The Poetry and Power of Music
Where Chinese Fables and Contemporary Art Collide
By Yiwen Liu, CMA Curatorial Research Assistant
Many people still have fresh memories of the online benefit concert in April 2020, “One World: Together at Home.” From the legendary Rolling Stones to young talent like Billie Eilish, musicians used music to connect people from around the world and raised millions of dollars for coronavirus healthcare workers. Music’s power to help people connect is also seen in Chinese culture and in the current exhibition Migrations of Memory — The Poetry and Power of Music (平沙落雁 — 音樂的詩意與力量).
Surrounded by classical Chinese paintings and the redisplay of musical instruments from the museum’s collection, the central installation by contemporary Chinese artist Peng Wei addresses the vital role of music and the arts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Made of music stands, letters by Western composers, and paintings, Peng Wei’s installation Migrations of Memory — Wild Geese Descend on Level Sands (平沙落雁) IV, is dedicated to the Cleveland Orchestra and musicians worldwide. Both the installation by Peng Wei and the orchestra’s return to live performances are gifts of and for the Cleveland community aiming to keep us spirited, resilient, and connected.
Music in traditional China was used as a tool by the Confucian government to promote high ideals of Confucian thinking. Since the Zhou dynasty, music has been considered a crucial complement to government and ritual. Bronze bells, like the one shown below, were one of the most important music instruments in rituals. The music played on bells symbolized the harmonious society, and the passing-on of bells in a family stood for the family’s prestige and long-lasting prosperity. The inscription on this bell in the CMA’s collection indicates that its owner, Lai Zhong, commissioned the set of bells as an offering to his father after he received a hereditary position by the ruler.
Music has also conveyed emotions and sympathy in the social lives of the literati. In China, the best-known example of friendship established through music is the story of Boya (伯牙) and Ziqi (子期). Boya was a literatus from the Zhou dynasty (c. 1100–256 BC) known for playing the zither.
When Boya was playing by the riverbank one day, Ziqi, a passing-by woodcutter, stopped and expressed his appreciation of Boya’s music. The legend says that Ziqi understood Boya’s music so deeply that when Boya was thinking of mountains, Ziqi said, “The music is as tall as Mount Tai.” When Boya was thinking of streams, Ziqi said, “The music is as swelling as flowing streams.” After Ziqi passed away, Boya broke his zither and never played again. The term zhiyin (知音) has become a word to describe knowing one’s music or sound has become a word to describe close and sympathetic friendship.
Such a story shows how friendship can be established based on a shared musical aesthetic and how listening to music requires the same artistry as playing it. Similarly, the story depicted in CMA’s handscroll, Saying Farewell at Xunyang demonstrates how music can transcend social status and enable people to establish friendship based on shared appreciation of that music. Different from the Boya and Ziqi story, the listener in this handscroll is a scholar-official and the musician is a commoner.
The artist of this handscroll, Wen Boren (文伯仁) used delicate brushstrokes and restrained colors to depict a scene from the poem “Song of the Pipa.” This poem was written by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易) (772–846) and is one of the most well-known stories on music in the Chinese poetic tradition. The poem is such a classic that it has been in high school textbooks and recited by generations. The poem tells the story of a poet who encounters a female pipa player and asks her for a performance.
In his poem, Bai uses mingling senses to vividly depict changing rhythm and emotion. Before the musician starts playing, “She turned the pegs, plucked the strings twice or thrice,/ The melody was yet to start, but her emotions could already be felt.” Then, “She lowered her eyebrows, and let her hands free to play continuously.” As the music progresses, “Big strings clanked like a lashing rain,/ Small strings clinked like intimate whisper, /Clank and clink, they mixed up in the playing,/ Pearls, small and bit, dropped onto a jade plate.” When it comes to the climax, “The silver bottle suddenly broke, wine gushed forth;/ Iron-clad horsemen charged; swords and spears clanged.” Finally, the music comes to a sudden halt: “At the tune’s end she plucked, right across the middle of the board,/ The four strings, which made a sound like a piece of silk torn apart./ Boats east and boats west, they all remained quiet./ In the middle of the river nothing was seen, except the white autumn moon.” The moment of silence after the performance is perhaps what is depicted in CMA’s handscroll.
After the performance, the poem goes on, the musician tells the story of her life, how she went from being a young musician in the capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to an aged woman marrying a petty merchant. Her music and story resonate with the poet, who got demoted and was forced to leave Chang’an. Bai sighs, “Vagabonds at the end of the world are we both/ Now that we meet, what does it matter that we did not before?”
If the previous artwork shows music’s power to cross the boundaries of gender and social status, the next painting further demonstrates Chinese people’s belief that music can transcend the line between the living and the dead. The painting alludes to a legendary incident of Ji Kang (嵇康) (223–262), documented in the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) story collection Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (太平廣記), or the Taiping Guangji. Ji Kang was a thinker, a zither player and a member of a group of intellectuals, Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. He is known as the author of “Guanglin San” (廣陵散) or the “Melody of Guanglin,” and legend says that he learned the piece of music from a headless ghost, an incident depicted in CMA’s painting.
In the story, while travelling, Ji Kang is playing zither in a pavilion in the middle of the night, and the music attracts a ghost. Hidden in the dark, the ghost introduces himself by saying, “I am a ghost who died here. Your music is clear and harmonious, just what I used to like, and I came to appreciate it. My body is in bad shape, so I won’t meet you. But I would like to see your zither and play a few songs, if you don’t mind.” Known for his eccentric personality, Ji Kang says that he would not mind seeing the ghost and invites him over. The ghost thus appears with his head in hand. During their conversation, the ghost plays “Guanglin San.” Ji Kang learns the piece and promises that he will never teach other people. When the sun rises, the ghost leaves reluctantly, saying, “Although our encounter lasted only one night, it is like a thousand years.”
Although the painting does not depict the grotesque headless ghost, the scholarly figures here are ghosts in disguise. The only hint is that the figure on the left is emerging from the ground with the help of his ghostly friend.
The two paintings and instruments are currently on view in the Chinese art gallery (240A) as part of the FREE exhibition Migrations of Memory — The Poetry and Power of Music (平沙落雁 — 音樂的詩意與力量) through May 8.
1. Derrick Bryson Taylor, “Dozens of Performers Join Global Concert to Celebrate Coronavirus Workers,” The New York Times, April 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/arts/music/lady-gaga-concert-one-world.html. Accessed on December 21, 2021.
2. For a documentation of the story, see “Xiaoxing (孝行 Filial piety),” in Lüshi Chunqiu (呂氏春秋), or Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals), 14:5.
3. The translation here and after is from Luo Yuming, A Concise History of Chinese Literature (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2011), 354–355.
4. For a documentation of the story, see “Ji Kang,” in Taiping Guangji (太平廣記), Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, 317:7–8.