Ancient Music: Marquis Wen of Wei Asks Zi Xia about Music

PureInsight | September 17, 2006

[] Zi Xia (507
B.C. - 420 B.C.) was a student of Confucius and a famous educator.
Marquis Wen of Wei once asked Zi Xia, "When I wear my court clothes and
listen to ancient music, I quickly lie down and fall asleep. But when I
listen to music from the Zheng or Wei Kingdoms, I never feel tired.
Please tell me why the ancient music tires people and the new music
appeals to people?"

Zi Xia replied, "When the ancient music is
performed, it moves cleanly and sounds peaceful and broad. The string
and wind instruments all follow the drum's rhythm. The music always
starts with the drum, and ends with cymbals. Xiang is used to conduct
the ending piece, and Ya (a type of a song) is used to control the
speed of the music. Men with noble characters express deep meanings or
praise the ancient holy emperors' outstanding achievements through the
music dance. Guiding people to cultivate themselves, manage their
family lives, and even bring peace to the world, are the
characteristics of the ancient music."

Zi Xia continued, "When
the modern music is performed, it sounds chaotic and uneven. The sound
of the music is filled with unrighteous and evil elements, which makes
one immerse onself in it too deeply to withdraw. It is sometimes
mingled with performances given by dwarfs, singers and actors, during
which men and women are mixed together and people hold no distinction
between fathers and sons. When the music ends, it neither has explained
any truth, nor praised the achievements of the ancient holy emperors.
That is the characteristic of  the new music. You're asking me
about music, but what you like is actually the sound. Music and sound
are similar to each other but different."

Marquis Wen of Wei asked, "Please tell me the difference."

Xia answered, "In ancient times, heaven and earth were harmonious, the
four seasons were proper, and people cultivated self discipline and
developed compassion and virtue. Therefore they had bumper harvests
year after year. Diseases did not manifest, demons and evil did not
rise up, and it was a peaceful world. Later on, the Saint emerged and
made rules that governed the proper conduct between the emperors and
court officials, between fathers and sons. Once the rules were made,
the world became stable. Then the proper musical rhythms were set up,
the five sounds were mixed together, and musical instruments played
together to accompany the singing of poems. It is what is called the
sound of virtue. Only the sound of virtue can be called music. But what
you like now is perhaps the sound of indulgence."

Marquis Wen of Wei asked immediately, "Please tell me where the indulgent sounds came from."

Xia answered, "The Zheng Kingdom's music is frivolous and flirtatious.
It arouses licentiousness and immorality. The Song Kingdom's music is
sentimental and weak, and it depresses one's will. The Wei Kingdom's
music has a rapid rhythm, which tires one's mind. The Qi Kingdom's
music is arrogant and evil, and it makes one become overbearing. These
four kinds of music make one indulge in songs and women and are harmful
to moral integrity, and are therefore not used during sacrificial

Zi Xia continued, "The Book of Poems
said, 'Our ancestors were only willing to listen to austere and
harmonious pieces.' Being austere one shows respect, being harmonious
makes one affable. When one is respectful and affable, what cannot be
done? A monarch of a country must be careful of his taste. The
officials will do whatever the monarch likes. The common people will
imitate what is popular above. This is what it means by what is said in
The Book of Poems, 'It is very easy to lead the populace astray.'"

 (Excerpt from The Records of Rites)

Translated from:

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