Chinese Early Music from Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Handbooks II7. Marshbank Melody (Zepan Yin; 1425)
The theme of this melody is a poem called The Fisherman (Yu Fu) from the collection “Songs of the South” (Chu Ci). Most of the poems are attributed to Qu Yuan (340?-278 BCE), a scholar-official whose good advice was not heeded. After he was slandered and lost office he committed suicide by drowning himself. The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates this event: long boats would row out into the river and rice cakes would be thrown in to feed Qu Yuan\'s spirit.
This melody, attributed to the XIII century qin master Xu Tianmin, tells of Qu Yuan\'s encounter with a fisherman. Qu Yuan complains that the whole world is dirty and so he is thinking of suicide. The fisherman laughs at him, saying, "When the river water is clean I can wash my hat in it; when it is dirty, I can wash my feet in it."
8. Encountering Sorrow (Li Sao; 1425)
In the famous poem “Encountering Sorrow” Qu Yuan describes a fanciful trip in the sky by a virtuous man slandered by opponents, failed by friends, and disappointed by his sovereign, whom he refers to as Ling Xiu, the Fair One. His adventures include complaining to the mythical emperor Shun, unsuccessfully wooing the beautiful water spirit Fu Fei, hesitating to pursue "the beautiful daughter of Song", and consulting two famous shamans, Ling Fen and Wu Xian. On the last line he speaks of "joining Peng Xian", usually interpreted as following the example of an upright Shang minister who committed suicide. The melody, in 18 sections, is one of the "great pieces" in the qin repertoire.
9. Song Yu Mourns Autumn (Song Yu Bei Qiu; 1549)
Song Yu, a disciple of Qu Yuan, is considered to be the author of a poem in the “Songs of the South” entitled “Nine Arguments” (Jiu Bian). It begins, "Alas for the autumn air! Bleak and cold; plants shake and lose their leaves and petals, falling into decay." Towards the end of the melody there is an imitation of the sound of a string breaking, which seems to summarise the feelings of the melody.
10. Song of Chu (Chu Ge; 1425)
Around 200 BCE there was a dynastic struggle which led to the founding of the Han dynasty. The main antagonists were Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Both were originally from the state of Chu in the southwest of China, but Xiang Yu was more closely connected to it. The night before a crucial battle Liu Bang had his soldiers sing songs of Chu; this made the enemy soldiers homesick, and Liu Bang won the battle. There is a recurring motif in the composition which perhaps suggests the melody of Chu sung before the battle.
Xiang Yu then fled with his wife Yu Ji. At this point he is said to have sung the following lyrics, which can accompany the 6th of the 8 sections of the melody:
”My strength can lift mountains,
and my spirit can encompass society;
But the times are not appropriate,
and (my horse) Zhui is no longer quick;
When Zhui is no longer quick, what can I do?
Alas, Yu Ji; alas, Yu Ji; what can I do?”
Yu Ji then said farewell to Xiang Yu and slit her throat, saying that he would fight better if he didn't have to think of her. He lost the final battle anyway and committed suicide himself.