Lecture held at the School of History and Culture 历史文化学院, Shandong University 山东大学, Ji'nan 济南 (Sept. 19th, 2017)

Qin Pieces made by Gentlemen in Misery: On the Meaning of “Cao” in Cai Yong’s Qincao 逢亂之士所作的琴曲:「操」在蔡邕《琴操》中的含義

Cai Yong 蔡邕 (ca. 133–192) is known to have been one of the most brilliant Confucian scholars of his time. His oevre comprises more than a hundred single contributions. Among his works is, though hitherto largely neglected, also the Qincao 琴操, a small collection of stories related to about 50 qin pieces, introduced by a preface which evidences Cai Yong’s expertise as a musician, namely as a master of the zither qin.

At closer look at these stories one finds that the circumstances under which the qin pieces are reported to have been composed are mostly of a highly emotional nature: the componists act out of sadness, resentment, or even outright anger. It may thus be suggested that by assembling these stories for qin players Cai Yong has intended to compile a kind of “School of Emotions and Empathy”.
What is more, in some of the stories selected for his Qincao Cai Yong conveys the picture of a Confucius who not only strummed the zither himself, especially in times of frustration and despair, but who also used it in his own school to train his disciples.

A closer examination of the sources which contain parallels with the Qincao stories reveals that both the idea to assign an elevated status to the zither qin, to use it as a medium to train one’s capability of emotions and also that of a close connection of the qin with Confucius have already been formulated by several Han scholars prior to Cai Yong. In my paper I will give some examples to illustrate that Cai Yong apparently drew on a whole group of scholars constituting something that may be called an ideology of the qin, among them Liu An (180–122),  Sima Qian (ca. 145–ca. 86), Liu Xiang (79–8) , Yang Xiong  (52 B.C.E–18 C.E), Huan Tan (ca. 43–50), and Ying Shao (ca. 140–204).

Several of these earlier scholars have already pointed out that the playing of a cao 操 is the appropriate action to take for a gentleman who is in troublesome circumstances. Though Cai Yong did not mention this definition of cao in his preface to the Qincao, a closer analysis of the background of the stories assembled in the Qincao suggests that Cai Yong had this definition in mind when he made his selection. Seen in this light, the Qincao seems to have been conceived by Cai Yong as a collection of role models for difficult emotional situations of all kinds. By visualizing such a situation the qin player may have found comfort in times of frustration and despair. Besides, such a canon of precedent cases may have served him as a means of identification with a group of like-minded individuals (zhi yin) in times of weak government and turmoil, as Cai Yong and many others had faced them by the end of the Later Han.