ChinaKnowledge.de - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art
About [Location: HOME > Literature > Index of Terms > yuefu]


Chinese Literature
yuefu 樂府, songs of the Music Bureau


The Four Categories of Literature
The yuefu 樂府 "[songs of the] Music Bureau" is a poetic genre prevalent during the Han period 漢 (206 BC-220 CE). In this narrow sense it is called Han yuefu 漢樂府. It introduced both a new kind of shape (five-syllable verses) and new contents at a social and often very personal level into Chinese poetry. The yuefu was so popular that Han period yuefu were imitated by later poets until the mid-Tang period 唐 (618-907). The term Han yuefu often includes ancient, i. e. anonymous songs (gushi 古詩) from the Han period which are, from the origin and the content, actually no yuefu songs. Examples of these songs can be found in the collection Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首.
The Music Bureau was a Han period central government institution collecting and administrating music needed by the court at special occasions, like sacrifices, inspection tours, court ceremonies, bankets or archery contests. It was established during the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE), probably already under Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188 BC) with the appointment of a Grand Director of Music (taiyueling 太樂令). During the early decades of the Han dynasty the court either used melodies and chants from the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC) of songs from the ancient kingdom of Chu 楚 in southern China. Emperor Wu, in the course of his general reform and standardization of the state administration, established the Music Bureau. This bureau defined 19 chants for the state offerings (Han jiaosi ge shijiu zhang 漢郊祀歌十九章). These had to be rubberstamped by members of the Confucian department of the National University (taixue 太學). Text and melody were refined by Li Yannian 李延年, his sister, Lady Li 李夫人, and her team of dancers, and the writer Sima Xiangru 司馬相如. This new type of song (xinsheng qu 新聲曲) laid stress on state offerings, the service of the dynasty to Heaven and Earth and the incovation of felicity and good omina, and less on the veneration of the imperial ancestors. Emperor Wu had thus reformed the ancient odes and hymns used at the royal courts during the Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) and Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) periods. The performance of music was so important that at the end of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) the court employed almost a thousand female dancers for various occasions. While the Director of Music was concerned with sacrificial court music, the Music Bureau had to manage the other types of music. While the sacrificial music was very refined and written in an antique style (the so-called "elegant music" yayue 雅樂), people preferred a more fresh and familiar style for other occasions (suqu xinsheng 俗曲新聲). Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) therefore suspended the work of the Music Bureau.
At the beginning of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) Confucianism was less strong because it had divided into several contending branches. It lost therefore its influence on the music sponsored by the court. Five-syllable poems (wuyan shi 五言詩) had won over the old four-syllable verses (siyan shi 四言詩). The organisation of the court music was restructured. Offerings and official banquets were arranged by the Grand Director who was subject to the Chamberlain for Ceremonials (taichang qing 太常卿), while all other musical events were laid into the hands of the Director of Palace Entertainments (chenghualing 承華令) who was subject to the Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues (shaofu 少府). The Bureau was now also responsible for the active collection of songs from among the population. This decision was not an expression of benevolence towards the people but had to do with the popularity of the apocryphal interpretation of the Confucian Classics. This branch of Confucianism expected portents and omina appearing all over the country, and also in the voice of the people. Their songs therefore could be a help for a better government.
At the end of the Former Han period, the Music Bureau had collected 314 songs from all over the country, of which actually only 55 were really songs from the people and not court hymns for sacrifices. During the Later Han period it was also local officials that sponsored the composition and collection of yuefu songs. Two traditions of yuefu had thus come into being, the one consisting of songs collected by the court and officially recorded in imperial bibliographies. A list can be found in the treatise on music in the official dynastic history Songshu 宋書 (19-22 Yue zhi 樂志). The others were circulating among the population or the local gentry and was only occasionally recorded so that these songs were dispersed in various writings. The earliest collections came up in the 6th century, the Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠. The first comprehensive collection of Han yuefu is the Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). This collection is also the first attempt to categorize yuefu songs according to use, content and the musical keys of modes. Jiaomiao ge 郊廟歌 "Temple songs", Guchui qu 鼓吹曲 "Drum-and-pipe melodies" and Wuqu 舞曲 "Dances" were court songs, but the Guchui type also includes songs from among the people, which are otherwise found in the categories Xianghe qu 相和曲 "Joint harmony melodies" and Zaqu 雜曲 "Miscellaneous melodies". The court songs can compared with the old hymns (song 頌) of the Shijing 詩經, the popular songs with the feng 風 category in this Confucian Classic. The popular song is called geyao 歌謠, and it is often subsumed unter the term yuefu. Both the musical compositions used by the court as well as popular songs were anonymous, at least during the Han period. Only very few authors of Han yuefu are known, like Xin Yannian 辛延年 (song Yulin lang 羽林郎), Song Zihou 宋子侯 (Dong Jiaorao 董嬌嬈) or Li Yannian 李延年 (Beifang you jiaren 北方有佳人).
Together with the yuefu songs from the Later Han period, more than 100 Han period yuefu are surviving. They are to be found in various texts, from the treatises on music in the official dynastic histories Hanshu 漢書 and Houhanshu 後漢書 and the literary anthologies Wenxuan 文選 and Yutai xinyong. The whole corpus of yuefu songs, from the Han period to the Tang, has been assembled in the Song period collection Yuefu shiji.
Han period yuefu songs are to a great extent songs with a deep emotional content, describing the suffering of people of all social backgrounds. Part of them even includes a direct critique towards the social conditions under which the people lived during that time. Soldiers, husbands and wives, orphans, widows, retainers of betrayed nobles, girls forced into marriage are the themes prevalent in a large part of Han period yuefu poems. To this category belong the famous songs Dongmen xing 東門行 "The eastern gate", Guer xing 孤兒行 "The orphan", Fubing xing 婦病行 "A wife was sick", Zhan cheng nan 戰城南 "Battling south of the ramparts", Shiwu congjun zheng 十五從軍征 "Aged fifteen I went to war", Yinma changcheng ku xing 飲馬長城窟行 "Watering horses at the breech on the Great Wall", Shanshang cai miwu 上山采蘼芜 "Plucking orchids on the mountain", Yuan ge xing 怨歌行 "A song of sorrow", You suo si 有所思 "There is someone I think of", or Shang xie 上邪 "Heaven, alas!". The song Mo shang sang 陌上桑 "Mulberry trees on the waterside" is a kind of pastourella in which a wife from the nobility renounces the avances of another nobleman. The ballad Kongque dongnan fei 孔雀東南飛 "Phoenix flies to the southeast" describes the tragic love between Liu Lanzhi 劉蘭芝 and Jiao Zhongqing 焦仲卿 that are both forced to marry someone else.
Some yuefu poems like Mingji 雞鳴, Xiangfeng xing 相逢行 or Chang'an you xia xie xing 長安有狹斜行 describe the fight for power of some rival families and the prodigity of their lifes in contrast to the simple life of the peasants and the lower gentry. The poems Huainan minge 淮南民歌 and Wei Huanghou ge 衛皇后歌 are a direct critiques towards the imperial house, while Laoshi ge 牢石歌 describes the intrigues of court cliques, and Wuhou ge 五侯歌 describes the extravagance of the higher nobility. These poems still stand in the tradition of many feng songs of the Shijing.
Morally correct behaviour of women is the theme of the poems Mo shang sang, Yulin lang, Longxi xing 隴西行 and Shang shan cai miwu. In many situations a women laments about separation from her husband, or about his infidelity, like in Quche shang dongmen xing 驅車上東門行, Ranran gu sheng zhu 冉冉孤生竹, Qingqing ling shang bo 青青陵上柏, Gu ge 古歌, Yinma changcheng xing, Yan ge xing or Gao tian zhong xiao mai 高田種小麥.
General worldly wisdom is the content of Chang ge xing 長歌行, Meng hu xing 猛虎行 and Ku yu guo he qi 枯魚過河泣.
Yet not all songs have a sad and desparate mood. There are also yuefu songs praising competent officials and ideal conditions, like Yanmen taishou xing 雁門太守行, Jiangnan 江南 or Cheng zhong yao 城中謠.
Some features of the yuefu are very similar to the feng style poems in the Shijing, like the anacrusis of a poem (xing 興) in the shape of a picture from nature, like reed, trees on a hill, grass on the banks of a river, with a subsequent and often immediate transition to the personal feelings of the lyrical ego. While the Shijing songs have a kind of refrain and the stanzas are very repetitive, yuefu songs are much more narrative and connected with a concrete personal situation. They are less general – and thus prone to a Confucian interpretation as general description of conduct – but often very concrete descriptions of a personal experience, some of which appear like factual incidents. Allegorical images from nature often serve as stylistic devices, referring to birds or trees. Dialogues are also often involved. The individuals described in the yuefu are very strong personalities, especially the women, like Qin Luofu 秦罗敷 who resists the immoral offers of another nobelman (or, jokingly, her own husband?), Miss Hu 胡姬 who criticises the retainers of the Huo 霍 family, or poor Dong Jiaorao 董嬌嬈.
Some scholars tried to link the narrative descriptions in the Han yuefu songs with historical events, but without greater success. It is clear that a lot of popular yuefu songs can be seen as critical to the social and economical circumstances of the Later Han period, a standpoint that was supported by the lower gentry which did not have access to the decisions made at the court and suffered from the chaotic results from the vaining of the court's influence. Some songs have a military background, like Han naoge shiba qu 漢鐃歌十八曲. The terms qu 曲, ci 辭 and sheng 聲 are not easily to distinguish, it might even be that there was no clear definition during that time what these terms clearly meant.
During the Later Han period writers started composing yuefu songs by themselves. This type of song has its origin neither in court music nor is it a "folk song". Songs of Mei Sheng 枚乘, Yang Xiong 揚雄 or Sima Xiangru are high-class literature. They simply imitated the style and mood of the yuefu songs.
Most yuefu poems are written in five-syllable verses and occasionally in seven-syllable or irregular verses. The sentence patterns are vivid and free, the language is naturall and fluent, the lexicon common and easy-to-undertand. Compared with the hymns and songs of earlier ages the yuefu songs are much more written in a natural and popular language. They were an important step in the advancement of Chinese poetry in form and content and open a very different literary genre. Poets of later ages loved the natural style of the yuefu poems and often imitated it, to contrast it with the very formal and "modern" regular poems (lüshi 律詩) that came up during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) and flourished during the Tang. The yuefu was deeply connected with a certain content and also served for poems of social critique in later ages. During the Tang the yuefu even experienced a revival under Bai Juyi 白居易, Yuan Zhen 元稹 or Li Shen 李紳 as the so-called "new yuefu" (xin yuefu 新樂府). This type of poems was in use even by late Tang period writers like Nie Yizhong 聶夷中, Du Xunhe 杜荀鶴 and Pi Rixiu 皮日休.
All surviving Han period yuefu songs have been assembled in the collections Yuefu shiji by the Song period scholar Guo Maoqian 郭茂倩, Gu yuefu 古樂府 by the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) scholar Zuo Keming 左克明, Gushiji 古詩紀 by the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Feng Weine 馮惟訥 and Guyueyuan 古樂苑 by Mei Dingzuo 梅鼎祚. All songs have furthermore been incorporated in Lu Qinli's 逯欽立 Xianqin-Han-Wei-Jin-Nanbeichao shi 先秦漢魏晉南北朝詩.

The genre of yuefu was very popular in southern China under the rule of the so-called Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589). There are in total almost 500 yuefu poems surviving from that time, most of them being on the popular level, although there were also some written by poets and writers. The Southern yuefu poems of that period are mostly included in the category Qingshang quci 清商曲辭 of the collection Yuefu shiji. Some few are to be found among the miscellaneous yuefu songs, like Xizhou qu 西洲曲, Dong fei bo lao ge 東飛伯勞歌 or Su Xiaoxiao ge 蘇小小歌. Inside the Qingshang category, the Southern Dynasties yuefu belong both to the songs from Wu 吳 (the region of modern Jiangsu and Zhejiang) and the "songs from the West" (modern Hubei). The most famous songs from Wu are Ziye ge 子夜歌 "The song of Ziye", Ziye sishi ge 子夜四時歌 "Ziye's songs about the seasons", Huashan ji 華山畿 "The fields from Mt. Hua" and Du qu ge 讀曲歌.
Writing "songs from among the people" was so popular that it is often not clear if a song was written by a court poet or was an anonymous composition from the countryside. The Bi yu ge 碧玉歌 "Green jade songs", for example, are attributed to the Prince of Runan 汝南王, but it might rather be of unknown origin. Other Bi yu ge songs are attributed to Sun Chuo 孫綽 or Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty who was a famous poet. Famous poets also writing yuefu songs were Xie Lingyun 謝靈運, Bao Zhao 鮑照, Xie Tiao 謝朓, Shen Yue 沈約, Wang Rong 王融, Jiang Yan 江淹, Wu Jun 吴均 and Jiang Zong 江總.
The themes of Southern Dynasties yuefu songs stand in the tradition of the Han yuefu, a lot of them including love themes, mainly women or girls yearning for their lover who is far away. Unlucky love is described in songs like Xiangyang yue 襄陽樂 or Aonong ge 懊儂歌. Among the Han yuefu were some very long songs that can be called ballads. Similarly long texts are among the western songs, like Xizhou qu.
A thoroughly new theme of Southern yuefu songs are deities or locally venerated spirits. 18 songs of this type have survived with the title of Shen xian ge 神弦歌. Some of them describe the temples and the surroundings, some the offerings or an encounter with the deity. Baishi lang 白石郎 "Master White Stone" is a deity venerated in the vicinity of Nanjing, Qingxi xiaogu 青溪小姑 "Mistress Green River" was a sister of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) general Jiang Ziwen 蔣子文.
A lot of songs describe the daily life in southern China at that period of time, like raising mulberry trees and spinning silk in Cai sang du 采桑度, the travels of merchants in Aonong ge and Huang du 黄督, and market activities in Changgan qu 長干曲. While Han yuefu described very personal situations, the Southern yuefu are more descriptive regarding and connected with the the social, economical and geographical background and are therefore - at least from the content - close to the genre of rhapsodies (fu 賦). Another difference is that Han yuefu used a more direct language while Southern yuefu use to play with homonymes (lian 蓮 "lotus" instead of lian 憐 "to yearn", or li 籬 "fence" instead of li 離 "to take farewell") and allegories.

Northern yuefu poems were written under the rule of the Sixteen Empires 十六國 (300~430) and the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534). The more earlier songs are Qiyu ge 企喻歌 or Langye wang geci 琅琊王歌辞, among the later songs is Gaoyang wang yueren ge 高陽王樂人歌. The Northern yuefu are included in the category Liang gu jiao heng chui qu 梁鼓角横吹曲 of the collection Yuefu shiji. Northern yuefu are rated as crude and of minor quality in comparison with the Southern yuefu, probably due to the fact that a smaller part of them was compiled by court poets. Another reason is that the ruling class of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei dynasty was not Chinese. The yuefu composed under their rule were surely influenced by the own musical traditions of the Xianbei 鮮卑 and other peoples. There was apparently also an own institution at the Northern Wei court caring for the maintenance of the own musical traditions. There were also some books including Xianbei songs, like the Guoyu zhenge 國語真歌 and Guoyu yuge 國語御歌 recorded in the imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 of the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書. Both books are lost. One (also lost) example of a poem including Xianbei thought and language was Da baijing huang taizi 大白淨皇太子.
The surviving Northern yuefu are by no means simple translations of Xianbei songs. Style and lexicon shows that they were written in Chinese and by Chinese. The word lu 虜 "slave, barbarian, i.e. Xianbei" for example, that occurs in these songs, would never have been used by a Xianbei when writing in Chinese. The stylistic influence of the Southern yuefu can also be attested in some songs. Ziliu ma geci 紫騮馬歌辭, for instance, is a mixed song of a quite crude part in the first stanzas and a much better imitation of an old Han yuefu in the second part. The poems Huang tan si ge 黄淡思歌 includes images only known to the southern region, like the Yangtze river or material objects. Poems with the tune Yongtai 雍臺 are common among the Southern yuefu. The courts of the Southern Dynasties also played northern songs by their orchestras and probably revised the text, in which shape it came back to the north or was archived in the south.
While Southern yuefu are to a great extent poems talking about love, the main theme of the Northern yuefu is war, fighting and martial spirit, or the sadness of being captured and enslaved by the enemy, like Rong gu ge 隔谷歌 or Qiyu ge 企喻歌. Yet there are also poems like Zhuonuo ge 捉搦歌 or Yongzhou ma ke yin 幽州馬客吟 that describe the hard live of the peasants without referring to belligerent activities. The importance of local landowners as protectors of the people in a situation when the central government was extremely weak is stressed in Langye wang geci. Love and marriage is also a theme, like in Di qu ge yueci 地驅歌樂辞, Zhuonuo ge or Zhe yang liu zhi ge 折楊柳枝歌, but in a very crude, direct and simple style very inferior to the Southern yuefu.
The most famous song from the North is Mulan shi 木蘭詩, the ballad of the girl Mulan. The text might have been altered somewhat during the Tang period, but the basic elements of the text date from the Northern Dynasties period. It might have been it was originally a ballad of the Xianbei translated into Chinese, with later refining work added to polish the text.
Two Northern yuefu not recorded in the same category like others are Li Bo xiaomei ge 李波小妹歌 and Chile ge 敕勒歌. The first is a martial poem, the second describes the life of pastural nomads.


Sources: Chu Binjie 褚斌杰 (1986), "Yuefu shiti 樂府詩體", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 1214. ● Fan Ning 范寧 (1992), "Han yuefu 漢樂府", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 352. ● Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986), "Liang Han yuefu 兩漢樂府", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, pp. 419-722. ● Yu Guanyin 余冠英, Cao Daoheng 曹道衡 (1986), "Beichao yuefu 北朝乐府", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 38. ● Yu Guanyin 余冠英, Shen Yucheng 沈玉成 (1986), "Nanchao yuefu 南朝乐府", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, pp. 588-589.

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
Chinese Literature over time