The Language of an Ancient Instrument
If you thought learning Chinese was hard, then pop over to the musical instrument vocabulary list for a break. All you have to remember is the suffix 琴 (qín), and you’ll have the names of most instruments half memorized—violin is 小提琴 (xiǎotíqín), keyboard is 电子琴 (diànzǐqín) and the harmonica is 口琴 (kǒuqín). You can even use 琴 as a shortened way of saying these instruments (我在练琴, I’m practicing qin), which works out great until you realize that people have no idea whether you’re playing a piano, a guitar or an erhu.
This abuse of 琴 didn’t appear in Mandarin until Western instruments flooded into China in the early 20th century. Before then, 琴 only referred to one instrument: a seven-string zither that is said to be as old as Chinese history. From the 20th century onwards, the original 琴 was redubbed 古琴 (gǔqín, gu means ancient) so that it would stand apart from the numerous other music makers that stole its name.
Such an ancient and respected instrument left a legacy in Chinese language aside from the lexicon of an orchestra. Out of the ten classic 古琴 solos, the names of four of them became two well-known idioms: 高山流水 (gāoshānliúshuǐ) and 阳春白雪 (yángchūnbáixuě).
高山流水, “Lofty Mountains” and “Flowing Water,” are two solos said to be first composed by Bo Ya (伯牙), a court musician from the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C.-476 B.C.). Legend has it that one day, Bo Ya was playing the 古琴 by the Hanjiang River. He thought about mountains as he played, and a woodsman named Zhong Ziqi (钟子期) passing by exclaimed, “My goodness! What towering mountains!” Then, Bo played another melody while daydreaming about flowing water. In turn, the woodsman exclaimed, “My goodness! What torrenting rivers!” The two men swore brotherhood and promised to meet again the following Mid-Autumn Day.
However, when Mid-Autumn came, Zhong didn’t show up. Bo found out that Zhong had died. He was so grieved that he destroyed his 琴 and never played again because there was no longer anyone who understood his music. In Chinese, people call their soul mates “知音” (literally “music knower”) or use 高山流水 to describe the friendship.
阳春白雪, “The Spring Sun” and “The White Snow,” were two other solos composed around the same period of “Lofty Mountains” and “Flowing Waters,” but their composers are unidentifiable. As an idiom, 阳春白雪 means “highbrow,” a usage that derived from an anecdote of Song Yu (298 B.C.-222. B.C.), a courtesan of the kingdom Chu who was known for his good looks and poetry. The story goes that the king once asked him, “Have you been behaving offensively? I’ve heard a lot of uncomplimentary things about you.”
Song Yu answered with a metaphor. “Once there was a man singing in the town. At first, he sang ‘The Countryside’ (《下里》) and ‘The Countryside Men’ (《巴人》), and thousands sang with him… but when he sang ‘The Spring Sun’ and ‘The White Snow,’ only dozens sung with him. The more highbrow the song is, the fewer people sing along with it (曲高和寡 qǔgāohèguǎ).”
Because of this story, 阳春白雪 came to refer to “highbrow,” while 下里巴人 means “lowbrow.” 曲高和寡 (highbrow music is not as popular), as Song Yu used to describe his condition, is another widely used idiom to describe the loneliness of the elite—or those who think they are elite.