Mythistory Makes Music
How did Chinese music begin? An ancient legend says it happened like this…
In the dawn of humanity, when immortals frequented the earth, a young woman chanced to tread upon the footprint of a giant. Mythology works in magical ways: after this providential encounter, she found herself pregnant, and soon gave birth to an extraordinary boy.
Baby Fuxi (伏羲 fú xī), arrived bearing the head of a human and the body of a dragon. He grew and grew, and before his mother knew it, was as tall as a giant. When he came of age, the demigod went on a quest to find his father. His journeys took him to Heaven’s Gate where he finally found dad: the great God of Thunder. Fuxi stayed in the heavens, and was appointed Celestial Ruler of the East. His duties? Watching over the peoples and happenings down in the human world.
Fuxi was a dutiful and compassionate protector. He saw people struggling for food, and invented fishnets and weapons for them to hunt with. He saw them take ill from eating raw meat, and taught them the secret of making fire. He bonded man and woman in matrimony. He devised a system of divination. But he wanted to bring people even greater happiness—he wanted to give them music.
Prompted by Providence
The musical culture Fuxi was on the eve of creating would live on for over five millennia. Dynasty after dynasty, across the mountains, plains, and great rivers of the Middle Kingdom, this musical heritage was enriched with local traditions and colorful legends. Today, Shen Yun is sharing its hues with the West in a whole new light. But first, back to the story of Fuxi, the originator of it all.
One evening, while sauntering through the mortal world, Fuxi happened upon a parasol tree. There was something special about it. He came closer and as if on cue, the sun sent forth twilight rays and colored the skies with a rubescent glow. The planets above showered its branches with cosmic elixir. A fragrant breeze wafted down from celestial realms, accompanied by heavenly chiming.
Just then, a single cloud carrying a pair of phoenixes drifted down to the tree. Scores of birds soared in behind it. One by one, they opened their beaks and sang to pay homage to their king and queen. On seeing this, Fuxi thought to himself: “This is a blessed tree. Any instrument crafted from its wood must produce the most wondrous music.” He went to work.
Fuxi created a zither-like instrument rich in symbolism. On one end, it tapered to four inches across, representing the four seasons. Its two-inch thickness corresponded to the duo forces of yin and yang. Across its top, Fuxi fixed 12 frets for each month of the year and laced five strings for the Five Elements.
Now at holidays and harvests, people could celebrate like never before. They fished with nets, cooked with fire, and ate their fill of sumptuous feasts. But the highlight of their festivities was always Fuxi’s new instrument. Never were they happier than when singing along to the accompaniment of this magical instrument and Fuxi’s latest invention—music.
Then in time, the all-seeing gods above became quite curious too.
Queen Mother of the West and her Jasper Pool Palace attendants.
One day, the Supreme Goddess of the Heavens held a banquet at her Jasper Pool palace. The deities in attendance all talked of the marvelous new instrument that they, too, wanted to enjoy. So the Goddess summoned Fuxi to join them in their gathering.
When all the deities were satisfied by plump peaches of immortality and done sipping their honeyed wine, everyone gathered around the guest of honor as he sat down to play. Then with each pluck and stroke, the dreamiest melody flowed from his fingers.
The audience was delighted, but they realized that Fuxi’s splendid invention still had no name! After short deliberation, the gods decided to called the instrument qin, which they prefixed with yao (meaning ‘jasper’ or 'precious jade') to honor its debut at the Pool.
Thus is the story of Fuxi and the yaoqin (瑤琴 yáo qín), one of the most venerated instruments of ancient China.
Ancient China was a land where gods and mortals lived in tandem and created a divinely inspired culture. And so it became that early Chinese history and mythology are wholly intertwined. Our new “Mythistory” series introduces you to the main characters of the marvelous legends of China.