VOLUME 1, No.4 JOURNAL June 2000
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" Music in the Age of Confucius, "
an Exhibit of Ancient Instruments at the Sackler Gallery

Aerial view of opened tomb revealing four separate chambers. The central chamber contained most of the musical instruments and ritual vessels. Marquis Yi's outer coffin is visible lying on its side in the eastern chamber. Coffins for thirteen female attendants are scattered about the western chamber. Hubei Provincial Museum. Photograph by Pan Bingyuan.
Members of the New York Qin Society traveled to Washington, D. C., to visit an extraordinary exhibit of ancient musical instruments, "Music in the Age of Confucius." The instruments in this exhibit were unearthed from the tomb of Zeng Hou Yi, i.e., the Marquis Yi of the semi-autonomous principality of Zeng, which lay within the state of Chu during the Warring States period (480-221 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BCE). The Marquis Yi, buried about 433 BCE, was a remarkable man, or, at least, left a tomb remarkable compared to those unearthed to date. One room of four was devoted to a pile of 4,000+ bronze military artifacts, hardly a surprise for the time. Neither was another room with the coffins of 13 women attendants. But among controlled excavations of previously undisturbed tombs, the remaining two rooms were unique in their musical riches: in addition to the marquis' coffin, those of eight more female attendants, and 130 ritual vessels, they were crowded with musical instruments, the biggest cache of them from so early in any culture, anywhere.

Discovered, or rediscovered, in 1977, the tomb contained a set of limestone chimes, four drums, two transverse flutes, two panpipes (doubling the number of extant examples), six mouth organs, something like 12 se, one zhu (another zither), one qin (of three now extant), and a set of sixty-five bells, by far the largest recovered from ancient times. The tomb was so well preserved that the two and a half tons of bells still hung from their massive wooden rack, and the chimes, from theirs of metal. Three years later, the tomb of Yi's consort (or another relative) was uncovered, and with it, more drums, another set of stone chimes, and a set of thirty-six bells, the second largest set extant.

The limestone chimes and bronze bells are the most interesting musicologically, for, uniquely among rediscovered specimens, they are extensively inscribed with the names of, and musical instructions for, tones and scales. These include directions for transposing among the scales of the principality of Zeng and the relation of these scales to those of the surrounding state of Chu, and, occasionally, to those of other states, with all or most of these jurisdictions having independent standards for tuning. The limestone chimes were important here, for, when the stones were packed into their nearby storage cases, they clearly formed a pair of pentatonic scales plus auxiliary notes, leading the way to an easier understanding of the inscriptions and notations on the bells. The bells are so numerous that they fill in many of the intervening notes in the octave of twelve intervals, yet their use remained fundamentally pentatonic, their additional notes enabling the use of many different pentatonic scales. As to the quality of the inscriptions, the aesthetics of those on the limestone chimes are not extraordinary. The seal script characters on the bells, however, are inlaid in gold and stretch to self-conscious and radically-styled proportions, their long, sinuous lines reaching the elegant height of four times their width. Like the massive bulk and elaborate decoration of the bells, such stylishness was meant to impress.

Inner of two nested coffins (with detail of design) from the eastern chamber of the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng Leigudun, Suizhou, Hubei Province. Fifth century B.C. Lacquered wood. Height 132 cm, width 125-127 cm, depth 250 cm. Hubei Provincial Museum. Photograph by Hao Qinjian.

to page 1. The NYQS Goes to Washington
to page 3. " Music in the Age of Confucius, " an Exhibit of Ancient Instruments at the Sackler Gallery (cont.)

Copyright © 2002 New York Qin Society. All rights reserved.