Song of the Snowy Whiteness and The Discarded Qin: Two Tang Dynasty Poems that Mention Musical Instruments

Colin Huehns | August 2022 | London

During the Tang dynasty (618—907), Chinese control was once more asserted over the regions of Central Asia now known as Xinjiang, and the works of the poet Cen Shen 岑參 (715—770), including his Song of the Snowy Whiteness 白雪歌, are a sensitive literary representation of this fact. The encroachment of musical practices of the western borderlands into the Chinese heartlands was, however, not always welcome, as is indicated by a later Tang poet, Bai Juyi 白居易 (772–846), who bemoans their displacement of indigenous traditional musical styles in his The Discarded Qin 廢琴. Both poems are presented here in fresh translations and their value as documents of performance practice discussed.

Song of the Snowy Whiteness is generally dated to the period 754—757, when Cen Shen was on one of his tours of duty in Central Asia in the service of the emperor.

白雪歌送武判官歸京 Song of the Snowy Whiteness, presented to Judge Wu, who is to return to the capital

北風卷地百草折 The north wind whips up the land and even the myriad whitened grass stems are bent

胡天八月即飛雪 It is the eighth month and in barbarian Central Asian skies that means snowflakes are flying

忽如一夜春風來 And suddenly, as if overnight, the spring wind comes

千樹萬樹梨花開 A thousand trees, ten thousand trees, the pear blossoms open

散入珠簾濕羅幕 Seeping into the pearly drapes, moistening gauze curtains

狐裘不暖錦衾薄 A fox fur robe is no longer warm, a brocade coverlet too light

將軍角弓不得控 So chill, even a general cannot control his horned bow

都護鐵衣冷難着 The governor’s mail coat is so cold it is hard to wear

瀚海闌干百丈冰 The mazes in the desert, a hundred furlongs of ice

愁雲慘淡萬里凝 Glowering clouds cruel and bleak, leaden for ten thousand leagues

中軍置酒飲歸客 The commander sets out wine to drink to the visitor now returning to the capital

胡琴琵琶與羌笛 Accompanied by huqin, pipa and Qiang flute

紛紛暮雪下轅門 Fluttering dusky snowflakes fall on the encampment gate

風掣紅旗凍不飛 The wind pulls at the red flags but they are frozen and unyielding

輪臺東門送君去 At the East Gate of Luntai Fort we bid farewell and send you, gentle sir, on your way

去時雪滿天山路 At the hour of parting, snow thickly covers the road into the Heavenly Mountains

山迴路轉不見君 Through mountain folds the road winds and you cannot be seen

雪上空留馬行處 And in the snow, devoid of all meaning, remain only the tracks of your horse

The vivid lucidity of Tang dynasty poetry has retained its attractiveness down the generations, and the direct emotion conveyed still leaves the reader deeply touched: no longer the veiled voices of deep antiquity and their obscure preoccupations and imagery; here are real people and genuine feelings. Life on military service in Central Asia was clearly harsh and the searching fingers of incessant cold remembered for a lifetime. Thrill and joy in the intensity of the experience was nonetheless also marvellous, especially when all is over: “And suddenly, as if overnight, the spring wind comes / A thousand trees, ten thousand trees, the pear blossoms open.” Not just Cen Shen’s most memorable couplet but one of the most celebrated in all of Chinese literature. At the close of the poem, the emotion concentrates into a much more personal distillation with a simple narration of the bitterness of parting with a dear friend and the empty comfort of the remnants of his presence left behind: “the tracks of your horse”, tracks that we know will soon be submerged by new snowfall and eventually melt with the retreat of the winter frost; this is the baleful moment when you leave the airport and your beloved has flown away, or linger at the door of a hospital ward. Perhaps it is a scrap of handwriting, the scent of a dust of talcum powder, or an echo of the sound of piano practice: that is all you have left.

But, before this moment, there is much to treasure, and the musical ensemble that was assembled for entertainment at the farewell party at Luntai Fort (near modern Urumqi) contains three instruments of unquestioned Central Asian origin: the huqin, pipa and Qiang flute. Their presence and the absence of Han Chinese equivalents probably indicates a mutual understanding and intimacy between officials from the Chinese heartlands such as Cen Shen and local populations and customs. We imagine the vibrant music and the flowing wine, and deep inside wish we were there too, as in fact we, as modern readers, uncontrovertibly are, in spirit if not in reality.

For the music historian and erhu player, this mention of huqin is a pivotal moment, for here is one of the earliest citations of an instrument of this family in any source, and also confirmation of its Central Asian origin and role in ensemble formations. In this respect, however, caution should be observed, as the two characters employed are and , the first meaning “of the western barbarians” and the second “stringed instrument”; nothing explicit indicates that the huqin is bowed, and, as the first illustrations of a member of the erhu family are not found until three or four hundred years later in the Song dynasty, it may well have been plucked. The literary context does, however, suggest that the huqin, pipa and Qiang flute represent three different types of instrument, and, as the pipa is undoubtedly plucked, the likelihood is high that the term huqin represents a different genre, in other words a bowed instrument.

Unlike Cen Shen, Bai Juyi is not recorded as visiting Central Asia, and is very much a poet of the Chinese heartlands.

廢琴 The Discarded Qin

絲桐和爲琴 Of silk thread and tong wood combined is formed the qin

中有太古聲 In whose core resides a sound of deep antiquity

古聲淡無味 But the sound of deep antiquity is regarded as insipid and flavourless

不稱今日情 Not matching contemporary emotions

玉徽光彩滅 The lustre of the jade nodes of vibration has been extinguished

朱弦塵土生 On the red strings, a layer of dust has formed

廢棄來已久 Already long discarded, despised and rejected

遺音尚泠泠 Its remnant sound is still mellifluous

不辭爲君彈 Not spurning to be played for a refined audience

縱彈훙꼇聽 Even if, when played, no one listens

縱彈人不聽 Which objects have caused this parlous state to arise?

羌笛與秦箏 The bamboo flute of the Qiang barbarians, the zheng of the uncouth Qin!

Bai Juyi’s knowledge of the qin is evidently equally intimate: he is aware of the materials from which the strings and soundbox are made, even to the extent of the colour of the strings, and also details the function and placement of the hui nodes of vibration that measure out the positions on the strings where the characteristic harmonics are created. Deeply familiar with and fond of the qin’s timbre, he gives it as “mellifluous” and, as the instrument of the Confucian scholar, appropriately suggests it should be played only “for a refined audience”. Yet it remains a central component of a cultural heritage stretching back into the world of the ancients and “in whose core resides a sound of deep antiquity”.

No one is interested! The music currently in vogue is perhaps just that heard by Cen Shen in Luntai Fort, though now represented as garish and uncouth: the very same Qiang flute as well as the zheng zither of Qin (modern Shaanxi province). Conversely, however, Bai Juyi’s espousal of his discarded qin as a repository of ancient Chinese lore and custom is in fact historically incorrect. Modern archaeological excavations have revealed that the ancient qin barely resembled its Tang dynasty descendant, and the mentions of it in The Book of Songs 詩經 that Confucius himself is said to have edited and that Bai Juyi would have studied do not refer to the later incarnation that the latter played.

Most probably, the central theme of The Discarded Qin is a more general sense of nostalgia for that which was once treasured but has since been discarded, or that which is redolent of the experience of many generations and has been supplanted by the newfangled aggression of recent fashion. These are the steps down to the canteen of the Royal Academy of Music worn away by generations of musicians set against whatever the avant-garde happens to be force-feeding them with. Perhaps feelings of this sort are only engendered by the onset of the twilight of one’s years, but they ring with the grudging despair of the music teacher forced to train his or her pupils in modern fads at the expense of a deeper cultural experience, or the fear that the subtleties of language, whether Chinese or English, will not survive the onslaught of those whose limited maturity confirms they have yet to experience them. To view such thought patterns as merely “conservative” would, however, be to undervalue them and to streamline them simply into distrust and disgust of the new. Bai Juyi is expressing more than that: he is exhorting those who peddle the Qiang flute and Qin zheng simply to leave him alone, as for him simply to observe the accretions of dust on the qin strings is enough.

Benjamin Britten included the Bai Juyi poem cited here as the second in his cycle for voice and guitar entitled Songs from the Chinese (Op. 58) that was composed in 1957, and the translation he chose was by Arthur Waley. For him too, in mid-career and already highly successful, he is inexorably drawn across all six poems in the set into Bai Juyi’s fear of a new and alien sound-world and its accompanying cultural zeitgeist. Undoubtedly, all the protagonists in this tale, Bai Juyi, Waley, Britten and also us as readers, are on the side of the qin: all long to be part of a movement that will pick it up again, purify it of the mould of disuse, and allow it, as with all rich musical traditions, to give forth its true voice once more.

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.