Two Poems that Mention Musical Instruments in Qu Yuan’s Nine Songs

Colin Huehns | July 2019 | London

Poet and politician Qu Yuan’s dates are usually given as 340–278 BCE or thereabouts, and he was a senior minister in the government of the state of Chu, before suffering, as a passionate patriot, the ignominy of banishment for offering timely but unheeded advice that would have saved his country from invasion and destruction by the state of Qin. His celebrated suicide is now commemorated by the annual dragon boat races that recall the fishermen’s boats rushing unsuccessfully to save him as he drowned himself in the Miluo River. He lived about two centuries later than Confucius (551–479 BCE) who was said to have been responsible for the compilation of the Book of Songs 詩經, and as such, Qu Yuan’s poetic oeuvre is commonly regarded as the next flowering of Chinese literary creation. The innovative form he created, known as “Ci” 辭, attracted many admirers and imitators, and his surviving canon and those of his disciples and their lineage were collected together in the Han dynasty anthology The Ci Poems of Chu 楚辭 that survives to this day.

One of his most exhilarating works is The Nine Songs, which actually consists of eleven poems, and whose subject matter seems somewhat disharmonious in relation to the stern, unbending patriotism of many of his other compositions. The Nine Songs narrate instead a series of sacrificial ceremonies to various gods as personified by the shamans who enact them. As poetic works, they are vivid testaments to a colourful social and religious tapestry in which Qu Yuan undoubtedly participated. The rituals they describe were commonly supplied with musical accompaniments, and thus they are fertile ground for the musicologist looking for real-time evidence of ancient performance practice.  

The poetic lines in the Book of Songs tend to be epigrams of four characters in length, which give them a strict sense of order, discipline, and rhythm. By comparison, the lines of Ci poetry can be much longer and more flexible, and range up to nine or more characters. The crux to their construction, however, is the central and pivotal 兮, in pinyin “xi”, which acts as a locus in almost all lines, on either side of which is a symmetrical or near-symmetrical number of characters. This 兮 is untranslatable and rarely carries meaning, sometimes acting as a point of punctuation, sometimes not, but it has a strong function as a unifying rhythmic device that gives Ci poetry its characteristic gait.

Fresh translations and discussion of two poems from The Nine Songs that mention musical instruments are presented here: the first of the setThe Emperor of the East, the Supreme Unity” and the seventh in the conventional sequence “The Lord of the East”.

          東黃太一     The Emperor of the East, the Supreme Unity  

          吉日兮辰良     On this auspicious day, this excellent morning

          穆將愉兮上皇     In reverent solemnity, we will delight the Emperor above

          撫長劍兮玉珥     Holding our long swords’ jade hilts

          璆鏘鳴兮琳瑯     “Qiu-qiang” sound our jade pendants and plaques

5         瑤席兮玉瑱     Mats of woven herbs held in place by jade weights

          盍將把兮瓊芳     In synchronous unison, taking perfumed flowers, like fine jade

          蕙肴蒸兮蘭藉     Present lavender-flavoured meat on the bone served on an orchid garnish

          奠桂酒兮椒漿     Offer osmanthus liquor and pepper elixir

          揚枹兮拊鼓     Raising high the drumsticks, strike the drum

10        疏緩節兮安歌     In a slow, solemn, and steady metre, a harmoniously peaceful song

          陳竽瑟兮浩倡     Arrayed are yu mouth organs and se zithers accompanying deeply resonant singing

          靈偃蹇兮姣服     The Emperor, haughtily magnificent, is richly dressed

          芳菲菲兮滿堂     A fragrance, heady and heavy, fills the hall

          五音紛兮繁會     The five notes are varied in counterpoint and heterophony

15        君欣欣兮樂康     And the Lord is deliciously delighted, happy and calm

As a musical form, this poem is a steady and systematic crescendo, coming to a climax in the fifteenth and last line when we finally discover the rationale for all the ritual. Along the way, much is learnt of the musical journey travelled. It was certainly an intoxicating mix that thrilled all the senses: line 4 tells of the bejeweled costumes worn and a jangling sonic richness of jade plaques colliding; lines 5 and 6 give an account of heady scents wafting to and fro; whilst lines 7 and 8 seduce us with the beguiling tastes of rich meats and sauces. Line 9 introduces a musical instrument, the drum, and we learn that it is struck by drum sticks with theatrical vigour, and line 10 outlines the rhythm and metre that evolve: steady, calm, hypnotic, and powerful. Line 11 reveals the orchestra as comprising of both wind instruments (yu mouth organs) and strings (se zithers), joining in player by player and section by section to match the resonant singing of the choirs. Line 14, perhaps the most important of them all, reveals the musical basis on which all this is grounded, namely “the five notes” that form the pentatonic scale. In fact, this may be one of the earliest citations of this seminal musical building block – “the five notes” are not mentioned in The Book of Songs. The last two characters of line 14 give some hint as to the musical complexity: the first of these 繁 indicates a sense of dissipation in the musical texture, of conflicting voices interweaving with each other, so I have translated it as “counterpoint”; the second 會 contrastingly suggests that this counterpoint is controlled into a unified musical mass, so I have rendered it as “heterophony” which means here “many [organized] sounds”. And all so “the Lord is deliciously delighted, happy and calm”, or, put another way, so that the audience, whoever they may be, is satisfied.

          東君     The Lord of the East  

This poem has a narrative structure found in several in The Nine Songs by which the god, here the Lord of the East, descends, is welcomed by the assembled shamans, and then departs at the end. His final soliloquy is quintessential Qu Yuan: astrological and fantastical, with the god assuming a larger-than-life persona involving passionate and almost reckless careering across the sky.

Twenty-four lines in length, the overall structure is perhaps ternary (ABA):

          A      lines 1–10: the god speaks

          B      lines 11–18: the shamans welcome him

          A      lines 19–24: the god answers and departs

 The Lord of the East:

          暾將出兮東方     The newly risen sun is about to emerge in the east

          照吾檻兮扶桑     Shining on my boundary fence of fusang trees

          撫余馬兮安軀     Patting my horse, so it moves peacefully forward

          夜皎皎兮既明     The night, brightly lit by the moon, merges into the morning light

5         駕龍輈兮乘雷     Driving a dragon chariot, riding thunder

          載雲旗兮委蛇     Carrying the clouds, like flags, furling and unfurling

          長太息兮將上     For a long while, sighing, and then rising up

          心低佪兮顧懷     Heart hesitating, reluctant to leave, nurturing feelings in my breast

          羌聲色兮娛人     A swirling hubbub of sound and colour makes the people joyful

10        觀者憺兮忘歸     Those observing, contentedly peaceful, forget to return

The assembled shamans officiating at the sacrifice:

          縆瑟兮交鼓     String up the se zither, beat the drum

          簫鐘兮瑤簴     Strike the bells so they rock back and forth the rack on which they hang

          鳴篪兮吹竽     Sound the chi bamboo pipe, blow the yu mouth organ

          思靈保兮賢姱     Reflecting on the chief shaman [acting the role of the Lord of the East], virtuous and lovely      

15        翾飛兮翠曾     Floatingly and delicately dancing as if flying, like green birds spreading their wings and soaring away 

          展詩兮會舞     Boldly singing poetical songs and chants, together dancing

          應律兮和節     Matching the melody, in harmony with the metre

          靈之來兮蔽日     The gods approaching in their multitudes block out the sun

The Lord of the East:

          青雲依兮霓裳     Attired in a blue-cloud tunic, set off by a white rainbow skirt

20        舉長矢兮射天狼     Raising aloft a long arrow to shoot down the constellation Sirius

          操余弧兮反淪降     Holding high my wooden bow, turning to shoot down the setting sun

          援北斗兮酌桂漿     Clasping the Plough, to drink my fill of osmanthus elixir

          撰余轡兮高駝翔     Taking hold of my bridle, high aloft, to gallop at full pelt, soaring and wheeling

          杳冥冥兮以東行     In the dark and deep, travelling on an eastward journey

Lines 11–18 detail the most elaborate musical ensemble described by Qu Yuan, including se zithers, drums, bells on racks, chi bamboo flutes, and yu mouth organs (lines 11–13). There is mood (line 14), dancing (line 15), singing (line 16), and four technical musical terms alone in line 17:

          應          match [verb]

          律          melody [noun]


          和          harmony [verb]

          節          metre [noun; also met in line 10 of “The Emperor of the East, the Supreme Unity”]

Together, this translates as: Matching the melody, in harmony with the metre.

This section of the poem crescendos to its climax in bar 18 where “The gods approaching in their multitudes block out the sun.” Each line adds another layer to the narrative in an unfolding of a musical form, which, when compared with the more static descriptions in The Book of Songs, is a fresh and innovative departure.

My own journey of appreciation of Qu Yuan began more than thirty years ago as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, when I first stumbled across David Hawkes’ seminal English translations (I could not read Chinese then) and set some of them to music for a small ensemble of Western instruments and solo singers, including both poems quoted here. The pilgrimage has continued ever since so that now I can appreciate and translate in my own fashion a small fraction of their original pristine linguistic beauty as it speaks directly to us over the intervening millennia.          

About the Author

Dr Colin Huehns studied violin with Emanuel Hurwitz. His first experience in music from outside the Western Classical tradition came at King’s College, Cambridge, when he wrote a dissertation on the music of Hunza Valley and Gilgit, Pakistan, an interest which culminated in a PhD thesis awarded by Cambridge University for ‘Music in Northern Pakistan’ in 1992.

He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has remained active as a composer. Following a three-year British Academy Research Fellowship at Cambridge, Colin spent three years as a student at the Xi’an Music Conservatoire, studying the erhu with the distinguished virtuoso Jin Wei.

Since returning to the UK in 1999, he has taught electives in non-Western, traditional, and folk music at the Academy. He has also taught electives, which include learning the erhu, and Chinese and British members of the dulcimer family. As well as continuing to play the viol, viola, violin, rebec, Renaissance fiddle, and various dulcimers, his main teaching, research, performance, and composition interests now centre on his Chinese instruments, which include some twenty different members of the erhu, yangqin, and Mongolian horsehead fiddle families.

Colin’s erhu performances have included recitals in Munich, Leeds, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, but he is particularly proud of having recorded two CDs of erhu music written especially for him.