On Wings of Song; the Lute and the Crane in Chinese Tradition

By Van Gulik, Robert Hans | UNESCO Courier, April 1986 | Go to article overview

On Wings of Song; the Lute and the Crane in Chinese Tradition


Van Gulik, Robert Hans, UNESCO Courier


On wings of song

THE crane is one of the traditional Chinese symbols of longevity. Just like the tortoise, it is said to live more than a thousand years. The expression "crane age", is a much-used metaphor for advanced years.

The dark crane is especially credited with a fabulously long life. The Gu jing zhu ("The Encyclopaedia of the Past and Present") written by Cui Biao in the Jin period says: "When a crane has reached the age of one thousand years, it turns a dark blue colour; after another thousand years it turns black, and then it is called a dark crane."

Ever since olden times the dark crane has been closely associated with music. The Rui ying tu ji (attributed to Sun rou chi of the Liang period) says: "A dark crane shall appear at a time when there is a Ruler who understands music. When in olden times Huangdi executed music on the Kunlun mountain for all the Spirits to dance, on his right side there flew sixteen dark cranes."

Sixteen dark cranes also appear in a story related by the great historian Sima qian: "When Duke Ling of the Wei dynasty (534-493 BC) was travelling to Jin, he halted on the bank of the river Bu. In the middle of the night he heard the sounds of a lute being played. He asked the members of his suite, but all respectfully said that no one had heard the sounds. Then the Duke summoned Master Juan, and said to him: 'I have heard the sounds of a lute being played, but when I asked my suite no one had heard it. Thus it seems that it is caused by a spirit or a ghost. Write this tune down for me.' Master Juan assented and, seating himself in the correct position, having placed his lute before him, he listened and noted down the tune. The next morning he said: 'I have obtained the tune now, but I have not yet learned it. I beg you for one more night to learn it thoroughly.' The Duke agreed, and yet another night passed. On the following morning he reported that he had mastered the tune. Then they left that place, and proceeded to Jin. They were received by Duke Ping (557-532 BC) who gave a banquet for them on a terrace.

"When all had come under the influence of the wine, Duke Ling said: 'When on my way here I heard a new tune; permit me to let you hear it.' When Duke Ping agreed, Duke Ling made Master Juan sit down by the side of Master Kuang, place his lute before him and play it. But before he was half through, Master Kuang put his hand on the strings (to deaden the sounds), and said: 'That is the music of a doomed State; one must not listen to it.' Duke Ping asked: 'What is the origin of this tune?' Master Kuang answered: 'It was made by Master Yan, to please the tyrant Zhou. When king Wu defeated Zhou, Master Yan fled to the east, and drowned himself in the river Bu. Therefore it must have been on the bank of that river that this tune was heard. Who first hears this tune, his State will be divided.' Duke Ping said: 'I have a great love for music. I wish to hear this tune to the end.' Then Master Juan played the entire tune. Then Duke Ping said: 'Are there no tunes that are still more sinister than this one?' Master Kuang said: 'There are.' 'Could you play them for me?' The Master answered: 'My lord's virtue and righteousness are not great enough for that. I may not play them for you.' But the Duke said again: 'I have a great love for music; I wish to hear them.' Then Master Kuang could not but draw his lute unto him, and play.

"When he had played once, sixteen dark cranes appeared and alighted on the gate of the hall. When he played the second time, they stretched their necks and cried, they spread out their wings and started to dance. Duke Ping was overcome with joy, and leaving his seat he drank the health of Master Kuang. Having returned to his seat, he asked: 'Are there no other tunes that are still more sinister than this one?' Master Kuang said: 'Yes, there are those by which in olden times Huangdi effected a great reunion of ghosts and spirits. …

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