A Princely Manuscript at the National Library of China — Part I: Guido’s Hexachords and the 18th-century Chinese Opera Reform

Zhuqing (Lester) Hu

Originally from the court library of the Qing Empire (1636-1912), National Library of China Putong Guji 15251 (c. 1707) is a manuscript in Chinese of 127 folios, roughly 24*12 cm in size, organized in four separate stitched wrapped-back fascicles (ce 冊) in one cloth encasement.Many scholars have perused its first 51 folios, which contain a copy of the earliest Chinese-language treatise on Western music, Elements of Pitch Pipes (c. 1690);[1] see Image 1, for example, for an illustration of the Guidonian hand in f. 16r.


Image 1: An illustration in f. 16r of the Guidonian hand, featuring exquisite fingernails and shrouded by mystifying clouds at the wrists — both were distinct features of hand diagrams used in guqin 古琴 or Chinese zither manuals of the time. © 中国国家图书馆 National Library of China

Virtually no consideration, however, has been accorded to the latter 76 folios, which feature a commonplace book on Chinese music theory in ff. 52-83 and a collection of preparatory notes and reckonings for a treatise on Chinese musical tuning in ff. 84-127. The reason for this one-sided attention is easy to gauge. Whereas the commonplace book and the collection of notes in ff. 52-127 are but two among hundreds of early modern Chinese writings on “indigenous” music, the copy of Elements in ff. 1-51 arose directly from musical encounters between China and Europe that otherwise left few treatises in the early days. The musica practica content of hexachords and staff notation in Elements developed from the music lessons that the Portuguese Jesuit Tomás Pereira (1645-1708) gave to the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) and his sons between the 1670s and 90s. Many of its passages also came straight from Books V and VII of Athanasius Kircher’s (1620-1680) Musurgia universalis (1650), of which the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) produced a partial Chinese translation in 1685.[2]

After spending two months last year copying the latter 76 folios of Putong Guji 15251 into my laptop word by word, however, I realized that their “Chinese” contents were as much a product of trans-Eurasian musical exchanges as was the “Western” content of its first 51 folios. Granted, unlike the explicit references to xiyang 西洋 or Western Europe in Elements, the commonplace book and collection of notes in ff. 52-127 do not declare any foreign connections. Still, these latter folios constitute a case of what art historian Jonathan Hay has termed “hidden cosmopolitanism,” where cross-cultural engagements were not narrated as such by their historical participants and thus become “hidden” in their sources.[3] This hiddenness, Hay argues, does not imply a lack of depth: on the exact contrary, hidden cosmopolitanisms often arise when once-foreign influences have been “assimilated to the point of invisibility.” Such was the case of ff. 52-127 in Putong Guji 15251. As I will show in this blogpost, the apparently parochial contents of these folios epitomize the global embeddedness of the Qing court in its production of musical knowledge. Even without a single reference to Guido’s syllables, ff. 52-127 reveal the musical, political, and epistemological reasons for which a treatise on musica practica was copied into ff. 1-51 in the first place.

My post will divide into two parts. The current part focuses on the commonplace book in ff. 52-83, showing how the Qing used Guido’s hexachords to reform the modal theory and pedagogy of Chinese opera. A future part will focus on the collection of notes in ff. 84-127, showing how musica practica facilitated the Empire’s proposal of a fourteen-tone temperament in 1714. Besides shedding light on these overlooked traces of Sino-European musical exchanges, I also hope to draw the attention of historians of music theory to cases of hidden cosmopolitanisms similar to the latter folios of Putong Guji 15251. In our current endeavors to globalize the study of the history of music theory, scholars have mainly focused on texts that openly invoke their connections with a cultural “Other.” These “explicit cosmopolitanisms,” however, confine our narratives to the surface of cross-cultural encounters and neglect the deep transformative effects of transregional integrations. While sources like the copy of Elements of Pitch Pipes in ff. 1-51 of Putong Guji 15251 may pique our multicultural sensibilities, it is only by heeding the less obvious globalities such as those in ff. 52-127 that we may grasp the scope and depth of musical interconnectivities across the early modern world.

A Preview of Qing Imperial Music Theory

Before diving into the commonplace book in ff. 52-83, it is important to understand the context in which the entire Putong Guji 15251 was compiled. While no preface or postscript explains how its three constitutive sections relate to one another, two critical pieces of paratextual evidence illuminate how the continuously foliated manuscript came together as a whole. While the three texts were written by several different hands in black ink, a single hand annotated the entire manuscript in vermilion, a restricted color at the Qing court. A stamp impression on f. 1r further discloses the identity of this annotator: “Conferred by His Imperial Highness Prince Cheng of the First Rank, Third Son of the Emperor.” This was the full title of Aisin Gioro In-c’i (1677-1732), who was also the de facto eldest son of the Kangxi Emperor after his two elder brothers were politically disinherited in 1712.[4] Though he ultimately failed to prevail in the ongoing succession strife, In-c’i garnered significant clout from editing his father’s 100-volume (juan 卷) Origins of Cosmological Sciences,[5] which comprises one treatise each on astronomy, music theory, and mathematics. While much of their content derived from Jesuit lectures to the Emperor, the treatises themselves were written by a team of Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese scholars under In-c’i, who regularly reported to his father with drafts starting in 1711.[6] It was in this process that In-c’i adapted the Western content of Elements in ff. 1-51 of Putong Guji 15251 into the last volume of Orthodox Meaning of Pitch Pipes (1714), the Qing’s official music theory treatise that also makes up volumes 43-47 of Origins.[7]

In-c’i’s end goal of drafting a comprehensive music treatise for the Qing Empire continues to inform the entire Putong Guji 15251 after f. 51. In fact, the commonplace book in ff. 52-83 laid out the course for all Qing-sponsored research on music in the next century, of which Orthodox was but an initial step. According to a brief foreword in f. 52v, In-c’i himself ordered digests of Chinese writings on music to be compiled, with the focus on comprehensiveness rather than depth. The first three chapters of the resultant commonplace book amass materials on lülü 律呂 (Because lülü “pitch pipes” were the primary tools for studying tuning in the Chinese tradition, the term was a metonym for tuning and music theory in general—ergo the title of Elements of Pitch Pipes, even though pitch pipes are never mentioned in this treatise). As I will show in the second installment of this two-part blogpost, Chapters 1-3 of the commonplace book perfectly parallel the first volume of Orthodox. Particularly, they set the stage for a series of experiments on tuning whose results would be recorded into ff. 84-127 later in Putong Guji 15251 and lead to the proposal of a fourteen-tone temperament.

Moving beyond tuning, Chapters 4-6 spell out the ultimate agenda of Qing-imperial music theory: a reform to opera, particularly regarding modes or diao 調. Since the genre matured in the 14th century, most Chinese operatic traditions have been deriving their melodic materials from preexisting qupai 曲牌 “fixed tunes.” Comparable to contrafacta, each fixed tune features a characteristic metric and rhyme scheme for fitting new lyrics and a melody malleable to the tones of different words. The theoretical backbone for these thousands of fixed tunes used in various singing genres was a system of eighty-four modes, in which the seven types of diatonic scales are transposed to start on each pitch of the twelve-tone octave. Thus, after Chapters 1-3 of the commonplace book introduce the twelve pitch pipes (lülü) and the seven-note diatonic scale, Chapter 4 enumerates their combinations with two slide charts, each comprising one fixed wheel labeled with the twelve pitches on the outside and one movable wheel labeled with the seven notes of the scale on the inside (see Image 2). Out of all these theoretically possible transpositions and mutations, Chapter 5 studies the modes that were actually used in different periods. While musicians at the Sui (518-618) and early Tang (618-907) courts first formulated the eighty-four-mode system and labeled the twenty-eight they used, only seventeen modes remained in northern opera and thirteen in southern opera by the sixteenth century. Finally, after first introducing the gongche 工尺 notational syllables used by opera performers, Chapter 6 catalogues nearly a thousand modally ordered fixed tunes and concludes by discussing the contours, cadences, permissible mutations, and characters of different modes.


Image 2: Two slide charts (also known as volvelles), the first one rotating counterclockwise and the second one clockwise, in f. 62r, illustrating all possible combinations of the twelve-tone octave and the seven-note diatonic scale. Rotating charts are particularly fitting here, since the word for transposition in Chinese, xuangong 旋宮, literally means “rotating the tonic,” and the word for mutation, zhuandiao 轉調, literally means “turning around the mode.” © 中国国家图书馆 National Library of China

“Western” Music a Millennium Apart

It was precisely to rectify the use of modes in opera and better train opera performers that the Qing found Guido’s hexachords helpful. Though they governed China as a minority conquest regime, the Qing’s Manchu rulers surpassed all preceding Chinese regimes in opera patronage. Not only did opera’s penchant for historical themes help the Manchus appropriate the Chinese historical imagination, but sponsoring these immensely popular theatrics also brought the court closer to the Chinese landed gentry and merchant guilds, the Empire’s bread basket and tax base who were also opera aficionados themselves. Thus, even though they remained on the su 俗 “vulgar” end of the echelon of genres in contrast to the yayue 雅樂 “elegant music” that Confucianism stipulated for a virtuous ruler, opera dominated all court rituals of the Qing, from monthly feasts to diplomatic receptions and military triumphs. And while theater troops from across China performed for special occasions and imperial tours, the court also established an academy of music, nanfu 南府, to oversee regular opera performances and train eunuch performers, who had been responsible for all types of music at the court since the 17th century.

Faced with this increasing demand of performers, the Qing turned to musica practica. Though European missionaries bragged only about their musical tutelage of the Kangxi Emperor and his sons, an edict on August 2, 1714 indicates that most of their pupils were actually eunuchs. Addressing the chief eunuch, the Emperor asked that eunuch musicians learn their “u le ming fa shuo la (i.e. ut re mi fa sol la)” from the Italian Lazarist Teodorico Pedrini (1671-1746) in order to master not only their voice and instruments but also lülü “music theory.”[8] And the type of music theory they should master by studying ut re mi fa sol la was exactly the use of modes in opera. Published less than five months after the edict, Orthodox prefaces its last volume on musica practica with a history of how Suzup (fl. 568),[9] a pipa player from Kucha, helped Chinese musicians of the Sui Dynasty develop the eighty-four-mode system. Drawing a parallel between the 6th-century Suzup from xiyu 西域 “Western Region” or Central Asia and the 18th-century European missionaries from xiyang “Western Ocean” or Europe, the preface portrays the latter’s Guidonian hexachords as an effective pedagogy for the former’s modal system. And just as Suzup’s Central Asian music helped rescue Chinese music from centuries of disrepair at his time, the preface argues, Guido’s hexachords promised to rescue Suzup’s system of eighty-four modes from a millennium of misuse in Chinese opera after the Sui and Tang eras, to the point that it had become “empty words in history books.”

As it turns out, this idea of using Guido’s transposing and mutating hexachords to learn the eighty-four modes and rectify their use in opera was in In-c’i’s mind as he was reading Putong Guji 15251. While he left no comment on staff notation or rhythmic notation in the copy of Elements in ff. 1-51, In-c’i concentrated his remarks on chapters concerning the Guidonian gamut, annotating every ut re mi in the main text with its corresponding gongche syllable, the notation system opera performers used (Image 3).


Image 3: A full ladder presentation of the Guidonian gamut spanning three octaves, in ff. 12v-13r. Unfortunately, I have not been able to acquire colored scans of the source, yet all the tiny Chinese characters written in the diagram were annotations in vermilion by In-c’i, translating ut re mi fa sol la into their equivalent gongche syllables. © 中国国家图书馆 National Library of China

And while he pasted additional papers onto Chapters 5 and 6 of the commonplace book just to accommodate his comments on the fixed tunes and the modes, he read through its first three chapters on musical tuning too cursorily to even punctuate them. What’s more, at the same time he incorporated musica practica from Elements into Orthodox (1714), In-c’i oversaw two modally ordered compendia of qupai or fixed tunes that built on the last three chapters of the commonplace book: The Emperor’s Library of Lyrical Tunes (1715) featuring tunes from before the 13th century, and The Emperor’s Library of Opera Tunes (1715) featuring tunes from after the 13th century.[10] After In-c’i’s political demise in the 1720s, his brother and former apprentice In-lu (1695-1767) assumed Inc’i’s library and continued his research agenda. This culminated in Grand Compendium of Northern and Southern Opera Tunes in All Modes in 1746, which features more than two thousand tunes, four thousand musical scores, and extensive discussions on the history, usage, and characters of the modes (see Image 4).[11] It was around the same time that the Qing court codified the ritual use of opera, assigning different ceremonial functions to some two-hundred newly composed chengyingxi 承應戲 “on-demand intermezzi.”


Image 4: The first qupai 曲牌 or “fixed tune” presented in the gao dashidiao 高大石調 “High Arabic Mode”—comparable to D#-Mixolydian in the Western system—in Grand Compendium of Northern and Southern Opera Tuens in All Modes (1746), Vol. 44. The title of this fixed tune, man’er wu yunqi 蠻兒舞雲旗 “the barbarian kid waves the cloud banner,” has nothing to do with the lyrics of the actual opera aria presented here as an example of the tune; the aria is drawn from a seasonal ritual opera performed on the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese calendar, also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. © 中国国家图书馆 National Library of China


Thus, even though no cross reference exists between the ostensibly “Western” treatise in ff. 1-51 and the digests on “Chinese” music theory and opera in ff. 52-83, these two parts of Putong Guji 15251 were nonetheless compiled and consumed with a common objective: to perfect the use of modes in opera, so as to better harness their political power in service of the Qing Empire. And though I am yet to chance upon an 18th-century Chinese score of opera tunes notated with Guido’s syllables or staff notation, the entanglements both inside and outside the manuscript between the Qing court’s operatic ambitions and its interest in Western musica practica show that the latter played a far more significant role than mere foreign exotica.



[1] Lülü zuanyao 律呂纂要. The earliest record of this text is the entry on May 1, 1691 in the diary the French Jesuits Jean-François Gerbillon and Joachim Bouvet kept on their lectures to the Kangxi Emperor between January 1690 and November 1691. See Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS 17240, f. 277r.

[2] See Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Jap. Sin. 145, f. 82v, in Verbiest’s letter to Charles de Noyelle in Rome on August 1, 1685.

[3] See Jonathan Hay, “Foreword” to Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu et al ed., Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2015), vii-xix.

[4] The Kangxi Emperor effectively disinherited his two eldest sons in 1708 and 1712 respectively.

[5] Lüli yuanyuan 律曆淵源, literally “Origins of Pitch Pipes and Calendar”; I have translated “pitch pipes and calendar” as “cosmological sciences” due to the cosmological resonances inscribed onto pitch pipes and calendar in the Confucian tradition to which the treatise appeals.

[6] See No. 2307, 2310, 2321, 2324, 2326, 2328, 2329 in Kangxichao manwen zhupi zouzhe quanyi 康熙朝滿文硃批奏摺全譯 (“Complete Translation of Vermilion-Annotated Memorials in Manchu from the Kangxi Era”), 1996.

[7] Lülü Zhengyi 律呂正義.

[8] I have not seen this source myself, only as cited in various credible secondary sources. Purportedly it is located at the Propaganda Fide archives in Rome.

[9] His name, here in Tocharian, is also known as Sujiva in Sanskrit and Suzhipo 蘇祗婆 in Chinese.

[10] Yuding qupu 御定詞譜and Yuding qupu 御定曲譜. See No. 3115 in Kangxichao hanwen zhupi zouzhe 康熙朝漢文硃批奏摺(“Complete Translation of Vermilion-Annotated Memorials in Manchu from the Kangxi Era”), 1985.

[11] Jiugong dacheng nanbeici gongpu 九宮大成南北詞宮譜.

IMG_7192Lester Hu is a PhD Candidate in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago. His dissertation, Music and Qing Imperial Formations, c. 1680-1820: Negotiating Historiography and Ethnography in the Global Music History, examines the shifting epistemologies of music and sound in early modern China in a transregional context. When not working on academic stuff, he enjoys cooking—particularly braising, which allows him to do work at the same time.