Storms in Chang-an: On the Music Debate of Kai-huang Period

Rujing Huang

In its pursuit of national rejuvenation, the Xi administration in China has shown a renewed interest for traditional culture. Integral to this latest wave of cultural renaissance is a movement to reconstruct—based on treatises of various historical times—the nation’s classical music theory, an effort driven by a group of musicians, scholars and self-acclaimed literati (wenren) in Beijing. Accompanying the intensifying anxiety over the absence of a unified, national music theory is a re-emerged faith in the ancient Chinese association between the quality of music and the quality of rule. Throughout early and imperial Chinese history, the consolidation of political powers had almost always entailed a large-scale reform of the state sacrificial music system, a crucial step in harmonizing the new regime with larger cosmic patterns and in turn confirming its legitimacy. Such efforts ranged from the adjustment of musical temperament to that of modal scales, and from the re-sizing of ritual bell chimes to the renewal of the official repertory. Marking one of these pivotal moments is the Music Debate of Kai-huang Period (thereafter “the Debate”), a series of conferences summoned by the emperor between 582 and 594 CE to reform music theory. The Debate is best documented in the “Treatise on Music” of the Book of Sui, official dynastic history and a major source for the music of the Sui court (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Wei Zheng (580-643), Book of Sui (Suishu), Harvard-Yenching Rare Book T 2605 2124

A Backdrop

Historians today have pointed to the period between 500 and 800 CE as the “first great divergence” between China and Europe: while in Eastern Eurasia the Sui dynasty reunited China following the long-time fragmentation of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, in Western Eurasia the decline of the Roman Empire had brought about a tumultuous era of political disintegration. In the musical realm, when Boethius was working to safeguard Greek musical knowledge, the Sui court was confronted with the sudden influx of foreign music—an after-effect of a newly unified China—that had started to threaten the ritually proper sacrificial music known as yayue. Taking place in the capital city of Chang’an, the Debate eventually evolved into a fierce political battlefield.  Its account captures the unique role that music theory played in shaping early Chinese conceptions of the government, the empire, and the universe.

Largely absent in the English-language literature, the Debate nevertheless remains a topic of interest among music historians and theorists in China today. Explicit mention of this milestone event is rare among avid revivalists of classical music theory in Beijing, but many theoretical contributions of the Debate continue to underlie the ongoing revivalist campaign. A re-examination of the Debate is timely, not only for its relevance to current discussions about the recovery of classical Chinese music theory, but also for the gateway it provides to understanding the intersection between music and politics during a historical period of frequent inter-ethnic exchange, the effects of which are still felt today.

The Debate

In 582 CE, an imperial decree was issued by Emperor Wen of Sui (Figure 2), founder of China’s Sui Dynasty, to “check the Bureau of Music and to alter the tones in a modal scale along with the standard tuning pitch-pipes,” initiating a twelve-year reform aimed at rectifying the official system of imperial ritual music. According to the Book of Sui, the Emperor, then dissatisfied with the initial slow progress of the reform, lamented, “The Mandate of Heaven has been bestowed upon me for seven years. How can the Music Bureau still praise the virtues of the bygone era!” Underlying the Emperor’s anxiety is a century-old belief in the necessity of “correcting” the official music of the former court immediately after the rise of a new imperial regime.


Figure 2: Emperor Wen of Sui, from the Portraits of Former Emperors (Lidai diwang tu) by Yan Liben (600–673); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first watershed moment of the Debate occurred in 587 CE, when the Emperor summoned a cohort of scholar-official elites to resume the discussion over yayue. Zheng Yi, the Duke of Pei, famously proposed the theory of Wu-dan Qi-diao (“five note-sets, seven mode-keys,” or WDQD) based on the teachings of Sujivha, a Kuchean musician who arrived at the Chinese court with Princess Ashina of the Göktürk empire—a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples in medieval Inner Asia (Figure 3). It was recorded that Sujivha, using five heptatonic “note-sets” (dan in Kuchean terms, or yun in Chinese modal terminology) built on distinct home pitches (gong), demonstrated the possibility of initiating mode-keys (diao) on all seven scale degrees of a note-set (Figure 4 a and b).[1] In citing Sujivha, Zheng hoped to revive a classical tradition of modulation known as “rotating the gong and shifting the diao (xuangong zhuandiao), which calls for the monthly modulation of the basic, heptatonic note-set—by altering its gong pitch—in order to achieve seamless alignment between musical structure and the changing cosmic elements.

tang china

Figure 3: A Map of Tang China at 700 CE, with Kucha and Chang’an highlighted in red (image credit: Ian Mladjov). A Central Asian oasis kingdom, Kucha became the seat of a Chinese protectorate (officially “the Protectorate General to Pacify the West”) during the Tang Dynasty.

An erudite of the National Academy (guozi boshi) and a key opponent of Zheng, He Tuo insisted that the “yellow bell” or huangzhong pitch (C), a musical signifier for “the virtue of the ruler,” be established as the only gong sound of the Sui dynasty. To gain imperial favor, officers who sided with He argued that only by securing the majestic “yellow bell” pitch as the gong would the newly founded empire rightfully prevail over the previous Northern Zhou rule, a regime believed to be overtaken for falsely selecting a musical symbol for “the ruled”—the linzhong or “forest bell” pitch (G)—as its official gong. He’s narrative is rooted in an ancient method of pitch generation known as “A-Third-Removing-Extending” (ATRE, see an earlier post by Guangming Li), which specifies that the “yellow bell” pitch pipe “generates downward”—and hence governs—the “forest bell” pitch pipe. He’s argument soon won over the heart of the Emperor, who overturned Zheng’s proposal and concluded that the gong of Sui be none other but the pitch of “yellow bell.”


Figure 4a. Illustration of the Wu-Dan Qi-Diao (WDQD) theory:
the basic heptatonic note-set (dan) built on C



Figure 4b.  Illustration of the Wu-Dan Qi-Diao (WDQD) theory: the seven mode-keys (diao) of a dan

The second turning point of the Debate came in 589 CE, immediately after the Sui conquered its neighboring Chen state. In fear of having the popular music (suyue) and foreign music (huyue) from the newly annexed lands “pollute” the orthodox, elegant ritual music (yayue) of the Sui court, the Emperor ordered for another grand meeting to revise yayue. In the limelight was Niu Hong, Minister of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices, who advised that the Emperor re-consider Zheng Yi’s earlier proposal for restoring the classical method of “rotating the gong” (xuangong) throughout the year. The emperor, having fully subscribed to He’s argument on the potentially disastrous, symbolic power of music, rejected Niu’s recommendation and once again affirmed the status of “yellow bell” as the sole, legitimate gong of his rule.

Five years later, a renewed system of imperial ritual music was in place, with its “yellow bell” ringing, sounding the most auspicious gong of an august emperor. This historic debate on music theory and its symbolic power, its full details beyond the scope of this post, eventually developed into ruthless political warfare, with hundreds of scholar-officers found guilty for fueling political factionalism. This included Su Kui, an overall supporter of Zheng, and his father Su Wei, Duke of Pi and the grand chancellor of the Sui dynasty.

Throughout, both the minister’s and the emperor’s concerns over the absolute gong pitch foreground the rich symbolic systems in which classical Chinese music theory participated. Pitch names, in particular, have long been regarded as forces capable of reflecting and altering social order. In convincing the emperor, He tactically fell back on the ancient and semi-legendary association between the “yellow bell”—often regarded as the imperial bell—and the ruler as well as the divine will. For He, only when the gong pitch is fixed on this most auspicious tone, with no monthly or seasonal adjustments, would the new dynasty be brought into ultimate harmony with the cosmos.

A Closer Look  

The large-scale, inter-ethnic migration that marked the turbulent Southern and Northern dynasties (420–589 CE) induced much anxiety in the succeeding Sui court, whose ruling class feared the infiltration of foreign and popular melodies into the sacred realm of imperial ritual music. It was against this backdrop that the Debate unfolded. Standing at the center of the storm was Zheng Yi, the musical mastermind whose theoretical contributions remain the focal point of existing scholarly writings (Figure 5). Via the work of Zheng, I hope to bring to light the subtle dynamics between popular music (suyue), foreign music (huyue), and imperial ritual music (yayue), three fluid constructs central to early Chinese perceptions of music that continue to inform discussions over the state of classical music theory in China today.


Figure 5: Tomb inscriptions (muzhi) of Zheng Yi (540-591), Tang West Market Museum,
excavated in 2014

Music historians today have turned to Zheng’s connection with Sujivha when dissecting the inflow of foreign music into the Central Plain during the Sui, a period often dismissed for the “barbarianization” (huhua) of Han Chinese culture. Over the decades, scholars have probed the possible Karnatik (Hayashi 1936), Hindustani (Xiang 1937), Central Asian (Guan 1980), and Persian (Wang 1931; Shen 1993) roots of Sujivha’s WDQD theory. At issue is Zheng’s bold proposal that mode-keys be initiated on all seven scale degrees—including the two altered (bian) tones—of the standard heptatonic note-set. Traditionally, the bian tones, highlighted in Figure 4a, were treated as auxiliary notes in the Chinese modal system, which was commonly regarded to comprise five rather than seven diatonic modes. Aside from importing foreign practices, Zheng is also remembered—sometimes criticized—for disseminating knowledge that had been previously kept secret. This includes his decision to illustrate the classical art of modulation on the Kuchean pipa, a secular instrument, leading to the propagation of Sujivha’s theory outside the palace during the ensuing Tang dynasty.

Musicologists who work against a simplistic portrait of Zheng as an enthusiast for “the foreign” (hu) and “the popular” (su) have called for a re-evaluation of his contribution. Shen Tung (1993), for one, argues that Zheng is as much a classicist as he is a syncreticist, and that underneath Zheng’s efforts to “apply” (yong) imported knowledge is his unwavering faith in classical Chinese learning, the “essence” (ti) of his campaign.[2] Scholars sharing this viewpoint re-associate Zheng’s proposal for “rotating the gong” with similar teachings in the Book of Rites, a Confucian classic deemed unequivocally Chinese. Attention also lands on Zheng’s adherence to the exclusive usage of the yayue scale in imperial ceremonial contexts. The yayue scale, so named for its historical association with the yayue tradition, is a modal scale that features a prominent augmented fourth (A4) between the gong and bianzhi scale degrees (Figure 6a). It is recorded that Zheng once condemned the Imperial Music Office for interfusing the yayue and xinyue (new music) scales, deriding the bianzhi scale degree of the latter—which forms a perfect fourth (P4) with the gong—as “betraying the Way of pitch generation” (Figure 6b). Shen, in her textual analysis of the Book of Sui, traces Zheng’s criticism of the xinyue scale to the classical method of ATRE, and proceeds to argue that behind Zheng’s acceptance of WDQD is his realization that the imported theory from Sujivha “fits like matching tallies” the scales generated under ATRE. A connection is thus established between Zheng’s proposals and sources of classical authority. In this narrative, Zheng is no longer the radical who “impurified” yayue and sidetracked the “authentic” history of Chinese music theory. Instead, he has become a guardian of traditional knowledge who—in bridging it with the foreign—develops and empowers it.


Figure 6: Yayue Scale and Xinyue Scale

The Debate, which took place during one of the most short-lived regimes in Chinese history, extends far beyond the musical realm. In his analysis of early Sui politics, Wang Li-zeng seeks to uncover the hidden agenda behind the Emperor’s response to each core participant of the Debate, arguing that in rejecting or accepting a given proposal, the Son of Heaven was in essence gesturing to the nuanced political network behind the screen.[3] The Debate thus brings to the surface a classical association between music, cosmology, and government theory that was in effect then and is gradually re-entering the Chinese consciousness today. Finally, with its participants ranging from historians, music theorists and musicians to Confucian scholar-officials and political strategists, the Debate meaningfully contrasts intellectual exchanges in China today, often limited by disciplinary boundaries and scholar-practitioner divides. The wind keeps blowing, as I write, leaving many of us wonder whether yet another storm is brewing.

[1] A standard heptatonic “note-set” within the context of Chinese yayue refers to a collection of seven pitches within an octave—in ascending, stepwise arrangement—that in its basic formation resembles a Lydian modal scale and that functions as the basis of scalar and modal construction. Laurence Picken and Ernest Rowland. Music from the Tang Court: Some ancient connections explored. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  By “mode-key,” I adopt Picken and Rowland’s translation of diao, an ambiguous Chinese character that falls in between Western notions of “key” and “mode.”

[2] Shen Tung, “‘On the Music Conference of Kai-huang Period.’ 隋代開皇樂議研究,” New History 4, no.1 (1993): 1-42.

[3] Wang Li-zeng, “‘The Kai-huang Music Debate and Early Sui Politics.’ 開皇樂議與隋初政治,” Journal of Tianjin Conservatory of Music, no.4 (2003): 33-36.

Huang 2


Rujing Huang is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at Harvard University’s Department of Music. This year, she also serves as a Graduate Student Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.


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