards — long must be our parting,
So let us stop again for a little while.
I wish I could ride on the wings of the morning wind
And go with you right to your journey's end. '

Li Ling and Su Wu were both prisoners in the land of the Huns. After nineteen years Su Wu was released. Li Ling would not go back with him. When invited to do so, he got up and danced, singing:

I came ten thousand leagues
Across sandy deserts
In the service of my Prince,
To break the Hun tribes.
My way was blocked and barred,
My arrows and sword broken.
My armies had faded away,
My armies had faded away,
My reputation had gone.
My old mother is long dead.
Although I want to requite my Prince
How can I return?

The source of this latter poem is perhaps 漢書 Han Shu; it is not in Wen Xuan or Yuefu Shiji.

4. Earlier mention of Li Ling Si Han
See below.

5. Li Ling Si Han in Fengxuan Xuanpin (Melody #60)
The tablature for Li Ling Si Han in Fengxuan Xuanpin has lyrics. I have written out a transcription and studied this version, but the one I have actually learned is the related melody here in Xilutang Qintong (1525). Further details from 1539 are as follows:

1539 preface

1539 Section titles

  1. 中郎困塞 A General is surrounded in the desert
  2. 異俗殊風 Foreign customs, strange habits
  3. 笳鼓行兵 Pipes and Drums for the marching soldiers
  4. 持節不屈 Holding credentials and not submitting
  5. 囓雪吞氈 Gnawing on snow, ingesting fur
  6. 赫忠順虜 Great loyalty while accepting captivity
  7. 正氣摧番 Upright attitude destroyed by barbarians
  8. 思君望救 Thinking of a gentleman looking for rescue

1539 lyrics
The lyrics generally follow the
standard pairing method, but I have not been able to make this pairing seem natural, so have not actually played through my transcription in a way that I consider satisfactory. They are partially copied here, as follows:

  1. 中郎困塞


  2. 異俗殊風


  3. 笳鼓行兵

    紫塞黃沙,弓箭胡人業,鞍馬胡人家。 ....

  4. 持節不屈

  5. 囓雪吞氈

  6. 赫忠順虜

  7. 正氣摧番

  8. 思君望救

Perhaps a complete version (and translation) of the lyrics would deepen one's appreciation even for the 1525 version of the melody.

6. Tracing Li Ling Si Han (as well as Han Jie Cao and Su Wu Si Jun; see tracing chart)
For the poetic references see below. Zha's Guide Li Ling Si Han (16/167/363) has two entries; Han Jie Cao (22/194/380) has six, but #2 to #6 are all called 蘇武思君 Su Wu Si Jun. This grouping is presumably based on the statement under the title of the only surviving version of Han Jie Cao, which connects them (q.v.). However, the actual melody and lyrics of the later pieces entitled Su Wu Si Jun suggest that they have more connection to the 1525 Li Ling Si Han though, as the tracing chart shows, the melody of 1589 was quite new and most later versions copied that.

7. Li Ling (d. 76 BCE)
14819.1082 李陵 Li Ling 字少卿 style name Shaoqing. Biography in Loewe. See also in Wikipedia.

8. Xiongnu 匈奴 (Wiki)
The Xiongnu in general were a confederation of non-Han tribes, located generally north of the Great Wall but in a variety of places at different times in Chinese history. They were mainly of importance to China during the Han dynasty. During the early Han period the Xiongnu, though nomadic, were centered on their annual meeting place, 蘢城 Longcheng. For this 33170.2 quotes Shi Ji 110 匈奴, 111 衛將軍 and 112 主父偃 Zhufu Yan without clarifying its location, but seemingly suggesting it was near eastern Mongolia. Other sources suggest it was in the Koshu-Tsaidam region by the Orkhon River, which flows northward into Lake Baikal.

9. Poetic references to Li Ling Si Han
Qinshu Daquan (1590) includes at least three relevant poems,

  1. one by Chen Qiuyan (13th/14th c.) that mentions the title Li Ling Si Han,
  2. one by Xie Ao (1249 - 1295) that mentions a melody simply called Li Ling, and
  3. one by Yun Ruo (1280 - 1359) entitled Li Ling Si Han.

The poems by Yun Ruo (which mentions 5-character verse) and Xie Ao are 7x4; that by Chen Qiuyan is quite lengthy. None of these poems sheds any light on the actual music.

10. Paintings on the theme of Su Wu and Li Ling
These include:

  1. Parting of Su Wu and Li Ling (see excerpt above)
  2. Su Wu and Li Ling, with Attendants (Farewell of Su Wu and Li Ling) (Berkeley Art Museum)
  3. Images from folk art such as the one under Han Jie Cao.
  4. "Sheep and Goat" by Zhao Mengfu (Freer); Zhao, like Su Wu, was forced to work for foreigners
    Discussed in Michael Sullivan, The Three Perfections

11. Ancestor of Li Ling: Li Guang 李廣
Shi Ji #109 (中文, pp. 2867-7877; Watson translation, RGH II, pp. 117-128,) has Li Guang's biography and that of several descendents, including Li Ling; the account in the above paragraph comes from this source (中文, p. 2877). Watson (p.128, fn.4) says the end of Annal 109, including comments attributed to Sima Qian praising Li Ling, was a later addition.

12. Places in Central Asia connected to Li Ling
See again Shi Ji Annal 109. This vast area encompasses much of northern Xinjiang and western Inner Mongolia. However, the area where Li Ling ventured seems to have been generally northeast of Dunhuang: the account says he was finally cornered by the Xiongnu after he led troops from his base in Jiuquan to within about 100 li of Juyan. As a prisoner and then in-law of the Xiongnu ruler Li Ling may have spent much of the rest of his life around here, but also could have lived quite far from here (see Xiongnu above and note that Su Wu is sometimes said to have spent much of his exile near Lake Baikal).

  1. 酒泉 Jiuquan (Wiki)
    Jiuquan ("Wine Spring") is a city in central west Gansu just north of the 祁連 Qilian mountain range (see below); its name is said to come from a story that General Huo Qubing poured wine into a local creek to share with his troops celebration of a victory over the Xiongnu around the year 120 BCE. Along with 張掖 Zhangye about 200 km east southest, it was the base for the western Han armies. Shi Ji has Li Ling stationed at both Jiuquan and Zhangye.
  2. 居延 Juyan
    7838.43 居延 Juyan says it was a commandery in Jiuquan, in the vicinity of the 額濟納旗 Ejinaqi (Ejin Qi, Eiin Qi). The modern city of Ejinaqi, near 42°N, 101°E, in what is today westernmost Inner Mongolia, is said to have been near a main Xiongnu base. It is about 500 km east northeast of Dunhuang, with the modern city of Jiuquan about 300 km from each.
  3. 祁連 Qilian
    There is today a 祁連省 Qilian district in the Qilian mountain range running just south of Dunhuang, Jiuquan and Zhangye, along the border between Qinghai and Gansu provinces. However, some old works suggest Qilian represented the Xiongnu name for 天山 Tianshan (Heavenly Mountains).
  4. 天山 Tianshan (Heavenly Mountains),
    This is a vast mountain range running east west in central Xinjiang province. Juyan is about 500km east of its eastern end.

It thus seems that the story connected to this qin melody largely takes place in what is today western Inner Mongolia and central Gansu.

13. Li Ling and Sima Qian
After Li Ling surrendered, the only person who defended him at Han Wudi's court was Sima Qian, who as a result was given the choice of honorable suicide or shame and castration; he chose the latter so that he could complete his history of China, the Shi Ji.

14. A net search for "Li Ling" "Su Wu" gives more detail.

15. Li Ling poems in 文選 Wen Xuan
The three poems, all in Chapter 29 (中文, p. 1295), are titled as follows (named according to their first line:

All were written in 5-character (pentasyllabic) lines. Giles credits 嚴羽 Yan Yu (ca. 1200) with saying Li Ling invented pentasyllabic verse, perhaps based on these poems. However, most critics now doubt the attribution of these three poems to Li Ling himself. All concern his parting from Su Wu.

The first poem is as follows (translated above):


The second poem is:


The third is:

攜手上河梁,游子暮何之? (河梁 "river bridge" is the title of Section 3)
The first line of the third poem can be translated, "(We) clasp hands on the river bridge, (but) the traveler by nightfall will be where?...." It thus identifies this as a farewell to Su Wu: both 17634.129 河梁 heliang "river bridge" and 17634.130 河梁别 heliang bie "parting at river bridge" most clearly connect this expression with Su Wu parting from Li Ling. However, this interpretation would make "river bridge" out of place as title to Section 3 of Li Ling Si Han: for the purposes of this melody "river bridge" should refer to Li Ling leaving Jiuquan to pursue the Xiongnu. In fact, an alternatve explanation of 17634.129 河梁 heliang says it is 詩篇名 the name of a poetic essay, quoting from the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu Yue (吳越春秋 Wu Yue Chun Qiu) a passage about departure at a river bridge to attack the 秦王 Qin king ("渡河梁兮渡河梁,擧兵所攻伐秦王。").

16. A letter by Li Ling in 文選 Wen Xuan
The letter to Su Wu attributed to Li Ling was included in Chapter 42 (答蘇武書 Dá Sū Wǔ Shū, p.1881). It begins as follows:


It has been translated by Giles; see, e.g., Herbert Giles, A History of Chinese Literature; NY, Grove Press (originally 1923; Evergreen Reprint, 1958?), pp.84-9.

17. Original commentary 西麓堂琴統解題
The original afterword is as follows:
See QQJC III/191 ; I haven't found its source.

18. Chinese titles 西麓堂琴統小標題
The original titles are:

  1. 材騎 (cai qi;; 漢書 Han Shu entry on Li Ling says 善騎射 shan qi she, skilled rider and archer)
  2. 扼虎 (e hu; 12132.5 quotes from 漢書 Han Shu entry on Li Ling)
  3. 河梁 (17634.130; see above)
  4. 入塞
  5. 窮追
  6. 矢盡 (漢書)
  7. 懷鄉
  8. 逢友
  9. 泣別

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Chart Tracing 李陵思漢
Li Ling Si Han
(plus 漢節操 Han Jie Cao and 蘇武思君 Su Wu Si Jun)

Based mainly on three entries in Zha Fuxi's Guide:
      Li Ling Si Han 16/167/363: 1525#1 and 1539
      Han Jie Cao     22/194/380: only 1525#2
      Su Wu Si Jun    = Han Jie Cao: 1585, 1589, 1634, 1670, >1802, 1876
Further comment above

    (year; QQJC Vol/page)
Further information
(QQJC = 琴曲集成 Qinqu Jicheng; QF = 琴府 Qin Fu)
1a. 西麓堂琴統
      (1525; III/191)
9T (or 11: repeat S4-S5); Li Ling Si Han; huangzhong (lowered 3rd string)
Melody begins, "泛起,食七勾一,大七跳三,無名九勾二,大七跳五。少息,再作...."
1b. 西麓堂琴統
      (1525; III/232)
10T; Han Jie Cao; yingzhong (lowered 1st, raised 5th strings);
this melody only here; "alternate title Su Wu Si Jun"
  2. 風宣玄品
      (1539; II/226)
8TL; Li Ling Si Han; manjiao (lowered 3rd string)
Closely related to 1525#1
  3. 重修真傳琴譜
      (1585; IV/423)
9TL; Su Wu Si Jun; manjiao (lowered 3rd string); lyrics
Clearly related to 1525#1
  4. 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1589; VII/127)
8; Su Wu Si Jun; manjiao (lowered 3rd); totally new lyrics ("蠻夷猾夏何多年 ....")
Zha Fuxi made a partial recording; may have a vague connection to 1525#1 but basically new
    . 真傳正宗琴譜
      (1609; Fac/)
    Presumably a copy of 1589
  5. 古音正宗
      (1634; IX/318)
4; Su Wu Si Jun; shang (standard tuning);
Seems unrelated to all the others
  6. 琴苑新傳全編
      (1670; XI/450)
8; Su Wu Si Jun; "小碧玉 xiao biyu" (lowered 3rd); manjiao;
Copy of 1589 but without lyrics or title; preface has no mention of Li Ling
  7. 裛露軒琴譜
      (>1802; XIX/206)
8; Su Wu Si Jun; lowered 3rd; Manjiao;
  8. 天聞閣琴譜
      (1876; XXV/521)
8; Su Wu Si Jun; lowered 3rd; huangzhong;
" = 1670" (& 1589), including section titles but no lyrics

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