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Qin Poetry and Qin Songs 1 琴詩與琴歌
The Old Toper's Chant : enlarge
As with painting and calligraphy, because qin music was generally created by the same
class of people who created classical poetry, often their themes overlap. Such titles as
Chu Ci and Hu Jia are important to all three: qin, painting/calligraphy and poetry/song.

Qin Poetry can be divided into two categories

  1. Lyrics that mention qin play or players. These include:
    - Over 500 qin poems in
    Qinshu Daquan (1590); only a few have been translated;
    - Poems included in various biographies (search by author; a few of the poems are now online);
    - Poems by qin players, including a selection of Zhu Quan's Palace Poems;
    - See also "Other poets", with a variety of connections to qin.

  2. Lyrics that were once sung with qin melodies
    - Zha Fuxi's Guide, Section 10 includes almost all such lyrics in surviving handbooks
        (the Index, last column, shows which melodies have lyrics; few are still sung)
    - Yuefu Shiji: Qin Melody Lyrics (many set to music in Taigu Yiyin) and elsewhere
    - Wen Xuan, by contrast, though often referenced here, has few actual qin song lyrics
    - Songs of the Whitestone Daoist (Baishidaoren Gequ) has 12th century songs of interest to the history of the qin
    - See also Qin Songs, below, and the page Cipai and Qin Melodies.

Qin Songs accompany qin melodies. Relevant entries on this site include:

  1. Cipai and Qin Melodies (including further references)
  2. Xu Jian, Creators of Qin Songs (plus my footnote)
  3. Zha Fuxi, Differentiating qin songs.

Songs I have personally reconstructed and sing from Ming handbooks (caveat) include:

  1. Boya Diao Ziqi, an ardent lament for a lost friend
  2. Chun Jiang Qu, song of rivers in spring
  3. Feng Qiu Huang, an ardent love song
  4. Feng Ru Song Ge, a qin song evoking Wind in the Pines
  5. Gui Qu Lai Ci, a famous poet enjoys being home
  6. Jiu Kuang, a serious drinking song
  7. Kongsheng Jing; a musical setting of Confucius' Great Learning
  8. Qingjing Jing; a Daoist morning chant
  9. Wenjun Cao, like Feng Qiu Huang an ardent love song
  10. Yangguan Sandie, one of the most famous farewell songs
  11. Yu Ge Diao; read the transcription and sing along with the recording
  12. Zui Weng Yin, (The Old Toper's Chant, see calligraphy at right)

At are videos of songs where I play but rather than sing have the lyrics in captions.

Singing qin songs
Qin melodies with lyrics always have these lyrics paired to the music in a very word intensive manner: for each character in the lyrics the qin player has to make one right hand stroke or left hand pluck. Words are usually not paired to slides or every note of a complex figure such as a glissando (gun or fu), but many qin songs have no left-hand ornaments, with the result that for each character (i.e., syllable) there is only one note. This sort of setting of one character for each note is called a "syllabic setting". It is perhaps due to this syllabic style that some people have argued that qin melodies should be purely instrumental, as singing just gets in the way of the delicate qin tones. (See
further comment.)

Three reasons why qin songs contined to be so word intensive, in spite of such criticism, could be as follows.

  1. A belief that Confucius always sang as he played qin;2
  2. A related belief that his melodies (i.e., the songs in the Shi Jing) had syllabic settings;3
  3. A belief that the original songs on which Song ci were based had syllabic settings.4

The first two handbooks with lyrics show very contrasting approaches to the one-character-per-stroke model.

  1. Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (<1491; my cd and book) has music which for the most part was originally instrumental, but there are lyrics all the way through (they are linked through its ToC). The lyrics seem to be newly created; but although some of it can be sung, the pairing method means that often there are rather awkward passages, for example, the finger running across the seven strings and so there are seven syllables to be sung. Reading them while listening to the music may increase appreciation, but it is unlikely that they were intended actually to be sung. Most of the lyrics were apparently written by the 15th century prince who compiled the book.
  2. Taigu Yiyin (1511) has 38 qin songs. The pairing method is the same, but most of the lyrics are well-known old poems, especially from the famous collection Yuefu Shiji (including the 10 Qin Songs of Han Yu. From my understanding, having transcribed and played all of them, most were clearly intended to be sung. The music is less ornamented, and seems designed to be played more slowly.

For all the above I have written out transcriptions, but for many of those in the 1511 handbook need more work. I have also reconstructed songs from several later handbooks. One of the most interesting of these is Xilutang Qintong, the only handbook that seems to have songs where the lyrics don't continue from beginning to end.

Later handbooks that consist only of qin songs include,

  1. Chongxiu Zhenchuan Zhengzong (1585)
  2. Luqi Xinsheng (including Hujia Shibapai; 1589)
  3. Sanjiao Tongsheng (Daoist and Confucian hymns; Buddhist chant; 1592)
  4. Yang Lun Taigu Yiyin, part of Zhenchuan Zhengzong Qinpu (<1609)
  5. The Jiang Xingchou (Toko Etsu) qin song handbooks preserved in Japan

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Qin Poetry and Qin Songs
What is written here about qin songs in particular must be considered very tentative. Although I have spent much time transcribing many songs, and have also recorded quite a few of these (examples), I make few claims for authenticity (other than that they express my authentic feelings for the music). Since the information I have been able to find from other sources, whether ancient or contemporary, is often either very sketchy or contradictory, I have been putting my observations here (including my tentative singing of a number of songs) largely in hopes of getting reactions that will help me and others get a fuller understanding of the songs and their potential. Some issues include:

  1. Value of the songs: I find some of them very beautiful according to my understanding of the way they were written down, and yet in history there are qin masters who seem to have categorically condemned all qin songs. (See, for example, the comments above about syllabic setting together with the criticism of this outlined elsewhere.) How can these two extremes be aligned?
  2. Pairing the words and music: Since nothing seems to have been written about this in classical sources, many people have different ideas about how the lyrics and music should be paired. In one sense none of the attempts should be considered incorrect. On the other hand, it is possible sometimes to say, "It is unlikely that in the past they were sung in this way" (e.g., using a bel canto voice); or to say, "Although there is no textual evidence supporting this way of singing the songs, there is also nothing to say they were never done in that way" (e.g., singing them in ways other than following the common syllabic formula). On the other hand, I cannot help but question people who say they must be done, or must have been done, in any particular way, and any other way is incorrect.
  3. Pronouncing the words: Once again nothing seems to have been written about this in classical qin sources. In classical Chinese there were regional pronunciations as well as (over time) national ones. Did people in the Ming dynasty who set lyrics to a song imagine them sung their local dialect, a perceived national one, or a perceived archaic one? In the absence of a definitive answer, presumably any of these pronunciations could be justified.

Although guqin music is often perceived as a written tradition, since so much of the music was written down, it has also always been an oral tradition. Here one must always keep in mind that, although writing down qin music aided its transmission over time and space, requiring it to be written down also limited some of its possibilities. Obvious barriers included devising new finger technique symbols and writing down songs/melodies that quite likely were performed quite differently on different occasions. This is why, although no specific examples seem to have been transmitted, it is is difficult to imagine that qin players who also loved opera would never have tried, for example, to sing a beloved opera song while devising appropriate qin accompaniment.

2. Qin songs and Confucius
世紀,孔子世家四十七 Annals of History, Hereditary House of Confucius, Annal 47 (China Text Project), the biography of Confucius in the Annals of History (Section 60 of 85, RH, p.22), says,

Confucius chose 305 songs in all, and these he set to music and sang, fitting them to the music of Emperor Shun and King Wu

These 305 are the songs in the Book of Songs (Shi Jing). Here "絃歌 xian'ge" (literally "strings song") is translated "set to music and sang", the assumption being this was done on the qin, presumably because of the account in this same biography that Confucius studied the qin from Shi Xiangzi. Elsewhere when Confucius is described as playing music the common term used is again xian'ge, with no direct mention of instrumental music. It is perhaps also from here that the idea came that the musical settings were syllabic, this evidence being equally tenuous.

3. Belief that Confucius used syllabic settings for qin melodies
Apparently Shi Jing melodies in particular had syllabic settings, but I do not know the earliest reference or know of any early explanations for this.

4. Song Ci 宋詞
Each Song dynasty ci was written following the syllabic structure of an earlier ci. Thus, the earliest known lyrics for the song 長相思 Chang Xiang Si had four phrases with the pattern 3,3.7.5; therefore, new ci called Chang Xiang Si would have the same pattern. Some people think that this means the original songs must have had a syllabic setting. (Note that there can be confusion in English from the fact that the spelling of the 詞 ci of 宋詞 Song Ci [see also cipai] is the same as the ci of 楚辭 Chu Ci.)

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