Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ancient China Music

In these pictures of ancient Chinese life which we are endeavouring to present, the idea is to repeat from every point of view the main characteristics of that life, so that a strange and unfamiliar subject, very loosely depicted in the straggling annals of antiquity, may receive fresh rays of light from every possible quarter, and thus stand out clearer as a connected whole.
Take, for instance, the subject of music, which always played in Chinese ceremonial a prominent part not easy for us now to understand. One of the chief sights of the modern Confucian residence is the music-room, containing specimens of all the ancient musical instruments, which, on occasion, are still played upon in chorus; a picture of them has been published by Father Tschepe. According to the description given by this European visitor, the music is of a most discordant and ear- splitting description: but that does not necessarily dispose of the question; for even parts of Wagner's Ring are a meaningless clang to those who hear the music for the first time, and who are unable to read the score or to follow out the "classical" style. As we have said before, the ancient emperors, at their banquets given to vassals and others, always had musical accompaniment.
In 626 B.C., when the ruler of Ts'in received a mission from "the Tartar king" , he was much struck with the sagacity of the envoy sent to him. This envoy still spoke the Tsin language or dialect; but his parents, who were of Tsin origin, had adopted Tartar manners. The envoy was also an author, and his work, in two sections, had survived at least up to the second century B.C.: he is classed amongst the "Miscellaneous Writers." The subject of the conversation was the superiority of simple Tartar administration as compared with the intricate ritual of the Odes, the Book, the Rites, and the "Music" of orthodox China. The beginnings of Lao-tsz's Taoism seem to peep out from this Tartar's words, just as they do with other "Miscellaneous" authors. The wily Ts'in ruler, in order to secure this clever envoy for his own service, sent two bands of female musicians as a present to the Tartar king, so as to make him less virile; 140 years later the cunning ruler of Ts'i did much the same thing in order to prevent the Duke of Lu from growing too strong; and the immediate consequence was that Confucius left his fickle master in disgust. Ki-chah, Prince of Wu, was entertained whilst at Lu with specimens of music from the different states. When he came to the Ts'in music, he said: "Ha! ha! the words are Chinese! When Ts'in becomes quite Chinese, it will have a great future." This remark suggests a Ts'in language or dialect different from that of Tsin, and also from that of more orthodox China. In 546 B.C., when a mission from Ts 'u to Tsin was accompanied by a high officer from the disputed orthodox state of Ts'ai lying between those two great powers, the theory of music as an adjunct to government was discussed. Confucius' view a century later was that music best reflected a nation's manners, and that in good old times authority was manifested quite as much in rites and ceremonies as in laws and pronouncements. Previous to that, in 582, it had been discovered that Ts'u had a musical style of her own; and in 579, when the Tsin envoy was received there in state, among other instruments of music observed there were suspended bells.
Thus both Ts'in and Ts'u at this date were still in the learning stage. Before ridiculing the idea that music could in any way serve as a substitute for preaching or commanding, we must reflect upon the awe-inspiring contribution of music to our own religious services, not to mention the "speaking" effect of our Western nocturnes, symphonies, and operatic music generally.
In 562 B.C., when a statesman of Tsin succeeded in establishing a permanent understanding with the Tartars, based upon joint trading rights and reasonable mutual concessions, the principle of interesting the Tartars in cultivation, industry, and so on; as a reward for his distinguished services, he was presented with certain music, which meant that he had the political right to have certain musical airs performed in his presence. This concession ceases to seem ridiculous or even strange to us if we reflect what an honour it would have been to, say, the Duke of Wellington, or to Nelson, had the right to play "God Save the King" at dinner been granted to his family band of musicians. Four centuries before this, when the Emperor Muh made his tour amongst the Tartars, he always commanded that one particular musical air should be struck up by his musicians on certain occasions . In Tsin, and probably elsewhere, music-masters seem to have combined soothsaying and philosophy with their functions; thus, in 558 the music-master of that state was questioned on the arts of good government, to which he replied: "Goodness and justice"--two special antipathies, by the way, of Lao-tsz the Taoist, who lived about this time as an archive-keeper at the metropolis. In the year 555, either this same man or another musical prophet in Tsin reassured his fellow- countrymen who were dreading a Ts'u invasion with the following words: "I have just been conducting a song consisting of north and south airs, and the latter sound as though the south would be defeated." But music also had its lighter uses, for we have seen in Chapter VI. how in 549 two Tsin generals took their ease in a comfortable cart, playing the banjo, whilst passing through Cheng to attack Ts'u. Music was used at worship as well as at court; in 527 the ruler of Lu, as a mark of respect for one of his deceased ministers, abandoned the playing of music, which otherwise would have been a constituent part of the sacrifice or worship he had in hand at the moment. Even in modern China, music is prohibited during solemn periods of mourning, and officials are often degraded for attending theatrical performances on solemn fasts. In 212 B.C., when the First August Emperor was, like Saul or Belshazzar, beginning to grow sad at the contemplation of his lonely and unloved greatness, he was suddenly startled at the fall of a meteoric stone, bearing upon it what looked like a warning inscription. He at once ordered his learned men to compose some music treating of "true men" and immortals, in order to exorcise the evil omen; it may be mentioned that this emperor's Taoist proclivities have apparently had the indirect result that the word "true man" has come century by century down to us, with the meaning of "Taoist priest," or "Taoist inspired person."

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