Music & Prosody in Late Imperial China

A review of Resonant Readings: Musicality in Early Modern Chinese Adaptations of Traditional Poetic Forms, by Kevin Conrad Schoenberger, Jr.

This ambitious study focuses on details of music and prosody in late imperial China qu performance, with a focus on famed playwrights and drama critics such as Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593) and Wang Jide 王驥德 (?–1623). A few key concepts are central to this study. The first is resonance: drama critics like Wang Jide adapt song lyrics (ci 詞) as surfaces, or templates, in order to evoke, from both audience and reader, sensory impressions of the physical body and physicality of performers with different divides in social class. Late imperial Chinese plays were also designed to “resonate” with the many aural qualities inscribed in musical and prosodic information. In terms of audience anticipation, psychological qualia is a term useful for exploring how musical melodies and rhymes, as well as linguistic accents and tones, shaped the experience of poetry meant to be sung. Ultimately, the poetic and musical ornament and artistry developed by these musicologically adept poets and playwrights contributed to the late Ming cultural life what could be best characterized as a sense of hybridity: the surplus of material culture and concomitant anxiety over expressive authenticity point to a hybridized tradition holding multiple modalities in one.

Chapter one provides what is very likely the first study in English on Xu Wei’s yongwu fu 詠物賦 (rhapsodies on things). Xu Wei turns this ancient literary form into a medium to explore the grey area between the issue of surplus and excess in the context of the flourishing material culture in late Ming. The topics of many of Xu’s fu lend themselves well for marketing—flowers that are stock motifs in art albums, as well as savored social performances such as wandering among flowers under the moon in inebriation. Yet in his writing, Xu is not only able to stave off any immediate association with monetary incentive, he also personalizes the market by showing how real art was the product of a surplus of sentiments rather than an indulgence in material excess. The second part of the chapter discusses Xu’s “philosophy fu.” In his rhapsodization of the “real” Xu Wei, the poet adopts a rhetorical pattern akin to what Qiancheng Li has identified to be “Mahāyāna paradox” (Qiancheng Li, Fictions of Enlightenment: Journey to the West, Tower of Myriad Mirrors, and Dream of the Red Chamber. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004, pp. 35–43) and what Wai-yee Li calls the dynamics of disenchantment through enchantment (Enchantment and Disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993): much like the Buddhist scriptures such as Huayan jing 華嚴經, a fu 賦 bombards the senses of the reader/listener into a kind of “hypnosis” or religious trance. As Schoenberger points out, it is precisely Xu Wei’s reconciliation of popular, “vulgar” marketable elements with the tradition of the literary amateur idea of “poetry bespeaks intention” (shi yan zhi 詩言志) that gives his work unique qualities.

Chapter two borrows Jonathan Hay’s concept of “sensuous surfaces” (Sensuous Surfaces: the Decorative Object in Early Modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010) to discuss the “surface” level of form (prosody, vocal ornament techniques) that may have been the “layer” of the late Ming arias which best facilitated a deep connection between the writer and reader and the performer and listener. Already in the Yuan Dynasty, qu was a form more tightly bound to the phonetic and prosodic qualities of poetry, while early Southern tunes more directly inherited the tradition of Song ci which were likely more melody-based. Concomitant with the general standardization and codification of qu songs over the course of the fourteenth till the seventeenth centuries, there was an increasingly subtle awareness in the field of qu theory of musicological concepts and the physical, phonological aspects of enunciation. Authors well versed in music used their enhanced awareness of linguistic subtlety to nuance their dramatic presentations of an array of phenomena, such as social class, education level, gender, and moral quality. Wang Jide, for example, articulated a set of tonal values for late Ming qu singing by turning qupai 曲牌 (aria matrices) into a template that allowed a literal as well as figurative resonance with the bodies of artistic forebears and the characters they imagined. In an act that cites from a range of Tang poems, Wang Jide set the poems to metered tune, as metered southern songs occupied a more stylized, rarefied emotional and dramatic register than sanban 散板 (un-metered qu) and binbai 賓白 (stylized speech). Furthermore, he also assigned arias from the northern zaju 雜劇 play Xixiang ji 西廂記 (The Western Chamber) to the chou 丑 (clown) role types, whose singing from what was considered a vulgar play (that is, Xixiang ji) forms a mirror-like structure whereby the metered but relatively languorous four-verse nanqu duet in yudiao 羽調 (the yu tune, equivalent to C minor) contrasts against the high, relatively quick and speech-like beiqu 北曲 (northern songs) aria in the zhonglü 中呂 key (equivalent to F major). The “double-voiced” nature of this act—the comedic contrast between these two sorts of fictional bodies—amounts to another manifestation of the late Ming surplus: different genres and linguistic registry came to function more as different modalities within one “hybridized” tradition, rather than an occupying discreet historical-social enclaves.

The first part of Chapter three traces the generic history of ci and the tradition’s musical qualities. Jueju 絕句 (quatrains) in the Tang originally developed as lyrics for the Six Dynasties qingyue 清樂 (augmented [mediant] music). Whereas ci, based partially on popular music as well as court performances, offered hundreds of different patterns and demanded a greater understanding of musicality on the part of the lyricist. The southern Song ci master Jiang Kui 姜虁 (1155–1221) used the yanyue 燕樂 (banquet song) system of modality to provide a clearly defined modal system with an ancient pedigree for early modern nanqu songs, which, unlike beiqu, did not originally have its own lineage, according to Xu Wei and others. Although the yanyue system underwent various mutations—especially with the shift from the weidiao shi 為調式 method that takes huangzhong 黃鐘 as shang 商 to the zhidiao shi 之調式 method that takes huangzhong as gong 宮 (tonic) and shang as cadencing note, practice remained consistent. Virtually all Ming dramatists and poets adopted Jiang Kui’s system, and their modal choices must be taken into consideration when one contemplates the aesthetic effects of late medieval ci or an early modern qu. Wang Jide, for example, adapted an un-metered ci in the xianlü 仙呂 key (F in western musical terminology) to a metered qu in the shuangdiao 雙調 mode (also key of F), turning the nanqu performance into an “echo” or “shadow” of an old piece in the ci tradition with new and interesting variations.

The second part of Chapter three proceeds to examine how sixteenth-century literati, working in concert with Wei Liangfu 魏良輔 (1489–1566), developed a tone-based method of melodic ornament and elaboration on the basis of Tang jinti shi 近體詩 (recent-style poetry) and ci concept of tonal prosody, transforming the non-dramatic singing style of kunqu 崑曲 into the preferred method of enactment for late imperial drama. Towards the late imperial time, ci performance underwent a progressive loss of tempo. When Wang Jide adapted a southern Song ci lyric, he switched to a qu matrix by indicating where pitches fell within a pre-established framework that was heavily influenced by prosody. Compared to the ci matrix, the dianban 點板 was a more sophisticated system of notation, because it allowed for greater separation between prosody, melody, and musical rhythm. Making maximum use of dianban 點板 rhythmic notations, the kunqu singing style developed into a system of melodic elaboration on the basis of tone. For most imperial writers, kunqu was not a repertoire of melodies, but a method of singing that observed fixed rhythmic schemes on top of melodic elaborations. According to Zhang Dafu 張大復 (ca. 1554–1630), Wei Liangfu developed the kunqu style into a set of vocal ornamentation techniques that created a harmonious relation between the linguistic pitches and a pre-determined melodic elaboration which developed in the Kunshan 崑山 area. Shen Jing’s 沈璟 (1553–1610) esteemed compilation Nanci xinpu 南詞新譜 (New aria manual of the southern songs), which was based on Jiang Xiao’s 蔣孝 (jinshi 1544) Jiugong 九宮 (nine keys) and Shisandiao 十三調 (thirteen modes) manuals, didn’t seem to give much information on melodies. Yet for musicologically literate readers like Wang Jide, the seemingly elliptical manual provides a variety of information: a melodic register and framework in the gongdiao 宮調 (keys and modes), a set of rhythmic framework in the dianban, a grammatical framework in the notation marks, a pronunciation guide with the indication of closed-mouth finals and the like, and a guide to the melodic contours in the form of the tonal markers. The historical development of the Kunqu style indicates that, even though the ci was not a popular genre during the lives of Xu Wei, Wang Jide, and Shen Jing, it nonetheless provided a major contribution to the refinement of the chuanqi 傳奇 drama style and the Kunqu singing style.

Chapter four discusses Xu Wei’s two zaju plays in his Sisheng yuan 四聲猿 (Four cries of the gibbon) collection, “Kuanggu shi Yuyang sannong” 狂鼓史漁陽三弄 (The mad drummer’s three plays on the Yuyang drum) and “Yu chanshi cuixiang yimeng” 玉禪師翠鄉一夢 (Zen Master Jade’s single dream of willow green). Catharsis is arguably the major affective quality of Wu Wei’s Sisheng yuan, both in the sense of the author’s own catharsis, and in the sense of the effect a reading or viewing of the play might have on an audience. While “The Mad Drummer” describes a cathartic process that eventually cures Mi Heng 彌衡 (173–198), the protagonist, of physical and psychological pain, “Zen Master Jade” instantiates a failed cursing catharsis due to the protagonist’s moral failure. Satiric catharsis is different from tragic catharsis in that the media of catharsis entail not so much sorrowful laments as curse, jeers, and laughter at the absurd or fantastic, and both plays indeed foreground the physical aspect of satiric catharsis.

The musical structure of “The Mad Drummer” describes a cathartic process, followed by a shift from anger to joy that corresponds to Mi Heng’s forgiveness of Cao Cao 曹操 (155–220). The “micro-suites” that lead to the play-within-a-play conceit mark a musical shift from a mood of questioning and irritation to one of relative calm and resolution. And the kopuz interlude characterized by a carnivalesque inversion mimics the sounds of instruments to foreshadow another cycle of free rhythm pieces that increase in tempo to eventually shift from the xianlü mode to zhonglü mode (an upward shift of a perfect fifth), a denouement that culminates with the success of Mi Heng’s satiric catharsis. By contrast, “Zen Master Jade” stages a cursing soliloquy in the first act that fails at its cathartic function due to the morally compromised position of the singer, Monk Yutong 玉通 who had succumbed to the prostitute Honglian’s 紅蓮 seduction. In act two, a healing, musical re-enactment of the trauma of act one helps the protagonist rediscover an ineffable sort of “true self” that Xu Wei invokes in his philosophy fu. In a set of North-South combination suites in which the Southern style is generally associated with the soothing, the familiar, and the literary, while the Northern style tends to evoke strong emotions, the exotic, and the martial, Xu Wei adds his own twist to the tradition of the deliverance play by turning the two styles into a mirror structure: the singing has the musical qualities of a conversation, but only one person is “speaking.” As the first act vacillates between mode-keys and singing styles in a manner that reflects the protagonist’s own internal turmoil, Yutong becomes more heavily enmeshed in illusion than when he first appeared in the play. The second act, by re-enacting the failed curse soliloquy in a therapeutic repetition, challenges the idea of the perfected body as a kind of vessel that must be filled with vital fluids that cannot be allowed to leak. Instead, by having Liucui 劉翠, the reincarnation of Yutong, smeared with bodily fluid (spit) in a moment of sudden enlightenment, the play not only validates the sense of body embedded in the world of exchange, but also, on a symbolic level, addresses the question of popular versus literary theater—the essence of theater is not a work of literary refinement to be enjoyed in a quiet study; rather, it finds its “true color” in the messy, crowded marketplace of smells and noise.

“Resonant Readings” provides ground-breaking insights in many respects. It is to my knowledge the first attempt in English scholarship to historicize drama theories developed by late Ming literati such as Xu Wei, Wang Jide, and Shen Jing. Not only does the research make Chinese musical theories accessible to western readers accustomed to western musical terminology, it also clarifies connections between historical phonology and musicology. With its critical insights on a body of text as a significant part of cultural production of the late Ming that remained understudied, “Resonant Readings” contributes much to the field on late imperial Chinese literature and culture.

Ling Xiaoqiao
Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

Primary Sources 

Shen Jing 沈璟 (1553–1610). Nanci xinpu 南詞新譜 [New Manual of Southern Lyrics]. Edited by Shen Zijin 沈自晉 (1583–1665). Vol. 12. Beijing: Zhongguo shudian, 1985.
Wang Jide 王驥德 (?–1623). Wang Jide Qu Lü 王驥德曲律 [Wang Jide’s The Gamut of Aria Composition]. Annotated by Chen Duo 陳多 and Ye Changhai 葉長海. Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe, 1983.
____. Han furen Tihong ji 韓夫人題紅記 [Lady Han Inscribes Red]. Guben xiqu congkan 古本戲曲叢刊二集 [Ancient Edition Drama Texts Collectanea], vol. 2. Guben xiqu cong kan Editorial Board 古本戲曲叢刊編輯委員會, 1955, Vol. 40, Part one.
Xiangyue ju Guqu Sanren 香月居顧曲散人 [Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574–1646)], ed. Taixia xinzou 太霞新奏 [New Performances amongst Distant Clouds]. In Shanben xiqu congkan 善本戲 曲叢刊 [Collectanea of Rare Theater Texts], Vol. 5, no. 4. Edited by Wang Qiugui 王秋桂 et. al. Taipei: xuesheng shuju, 1988.
Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593). Nanci xulu zhushi 南詞敘錄註釋 [Annotated Describing and Recording Southern Lyrics]. Edited by Li Fubo 李復波 and Xiong Chengyu 熊澄宇. In Gudian xiqu lunzhu yizhu congshu 古典戲曲論著譯註叢書 [Collectanea of Classical Theater Writings and Translations]. Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 1989.
____. Xu Wei ji 徐渭集 [Collected Works of Xu Wei]. Vol. 1. In Zhongguo gudian wenxue jiben congshu 中國古典文學基本叢書 [Basic Collectanea of Classical Chinese Literature]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983.

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2013. 443 pp. Primary Advisors: Tina Lu and Pieter Keulemans.

Image: Xu Wei. Wikipedia.

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