From Tsuki no Yotsu no O (The Moon’s Four Strings), Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1891-08

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

In the sixth century, nearly six hundred years after Emperor Wu, “yuefu poetry” became an established literary category referring both to anonymous songs recorded in court music repertoires and poems composed by known men of letters. A yuefu poem’s speaker was usually a dramatic persona—an abandoned wife, a homesick traveler, a heroic warrior—understood to be someone other than the poet. Such works increasingly lost any connection to music and became purely textual. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, yuefu also referred to a new form of song lyrics known as ci; these, too, began as anonymous lyrics meant to be accompanied by music and sung at parties but became literary texts written by named authors and completely divorced from song.

Although music itself became less and less central to the form, many yuefu poems retained a link to the Classic of Poetry via its theory that songs told the mood of the people. The ninth-century poets Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen advocated the use of yuefu to represent the grievances of the populace. Their yuefu poems, however, did not follow a tradition of established titles and themes. The works became known as New Yuefu.

Despite the poets’ anguished protests, not all New Yuefu was great poetry. But one work by Yuan Zhen deserves mention: a meta-yuefu titled “Musicians in the Standing Section.” The title refers to an establishment created for popular music in the imperial court of the Tang dynasty. The establishment divided performers into a Standing Section and a Sitting Section, with the latter considered more valued. Yuan Zhen’s poem laments mediocre musicians in the Sitting Section being sent down to perform in the Standing Section, and then the mediocre musicians in the Standing Section being further sent down to perform in the establishment for “elegant music,” that is, serious ritual music. He complains about the imperial love of popular music—whose “aberrant sounds” he believes can manipulate the ears and corrupt the mind—and argues that by valuing it above ritual music, the dynasty is committing a moral deviation responsible for its own decline. He also criticizes the mixture of Chinese and foreign tunes in court musical performances, regarding this as an omen of a mid-eighth-century rebellion by an ethnically non-Chinese general that had devastated and weakened the Tang empire. Yuan Zhen choosing to mount his attacks on hybrid popular music in a yuefu poem is rather ironic—the genre’s name came, after all, from Li Yannian’s Music Bureau, which held those values in the highest esteem. “Musicians in the Standing Section” may, in this way, be seen as the ultimate subversion of its own tradition.

“The Emperor’s New Music”, Xiaofei Tian, Lapham’s Quarterly