Music was an important part of life in ancient China. It was the the most popular form of entertainment, and for some men and especially women it was their profession. In Nineteen Old Poems (Gushi Shijiu Shou, 古诗十九首), a selection of anonymous poetry from Eastern Han Dynasty (25~220 BCE), one of the most common topics is music and singers. There are descriptions of singing and dancing, of the emotions stirred by music and banquet, of the experience of listening to a performer. Chinese musical aesthetic tradition hails the combination of those who where able to produce sorrow through their performances and the “knowing listeners” (zhiyin, 知音)– those in whom this sorrow arose. It is the shedding of tears that is valued, not just the music one hears.
A Tall Tower in the Northwest
In northwest there is a tower proud;
It stands as high as floating cloud.
Its curtained lattice window flares
Between the eaves and flights of stairs.
Music from there comes to my ear,
Its sound so sad,its tune so drear.
Who could compose such doleful song
But one whose secret grief’s life-long?
Sad music rises with the breeze;
The middle tune wafts ill at ease.
It’s followed the by three refrains;
At last indignant,it complains.
For the musician out of view,
I sigh that connoisseurs are few.
I would become a crane to sing
With her while flying wing to wing.