Bronze drums are occasionally met in East Asian temples and museums, but their dark colour and imposing appearance can cause the casual scholar to pass them blithely by. Not so the intrepid Jao Tsung-i, who uses them instead to take the reader on a delightful journey through the historic, political, ethnic, and literary currents of south China and the Chinese diaspora of South-East Asia. Their ancient origins are explored, the complexity of their imagery explained, and the rationale behind their dispersal defined: a wealth of primary source material, both artifact and text, is assembled into a tightly knit narrative thread.
Jao Tsung-i’s celebrated essay on the philosophy of the qin comes to its climax in the ground-breaking notion that only when the qin is played without strings or making a sound is its purpose and matter truly understood. The circuitous and detailed route to this destination takes the reader in turn through the social context of qin performance, its moral content, ancient pedigree, repertory organisation, timbral characteristics, and spiritual dimensions. A subject clearly close to his heart, these are where the essence of the qin lies, and citations spill forth in close and persuasive succession, juxtaposing a close mesh of intertwining strands.
Sandwiched between the Tang and Song dynasties, the early tenth century was an unstable and pivotal epoch as short-lived regimes vied unsuccessfully for overall long-term control. From a musical perspective, two trends dominate and form the prevailing undercurrents of all subsequent developments: one is a search for genuine ancient musical practice and its implementation as an aspect of the consolidation of dynastic legitimacy; the other is the emergence and documentation of vernacular musical styles in keeping with the rise of an urban commercial class. This article examines both threads as well as the leeching of musical material between them.
The early genesis of musical compositions is often obscure, the more so the qin with its history of several thousand years. This paper takes important qin pieces whose titles and musical content express the flavour of Buddhist incantations and traces their origin from the very earliest days when Sanskrit texts first entered China to the subsequent dissemination of these documents and the role that the Song dynasty Chan Buddhist master Pu’an played in the process. The pivotal moment is the late Ming dynasty when the evolution of incantation into qin composition occurred, and mention of resultant incantatory elements present in the music is also made. An important undertone throughout is relish in the persistence of a pervasive underlying influence of Sanskrit-derived Buddhist text in Chinese culture.
Many important figures and their writings have come down to the modern era from the ancient Chinese world, but what of those who were clearly well-regarded in contemporary sources but whose writings do not survive? Juanzi was just such a thinker, and Jao Tsung-i pieces together the evidence that remains regarding his philosophy and relationship with the qin, the instrument he used to work out his ideas. The journey spans a rich tapestry of excavated artifact and bamboo slip and passes through numerological classification to later citation. At its heart is a search for a definition of that most elusive of concepts ‘harmoniousness’ that underpinned so much of early China’s intellectual landscape.
Deciphering Dunhuang manuscripts is a recurring theme in Jao Tsung-i’s work, and this essay concentrates on dance notations and their relationship to music. To give a context, included here are also three introductions, the third of which is a moving account of the death of former student Kuang Qinghuan 鄺慶歡. Jao’s research methodology is to lay out all the relevant sections of text and then to proceed through detailed critical comparisons of lexical repetition and organisation to extract data. This he puts into a framework of citations from related material, and without falling into the trap of over-interpreting, comes to a finely-honed explanation of what these notations mean.
With its multiplicity of short-lived states, the political history of the period between the Tang and Song dynasties in the tenth century is both confusing and convoluted. This essay makes sense of this background in order to give a context to the pipa scores found in Dunhuang that constitute some of the most important early musical notations that survive. The principal sources that Jao Tsung-i deploys are the Dunhuang manuscripts themselves with which he was evidently intimately familiar. To add contemporary drama to his narrative, a strong subtext is acerbic dissection of opinions on the topic put forward by fellow scholar He Changlin 何昌林.
A paper about Buddhist chants rather than the instrument the qin, it takes as its starting point a stray mention of these intoning practices buried deep in Buddhist bibliography. The journey is both musical and etymological and delves into Indian, Central Asian, and Chinese melodies and modes as well as equivalent linguistic transmission. The focus is on the interregnum between the Han and Tang dynasties when Buddhism first exerted its influence in China and seminal translations of Sanskrit scripture into Chinese were made, many of which Jao Tsung-i cites. For the musician, the key question that emerges is whether there is evidence of an early relationship between Chinese pentatonicism and Indian scales.