Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.

Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.

Suite plucking
After Liberation, cultural cadres gave misleading names to many folk genres (cf. here, and for the “songs-for-winds”, here). The recreational chamber repertoire known since the 1950s as the “thirteen suites for strings” (xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套) was simply known as “suite plucking” (tantao 彈套). [1]

Often valorized by a narrow association with the Manchu court elite, it turns out to belong to a wider circle of folk activity (and here we may detect echoes of the hype surrounding the Zhihua temple). Indeed, it’s not useful to draw a clear line between folk and elite musical cultures in China—for a detailed instance, see this comparison of a qin piece and a shawm suite.

The social and cultural life of the late Qing is a rich topic, little explored in relation to these suites. I learn much from a 2013 article by Zhang Weidong 张卫东, stalwart of the amateur narrative-singing clubs around Beijing. Among many sources, he cites Jin Shoushen 金受申, Lao Beijingde shenghuo 老北京的生活—just the fascinating kind of social detail also found in the work of Chang Renchun on the customary and ritual life of old Beijing.

As part of his broad cultural education Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 爱新觉罗毓峘 (1930–2003), descendant of the Qing imperial family, learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 in Japanese-occupied Beijing with the former palace eunuch Luo Defu 羅德福, and later with blind musicians Wang Xianchen 王宪臣 and Zhang Songshan 张松山. He expanded on this background in several interviews, including articles in Renmin yinyue 1988.9 and 1990.6. For my visit to him, see here.

Like most musicking in China and worldwide, the genre wasn’t dependent on notation: indeed, it was largely an oral tradition. And again it illustrates the continuum between folk and art musics: it now tends to be associated with the Manchu–Mongolian nobility, but they learned this repertoire as patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers (menxianr 門先 or gumu 瞽目) whom they invited to their mansions. Blind musicians are important in local social life, such as shawm players and bards (and, further afield, in Ukraine—formerly), and the menxianr were major players in the Beijing narrative-singing scene.


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

In the mid-19th century [2] a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.

Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.

By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:

  • Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.

This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:

  • Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.

Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai雪齋 (1893–1966, also a scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. [3]

In 1963 Aisin Gioro Yuhuan was invited to teach at the Beijing conservatoires, but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (cf. Daoust drum master Zhu Qinfu: my Folk music of China, pp.255–6). By 1985 he had hardly played sanxian for over thirty years, but he now worked closely with Tan Longjian to recreate the style of the Xiansuo beikao suites. She went on to publish separately the results of their work on the sanxian parts:

  • Tan Longjian 谈龙建, Qing gu gongwangfu yinyue: Aisin Gioro Yuhuan sanxian chuanpu 清故恭王府音乐: 爱新觉罗·毓峘三弦传谱 (1988), with a useful introduction by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

Rong Zhai had given individual parts for each instrument, spelling out their heterophony. By contrast, when melodies of instrumental ensembles were notated, it was invariably in a single gongche skeletal outline, with the realizations on particular instruments left to the taste and experience of the musicians. This was evidently so for these suites too: the score was an isolated instance of documentation in what remained an oral tradition.

In one case Rong Zhai even gave a “full score” with all the parts aligned—perhaps a unique instance in traditional notation:


Xiansuo beikao, opening of Shiliuban. From Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian, vol.4 (1955).

Still, as in all traditions of musicking around the world, performance requires practical experience of learning with a master; and this applies even when notation is available.

The suites consist of sequences of melodies, though titles within the suites are not always given. The repertoire overlaps with that of shengguan ritual wind ensembles such as Haiqing 海青 and Pu’an zhou 普安咒, widely performed both in the temples of old Beijing and among amateur ritual associations in the countryside nearby and further afield. It was on these rural groups, still active, that I came to focus; and here too, I learned that one’s field of study must be far broader than “instrumental music“.

Changing society
As I often note for ritual studies too, scholars tend to favour reified documents, at the expense of changing social context.

Well before the Communist revolution of 1949, the social system had been changing along with the demise of the imperial system in 1911. But when musicologists began transnotating the suites in the early 1950s, there were still some musicians who recalled playing them—like Aisin Gioro Yuhuan, indeed. How I wish Yang Yinliu and his colleagues had managed to record them then, like their 1953 Zhihua temple recordings (playlist #14, with commentary here). According to Cao Anhe (1981) the MRI did indeed record four or five suites played by the great blind sanxian player Wang Xianchen (for whom, see again Zhang Weidong’s article). By 1950 Wang must have been at least 80 years old, but alas these recordings appear to have been lost. I’ll save another surviving recording for further below.

QYDWhat did persist in Beijing, both before and since the Cultural Revolution, was the amateur narrative-singing scene—a must for any aficionados of The dream of the red chamber, by the way. Some instrumental pieces are still played there as preludes or interludes, but the suite repertoire didn’t survive. Anyway, it’s another of the pleasures of Beijing musical life, less well publicized than the indie/punk scene there.

In the 1990s, between fieldtrips in Hebei, I enjoyed visits to a little hutong in Xinjiekou for the weekly gatherings at the house of the late great Qian Yadong 钱亚东 (right, in 1995—then aged 85!).

Jixian chengyun

Sihu, pipa and sanxian players (the latter blind—long rare at such gatherings) at Qian Yadong’s house, 1995.

Belated recordings
With the renewed vigour of the 1980s, the Central Conservatoire in Beijing organized students to perform the suites on the basis of the 1950s’ transnotations, consulting Aisin Gioro Yuhuan and Cao Anhe.

I’ve given some instances of the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire, and here’s another. While well-intentioned, these reified conservatoire recordings can hardly capture the more traditional mood of the earlier masters. Of course, young conservatoire students were not only learning from prescriptive modern notation, but belonged to another aesthetic world to that of the itinerant blind performers and the Qing nobility—and even to that of their own conservatoire teachers, many of whom (including masters like Yang Yinliu, Cao Anhe, Yang Dajun, Cao Zheng) had been brought up in a traditional aesthetic. Even the instruments, and their strings, would have been different.

You can find the conservatoire recordings in a YouTube playlist from David Badagnini (note also the Chinese documentary to which he refers):

So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,

After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.

We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite Correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:

* * *

Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.

These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8).

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. And in ch.12 of my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei I introduced the “little pieces” of Yulin city—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.

The question remains, why amateur folk activity in those chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the Maoist and reform eras, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, whereas in the north most amateur string ensembles seem to have become musical casualties of the revolution.

* * *

So while a narrow musicological approach tends to encourage reification, the study of “suite plucking” should lead us to the cultures of late imperial Beijing, both folk and elite; and to the voluminous sources on the whole history of vocal music.

What such research doesn’t spell out is that entertainment has moved on: the social milieu in which the plucking suites were performed before 1911 has long ceased to exist. The current Beijing elites no longer play along with itinerant blind musicians! Of course, the 1980s’ project on the suites was not seeking to reinvigorate them as a form of social life; they came to form part of the nostalgic re-imagining of the imperial past, quite removed from society. So this yet again confirms my reservations about recreating early music for genres whose performing traditions have been lost. As with any musicking worldwide (including WAM, such as Bach or Haydn), we need to study changing performance practice in social context, and reception history.

Ritual activity, however, persists in China. The rosy reification of imperial culture may distract us from the ethnography of groups that have remained active through the tribulations of the 20th century, and from the enduring importance of living soundscapes as part of changing social activity.

Lastly, even where we can distinguish between folk and elite cultures, there is nothing “superior” about the latter, either in China or elsewhere!


[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12.

[2] Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.

[3] Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. One day I’ll write about his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music” there.

10 thoughts on “Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

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