Stories from Ancient China: Marquis Wen of Wei Asks Zi Xia about Music

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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 oneself 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."

Zi 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."

Zi 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 ceremonies."

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)

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