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Early Chinese Music, Ritual, and Performance Review Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

Introduction

China is unique among the great cultures of the world in the degree to which its civilization was identified with its craft products. For the ancient Romans, China was Seres, “the land of silk.” In early modern Europe, “China” was as likely to refer to Chinaware porcelains as to their country of origin. There is good reason for this, because Chinese productivity and technical excellence in many crafts were unrivaled for centuries or even millennia. Ceramic production and the carving of the hardstones known collectively as jade are part of the earliest horizons of Chinese cultures in the Neolithic period, and the products of these activities have been made continuously in large numbers, sometimes approaching an industrial scale, down to the present. Chinese silks were prized luxury items for both domestic and international consumption for nearly two millennia. Chinese lacquerware factories employed an early version of mass production more than two thousand years ago (Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, 1985, p. 21).

Like Chinese silks, Chinese poetry and painting were also were very important for ancient Chinese. One of the most straightforward ways of integrating poetry and painting was the illustration of poetic texts. An important example is the handscroll illustration of the scholar-official Su Shi Second Prose-Poem on the Red Cliff. It was painted in the early twelfth century by one Qiao Zhongchang, a follower of the major literati painter Li Gonglin, who was in turn an associate of Su Shi, and it thus embodies the taste of that group of literary men. The painting is explicitly literary, with passages of Su Shi’s text inscribed at irregular intervals amid the illustrative scenes. The ink monochrome painting on paper uses old fashioned devices such as hieratically scaled figures, maplike architectural compounds, and geometrically stylized cliffs to distinguish itself from more technically sophisticated court styles. The emphasis on rhythmic brushwork, rather than on effects of representational illusionism, is another feature which foreshadows later literati painting. Modifications of scale and the idiosyncratic shaping of tree and cliff forms are aimed at conveying the emotional tone of the poem (Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, 1985, p. 47).

Chinese Rituals

First of all it would be necessary emphasize, that the rituals of early China are sometimes described in its poetry, and verses and rhymes are an integral part of almost any ritual. That is why, in order to understand poetry more clearly, it is necessary to regard some spiritual rituals (Lothar von Falkenhausen, 1988, p. 93).

Certain critics consider the “Nine Songs” the oldest texts in the anthology, and the standard story about them is that they are literati reworkings of verses from shamanic rituals. There is as yet no firm basis for either of these claims. The poems do center largely on union, ritualized or not, with a set of deities, and touch on themes of the evanescence of time, the difficulty of being together, and the sadness of separation. Unlike “Encountering Sorrow” and related poems, the “Nine Songs” are not unified by a single poetic voice. Shifts in viewpoint are frequent—from participant to observer, from suitor to the one sought after. Unions pass in a flash or are veiled in such mystery that it is not clear that they have occurred at all. The “Nine Songs” share with “Encountering Sorrow” a rich and exotic botanical image bank. Although most of the poems in the anthology use this imagery in the manner of “Encountering Sorrow,” where flowers and gems stand for the outer adornment of an inner cultivation, the rich accretion of botanical excess also works to create a specific imagistic quality. “Shan kuei” (Mountain Goddess), for example, is full of dark, shade-dwelling medicinal plants. The image systems, shamanic references, shift of voice, and manipulation of time give the “Nine Songs” considerable power, and readers can return to them again and again for a brush with the otherworldly (Lothar von Falkenhausen, 1988, p. 115).

Yüeh-fu (ballad) verse is formally a kind of ku-t’i poetry but is usually treated separately. The most familiar sort adopts titles and affiliated themes from earlier yüeh-fu, producing (in the best case) individual variations or (in less satisfying cases) literary exercises on traditional topics. Most yüeh-fu are written in standard pentasyllabic or heptasyllabic lines, but some poets most notably Li Po also make use of mixed line lengths, ranging from trisyllabic to enneasyllabic and even decasyllabic, in a single poem. The so-called new (hsin) yüeh-fu created by Po Chü-yi and others in the early ninth century was an attempt to reinvigorate the tradition by introducing into it topics of contemporary social and political concern. Another type of yüeh-fu is that commissioned for performance at designated official and court rituals. These poems were typically accompanied by music (now lost), thus continuing in the tradition of the original yüeh-fu of Han times. The most often employed meter in such ceremonial lyrics is tetrasyllabic, presumably because of the archaic and classical associations of the four-beat line. Performative yüeh-fu verse from the T’ang has been largely ignored by scholars, but it offers insights into the more formal productions of court poets as well as into the workings of court ritual itself (Creel, Herrlee Glessner, 1937, p. 52).

Zhao hun (Summoning the soul)

Zhao hun which presumably derives from a rite for the dead, a reference to the ten suns of the Mulberry Tree tradition is used to signify a region beyond that where men – or even the souls of the dead – may dwell. Similarly, the Tian wen or ‘Heavenly questions’ asks several questions which refer to the Fu Sang myth in an enigmatic form. One refers to the suns travelling from the Tang Valley to Meng Si the ‘Stream of Darkness’ (also mentioned in the Huainanzi as the resting place of the setting sun) and asks, “from brightness until darkness, how many miles is (the sun’s) journey?” 63 Another, “When Xihe has not yet risen, how do the Ruo Flowers glow?” And also, in reference to the myth of Archer Yi shooting the suns, “Why did Yi shoot the suns? Why did the ravens shed their feathers?” (Creel, Herrlee Glessner, 1937, p. 236).

The different in usage between tu and fang suggests that whereas tu were real lands to the north, south, east and west of the Shang from whom they received harvest grain, the fang were primarily important as spiritual entities. The fang or quadrates may have overlapped with real lands, but the term referred primarily to spirit lands, the homes of the winds with power over rain and harvest (Creel, Herrlee Glessner, 1937, p. 96).

This impression that the four quadrates were spirit lands is confirmed by later textual tradition. In the Chuci Zhao hun. , the ‘Summons of the Soul’ the dead or dying man is called back from each of the four quadrates by Wu Yang, the ‘ sorcerer’ Yang:

Oh soul, come back! Why leave your old home and go to the four quadrates (si fang )? Leaving your happy abode, you shall meet with misfortune.
Oh soul, come back! You cannot lodge in the Eastern quadrate. There are giants there, tall as a thousand men, who seek souls. The ten suns rise from there one by one; they melt metal and liquify stone. There, everyone is accustomed to it, but you, soul, would surely dissipate. Come back! You cannot dwell there!
Oh soul, come back! In the Southern quadrate you cannot bide. They tattoo their foreheads and blacken their teeth. They use human meat for sacrifice and make a broth of the bones. There are masses of vipers and a great fox who can leap a thousand miles. And an enormous python with nine heads who darts back and
forth, swallowing men to satisfy his appetite. Come back! You cannot wander long there.
Oh soul, come back! The horror of the Western quadrate is drifting sands for a thousand miles. They swirl around and enter the Thunder Abyss; they grind everything down and cannot be stopped. And if, by chance, you should escape, a world of desolation is beyond. The red ants are like elephants and the dark wasps like jugs.(Chuci Tongshi, 1975. p.113).
Having called the soul back from the four quadrates, Wu Yang then turns to the land above, Heaven, and to the underworld, here called You Du , the ‘Dark City’.
Oh soul, come back! Do not climb up to the sky. There are tigers and leopards at the nine gates which snap at men from the world below and cause them harm. There is a man with nine heads who can pluck up nine thousand trees. He looks about like a ravenous wolf, pacing to and fro. He hangs men for amusement and tosses them into the deep abyss.
Oh soul, come back! Do not descend into the Dark City. The body of the Lord of the earth is twisted nine times and his horns are very sharp… He has three eyes, a tiger head and the body of an ox.
The other ‘summons’ poem in the Chuci, the Da zhao, ‘Great Summons’ is very similar to the Zhao hun, but it only includes the four quadrates.

In the ‘Summons of the Soul’ the four quadrates partake of the characteristics of the directions in which they lie–the north is cold, the south is hot and has tattooed men,… – but they are clearly lands in which human beings cannot survive, inhuman and full of monsters. Like the sky above and the underworld below with which they are combined in this text, they are lands of the imagination (Lai, 1971, p. 63).

Conclusion

The Chinese rendered ghanta as da lingduo “large bells.” The late Neolithic ling was a small bell with an internal clapper, intended for suspension by means of the loop in its crown. It would be attached, for instance, to a shaman’s belt, and later to horse-and-chariot gear and to canopy curtains. Subsequent types of ling, however, appear to have been handheld. The duo, dating possibly from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1700-1040 B.C.E.), was a hand-held clapper-bell with a cylindrical shank. Lothar von Falkenhausen, Suspended Music Chime-Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China depicts pairs of small, hand-held bells attached with a cord running through the loop in their crown and struck together are described in Tang-period literature, where they are called pengling, shuanling, etc (Keung, Wai, 2004, p. 306)

Works Cited

Hawkes David, Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

Lothar von Falkenhausen, “Niuzhong Chime-bells of Eastern Zhou China,” Arts Asiatiques 44 (1989): 69.

Lothar von Falkenhausen, “Ritual Music in Bronze Age China: An Archaeological Perspective” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Univ., 1988), 316-20, 471-72.

Chaves, Jonathan. “Wu Li (1632-1718) and the First Chinese Christian Poetry.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 122.3 (2002): 506

Creel, Herrlee Glessner. Studies in Early Chinese Culture. Baltimore, MD: Waverly Press, 1937.

Keung, Timothy Wai. “Restoration of a Poetry Anthology by Wang Bo.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.3 (2004): 493

Lai, C.M. “The Art of Lamentation in the Works of Pan Yue: “Mourning the Eternally Departed.”.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 114.3 (1994): 409

Rexroth, Kenneth. One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. New York: New Directions, 1971

Chuci Tongshi. Ancient Chinese poems. Renmin chubanshe 1975

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