“Music in the Age of Confucius”

At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

to Sept. 17

These days, everyone hates everyone else’s music. Trad-rockers abhor rap, technophiles loathe guitars, and absolutely everybody (except for about 20 million of America’s most avid music fans) detests teeny-pop. In Bronze Age China, however, music was not a matter of individual consumer preference. Music was a natural system, like the stars or the seasons, and ideally it united everyone.

As third-century B.C.E. Confucian philosopher Xunzi wrote:

When music is in the temple of the royal ancestors, and ruler and subject, superior and inferior, listen to it together, all of them are attuned in reverence; when it is in the household, and father and son, elder and younger brother listen to it together, all are attuned in kinship; when it is in the neighborhood, and elder and younger listen to it, all are attuned in obedience.

That quotation is on the wall of the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition “Music in the Age of Confucius,” along with similar writings by other ancient Chinese teachers. (There’s one from the show’s namesake himself, but it’s not as punchy as Xunzi’s.) This is basically a crypt-digger show, like last year’s “Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur”; however, the focus this time around is not on the unearthed stuff—impressive as some of it is—but on something more intangible.

The exhibition is named for Confucius because he extolled the importance of music and because he was—in legend if not in fact—a player of the qin, a type of zither that became emblematic of Chinese classical culture. The philosopher also lived at roughly the same time as Zeng Hou Yi, who is now known in the English-speaking world as Marquis Yi of Zeng, but who was known not at all for some two millennia. Yi’s tomb was unexpectedly uncovered in 1977 by a cadre of People’s Liberation Army soldiers who were flattening a mound to make way for a factory. Fortunately, the discovery came as the antiquity-smashing Cultural Revolution was winding down and China was again prepared to contemplate its past.

Yi was not a major potentate, and Zeng was not a large state. Yet his tomb, built around 430 B.C.E. in what is now Hubei Province, contained the largest and most complete array of ancient instruments ever discovered anywhere on earth. Among them were various kinds of zithers, flutes, and drums, but the most significant finds were several sets of tuned percussion instruments, including chime stones (hanging pieces of cut limestone played somewhat like a xylophone) and a set of 65 bells. The Chinese authorities aren’t letting these bells out of the country, but they did lend the Sackler a 36-bell set, discovered in 1981 in an adjacent tomb thought to belong to Yi’s consort or descendent. The bells are impressive visually, but also musically: They were cast to produce two distinct tones (either a major or a minor third apart), depending on whether they’re struck at the center or on the side.

These large bronze forms, studded and decorated in the traditional Chinese manner, are not bells in the contemporary Western sense. They have no clappers but instead are played with wooden mallets. Ancient Chinese music is not fully understood today, but, given that it almost certainly had a pentatonic scale and was dominated by tuned percussion, it probably resembled the stately clang of Javanese gamelan music. This conclusion is supported by an album of reconstructed ancient music played on replicas of the bells, snappily titled Unique Music of Great Antiquity (and available in the Sackler gift shop).

There are some remarkable objects here, including instrument stands whose forms are modeled on antlers, cranes, or dragons. (Similar designs were seen in the National Gallery of Art’s “The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People’s Republic of China” exhibit last year.) Also notable are the Marquis Yi’s elaborately designed coffin and a duck-shaped box whose decorations include some of the earliest known representations of music making. (Helpfully, these small drawings are enlarged in wall-mounted photographs.) Although most of the chime stones in the show are replicas, one of the few well-preserved originals is engraved with gold dragons that a contemporary heavy-metallist might envy.

The exhibition’s subject is as much music as it is art and archaeology, and its planners have done what they could to make these instruments sing. In the final gallery, videotapes show performances by traditional Chinese musicians, and small sets of bells and chime stones are available for experimental bashing. The best time to visit is at lunchtime, Wednesday through Sunday; on those days from noon to 2 p.m., performers demonstrate Chinese music on traditional (though not ancient) instruments.

It’s a better gig than that of the 21 women who were buried with Marquis Yi. These women, who may have been musicians or concubines or both, were killed when Yi died, so that they could entertain him in the afterworld. (Their skeletons show no sign of violence, so it’s supposed that they were strangled, or perhaps buried alive.) The fate of these hapless servants puts the teachings of Confucius and his followers in perspective. Confucius taught—as did Plato and Pythagoras, in roughly the same period—that the world has a natural order, of which music is a reflection. For both the Chinese and Greeks, however, harmony and hierarchy went together. A world in which there is only one possible form of music is also one in which there is only one set of roles for ruler and subject—master and slave.

Like such 20th-century cultural commentators as Allan Bloom, Confucius denounced certain compositions as vulgar and corrupt. What this bad music sounded like, however, is a mystery. We don’t even know if Marquis Yi was a champion of the ideal music or a devotee of the degenerate variety. His tomb held the instruments for a large, percussion-dominated court-music ensemble of the sort Confucius extolled, but also those for a smaller, string-heavy chamber ensemble. Did the latter play the kind of music that Confucians considered lascivious? We’ll never know.

Ironically, though, the music that was symbolically buried in Yi’s tomb was soon to vanish altogether. Sets of bells like the ones he owned became rare, and by the time of the Han Dynasty (which began little more than two centuries after Yi was buried), the technique of casting two-tone bells had been lost or forgotten. Yi’s ensemble was entombed just before a profound transformation, although exactly what sort of change took place is still unclear. Perhaps we can simply conclude that, for Confucius and others who hear it as an expression of the sacred order of the universe, music is always getting worse. CP

More from WCP