Musical Life in the Tang Dynasty

Peter Lo | April 2020 | Hong Kong

Extant Chinese history and literature give a picture of a highly developed cultural and social life in the Tang Dynasty (AD618-906).

Music was an integral part of that life.  Contemporary personages had left us vivid accounts of musical performances and musicians.  Regrettably, the sound of the music has not survived as a living tradition in any identifiable form, though a large number of musical lyrics have survived to the present day, assimilated into Chinese culture.

It is now difficult to form accurate ideas as to how they were sung, but the lyrics as poetry have an intrinsic musical quality, and it is as poetry that they have endured through so many centuries.  Poetry probably began life as words for singing, and in time it acquired an independent existence with its own forms and conventions, but musicality has always been an essential element of poetic effect.

Many Tang Dynasty poets have achieved immortality through their surviving poems.  Musical sounds are much more difficult to preserve, and musicians have lamented that sound recording had not been invented earlier so that they could actually hear their illustrious predecessors, instead of having to desperately imagine what they actually sounded like.

Notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of musical sound, musicians have been noticed in historical accounts and the literature of the Tang Dynasty.

A celebrated musician of the dynasty was Li Guinian (李龜年) whose career coincided with the reign of the emperor Xuanzong (玄宗), who lived from 685-762.  He received at least two mentions.  He was the lead musician at a soiree of the emperor, an event of great elegance and refinement.  He was also the subject matter of a poem by Du Fu (杜甫) (712-770) who met him in very different circumstances late in the reign of Xuanzong.

Emperor Xuanzong was a man of taste and culture.  His reign saw the Tang Dynasty at its height as well as its catastrophic decline owing to internal strife and insurrection.  At the height of his reign there was peace and prosperity.  One evening he was invited to view at a pavilion in the palace new strains of the peony flower which had just been successfully developed.  The new strains were of four colours: red, purple, light red and white.

Xuanzong was accompanied by his favourite consort Yang Yuhuan (楊玉環) also known by her title of Yang Guifei (楊貴妃) (Imperial Consort Yang).  On the occasion Li Guinian was in attendance with sixteen choice musicians of the Pear Garden Academy (梨園).

Xuanzong was asked by the master of music to appoint the musical programme for the evening.  He replied: “On such a salubrious occasion, we should not be repeating old lyrics”. Xuanzong then commanded that Li Bai (李白) (701-762), then a young court appointed scholar noted for his literary talent, be summoned to compose fresh lyrics for the appointed music.  In response Li Bai (who was said to have been still under the influence of drink) composed three sets of lyrics (清平調辭三首) idealising and amalgamating the beauty of Yang Guifei (reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history) and the beauty of the flowers, coupled with allusions to ideals of beauty mythical as well as historical.  The result was much commended, and has survived to the present day, and the poems could be found in any anthology of Tang poetry.  However, a rather severe commentator observed that by their nature these lyrics were necessarily sycophantic, and demonstrated an eagerness to win official approbation on the part of the poet!

Unfortunately this elegant lifestyle was soon shattered by an insurrection on the part of An Lushan (安祿山), a regional military commander, and Xuanzong had to flee from the capital (present day Xi’an) heading west towards Sichuan.  In the course of the journey the accompanying troops stalled and demanded the death of the Imperial Consort before they would proceed further.  The demand was presented through the chief eunuch.  Xuanzong asked why they wanted her dead as she was only a woman in the imperial household.  The reply was that since the troops had killed the hated chief minister who was the brother of the Imperial Consort, they feared for their own lives if she remained alive.  Xuanzong felt he had no choice and although deeply grieved he commanded the chief eunuch to strangle the Imperial Consort to appease the troops.  He lamented that even though he was the emperor, he was unable to protect the life of a woman he loved.

The insurrection lasted eight years (755-763) and was ultimately put down.  Before it ended Xuanzong had to abdicate and his son became emperor.  During the insurrection along with Xuanzong many high officials were driven into internal exile.  Some of them followed Xuanzong into Sichuan but a number of them ended up in present day Hunan.  It was in such circumstances and location that Li Guinian received mention in a famous poem of Du Fu.

At gatherings of the exiles Li Guinian would sing for them and bring tears to their eyes as they recalled the old days.  On one such occasion Du Fu met Li Guinian and composed a four-line poem entitled “On meeting Li Guinian in Jiang Nan” (江南逢李龜年).  The poem began with recalling performances by Li in illustrious households in the capital and concluded with a reference to their present meeting in a season of falling blossoms and in a setting of great beauty (but impliedly far from home).

Commentators consider this poem to be a masterpiece in which the entire drama of the decline and fall of a great era is expressed in twenty-eight words.  It also gave the musician Li Guinian a place in history.

A second musician that we come across in Tang Dynasty history and literature was also from the reign of Xuanzong.  This was the singer He Manzi (何滿子) who became famous under unusual circumstances.  This singer lived in what is now a part of Hebei Province.  He had committed a capital offence and was sentenced to death.  There is no record of what he had done, but before the sentence was carried out he offered a vocal composition of his as a plea for his reprieve from the death sentence.  The plea went to Xuanzong who was a music lover but was rejected.  His composition and his unfortunate circumstances subsequently became known to court musicians and they performed the composition under his name.  There is also a reference to the music being used for a dance.  The composition seems to have remained in the repertoire for a number of years and He Manzi continued to remain famous after the reign of Xuanzong.  Several poets of a later Tang period wrote about him, and it is from Bai Juyi (白居易) who was born after the death of Xuanzong that we learn of his plea for a reprieve and its rejection by Xuanzong.  Bai Juyi sounded regretful at Xuanzong’s refusal to reprieve.  Another poet Yuan Zhen (元稹) (779-831) also gave an account of the incident, but recorded a happy ending in which the life of He Manzi was spared.

It is impossible to ascertain which account is the most accurate, but the imagination of poets appears to have been more deeply moved by the tragic version.

In connection with the He Manzi Composition there is a particularly poignant account of a singer who was a favourite of the emperor Wuzong (武宗) (reign 840-846).  Wuzong was ill and asked her what she would do in the event of his death.  Commentators read this as the emperor expressing a wish that she should accompany him in death.  She burst out crying and pointed to the cord binding her musical instrument case, suggesting that it should be used to end her life.  She then offered to sing He Manzi for the emperor to relieve her agitation.  The emperor assented but she died after singing the opening words.

This sad account is alluded to in a number of poems and the name He Manzi has come to symbolise the unfortunate fate of young women brought in to serve in the imperial household, with their lives being wasted in the sterile confines of a palace.

Apart from singers there were also virtuoso instrumentalists in the Tang Dynasty.

An instrumentalist who appeared in two well-known poems was Dong Tinglan (董庭蘭) also referred to as Dong Da (董大).  Dong Da meant Dong the eldest (among siblings) which was a customary form of designation. A poem of Li Qi (李頎) described the profound impact of a performance on the qin (琴) by Dong Da.  A farewell poem by Gao Shi (高適) attested to Dong Da’s fame: the poem contains the famous line that there was no place under heaven where Dong Da was unknown (天下誰人不識君).

But Dong Da was not only a musician, he was also a close associate of Fang Guan (房琯), a high official and sometime chief minister during the reign of the emperor Suzong (肅宗), successor to Xuanzong.  He would appear to have been in a position of some influence because accusations were made that he accepted bribes to facilitate access to Fang Guan.  The accusations went all the way to the emperor and resulted in the dismissal of Fang Guan as chief minister.  Musicians did not always lead a simple life as an artist.

We meet a different kind of musician in Bai Juyi’s narrative poem Pipa Xing (琵琶行).  The protagonist was a female musician entertainer.  She was a native of the capital city, studied at the officially established music academy under famous pedagogues, graduated with fully trained pipa skills at the age of thirteen, and embarked upon a career as a musician and entertainer.  Then followed times filled with revels and rich admirers until she was past her prime, when she became the wife of a provincial merchant.

The poet met her by a chance encounter.  The poet was then in disfavour at court and had been demoted to a provincial posting.  He was seeing off a friend at a river landing when he heard the sound of a pipa across the water.  He recognised the sound as having the tonal qualities of performers in the capital and invited the performer to play for him and his guest.  After some initial reluctance she agreed.  Then followed a vividly described virtuoso performance, after which she narrated the story of her life.

The poem concluded with observations on the melancholy of the situations of the poet and the musician.  They were both sensitive and talented people but neither of them seemed to have a future.  Bai Juyi eventually recovered favour and rose to high positions, but at that point his prospects were bleak.  As for the musician, she had settled into a life far removed from that of a favoured courtesan in the capital city.  Her husband was indifferent to her, caring more for his business than her company.  A chance encounter with a patron who appreciated her art had let loose a gush of emotions.  Her story ended there, though the poem it engendered is still being read today and evoking strong responses.

It can be seen that music was an integral part of life at many different levels of Tang Dynasty society.  We are given fascinating insights into the art and private lives of individuals of the era, and there is a common humanity which reaches to us across the centuries even though in the absence of the musical sounds the medium is confined to words alone.

The subject matter of Capriccio, the final opera composed by Richard Strauss, was a debate between the relative importance of words and music.  Strauss and his librettist Clemens Krauss declined to give an answer at the conclusion of the opera.  In the case of the Tang Dynasty, whether because of historical reasons or otherwise, the words seem to have been the most important