One to Ten in Tangut and Flute


[Mirrored from]

Musical Performance : Drums, Transverse Flute and Bamboo Clappers

Engraving from a Southern Song tomb at Luojiaqiao 羅家橋 in Guangyuan, Sichuan

During the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the Northern Song (960–1127) the main musical instrument used for the accompaniment of popular songs was the four-stringed lute (pipa 琵琶) (see One to Twenty in Jurchen, Khitan and Lute). However, during the Southern Song (1127–1276) popular songs were more frequently sung to the accompaniment of a flute or other wind instrument. The Southern Song scholar, musicologist and poet, Jiang Kui 姜夔 (c. 1155 – c. 1221), was an aficionado of popular music, and, unlike most of his contemporaries, he wrote lyric poetry for actual musical performance, accompanied by a flute or other wind instrument. Jiang Kui noted that he would often play the end-blown xiao flute while a girl sang his lyrics and beat time by clapping her hands. In addition he would sometimes get his lyrics accompanied by a professional musician playing the bili 觱篥 (a bamboo pipe with a double reed that originated from Kucha) or the mute bili 啞觱篥 (a version of the bili with a reduced resonance box), which he considered to have a finer sound than the xiao flute. Jiang Kui not only wrote lyrics, he also composed the accompanying flute music for some of his lyric poems.

Jiang Kui's lyric poem "Hidden Fragrance" 暗香 with flute notation

Source: Baishi Daoren Gequ 白石道人歌曲 (Sibu Congkan 四部叢刊 vol.1296)

In contrast to Jiang Kui's literary versions of popular music, which only involved two people, popular song performances during the Southern Song and Yuan dynasty generally involved a trio of performers (male or female): one playing a transverse di flute, one playing a drum (usually on a stand, but sometimes suspended around the neck), and one singing whilst beating time with bamboo clappers (拍板). Depictions of such musicians occur in a number of Song and Yuan dynasty tomb murals (e.g. here and here), as well as in Yuan dynasty book illustrations (e.g. here and here).

Popular Yuan dynasty pastimes : Music, Football and Falconry

Source : Shilin Guangji 事林廣記 (1330–1333 ed.) Continuation ch. 7 folio 2

The encyclopedia of popular knowledge, Shilin Guangji 事林廣記 (originally compiled by Chen Yuanjing 陳元靚 during the Southern Song, but extant editions dating from the Yuan and early Ming), incorporates much information on popular music forms, including flute scores for a set of seven tunes:

Set of seven flute tunes set to the Huangzhong-gong mode

Source : Shilin Guangji 事林廣記 (1330–1333 ed.) Continuation ch. 7 folio 10

The system of flute notation used in Shilin Guangji is the same as that used by Jiang Kui, and comprises ten basic signs that are derived by simplification or cursification from Chinese characters. These ten notational signs are listed by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) in his Qinlü Shuo 琴律說, as well as in the History of the Liao (although all of the editions of the History of the Liao that I have seen write the signs as their corresponding Chinese characters), but the only detailed description of this system of flute notation is given by Zhang Yan 張炎 (1248–c.1314) in his treatise on lyric poetry, Source of Lyrics 詞源, written during the Southern Song (parts of Zhang Yan's treatise relating to popular music and flute notation are also included in Shilin Guangji). Zhang Yan's treatise provides a theoretical framework for the form of popular music that uses such flute notation, but this differs significantly from the actual flute music of Jiang Kui and in Shilin Guangji (the system of modes defined by Zhang Yan uses the ten notational signs to represent sixteen notes corresponding to the twelve notes of Chinese classical music and the first four "clear" notes of the higher octave by encircling some of the signs, but encircled signs do not occur in actual flute scores). There are only a very few surviving examples of Song and Yuan dynasty flute scorees that use this system of notation:

The ten basic signs used in the above sources are tablature signs, each representing a particular fingering of the six finger holes of a flute or other wind instrument (with some slight variations the same fingering is used for all such instruments).

Relative Value Notation Sign Chinese Character† Pinyin Fingering‡ Notes
2′ ●●●●●○ An octave above
1′ liù ○●●●●● An octave above
7 fán ○●●○○●
6 gōng ●○○●●●
5 chě ●●○○●●
4 ♯ gōu ●●○●●● The notes gōu and shàng are mutually exclusive, their usage depending on the mode of the tune.
4 shàng ●●●○○●
3 ●●●●○○
2 ●●●●●○
1 ●●●●●●

† Nine of the ten Chinese characters corresponding to these signs are still used today in traditional Chinese musical notation (gongchepu 工尺譜), and some forms of religious and folk music still preserve signs that are the same as those used for Song and Yuan dynasty flute notation. However, the modern gongchepu notation and the notational systems used in religious and folk music are systems of pitch notation, not tablature as was the case for flute notation during the Song and Yuan dynasties.

‡ Fingering is based on the diagram given in Shilin Guangji (see Zhongguo Gudai Yinyue Shiliao Jiyao page 721). Black circles represent closed holes, and white circles represent open holes; the blow hole is not shown but would be to the right of the six finger holes.

Given the rarity of surviving examples of this system of musical notation, any new discovery of a manuscript with such flute notation is very exciting. One example of flute notation that has been overlooked by musicologists occurs on the last page of a manuscript book of Tangut rhyme tables, Dissected Rhymes of the Five Sounds 𗏁𗙏𘈖𗖵, held at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St Petersburg (call number Tang. 22/1, new inventory No. 86, old inventory No. 620).

IOM Tang. 22/1 page 39a

The ten large signs on this page have been recognised as examples of musical notation since at least 1965, when Eric Grinstead visited Leningrad and noted their similarity to musical notation in manuscripts held elsewhere (Terentʹev-Katanskij 1981 p. 73). However, eminent Tangutologists who have studied this book, including Nishida Tatsuo and Li Fanwen, have failed to realise what the signs signified, and have been unable to provide convincing readings for the small Tangut characters next to the signs. Nishida did not offer any readings of the ten small Tangut characters, and referred to the signs as "unrecognisable writing" 不明の文字 (Nishida 1983 p. 83), and although Li Fanwen offered some possible readings for the small Tangut characters, he noted that "to this day the Tangut characters and symbols are a mystery" 西夏文和符号,至今是个谜 (Li Fanwen 2006 p. 275). However, the single column of six Tangut characters to the left of the notation signs is relatively clear, and the first five characters have been read by Nevskij, Nishida and Li Fanwen as the date 𘀗𘑨𘃠𗀋𗤒 "Qianyou era, cyclical year guisi", that is to say, the 4th year of the Qianyou era (1173). The sixth character is not clearly written, but could be the character 𗼑 "month", although Nevskij reads it as 𗨁 "up". This date may be the date that the manuscript was copied out, but as the Tangut characters are not written as clearly or as neatly as the rest of the text it is also possible that they were not written at the same time as the rest of the book, and the date records when the musical signs and associated Tangut characters were written into the manuscript. Either way, it is probable that all the text on the last page of this manuscript was written at the same time, and so we can precisely date the writing of the musical notation in this manuscript to 1173, some thirty years before the first publication of Jiang Kui’s lyrics with flute notation in 1202. This manuscript is thus the earliest known example of the ten-note simplified character system of flute notation.

The ten large signs in this manuscript are the ten basic tablature signs used in Song and Yuan dynasty flute notation. As not all tablature signs can be used in the same tune (gōu and shàng are mutually exclusive, their usage depending on the mode of the tune), this cannot be a fragment of a flute tune, but must just be a list of the ten notational signs. The small Tangut characters next to the notational signs are very unclear, and it is difficult to read them with certainty, but I read them as Tangut transliterations of the Chinese names of the note signs, as shown in the table below. There is, however, one error in the Tangut names, as the Tangut characters corresponding to the signs chě and gōng are inadvertently swapped (the transliteration for chě is next to the gōng sign, and the transliteration for gōng is next to the chě sign).

Flute Notation Tangut Characters
Pinyin Tangut
Refs.† Readings Meaning Transliterations‡
𗆀 L1915
salt 五吳烏吾
fán 𗨍 L2476
flower 翻項
chě 𘓖 L3738
merit 工公翁軍貢功
gōng 𗺉 L4018
origin, base, root 尺赤齒滯痴治持池直
shàng 𗄈 L0009
to arise, to appear, to raise
𗖧 L1544 ·ji² (used for transliteration) 夷依噎
𗬐 L2460
(used for transliteration) 四斯嗣姒氏司思巳絲死賜
liù 𗚿 L4153
to gather 六略柳陸綠錄
gōu 𘃳 L1429
(used for transliteration) 鳩驕拘高究韭𪚺
𗊡 L3540
(used for transliteration) 合哈褐皓闔河和

† References are to the character numbers in Li Fanwen's 2008 Tangut-Chinese Dictionary (prefixed 'L') and Kychanov and Arakawa's 2006 Tangut-Russian-English-Chinese Dictionary (prefixed 'K'). The readings are also taken from these dictionaries (upper reading from Li Fanwen, lower reading from Kychanov).

‡ The "Transliterations" column lists Chinese characters that the corresponding Tangut character may be used to transliterate, according to Li Fanwen’s and Kychanov's dictionaries.

The order of the ten signs given in the manuscript (, fán, chě, gōng, shàng, , , liù, gōu, ) largely follows the natural order of notes, from high to low (, liù, fán, gōng, chě, gōu, shàng, , , ), except that the note signs liù, chě, and gōu are out of order. However, if we assume that the mismatch between the gōng and chě signs and their corresponding Tangut characters is due to the gōng and chě signs having been accidentally written in the wrong order, and that the order of the note signs should follow the order of the Tangut characters, then only the signs liù and gōu are out of order. This corrected order (, fán, gōng, chě, shàng, , , liù, gōu, ) is still incorrect, but now it exactly matches the order of notes given in the History of the Liao Dynasty, where the description of "Great Music" (dayue 大樂 ) lists the ten notes as: 五, fán 凡, gōng 工, chě 尺, shàng 上, 一, 四, liù 六, gōu 勾, and 合. It cannot be a coincidence that both the editors of the History of the Liao Dynasty (composed 1342–1343) and the scribe of the Tangut manuscript, writing in 1173, used the same incorrect order, and suggests that they were both copying from a common source, perhaps a Liao dynasty work on Khitan music or the lost History of the Liao Dynasty compiled during the Jin dynasty.

In addition to IOM Tang. 22/1, there is one other Tangut manuscript from Kharakhoto on which flute notation signs can be found. This is a Tangut manuscript fragment held at the British Library (call number Or. 12380/21) which has a single line of partially obliterated signs that are very similar to those on IOM Tang. 22/1.

British Library Or. 12380/21

The ten or eleven signs in this fragment are given in almost the same order as the signs in IOM Tang. 22/1, and would also seem to be a list of the ten notational signs. The Tangut text by which the signs are written does not seem to be related to music, and the signs were probably scribbled on to the paper second hand at a later date.

Or. 12380/21 Tang. 22/1 Chinese Pinyin
? gōng
or ? shàng
? chě
or ?
? liù

The fact that the list of ten flute notation signs are found on two different Tangut manuscripts makes it seem highly likely that the form of popular flute music prevalent in the territories of the Song and Liao empires was also practised within the Tangut state. This raises the intriguing possibility that somewhere, waiting to be discovered, are manuscript flute scores with accompanying Tangut lyrics.


Last modified: 2017-01-01 (updated with Unicode Tangut characters)

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