Music has always been considered a cultural heritage of humankind. In ancient times, Chinese scholars figured out the correlation between music and the human body.
Ancient Chinese scholars asserted that the five musical notes of the pentatonic Chinese musical scale have a corresponding relationship with the five principal sensory organs – ears, eyes, lips, nose, and tongue.
They then applied this principle by using music to regulate and enhance the human body. Through music, scholars could adjust people’s internal energy flow, balance their state of mind, augment their morality, and cultivate their spirituality.
Ancient Chinese also held the belief that there existed a connection between the five musical notes that characterize Chinese music and the five elements, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood – which are believed to be the fundamental elements of everything in the universe between which interactions occur.
They saw music as God’s gift blessing to mankind, and in return, music reflected how the universe operated, and the intrinsic principles of the natural world.
That is why every dynasty attached great importance to teaching and learning music, so much so that royal court music pieces passed down from generation to generation. There are many interesting stories surrounding these melodies.
Making prophecies based on royal court melodies
It was widely understood among Chinese scholars that royal court melodies could prophesize the destiny of a whole dynasty and its ruler.
According to ancient wisdom, among the five notes, the note gōng 宫 (corresponding to the note Do on the C major scale) represented the King, shāng 商 (the note Re on the C major scale) represented the minister, jué 角 (corresponding to the note Mi) represented the people, zhǐ 徵(corresponding to the note Sol) represented affairs of state, and yǔ 羽 (the note La) represented material objects. The state of the people and objects within the Empire would be determined by how their corresponding notes were placed within the court melodies.
It was said that, once the ancient listened to a court melody, they may know the destiny of a nation – whether the Emperor of that country was compassionate, indicated by the note gōng sounding peaceful, or tyrannical and lascivious, indicated by the note gōng sounding chaotic, and whether his people were miserable or happy with their lives. If a note sounded chaotic, it meant that the people and the events connected to that note had issues. If all the five notes were chaotic, it was an omen of the nation’s impending demise.
As reported by historical records, many ancient musicians could immediately decipher what was about to happen only by listening to a royal court melody. Those with greater abilities could foresee a nation’s collapse.
It is believed that during the Sui Dynasty, a man named Wan Lingyan – gifted with wisdom, a pure heart, and great musical talent – burst into tears after listening to the music performance of the royal court. When asked about the reason, he replied, “In this song, the voice is mournfully tearful, signaling that this dynasty will collapse soon. So many people will be killed.” Wan Lingyan’s prophecy fell on deaf years as in those years the Sui Dynasty was in its prime. Everyone disregarded what he had said, but by Emperor Wen’s 14th ruling year, the country had fallen into a crippling crisis – just as predicted.
There is also a story about a musician who was able to figure out the emperor’s assassination by listening to court music. As recorded in the encyclopedia text “The Comprehensive Institutions Tongdian”, when Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty was preparing to travel to Jiangdu District, the An Gongzi music piece was performed. Upon listening to it, Musician Wang Li became anxious. He told his son, “You should not accompany the Emperor to Jiangdu. This melody does not include the note gong – the Emperor might not be able to make his way back.”
Afterwards, Emperor Wen of Sui was assassinated in Jiangdu.
During the Tang Dynasty, when the Admiral of the Western Liang State presented a new piece of music, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang threw a feast and invited court members and nobles to enjoy it. After the melody was played, everyone applauded, while the Emperor’s brother Li Xian, Prince of Ning, said nothing and remained silent. When the Emperor asked him the reason for his silence, his brother replied:
“Although this song is very beautiful, I hear that the song starts with the note gōng and ends with the note shāng. The middle was composed of the notes jué, zhǐ, and yǔ. Both the beginning and the end all want to fight with gōng. This song, from the beginning, was separated from the gōng sound. In the middle, there is very little use of the note zhǐ while shāng is used randomly and carries a lot of strength. I got to know that that within the five notes, gōng represents the Emperor, shāng represents the minister, jué represents the people, zhǐ represents affairs of state, and yǔ represents material objects. In this piece, the note gōng is not powerful, which means that the Emperor’s power is weak. Shāng is strong and flourishing, which means the ministers will show some signs of rebellion. The meaning of the notes and the story implied by the music will reflect themselves in real-life events. I’m afraid that there will be upheavals someday, and Your Majesty may have to go into exile. This prophecy needs to be told.”
At that time, the Emperor of Tang only remained silent, and not a word was said. Indeed, after General An Lushan’s rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang had to flee Chang’An. The incident has proved Prince of Ning’s superior understanding of music.
The ancient Chinese thought that the destiny of a person or a dynasty was predetermined, which meant that a superior understanding of music could lead the informed listener to know the destiny of entire countries.
(The cover photo from Public Domain)